A Pause in Time and the Soul’s Awareness

“Adoration of the Magi,” painted by Benedictine monks, Conception Abbey

Epiphany Sunday

While searching for a good Epiphany poem, I came across the poetry of one John Thorkild Ellison and find myself enchanted. In “The Failed Mystic,” Ellison expresses his frustration that he cannot “freeze Eternity into one single Moment.” He is desperate for transcendence and would like to say that he hears Jesus knocking at his door but says his experience is instead“fumbling about in the darkness.” When he asks, at the end, whether there is “no cure” for his frustrated longing, I am reminded of Denise Levertov, whose own awareness of spirit always comes to her indirectly, through absence rather than presence:

The Failed Mystic

By John Thorkild Ellison 

When I was young, the wind in the trees
Brought intimations of the Great Spirit.
Later, I suffered from a grey disease
And my soul was like an apple, rotten to the core.

I used to try to freeze Eternity
Into one single Moment, 
Stand on a hill-top and try to transfix
The Beauty of Nature like a
Final Butterfly captured Forever.
It was a hopeless task.

Later, I wrote down my Vision
In poems of no merit
And dreamed of Immortality.

Now I cannot say You were always there, 
Knocking at my door, 
Beckoning me to a life of Love through Action.

It isn’t true.

I was fumbling about in the darkness, 
Trying to be sure, 
To find my Vocation in the dullest chore, 
Like saints do.

I always wanted to be special, 
The centre, not on the periphery, 
To be loved……. 

But tell me, Great Spirit, is there no cure? 

In Ellison’s poem “Epiphany,” the poet appears to be slightly more successful. God appears in a silence that contrasts with the restless noises all around him. As in “The Failed Mystic,” we encounter the grayness of hopeless longing—“desolate is the heart’s desire/And the loving knows no end”—and the sighing of the wind in the treetops could be his own. The epiphany will not show up for the poet in the form of a brilliant star announced by angels and three kings.

Instead, the town’s noises fade, there is a pause in time, and the soul becomes aware of itself. That awareness is the divine entering our lives, and it is all the more powerful because it occurs so quietly.


By John Thorkild Ellison

Outside the surge of the wind, the wind in the trees, 
The rush of leaves, and the sighing in the pine-needles, 
Outside the sound of the sea-shore, distant, remembered, 
The waves breaking on the gray rocks, and the evening approaching, 
The restlessness, and the interminable noise.

Silence in the room, and solitude, 
A sense of spaces, remoteness and nearness, and the soul’s awareness, 

Desolate is the heart’s desire
And the loving knows no end, 
When the morning in the clouds breaks across the sky, 
And the forests sway and bend.

Outside the wind, the wind in the trees, 
And the sighing in the tree-tops.

Noises from the town, heedless, unthinking, indistinct, 
Recurring, fading, 
And silence in the room, and solitude, 
The shadowy dimness, the darkness of evening, 
A pause in time, and the soul’s awareness. 

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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