How Can I Focus My Flickering Mind?

Spiritual Sunday

Many great Christian poems lament the inability to feel God’s presence. “When my devotions could not pierce Thy silent ears,” George Herbert writes in “Denial,” “then was my heart broken, as was my verse.” Denise Levertov expresses similar sentiment in “Flickering Mind” but takes the responsibility entirely on herself, crying out, “Lord, not you, it is I who am absent.”

Levertov seems to be describing what Buddha called “the monkey mind”:

Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly. We all have monkey minds, Buddha said, with dozens of monkeys all clamoring for attention.

In this poem, however, the mind is not a monkey but a minnow, which

darts away,
darts
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
unceasing over
the river’s purling and passing.

Levertov concludes the poem with a very Herbert-like request, asking God for assistance. In her imagery, the stream of life has become a fountain emanating from a sapphire:

How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain’s heart
the sapphire I know is there?

With Levertov, connection with God is always indirect. Here’s the poem:

Flickering Mind

By Denise Levertov

Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
At first
belief was a joy I kept in secret,
stealing alone
into sacred places:
a quick glance, and away—and back,
circling.
I have long since uttered your name
but now
I elude your presence.
I stop
to think about you, and my mind
at once
like a minnow darts away,
darts
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
unceasing over
the river’s purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
anywhere,
everywhere it can turn. Not you,
it is I am absent.
You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow,
you the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain’s heart
the sapphire I know is there?

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