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SATURDAY AFTER ASH WEDNESDAY
One of the great English poets and one of my top favourites is the brilliant, visionary and humanly very flawed Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His harsh critics say he ‘wasted his genius’. Yet he remains luminously loveable and admirable for his gifts. He suffered from addiction to laudanum, a form of opium, which was inadequately understood at the time. He had lifelong effects from childhood illness and may have been bi-polar before that condition was recognised. He had a remarkable force of attraction combining deep, warm human feeling, a great mind and literary genius. His friends were loyal and loving through his moments of fame and his periods of collapse. One of them, the critic Charles Lamb, said ‘his essentials not touched he is very bad: but he wonderfully picks up another day and his face when he repeats his verses has its ancient glory - an archangel a little damaged’. Lamb condemned people who referred to him as ‘poor Coleridge’. He was a great - if damaged -archangel.
Coleridge wrote some of the most memorable and beautiful poems in the language: the psychedelic Kubla Khan, The Ancient Mariner and the unforgettable Frost at Midnight to his sleeping new-born son. He was also one of the greatest critics of English literature although, as in other aspects of his unsuccessful life, unable to conform to the standards of success and respectability of his time. He is the source of the literary idea of the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ which allows us to enter into great fictional worlds while ‘knowing’ they are unreal. Another great insight – and why I am describing Coleridge like this for a Lenten reading – arose both from his understanding of how literature and the mind works but also from his profound and mystical Christian faith. He called wonder the ‘suspension of our capacity to compare’.
This gives us a direct insight into simplicity. It is the capacity to give undivided attention and to be one with what we are paying attention to. It excludes nothing but gives itself wholly in that moment to what we are loving, because pure attention turns objectification into love. Usually when our attention is caught by anything beautiful or beyond the ordinary, we have a moment of wonder but then quickly begin to compare and contrast. Is this beautiful face or view or poem more or less than the previous one that caught my attention? On internet dating sites, I am told, you click from one profile to another comparing them with increasing speed and the hunger of loneliness. To gaze, to behold, to give undivided steady attention without measuring it against previous or possible future attractions is contemplation. It opens in us the boundless tenderness of eternally loving the uniqueness we are encountering.
It is this tenderness I treasure and wonder at in Coleridge alongside his genius and his damaged archangel wings. His father used to take him out at night to behold the stars and galaxies. Later Coleridge remarked, ‘I heard him with a profound delight & admiration; but without the least mixture of wonder or incredulity’. However, this does not contradict what we have been saying about wonder. He is saying wonder is more than a fleeting pleasant surprise. It is a state. He explains that before seeing the stars he had already developed a deepening, continuous state of wonder not dependent on sense impressions or novelty. ‘My mind had been habituated to the Vast-- & I never regarded my senses in any way as the criteria of my belief.’
In other words, we don’t have to look for things to wonder at. Everything is transparent and luminous. We should begin to develop this state of mind by wondering why we don’t see the wonder of things all the time because we are not yet ‘habituated’ to the vast.
Lenten Reflections 2024
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