Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Course on Poetry Inspired by the Mystical Tradition of the Church

This is, as far as I am aware, a new liturgically centered approach to teaching literature, the first in a series offered by Andrew Thornton-Norris, Resident Poet of the Imaginative Conservative and author of A Spiritual History of English.

Pontifex University is offering a new online course of guided reading entitled The Romance of the Soul - the Mystical in Verse, Spiritual Approaches to Literature. This one is for personal enrichment, (and costs just $99) - a must for anyone interested in understanding what makes great literature, and especially those who wish to be creators of beautiful poetry and prose.

This is the introductory course to a planned series which will give a new exciting approach to teaching literature. The goal is to impart wonder at the beauty of the literary tradition which is derived from and points us to the words of the Poet - the Holy Spirit who speaks in the Sacred Liturgy, especially through the Psalms. The hope is that through this it will deepen our participation in the liturgy and help lead us to our ultimate end. Poets considered in this introductory course include Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dante, St John of the Cross, T.S. Eliot and John Burnside.

This particular course is an introduction to the poetry that arises from the mystical tradition of the Church. It is presented through the prism of Andrew Thornton-Norris’s general thesis on literature, articulated in his excellent book the Spiritual History of Literature. In this slim volume, Mr Thornton-Norris does for poetry and prose what I have been trying to do with art. He relates the actual structure of the writing and the vocabulary used to the worldview of the time. He shows us, for example, how even if the poet or novelist is sincerely Catholic and trying to express truths that are consistent with the Faith, he is at a great disadvantage if he is seeking to express those truths with the vocabulary and poetic form that reflect a post-Enlightenment culture. He takes us through a philosophical and literary journey from Bede through to the present day.

The true purpose of literature is to instill in those who read it wonder and a desire for God. It ought to
direct us therefore to the place where in this life we have the most profound encounter with God, the Sacred Liturgy. The poetry of the mystical tradition of the Church arises from the tradition of contemplative prayer. This is the prayer whereby we develop the faculty for the reception of God as He gives himself to us through his love. Its consummation is in the liturgy, and when written well it allows for an ever deeper and more active (in the true sense of the word) participation in the liturgy, where there is the most profound encounter with God. Contemplation itself is that reception of God and it can only be realized by the action of God Himself. All we can do is increase our readiness for him, until He chooses to give Himself to us. When He does so, we have peace and joy, but this is the heavenly state that is only fully realized in the next life. However, on our journey towards that point, we can have it by degrees, and some might experience temporary anticipations of that ecstasy.

Poetry is the work of mystics who specialize in this prayer, and it reflects their experiences and directs us to us, helping us in our own contemplative prayer and inspiring us to make the attempt. In the hierarchy of literature it might be considered the highest outside the inspired work of the Poet Himself, and especially the Psalms sung in the liturgy which direct us to Him.

Here is Andrew’s introduction to the course:

“The most profound meeting place between the spiritual and literature is where the mystical tradition inspires poetry. This course will introduce you to some of the key texts and principles of this tradition and the poetry it has inspired. We begin with an introduction to the central concept of mysticism, contemplation, and look at how this relates to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Then we will consider the emergence of the subjective perspective characteristic of modernity, in the thought and feeling of the twelfth century. Then we look at the poetic tradition this inspired, from that of the time of Dante, through the English Renaissance, to the emergence of modern poetry at the time of Baudelaire and Eliot. Then we will consider two contemporary accounts of this meeting in the theology of John Paul II and Hans Urs Von Balthasar, which provides the spiritual context for creative activity today. The two further planned courses in this series will cover the same ground, but in greater detail. You can progress from one to the other, and have the cost of the earlier ones discounted from the later, or take any of them individually.”

For more details and to take the course go to Pontifex.University.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: