Here and there on the Internet I've seen people discuss the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz. Then, a few days ago, I ran across Milosz's poem "Meaning" at The Dish.

Suffice it to say, I was blown away. The poem is almost an exact expression (if the word "exact" is appropriate for poetry) of how I experience the life of faith. I've now got Milosz's New and Collected Poems: 1931-2001 on order.

Meaning by Czeslaw Milosz

When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
What never added up will add Up,
What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.
- And if there is no lining to the world?
If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,
But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day
Make no sense following each other?
And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?
- Even if that is so, there will remain
A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams.

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15 thoughts on “Meaning”

  1. For the last six years or so I've immersed myself in the world of evangelicals, atheists, and those experiencing what might be called "a loss of faith." I've maintained a blog with a number of atheist friends, completed one graduate program and am now beginning post-graduate work in theology. I've gone from being an apologist, to being a listener, and presently, to becoming a student of Paul Tillich.

    Through it all this one notion has fascinated me: meaning. Particular meaning, universal meaning, meaning creation, meaning discovery, contingent meaning, ultimate meaning, subjective meaning, objective meaning. Do we find it? Does it find us? Do our meanings mean anything? Do these ways of speaking even make sense?

    It is, of course, a passionate quest. The entirety of my world is somehow present when I look into the eyes of my young daughter and son. The depth of experience rebels at the notion that this moment, and innumerable others, might ultimately be "forgotten." To be forgotten ultimately seems to carry with it consequences that I simply cannot bear to live out.

    Yet, there are others. I've just returned from a backpacking trip in the mountains with a friend (Moody grad.) who is going through one of these "loss of faith" experiences. He now wants to see the world through strictly naturalistic eyes. He imagines that ultimately "the screen goes black" PERIOD. He tells me he's perfectly content to embrace the moments as mere moments.

    I wish I knew whether or not we were dealing here with two different ways of "feeling" the world, or if we are merely putting different language to similar experiences.

    In any case, Milosz's poem sings my song. I wonder, though, does it sing "our" song in the widest sense? Are we few, those of us who feel drawn to wrestle with ultimate things? Or are those who claim to have no need to reflect on the ultimate dealing in apathy, boredom, or perhaps protecting themselves from places of hurt/anxiety?

  2. Hi Alex,
    I'm not sure about the answer to your last question. I've pondered it myself a lot. Some people, it seems, just don't give these questions much thought. They just seem content to surf Facebook or play Angry Birds or look forward to drinking on the weekends. Not, to quote a favorite Seinfeld episode, that there's anything wrong with that. It's just different. Unlike my own experience. Mainly, as a psychologist, I just tend to chalk it all up to differences in personality and temperament. 

  3. Does it mean anything that the picture accompanying this poem is of a black-capped chick-a-dee and not a thrush?  Is the meaning of the post changed? 
    I relate to your MBI/moody friend.  I have been experiencing the same "loss of faith" since 1968.  This poem makes me think of the trailer for the first "Alien" movie -- "In space, no one can hear you scream".

  4. Dr. Beck,

    I've fairly worn myself out (to say nothing of my long-suffering family and friends) in the search for answers.  I will continue on until senility overtakes my brain, at which time I might finally succeed in being able to live only in the Now. 

    I agree with Alex's last paragraph and your response.  It's why I'm here.  Still -- I cannot seem to shake my fatalistic pessimism.

  5. Hi Richard,

    I suppose I'm less interested in those cases where people are simply content to live in the shallows, so to speak. The one's who really affect me are those deeply sensitive and thoughtful individuals who passionately care about their being in the world (perhaps more like Sam), yet who also feel compelled to make the religious affirmation that ultimately both being and meaning are exhausted. For them there is no ultimate union. It seems that in such a place only a sort of heroic stance towards one's own existence can keep one from complete despair.

    I suppose as a psychologist (though I'm no psychologist), I'd also be interested to trace the mental paths that lead to such a place (and all the more for my own peculiar shape). But as an involved member of human being, I'm more concerned to reflect on what such a state means for the me within the community that is "us."

  6. Oh, it has the very deepest of meanings. To wit: I couldn't find a thrush picture I liked, so a chick-a-dee it is.

    Apologies to all bird watchers.

    (BTW, last semester I used the phrase "To wit" in class but had to stop and explain it to the students.)

  7. Here's my best guess about that. My take is that there is a sort of poignant transcendence that people experience when they feel like they "surrender" to the tides of the cosmos. Such a surrender, positing nothing past the Here and Now, seems to thrust people deeper into the spirituality of this moment. It is a spirituality of passionate immanence. (BTW, the movie The Tree of Life I think captures this feeling.) And here's the deal, I resonate with this surrender. Much more that with the other-worldly spirituality of many Christian churches that supports a lot of the decadence, meanness and superficiality of American Christianity.

    One of my favorite Emily Dickinson lines is this:

    "That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet."

  8. That's been quite true of my own experience. I often describe it as both the losing and finding of my faith. ["Tree of Life" added to movies to see list]

    Thanks, Richard

  9. Poetry may well be the best theology these days. I am moved by the work of R.S. Thomas. He speaks of "presence that is like an absence." I definitely know that in my faith journey. I also appreciate Mary Oliver (despite many people criticizing her for being so popular. In "Wintry Night" she says "but anyway, aren't some things better than knowing, and sweeter?" Yes, yes they are. 

  10. The irony is, as an English major, I am less moved by poetry than I have always been by music.  Even after years of doubt, I am still brought to tears by the hymn "Be Still My Soul", but it is the Sibelius' melody more so than the words.

    I cannot hear Kate Rusby sing "Little Jack Frost" without feeling and understanding each note/word at my core.  As I retire to the forest near my alma mater, I want desperately to be that boy again.

  11. Dr. B,

    I wouldn't know good poetry if it bit me on the butt, but wow if that didn't strike a chord. Thanks.

  12. Thanks Richard, I was feeling a little absent reading the poem until I got to the 5th last line and the turn towards defiant faith in the face of fatalism at which point my heart swelled with a knowing and being known. I can't remember whether I've flagged it before on this blog, but 'A Sleep of Prisoners' by Christopher Fry is a particular favourite poem of mine.

    Dark and cold we may be, but this

    Is no winter now. The frozen misery

    Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;

    The thunder is the thunder of the floes,

    The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.

    Thank God our time is now when wrong

    Comes up to face us everywhere,

    Never to leave us till we take

    The longest stride of soul we ever took.

    Affairs are now soul size.

    The enterprise

    Is exploration into God.

    Where are you making for? It takes

    So many thousand years to wake,

    But will you wake for pity's sake!

    When I was ordained, I was given an opportunity within the service to respond. After trying for some time to decide what I would say, I decided I had to respond in the form of a poem. How else could I capture the wonder and grace of that moment.

  13. Richard, this blog keeps taking my breath away. Amazing, amazing and wonderful, this ability of yours to keep touching just the right note. Wow. And thanks. Blessings all around.

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