Towards the end of the Orthodox liturgy this morning, I began to lose myself in the prayers and the chants and the incense. By “lose myself,” I mean the borders between myself and the ritual and the God who reveals Himself in that ritual began to dissolve, and I sensed that we were in a mystical sense blending.

Me being me, the awareness of this caused me to draw back reflexively and analyze it. The moment was lost. (Why can’t I ever just let go? Argh!) Anyway, in the aftermath, I thought again about the Wallace Stevens poem about which I blogged Friday, “The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm” (see here for my earlier comments). I’ll reproduce the poem here to refresh your memory:

The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

So, this morning’s moment in the liturgy cast the Stevens poem in a new light for me. It seems to me that Stevens evokes the moment in which the reader glimpses Ultimate Reality through reading, and how all the sensual elements present worked symphonically to break down the perceptual barriers. The reader knew that he was onto something, and intensely receptive to the truth that might come to him through the written word. Word made sacrament — “the access of perfection to the page” — occurred only in the quiet of the evening, which created the conditions for this kind of communion, which is why the poet says that the great silence is part of the meaning of what was revealed to the receptive reader.

These concluding lines:

The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

… capture the unity of experience and being in that timeless solitary moment of discovery. There is nothing but that moment, and the truth disclosed in it — the barrier between worlds, between the Finite and the Infinite, dissolved in a moment of eternity.

Standing in church today, I thought about the Stevens poem, and it occurred to me that this what the experience of liturgy is supposed to be like. That is, if we, like the reader in Stevens’s poem, lose ourselves such that, as the reader “became the book,” we become the liturgy, and allow the prayers and chants and incense and, ultimately, the Eucharist, become “the conscious being of the book” — or, in sacramental Christian terms, the means through which God the Infinite reveals Himself to us and communes with our bodies and souls. The world must be “calm” in that moment, in the sense that everything outside that moment must be experienced as still and silent, so all-encompassing is that moment of mystical awareness, of communion.

This is a poem about communion with the Absolute, written by a poet who did not believe in God, but who understood what it means to be at one with Him better than most of us who do. And there Wallace Stevens words were, in my head on Sunday morning in the Divine Liturgy, helping me to have more insight into what I was experiencing, and hoped to experience. How grateful to God I am for Stevens and his poetry!