A Hermit’s Prayer for Beauty

One of my favourite poems from the Celtic tradition is this little piece written by a monk who is fantasizing about how they would like to live in the wild and pray. I was very happy to be able to include this poem in my book Psalter of the Birds so it can be chanted and brought to life.

One of the reasons I love it so much is because it is incredibly relatable. This is basically what I’ve been dreaming about for the last fifteen years. A simple life of prayer and gardening is universally recognized as good for the soul. It was just as true in the middle ages as it is today.

I wish, O Son of the living God
O ancient and eternal king
For a hidden little hut in the wilderness
Where I can live out my days

A graceful lark who is grey
Living in the trees beside me
A clear pool to wash away sins
Through the grace of the Holy Spirit

To be surrounded on all sides
By a beautiful green forest
To take care of the songbirds
Hiding in the shelter of the woods

A south facing opening for warmth
A little brook across its floor
A fruitful land with many gracious gifts
That are good for every plant

A few sensible friends there with me
We will decide how many
Who are humble and obedient
That we may pray together to the king

Four times three, three times four in number
Enough to meet all of our needs
Twice six people in the church
Both in the north and in the south

Six pairs of people besides myself
Praying forever to the king who makes the sun shine
A lovely church with a linen altar cloth
A dwelling for God from heaven

Shining candles above the pure white scriptures
One house for everyone to share
A place to care for our bodies
No rudeness, boasting, or evil thoughts

This is the way in which I would farm it
I will not hide the food which I would choose
Fragrant leeks, hens, salmon, trout, and bees
Enough clothing and food for our needs

All this would be a gift from the king of fair fame
And I would spend all my time
Sitting in meditation for a while
Praying to God in the beautiful places

There is something so natural about praying to God in beautiful places. The modern Celtic expression “thin places” expresses this so wonderfully. We are naturally drawn to these places in the landscape where the raw beauty of God’s creation is able to penetrate our hearts and pierce us with the arrow of divine love. There is a deep sort of homecoming which we experience in these places. In a certain poetic sense, we are drawn into the source of our own being when we pour our hearts outwards into the natural world of God’s artistic expression.

When we bring our inner world into harmony with the outer world, the magnificence of the beautiful can heal us. Harmony is the natural result of the beauty which permeates all things and all creatures long for beauty precisely because it is the source of our being. Perhaps this understanding of beauty in all things is best expressed in philosophical terms by Dionysius when he said,

“From the beauty of God comes the existence of everything, each being exhibiting its own way of beauty. For beauty is the cause of harmony, of sympathy, of community. Beauty unites all things and is the source of all things. It is the great creating cause which bestirs the world and holds all things in existence by the longing inside them to have beauty. And there it is ahead of all as Goal, as the Beloved, as the Cause toward which all things move, since it is the longing for beauty which actually brings them into being.”

This poem is a perfect expression of the longing for beauty which is natural to our condition. We come from beauty, it is the source of our creation. And yet, we are drawn towards beauty as we live in this world. It is an unequalled mystery that beauty is the cause of our being and also the end towards which our being strives. In fact, it is the longing for beauty which brought us into existence in the first place.

To set up a little hut in the wilderness with a garden and a sanctuary is to participate in that beauty. To play the human part in the symphony of natural beauty. The very human expressions of beauty described in this poem are equally of God. The birds in the forest and the monks at the altar both come from the same well of beauty in the divine and they both move towards the longing for beauty which God has placed in their hearts.

So, dear sisters and brothers, if you feel the need for beauty in your bones, then know that this comes from God. Never imagine beauty to be frivolous or without purpose, because it is the very purpose for which this world was made. We exist to express God’s beauty and there is no greater gift which we can be given.

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