“The soul should always stand ajar”

If you’ve ever read Emily Dickinson, or are interested in the spiritual bonds between religion and poetry you will find common ground with Monsignor Charles M. Murphy’s new book, Mystical Prayer, The Poetic Example Of Emily Dickinson. It is a trim but bountiful 117 pages just published by the Liturgical Press.

Father Murphy has done his homework in this compact but challenging volume. He reads Dickinson’s work perceptively and relates it to the Christian tradition. Dickinson was an heir to the grim Calvinism of Puritan New England. She couldn’t accept or reject her spiritual heritage. Murphy calls her an “unbelieving believer,” and explores her faith response through some of the greatest Christian poetry ever written. “In this book I reintroduce Emily Dickinson’s poem as examples of mystical prayer in the light of Christian tradition, and of St. Teresa of Avila in particular.”

Father Murphy beautifully illustrates his ideas with a remarkable selection of Dickinson’s work and a deep knowledge of scripture and mystical prayer. It is surprising in such a slight volume to come across so much information with references to Gregory of Nyssa, Therese of Lisieux. Mother Teresa, Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. This could’ve been a much longer study, but it functions as a brilliant introduction to Dickinson and signs of mystical experience. It is written clearly and directly, a book that both scholars and interested readers will draw from.

Father Murphy identifies three conditions for mystical prayer: solitude, asceticism and place. These are abundant in Dickinson’s poetry. She practiced a lifelong solitude despite a busy life with family obligations. Her solitude and her poetry became a form of prayer, a piercing awareness of God’s presence, and sometimes a piercing loneliness that He wasn’t there.

“Growth of Man—
like Growth of Nature—
Gravitates within—
Atmosphere, and Sun
endorse it—
But it stir alone—

Each—it’s difficult Ideal
Must achieve—Itself—
Through the solitary prowess
Of a Silent Life…”

Dickinson isn’t an easy poet but Murphy takes us through her greatest poems making them clear and accessible and celebrating her wild delight in God and nature. Dickinson knew the landscape of Amherst like St. Anthony of Egypt knew the desert. The hills and valleys of New England were her Eden and her Calvary. In the seasons and the flowers she kept up a prayerful dialogue with a living God. She was a feminist and a quiet rebel, and along the way she wrote some of the most magnificent poetry in all of world literature. For Murphy it was ultimately a prayer of faith and a witness to “possibility”. She didn’t always find God in her life, but she remained open.

The Soul should always stand ajar.
That if the heaven require
He will not be obliged to wait.

Her readiness to find God came from experiences of ecstasy, periods of depression, seasons of doubt, but it was her desire for love that honed her sensitivity to God. Mystical prayer has a powerful and personal gravity that ties us to earth while we reach for transcendence.

After I read this book through, I turned to the first page and started again. Murphy’s Mystical Prayer is obviously the work of long years of study and delight in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, as well as a profound experience of mystical prayer. It amazes me that he can, in short form, bring to life the poet from Amherst as richly as he does. I’ve read much longer studies that didn’t have the depth of insight about Dickinson and the embrace of her wounded humanity. In this case the bond between the poet and Father Murphy yield an honest and searching portrait of one of America’s most enigmatic geniuses.

Best of all, Murphy enlarged my sense of prayer through poetry. It is clear that he has learned to pray with the poets, and to reflect on the many ways that God reaches us if we “leave the door ajar.”

Dickinson heard God in the chirp of crickets and in the songs of the oriole. She felt called to God by the beauty of his Creation. She had sought Him in so many places, but ironically realized that she was the one being sought.

“Nature and God—
I neither knew
Yet both so well knew me
They startled like Executors
Of My identity.”

Murphy has given us a new look at the ever-enchanting imagination of Emily Dickinson, and given us the opportunity to find God in prayerful listening and joy in witness of poetry.

(Editor’s Note: Father Charles Murphy, the book’s author, recently visited St. Joseph Parish in Danbury at the invitation of Father Samuel V. Scott, pastor, to discuss his book on “Mystical Prayer” and sign books for those in attendance.)