On 'Love' by Czeslaw Milosz
Czeslaw Milosz' Love brings together deep, beautiful truths about love – not romantic love or even familial love - rather the kind of love that redeems us, and in redeeming us, redeems our relationship to life.
One of the elements I treasure in this poem is how it touches on so many essential themes – calling, narcissism, service, non-dual belonging – in a way that illuminates each. It invites us to be touched – in tenderness - by all things, including our own belonging. Its' lines have soaked into my bones over the past years and return to me repeatedly...
Here’s the full text (translated by Robert Hass):
Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills—
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.
In a way, the first three lines contain the whole poem. Everything that happens after is a consequence.
'Love means to learn to look at yourself...'
there is an audacity to defining love, to saying what it ‘means’. But Milosz offers a fresh, surprising definition which cuts through any potential for grandiosity or cliché. He wants us to learn to perceive ourselves. At first glance this may look like narcissism: So many of us are perpetually ‘looking at’ ourselves, checking our internal self-image or our image in the eyes of others, trying to establish whether we are adequate, beautiful, good enough. But this is habitual, neurotic, egoic looking.
We have not learned to look in a way that deepens perception. So, in this first line, there is the naming of a craft – the craft of looking – seeing ourselves is something that might require learning: In voicing this, Milosz echoes a truth that reverberates across spiritual traditions: “The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence,” wrote Jiddu Krishnamurti, while The Yoga Sutras concur that ‘self-observation without judgement’ is a potent and precious source of transformation.
‘the way one looks at distant things...'
maybe once or twice a year I catch a glimpse of myself this way. I perceive, not from over-familiar interior too-close-to lens that is niggly and habitual, but with a curious, gentle objectivity. It is a shock to see the self this way, but not the ‘bad’ shock of dismay or shame, when we catch a glimpse of ugliness or inadequacy. Instead, it is a seeing graced by tenderness. There is a pathos in seeing the smallness of ourselves, the predominance of our earnest innocence, the way this little human believes it carries great or subtle burdens. Such glimpses arise as blessings.
'For you are only one thing among many…'
This is perhaps the most beautiful line of all, and the heart of the poem. To realise this – that we are ‘only’ one thing... to know that it is all we are, yet for this not to be a source of self-diminishment. If we each knew this deep in our bones – that we are only one thing - yet knew it from a viewpoint of cherishing, how different might our world be? This would be to echo the vision of St Augustine, who wrote: ‘God loves each of us as if there were only one of us’. Is it possible for us to feel ourselves beloved like this - not as special, privileged selves, but simply as the creatures that we are, on a planet resplendent with creatures and other forms, each of us merely one thing?
Attuning to this truth transforms the heart:
'And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills—
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.'
There is an alchemical beauty to how the heart is healed. It is not deliberate or intentional - it is a side effect of seeing. When the self is neither elevated nor neglected, but seen clearly, we are altered. Cures happen. Our narcissism begins to fall away; the wounded gloom of our neglect dissipates; we catch glimpses of beauty that move us. And these things happen indirectly, because we have learned to see.
Then comes a further layer of blessing. As the heart is cured, we receive a sweetening intimacy with everything. Life comes to meet us differently. Other creatures sense something in us, and they befriend us. This effortless belonging, this fellowship among equals, softens our vanity and our aloneness. We notice we are enchanted to be ‘found.’ And another layer opens:
'Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.'
Again, we are in a field of grace. Seeing has brought us to kinship, and this kinship initiates our desire to act from a place of union: ‘When I don’t know who I am, I serve you…’ said Hanuman, ‘…when I know who I am, you and I are one’. As we sense how full and complete our belonging, we find ourselves ready to serve - a thing among things yearning to collaborate to complete and fulfill each other. Yes, we ‘use’ ourselves, but not in a utilitarian way, more as an unfolding expression of surrender. We relate to life richly, wishing to raise things up, as we ourselves are raised. Rumi captured this passion to transform through love: ‘I have come to drag you out of yourself and take you into my heart/I have come to bring out the beauty you never knew you had and raise you like a prayer to the sky’. We long to raise life like a prayer. We find, sometimes, that we do.
'It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.'
These closing words are less translucent for me. But I think it is something like this: a natural alignment happens when we live as kin - our actions are inevitably ‘ripening’. Then, in the final line, this definitely truthful thing - - that those most full of concepts are not always the most realized or faithful servants.
If these words resonate, consider attending one of my courses or workshops. Forthcoming: Calling - Living in the Glow of Ripeness, on October 27 in Dublin.