Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women
Edited by Jane Hirshfield
Publisher: New York: Harper Perennial, 1995.
In Women in Praise of the Sacred, Jane Hirshfield, a widely published poet and herself a practitioner of Zen, has brought together an extraordinary collection of poems, hymns, invocations, and prayers by women. Arranged chronologically - beginning with a prayer by a Sumerian priestess from around 2300 BCE and ending with a poem by a 20th century Korean Buddhist nun - this collection gives voice to spiritual longing, wisdom and insight as it has been expressed in widely different cultures.
Throughout human history, and certainly within every cultural and religious tradition represented in this volume, the writings of women are far less known than those of men. Hirshfield has dug deep into the world’s spiritual literature to find writings which few readers will have seen before.
Sometimes, the imagery and mode of expression are distinctly feminine. Kassiane, an 8th century Byzantine nun, memorializes Jesus’s forgiveness of the sinful woman in a hymn:
I will wash your feet with kisses,
dry them with my hair, feet that Eve once heard
at dusk in paradise then hid in fear.
The Taoist sage Cui Shaoxuan urges the reader not to waste the precious opportunity of life:
Black hair and red cheeks: for how long?
One moment, and the silver streaks run through.
Open the blinds: the first apricot blossoms have opened -
Hurry! The spring days are now!
Usually, however, these descriptions of spiritual reality do not use gender-specific language or images. Verses by Tibetan Buddhist women (circa 8th-11th centuries) struggle to convey how reality lies beyond the reach of mind and language:
Kye Ho! Wonderful!
You may say “existence,”but you can’t grasp it!
You may say “nonexistence,” but many things appear!
It is beyond the sky of “existence”and “nonexistence”-
I know it but cannot point to it!
Similarly, Mechtilde of Magdeburg, from a group of medieval European women Christian mystics called Beguines, confesses her inability to describe a mystical truth she had realized:
Of all that God has shown me
I can speak just the smallest word,
Not more than a honey bee
Takes on his foot
From an overspilling jar.
Another Beguine, Hadewich, explains where to seek mystic realization:
You who want knowledge,
seek the Oneness within
There you will find
the clear mirror already waiting.
In some cases, Hirshfield offers verses from the best-known women mystics from a given spiritual tradition, such as Rabi`a from the Sufi tradition and Mira Bai from the Bhakti tradition. But her research has also unearthed some previously unknown gems. Even wide readers in Sufi literature may never have heard of Bibi Hayati, a 19th century Persian Sufi. And those who are drawn to the writings of the Bhakti poets may not know of Lal Ded, a Shaivite mystical devotee of the Path of Oneness, who writes:
I searched for my Self
Until I grew weary,
But no one, I know now,
Reaches the hidden knowledge
By means of effort.
Then, absorbed in “Thou art This,”
I found the place of Wine.
There all the jars are filled,
But no one is left to drink.
In collecting women’s writings praising the sacred, Hirshfield’s understanding of “the sacred” is broad enough to encompass vastly different cultural expressions. She has included an invocation by Uvavnuk, an Iglulik Eskimo woman shaman, to the great sea, an Osage women’s initiation song, two women’s prayers from the Kwakiutl people of British Columbia, Canada, and other Native American sources. In a few cases of anonymous writings, Hirshfield has made an educated guess that the writers could have been women, based on the role of women within that culture or on similar writings known to be by women from that culture.
Between the covers of this volume, then, a striking variety of voices speak out: from the Sumerian Enheduanna, who intones a solemn hymn to Inanna, moon goddess, “Lady of all powers, in whom light appears, Radiant one, Beloved of Heaven and Earth, tiara-crowned… My lady you are the guardian of all greatness”- to Izumi Shikibu, the 11th century Japanese Zen Buddhist nun, who quietly observes the moon (a symbol in Zen poetry of the enlightened mind):
Watching the moon
I knew myself completely,
no part left out.
The poets of the 19th and 20th centuries in this collection include such diverse writers as the British Emily Bronte and Christina Rosetti, the Finnish Edith Sodergran, the German Nelly Sachs, the Russian Marina Tsataeva, and the American Emily Dickinson. Verses from Emily Dickinson show her mystical insight:
The Infinite a sudden Guest
Has been assumed to be -
But how can that stupendous come
Which never went away?
The translators for each poem included in this volume are noted. Many of the selections were translated by Hirshfield herself, either from the original text or working from other English translations in multiple scholarly sources. An appendix titled “For Further Reading” gives the sources for each of the selections and points the reader toward books where more writings by each author may be found.
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