By W.F. Lantry
(Paperback, 7 X 10, $19.95, 138 pages)
The Terraced Mountain by W.F. Lantry is filled with mystical insight, illuminated by the sacred light of inspiration and quiet faith. It offers guidance for every kind of spiritual journey: the odyssey of marriage, the personal quest for enlightenment through the beauty of music and the natural world, even the exploration of loss and of finding meaning in a seemingly diminished landscape. Stained glass windows, tranquil mountain pools, the rhythms of ocean shorelines—all these become sources of hope, joy, and peace. Love, kindness, and compassion, interweave themselves through every image in these enchanting poems. Each extended mystical meditation will fill you with a sense of serene calm and inspire the course of your own spiritual pathways.
On my birthday, not so many years ago, my wife came to me and sat me down for a serious talk.
“What are you doing?” she said. “You’re wasting your life. You’re a writer, and you haven’t written anything in years. I know you’re doing important work, but it’s not what you were put here to do. So I’ll make you this deal. I know you don’t like sending things out for publication. But you can write. So if you write something, every day, I’ll send it out. Your role, from now on, is just to write.”
“OK,” I said, “but what should I write?”
“You let me worry about that. I’ll do the research. I’ll correspond with the editors. We’ll do this together.”
And so began one of the most prolific collaborations in recent memory. True to her word, she did the research, she found the journals, the calls for submissions. I’d be at my desk at work, late in the day, and I’d receive a message saying, “I need a poem, under 30 lines, about rivers or shorelines. Don’t bother coming home for dinner until it’s done.” Or “I need a story, under a thousand words, with a scene in a restaurant. And be quick about it, the deadline is midnight and I have to go to rehearsal tonight, so you’ll have to watch the boys.”
We started in March, the end of March. I wrote and wrote. Even though she knew nothing about the literary world (she’s a Coloratura soprano), she started writing editors. The acceptances began to come in. Journals, especially quarterlies, have similar schedules. June 1st is a big day for them. And it was for us: nine poems came out that day, in four different journals. My first publications in years. Strike that. Our first publications.
She started planning excursions: museums, trips to the ocean, cultural events in town. Every trip had a purpose: another story, food for thought, another poem. And she was nearly miraculous. One Tuesday evening, in spite of my grumbling, she dragged me to go hear a former poet laureate read at the Folger Theater. I scratched a poem on the back of the program as we listened. When I was done, she grabbed the paper. The poem was published by a web journal based in Indonesia on Saturday.
All over the country, all over the world, poems and stories were getting accepted and published. I think she’s up to thirty countries at this point. We started to win literary prizes. It was, she was, astonishing. I learned to listen carefully. I learned to do exactly what she asked.
Late September. We were side by side on the bed after a long day, and she was searching the web for new worlds to explore. “William,” she said, “have you ever written a mystical poem?”
I knew about mystical poetry, at least a little: St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Mirabai, Attar. But I was more of a love poet, or poems about craft, about making things. I’m a woodworker, and not exactly the most churchgoing person who ever lived. So I was a little puzzled by her question. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, there’s this thing I just found today: Premio Mundial Fernando Rielo de Poesía Mística.” “My Spanish isn’t good, can you translate?” “The Rielo Worldwide Prize in Mystical Poetry. There’s a deadline coming up.”
I had no idea what she was asking, but like I said, I’ve learned to listen. And I’d read Leo Durocher’s biography, whereas a young prospect, the manager asks him, “Hey kid, have you ever played shortstop?” And the kid replies, “Sure. Lots of times.”
“When’s the deadline?” I asked. “It has to be in Madrid by October 15th.” “No problem,” I said, turning away to think about something else. She stopped me. “There’s only one tiny little difficulty. It has to be at least six hundred lines long.”
Like I said, I’m a lyric poet, and like any lyric poet, I can dash off a sonnet in fifteen minutes. But six hundred lines? In an unfamiliar genre? In less than two weeks? Why had I spoken so carelessly?
There’s one thing you need to know about Kate. She’s very devout, maybe the most devout Catholic I’ve ever known. She goes to daily Mass, she’s a music director at the largest parish around, it’s not unusual for her to sing in four or five different churches on a weekend. I could see in her eyes this meant something to her. Surely, after all she’d done, I could do something for her.
And so it started. I spent the first day drafting a plan for writing. Mystical poems are strange things, filled with numbers and symbols, allusions and layers. Every line in Dante has four different meanings. As a man drowning grasps a floating log, just to keep his head above water, I grasped a theme: Our Lady of Guadalupe. I wanted to write poems like prayers, like the beads of a rosary. But a rosary is too long. Kate told me about Chaplets, small things, like rosaries, but with fewer beds.
Kate made me a chaplet.
The intermediate beads are green, and three larger clear beads separate them. At the end, there’s another clear bead, and she attached a medal for Our Lady. The beads are arranged in the plan of the poem: four short sections, a longer one, four short sections, all the way around. I kept it wrapped around my hand while writing, I started carrying it around with me all the time. To remember.
And I wrote. I got up early and wrote in the morning. I stayed up late and wrote in my office at home. As I wrote, I knew Kate was praying feverishly just on the other side of the wall. It kept me going. The chaplet kept me going. And something else kept me going, something I can’t explain. I was filled with joy and sadness at once. Real joy. Joy so profound I’d sit at my desk weeping as I wrote. I felt a presence around me, like a living light, which lit up everything inside me, as long as I kept writing. And when I was done, each time, it would fade. The feeling drove me on. I was happy to sit down to write the next section. They built on each other, one by one. And finally, the poem was done.
I should have felt a sense of elation, of accomplishment. But all I felt was sadness. The light was fading. Would it ever return? How could I get it back? But there was no time to think of that. We had one day to proof read, to fix any errors, to smooth out any rough edges. Kate added the punctuation and formatting. I read it one last time. And she sent it off to Madrid.
To be honest, I pretty much forgot about it: there were other projects, other deadlines to meet, a busy family to care for. Life goes on.
Six weeks later, I was in a meeting at work, and my phone started ringing. I ignored it. It rang again, and I turned it down. But it just kept buzzing and buzzing. Finally, I excused myself, and took the call.
“William,” she whispered, “William, your poem is a finalist. Three hundred books of poems, from thirty countries, and you’re one of twelve finalists. We might have to fly to Rome. We need passports, new clothes for you. I need a new dress.” I closed my eyes and thought about it. And we waited.
But the call from Rome never came. Kate was disappointed. “Next year,” she said. “Next year?” I said. “Are you kidding me?”
But of course, next year came around, and I had to do as she asked. It’s now been seven years, and we’ve been finalists four times. No one writing in English has ever won. Spanish is the first language of everyone on the jury. But I keep going, mostly to honor her. And because the light returns whenever I write.
Three of the poems are collected here. “The Terraced Mountain,” tells the story of a spiritual marriage, in the form of a journey. You won’t notice as you’re reading, but it really is about my life with Kate. She points the way, providing direction, and I supply the energy and strength. When the wall between each terrace is too high for her to climb, I push her up, or climb it first and pull her up.
Another thing you may overlook: I had in mind Dante’s spiritual mountain, with its various representative levels. The two pilgrims together move from one level to the next, overcoming, learning as they go. It may help to think of Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, as well. But neither Dante nor Merton spoke of this particular peak.
The two travelers begin in a garden, where there’s a kind of fruitful bliss. Everything seems harmonious. But of course, a storm arrives. There are storms in every marriage, no matter how peaceful. They need to move on, and start walking together. She sees a better place, and as they move towards higher ground, she starts to sing.
It’s not as easy as all that. The mountain is surrounded by a wall they must climb over. And on the other side, there are many thorned bushes they have to make their way through. It is not done with ease. At last they reach the lowest slopes, where there’s an orchard growing, and a quiet pool. A place where they can rest and contemplate. It’s a walnut orchard, and they can examine the mirrored halves of the fruit, the intricacies held inside.
The pool is made by a stream, and they follow the stream up the hillside. They find a wall, with shards of broken pottery around the base. They find a passageway to the next level, and then a bridge across the stream.
They begin meeting people on the terraces: a candlemaker, a glassworker, a cobbler. Each stitch the shoemaker sews is woven with his faith. A woman sits in a small room, untying knots.
Have you ever been high up in the mountains? Really high up, above the timberline? I remember being in the Sierra Nevadas, and realizing the mountains, which looked so solid, were actually constantly shaken by tiny earthquakes. At night, when everything was quiet, I could hear the stones rolling down their slopes. And so with this mountain: each seemingly unshakeable terrace is ringed with broken stone, and they need to clamber over the scree to reach the next level.
They find a goldsmith there, and a weaver of tapestries. All along the way, they can hear the songs of unseen birds, high above them. Small flowers grow in the rockface, on the terrace walls, everywhere there’s a tiny, delicate beauty. But as they climb up, she slips.
Somehow, she doesn’t fall. It’s almost as if a hand, not my own, reached down and caught her. I’ve never felt that way. My own experience of faith is more like quiet contemplation. But she feels renewed by the incident. They rest together in a small house on the next terrace, watching a candle blaze in the quiet dark. And in that small house, their marriage is renewed.
The next day, she walks along, singing in the daylight. This is what happiness is: walking together over the earth towards a goal. Together, they share the Fruit of the Spirit: Gentleness, Goodness, Patience, Self-control, Kindness, Peace. These are the things a marriage is built on. And they drink together from the source of the stream.
“Charismata Canticle”: what a title! A charism is a gift, a canticle is a song, so this is my tribute to Kate’s gift of song. People throw words like that around, but in her case, it’s really true. And it’s a gift she shares with thousands of people every week, at Weddings and Funerals and Masses.
What great joy she brings to the people who hear her! Even at Funerals: I have seen her stand up, in front of many weeping people, and start to sing. I’ve watched the beauty of her voice calm their grief, change their countenance. I’ve heard her song give comfort even in the most difficult of times, add to the celebratory joy of Weddings, and give the worshipers reason to believe they can accede to perpetual beauty. Her voice draws back the veil hanging between our quotidian world and the Eternal.
She sings for the living, she even sings for those near death. That’s really the origin of this poem: she was called to the room of a dying man, and asked to sing “Ave Maria” as he passed. It was transformative for everyone there.
I was walking in the forest that morning and knew nothing about it. Instead, I was thinking about the complexity of the leaves, how their patterns seemed to match the forms of the streams I crossed. And so the poem is built, back and forth, between song and forest.
Rilke wondered when we’re truly alive. Kate is most alive when she’s singing. Where that delicate beauty comes from, I can’t say, but whenever I hear her I’m filled with gratitude, the way John of the Cross was filled with gratitude when he heard singing outside his monk’s cell.
Perhaps it’s the same gratitude I find in nature, perhaps her voice is like a bridge from one shore to another, a way to connect the two, and restore the harmony broken by separation. It’s hard to say. I only know those who listen feel a kind of ecstasy. And in that ecstasy, each of us may find our lives flourishing.
Yeats said, “I made my song a coat, out of old embroideries,” but her song is more like a robe of flame, lighting the world around her with a sweet eternal light, illuminating things we never notice otherwise. Still, those things are always there, like the small wings of dragonflies in sunlight just above the stream’s surface. Perhaps her voice allows us to look more closely, to see the beauty all around us.
Why are we here? To add to the world, to reinvent beauty, to co-create the earth? That was Hildegard’s answer nine hundred years ago, and it still feels like a good answer. The leaves fall one by one, we ourselves fall like the leaves, and yet that beauty remains. The water of life continues to flow. The boundaries of experience dissolve in contemplation of the beautiful, and the miracle of grace flows into us.
I make things out of wood and metal and words. I can touch them, I can write them down and preserve them. But the beauty she creates is both timeless and only in the moment, carried on the very air we breathe.
I’m a gardener, a builder of ponds for growing lotus and waterlilies, and so water and fountains hold a special place in my life. But sometimes I think of water as something else entirely, something flowing through all of us.
I’ve also studied the history of songs and hymns. How we sometimes sing to keep up our courage, whistle past graveyards. And yet, her song isn’t like that at all. It frees us from all fear and uncertainty, and lets us walk in peace.
Take her Wedding songs, how she sings as the bride lays flowers at Mary’s feet, and shows us the harmony at the beginning of the couple’s journey. Her voice allows the possibility of blissful consolation in the shared community of the ceremony.
You won’t believe me, but if you go out into the garden at dusk, after sunset, and look very closely, the flowers seem to have their own inner light, almost as if the light came from within themselves. Her songs have the same feel: they seem to come from within her, even if we know their origin is elsewhere.
There are many paths to Paradise. But the path of beauty seems the best: the way light moves through stained glass, the colored clarity a metaphor for spiritual energy, burning through the air as a living flame. Perhaps that same energy drives the growth of both forest and stream and moves us along our journey.
I mention stained glass because of the name of her gift: she’s a Coloratura. Yes, that’s a term of art, and it means her voice can color sound, add jewel tones to harmonies. It’s such a profound experience, people carry it with them throughout the day, and its recollection illuminates their lives, reinvents the earth.
‘Mystical’ simply means direct experience of the divine. But it’s not as if we need to hear a voice from above, or see letters written in fire across the sky. It’s more about opening ourselves and allowing something to flow into us. Something that may fill us with inexplicable peace.
One time I was sitting in Mass, listening to her sing. And I noticed a dove had accidentally flown into the church. I watched a bit of down, a small feather, floating on the air for as long as her song lasted. It was so light, it simply drifted among the rafters, never settling. At least not while she was still singing.
How many times have I seen light coming through windows as I listened to her sing? She says her goal is to help us pray, she says whoever sings well prays twice. But I think there’s something more than that: the light is like flame, and it burns within us whenever we hear her.
My middle name is Francis, so naturally, the prayers of St. Francis are special to me. The real ones, the ones he actually spoke. Like his prayer to creation, reflected in the title of the final poem of this collection: “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.”
This is a poem of journey and of loss. It’s written to my eldest brother, who died not long ago, but shaped much of my youth. And to a teacher who also shaped my youth, and is now a cloistered nun. Since I can’t visit either of them, it’s written in the form of letters, the letters I should have sent them as I moved through my life’s journey, the letters I never wrote.
What can we carry with us? When I began backpacking, I quickly learned we always take too much, far more than we need. Better to leave all that stuff behind, and walk with lighter steps.
My father taught me all the steps for rebuilding cars. Patience and care are required. I learned how not to get ahead of myself, how to measure tolerances as exactly as possible, and how every task seems to require a little blood before it’s done.
My first flight in an aeroplane was halfway around the world. I looked down as I flew over the Arctic, that vast expanse of ice and water, then landed in London and took the train all the way down to Provence.
There’s an old chapel there, way up in the Alps, built-in Medieval times. The frescoes are horrifying: monsters consume the sinners, while everything is flame around them. They were created after Dante and Aquinas: it’s hard to imagine people once associated such things with the beatific vision.
I learned to ski in the Alps. But we carry our memories with us, and the grains of snow blowing across the surface reminded me of the grains of sand blowing across the deserts of my youth.
One of the beautiful things about the Mediterranean region is you can leave the snow-covered mountains in the morning, and find yourself among flourishing vineyards by afternoon. I found such a place, a small farmhouse as old as any chapel, orchards and fields and ponds brimming with trout. ‘Who quarrels over half-pennies, that plucks the trees for bread?’
Of course, I was writing then. It’s solitary work done in near silence and often filled with doubt. What a relief to walk down to the beach at evening, and see something as simple and immediate as sardine fishermen spreading their nets in preparation for tomorrow’s fish market!
The hills along the coastline are covered with terraces, where olives, cherries and vines grow. I walked paths dating from Roman times, hearing the same sounds the ancient gardeners heard: the fox’s cry, the distant barking of wild dogs.
Sometimes I went down to visit the port and watched women mending the nets that had been spread in the sunlight to dry. Near the Bay of Angels, the untier of knots had to have the same patience I’d learned on what was now a distant shore.
And yet, it still felt foreign to me, even after living there for many years. There were unexplained sounds in the night, unnameable creatures moving about. I kept the lamplight burning, even as I fell asleep.
I love cathedrals, the huge arched ceilings designed and crafted by human hands to give us a glimpse of the eternal, the marble columns like tree trunks rising into the air, the tiled labyrinths hidden within the floor.
But elaborate as those cathedrals are, my own life was simple, barely furnished. A table and chair and bed were enough for my purposes, a lamp or candle to light my work. And always, just at the edge of my vision, the unfamiliar shadows flickering.
Sometimes I walked the mountains, since they reminded me of where I’d walked in earlier years, and sometimes I lingered there too long before turning back. Lost in the growing darkness, in a foreign place, I could almost mistake them for home.
And even though the birds there were different, their flights seemed the same, and the flowers reminded me of my early gardens. I gave myself over to unplanned steps, followed wherever the pathways happened to lead. We only discover new things when we become completely lost. Deep, quiet, secret things, unknown but familiar. How can we remember them? How can we know which way to turn? But if we follow our spirit’s path, we may arrive at peaceful, unexpected places: a mountain pool, unmarked on any map.
Or we can follow the stream feeding the pool, bend down along the bank, and drop a fishing line into the water. We can find a kind of joy in the waiting, practice patience while we watch the evening birds, knowing we can always find our way back to camp, even in moonlight.
For the moonlight shines on the broken granite, on the veins of quartz flowing through the rocks. And the constellations turn above our heads, harmonious, and seem to reverberate within us, until we become one with the landscape, or until the landscape repeats us.
We are like those slopes, those leaves falling, like the blue flax blooming between the stones, in the colors of Mary. Shouldn’t we be singing, even when we’re lost, shouldn’t we be walking the unfamiliar earth with a sense of joy?
There are lakes to discover, and islands within the lakes, with willows and cottonwoods and sycamores, those lovers of water. No gardener would place them there, and yet their unexpected beauty fills out hearts.
But even among such beauty, we can lose our way. If the moon goes behind clouds, we can find ourselves completely lost. The dark night of the soul is real, and we feel ourselves bereft, abandoned, with nowhere to turn, the cliffs falling away on all sides, and no way back.
It’s best to stop then and wait for light. But as the sun rises, the white granite, scintillating all around, reflects the light like a snowbank, and we can lose our sight. I still can’t say what happened: something led me back up the slope, over the broken stones, guiding me forward, as long as I kept moving.
My brother had a similar journey. His ended differently. But I know, without knowing, every step he took, since I walked them myself. I know the despair of the silence he felt when there was no voice to guide him.
How can we voice such despair, such loss, especially when we feel it within ourselves? Our very hearts are knotted, like those torn nets along the shore. Who could ever untangle them?
Too late, I visited his place of rest among the junipers of the desert mountains. The red dust blew over our eyes, a small cross marked an insignificant spot. There was nothing to do but pray: “now, and at the hour of our death…”
Yet Francis praised the day, praised the sun and moon, both the dawn and the dusk. I remember swallowtail butterflies, their wings dancing in unplanned movements. I remember the way the light felt on my skin, the way the breeze swirled around us.
Now I live in a forest, on the other side of the continent. The flashing wings still look foreign to me. The river behind our house changes constantly. I know I should walk in sadness, but I’m filled with joy, as if my brother could see all the miracles of the earth through my eyes as if his voice were mine.
What epilogue could we have, after so many years? We visited the monastery, only for a little while. Then Sister too was gone: we sat in the church, all the sisters hidden from sight, as they sang songs of joy and grace.
Washington, D.C. 2015