School Prayer: Diane Ackerman’s Poetic Invitation to Attentive Presence as a Means of Transcendence and Secular Spirituality
By Maria Popova
“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” wrote the French philosopher Simone Weil in contemplating gravity and grace. “Attention without feeling,” the poet Mary Oliver observed many decades later, “is only a report.” Indeed, what confers meaning upon our existence, what gives it an undertone of secular prayerfulness, is precisely this empathic beam of attention to all the world’s fullness, to all of its creatures.
An incantation for honing that attention is what the poet, essayist, science writer, and naturalist Diane Ackerman offers in a beautiful poem titled “School Prayer,” originally published in her poetry collection I Praise My Destroyer (public library) and later included in her prose inquiry into the evolutionary and existential purpose of deep play.
A great deal of Ackerman’s exquisite writing is devoted to celebrating science. (Carl Sagan, who was on her dissertation committee, was an ardent admirer of her work and once sent her radiant poems about the Solar System to Timothy Leary in prison.) With her poet’s heart and scientist’s mind, she approaches the question of spirituality from a strictly nonreligious standpoint, celebrating attention as the means for finding transcendence not in a supernatural “god” but in the divine splendor of nature. “I believe avidly in the separation of church and state,” she explains of her impetus for writing the poem. “I don’t want children forced to worship someone else’s god, but I do want them to develop a spiritual nature, and become concerned with higher values.”
Although cast as a child’s prayer, the poem is a powerful invitation to attentive presence and a beautiful daily practice of intention, whatever one’s age:
In the name of daybreak
and the eyelids of morning
and the wayfaring moon
and the night when it departs,
I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder
as an architect of peace.
In the name of the sun and its minors
and the day that embraces it
and the cloud veils drawn over it
and the uttermost night
and the male and the female
and the plants bursting with seed
and the crowning seasons of the firefly
and the apple, I will honor all life
—wherever and in whatever form
it may dwell—on Earth my home,
and in the mansions of the stars.
Complement with the great nature writer Henry Beston on how our relationship with the Earth reveals us to ourselves and physicist Alan Lightman on science and nonreligious spirituality, then revisit Ackerman’s glorious ode to our search for extraterrestrial life.
Published June 29, 2017