Czesław Miłosz’s Theological Two-Step

One of California’s greatest poets—indeed, one of America’s greatest poets—may well be a poet who wrote a single poem in English. Czesław Miłosz loved Walt Whitman, quarreled with the spirit of Robinson Jeffers, and engaged American culture—while always remaining ambivalent about it, as most of us are. Was he a Californian, malgré lui?

I was positioned to make the case. I had written many articles about Miłosz, and published two earlier books about him, Czesław Miłosz: Conversations and An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. Moreover, I have been a Californian for as long as Miłosz was.

When I began Czesław Miłosz: A California Life I thought the book would be an extended argument, with reasoned insight and crisp prose. But the actual writing of it turned out to be more like making a painting rather than fleshing out bulleted points. The text did not develop in a linear way, but in my hands began to curve, twist, lurch, and shapeshift, as complex and multidimensional as the man himself.

Here I intend to discuss just one aspect of the Nobel poet: the metaphysical side of Milosz. In an atheistic age, many readers and critics tend to bypass it. Others profess incomprehension at his stubborn faith and scoff at the spiritual underpinnings of his work. Maybe this journal’s audience can understand his longing, his imperatives, and maybe here I can speak about them—and how he brought these eternal intuitions to California. His approach to this, as everything, was both systematic and inventive, rigorous, and idiosyncratic.

Even a pope was a bit befuddled by the poet. Miłosz was having a conversation with Pope John Paul II, a fellow Pole and now saint, who was commenting on some of his poems—in particular, “Six Lectures in Verse.” “Well,” the pope concluded, “you make one step forward, one step back.” The poet replied, “Holy Father, how in the twentieth century can one write religious poetry differently?” And the pope smiled.[1]

Miłosz considered himself primarily a religious writer—no, that is putting it wrong. He considered his central concerns religious, which does not imply that every time he put pen to paper he chewed his pen and thought, “Well, what will I say about God today?” Instead, his sense of the numinous, his sense of ultimate values, infuses pretty much everything he wrote. In the end, he thirsted for God, and sometimes in his poems he talked to God.

In the 1970s, he even began teaching himself Hebrew so that he could translate the Psalms into Polish, and then he went on to translate many other books of the Bible. It was a spiritual imperative for him, and also a consolation at a time when his wife, the mother of his children, descended into a degenerating illness from which she never recovered, and his younger son went mad.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that at that time too, beginning in the 1970s, he began to discuss what he called “second space.” For he found there was another exile, deeper and more enduring perhaps than his geographic one. He decried the banished metaphysical dimension that had disappeared in Western life, leaving us with a shriveled faculty of imagination, a vision that could not see beyond the little “here” and the little “now.” Thanks to this, the only possibilities for development are technological, and we are increasingly fascinated by our own potential extinction, and drawn to it. “Religion, opium for the people,” he wrote:

To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.[2]

Many things are complicated about Milosz, beginning with his birthplace in 1911. He was born in Šeteniai, in Lithuania, at his family’s manor. His family was among the Polish speaking gentry within Lithuania, which was part of the extended Russian Empire. He was born in the era of horse-and-buggy; he lived to see men walk on the surface of the moon. He had been taught to write with pen and inkstand; he would end his days composing his poems on a computer, using enlarged fonts as his vision faded to darkness, just as his hearing was fading to silence.

He attended a Lithuanian school at a time when education in a Catholic country on the edge of Europe meant a thorough grounding in Thomas Aquinas, arguably the most brilliant man who ever lived. It is a world almost impossible to recapture today, with all those lists and categories to memorize. But it gave him terra firma for his wide-ranging intellect. Thomism is important in his thinking and writing.

In particular, he was preoccupied with esse, “being” in Latin, or as he often put it in the French, être. “Being” as he said, encompasses the “eternal and substantive ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, in order to protect ourselves from the corrosion of universal movement,”[3] which he called devenir, the world of history and “becoming.” Esse, contemplation, was the province of the poet.

However, two world wars had taught him that we are in an era of flux, of change: “We live in the world of devenir. We look at the world of être with nostalgia,” he told me during our conversations in the spring of 2000; I did not know it then, but they would be his last interviews in the U.S. before he returned to Poland forever:[4]

« The world of essences is the world of the Middle Ages, of Thomas Aquinas,” he said. “In my opinion, it is deadly to be completely dissolved in movement, in becoming. You have to have some basis in being . . . In general, the whole philosophy of the present moment is post-Nietzsche, the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths. Post-modernism consists in denying any attempt of truth. »[5]

“There was at a given moment where the stable world where we could see, hold on to values that were a reflection of the eternal order of things,” he said. “Now we are in a flux. This is a very peculiar way of life.”

He attended the University of Vilnius and eventually left for Warsaw, which is where he was when the Germans invaded in 1939. He was a helpless witness to the destruction of the Jewish ghetto, and then the destruction of Warsaw itself, along with the loss of a generation of his fellow writers and poets who took arms against history—“you whom I could not save,”[6] he wrote in grief.

Having to choose between German-occupied Poland or Soviet-occupied Lithuania, he chose to stick with Poland. He sensed that the Nazi empire would fall long before the Soviet one—and in that he was right. But the victors delivered Eastern Europe into Soviet hands after the war, and so Milosz found himself under the Stalinist rule he thought to escape:

I feel that the greatest asset that my part of Europe received in the history of the twentieth century, the privilege of our being the avant-garde of inhumanity, is that the question of true and false, good and evil, became operative again. Namely, good and evil, true and false have not been discovered through philosophical discourse, but empirically, like the taste of bread.[7]

After the war, he needed a job in a country that had few to offer, and he was anxious to get out of the country. He became a Polish diplomat, serving as a cultural attaché first in New York City, then in Washington D.C. While in the U.S., he made friends with America’s writers, poets, thinkers, and artists. Thornton Wilder was a friend, so was Albert Einstein. By the time he was reposted to Paris, he was falling under increasing surveillance. He preempted his imminent arrest by defecting in 1951, taking a taxi and as many suitcases as he could carry to the outskirts of Paris.

In pro-Stalinist Paris, the intelligentsia turned its back on him. Neruda published an essay called “The Man Who Ran Away”—ran away from the forward march of history, that is. Only Albert Camus befriended him. His searing rebuttal of Communism and modern-day relativism was not from the intellect but from the gut. He would write:

A man may persuade himself, by the most logical reasoning, that he will greatly benefit his health by swallowing live frogs; and, thus rationally convinced, he may swallow a first frog, then the second; but at the third his stomach will revolt. In the same way, the growing influence of the doctrine on my way of thinking came up against the resistance of my whole nature.[8]

That’s from The Captive Mind, his only bestseller; the book has never been out of print since its publication in 1953. He wrote it while half-mad, drinking heavily, smoking nonstop, and pacing up and down in a small room in Maisons-Lafitte. His émigré hosts had instructed him to avoid windows because the house was being watched. Anything could happen. The Captive Mind was written under those unimaginable pressures. It is a psychological book, and beyond that, a spiritual one. It is also a confession.

There is a line from telling a lie, to living a lie, to becoming a lie. How do we give ourselves permission? The Captive Mind is about power and how we respond to it. The book describes how the mind reacts to the compulsion of man-made utopias, which quickly become dystopias, and how people within them adapt and in some cases even thrive in lies. It describes the process of the leopard changing its spots. He wrote, “They swindle the devil who thinks he is swindling them, but the devil knows what they think and is satisfied.”[9]

The Captive Mind established his name and reputation, but it pigeonholed him as a political writer, not a poet. Nevertheless, after two years in France, his family in the U.S. was able to reunite with him, including the second son that he had never seen, born in Washington days after his defection. His semi-autobiographical novel Seizure of Power earned him a major European prize. Then, in 1960, out of the blue, he received an invitation to teach at UC-Berkeley. He took it.

Miłosz changed America, but not in an obvious or immediate way, not in any way that would make the world take notice for a decade or two. The American “conversions” happened one by one. A chapter of Czesław Miłosz: A California Life is called “Lessons Under Lamplight.” The lamplight refers to Miłosz’s study, in the 1926 house that has become something of a landmark now, the fabled cottage atop Berkeley’s Grizzly Peak. There he met with students, writers, and visitors in the evenings. The gatherings, often fueled with whisky, were eye-opening and life-changing—the Canadian diplomat Peter Dale Scott, who was also a translator, is one of those who remembers those transformative occasions.

Together, the two of them brought the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert into the English-speaking world. In those early years, Miłosz published two books that are classics, Postwar Polish Poetry, which introduced Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, Tadeusz Rozėwicz, Anna Swir, and others into English and to the West. The other book was the hefty History of Polish Literature, the rare textbook that can be read for pleasure.

Peter Dale Scott told me to turn to page 115, which he promised would “give a flavor of what our conversations were like.” It was a story of heresy. The Reformation had bred war everywhere, and Poland was no exception. Many among the Polish nobility had joined the Protestant ranks, and when the Counter-Reformation swept over Poland, they backed the Protestant Swedes, who had invaded with King Charles Gustav X in 1655. Initially, they met with little resistance, but ultimately the invasion led to a guerilla-style war of peasants led by priests against the foreign “heretics.” And heresy was everywhere.

Its branches were many. Socinianism was rooted in the Arian heresy. Arians doubted the divinity of Christ, seeing him instead as a created creature, though existing before the world was formed. The Socinians took that a step further, putting him squarely within recorded time, rather on the same footing as Mohammed to God. Hence, the Socinians found no friends anywhere and were beset on all sides. Yet the internationally renowned Socinian College of Raków was producing books that, Miłosz wrote, were “one of the strangest Polish contributions to European thought”:

These books, written mostly in Latin, were avidly read in many countries as the most daring reinterpretation of Christian faith in its encounter with rationalism. Socinians were attacked by all Christian denominations for being, in effect, “deists” (a term which came into use later on). For this reason their books provoked curiosity, though few dared to confess in public that they were acquainted with them.[10]

Baruch Spinoza and John Locke risked this dangerous association. Locke had consistently repudiated his debt to the “Rakovians,” but his personal library had many of their books, filled with notes in his own hand. (“Locke was influenced by Poland! I didn’t learn that in school,” Scott told me.) How many in the West have even heard of this movement that flourished in the early decades of the seventeenth century, or wrestled with the modern incarnation of these issues, which influence our assumptions and the way we think? After all, many of America’s founding fathers were deists, the offspring of these movements; and Socinianism and Arianism could be seen as the forerunners of today’s “spiritual but not religious” set. Usually we tussle with these issues and, unaided by thinkers of the past, imagine we are discovering these concepts anew. Yet those who read Miłosz’s poetry imbibe the interest and the lessons and transmit them to the rest of us.

In short, we ought to “relate.” After all, we are a nation of heretics, schismatics, and apostates—founded by Puritans and dissidents from all over Europe. The Socinians flourished just before Europe’s superfluity of dissidents exploded onto the American continent and then rapidly began censoring and expelling each other, even as, at the same time, a growing movement for true religious tolerance began.

Where did Miłosz sit among all these chairs? His Berkeley colleague, the poet Leonard Nathan, ran into him at the university’s library about the time his second collection in English, Bells in Winter, was published,

I had the opportunity to tell him how much I admired his latest book, which I was in the process of reviewing for a local journal. But I added that I, an unbeliever, had been shocked by his flirtation with heresy in some of the poems. Miłosz lifted his eyebrows, smiled, and asked me to imagine how he, a practicing Roman Catholic, felt about the matter.[11]

The universalist heresy—the belief that ultimately all will be saved—is perhaps the most attractive of the various heresies that intrigued Miłosz. There is a loophole: technically, the Catholic Church allows hope for universal salvation but not confident affirmation of it. Miłosz was keenly aware of his own sins and vices, and so was drawn by that hope, that possibility. Ricocheting between these various intellectual seductions, he was trying to find his spiritual rodzina. “Perhaps only my reverence will save me,”[12] he admitted.

“From the Rising of the Sun” was a long poem written in 1974. The title is taken from a liturgical phrase in the Psalms, chanted the world over for centuries. He wrote the first section, “The Unveiling,” and then stalled, but a summer in Berkeley broke the logjam. The poem was truly born in Berkeley, and bears its stamp.

The title, “Bells in Winter,” recalls the church bells of Vilnius, but the setting Miłosz gives us is far from Vilnius. The narrator on horseback is returning from faraway Transylvania, which was a hotbed for Arianism. He reads Paul’s Epistles and falls asleep. In arguably the most stunning image in the whole sequence, a figure appears to him in a radiant dream. A young man in “ornate Greek raiment” touches his arm and tells him: “Your time, O mortals, hastens by like water, / I have descended and known its abyss.[13] It is the man chastised by Paul in Corinth, the young man who had slept with his father’s wife. We don’t know what became of him (the Letter to the Corinthians doesn’t say) but Miłosz has given him a voice:

But my Lord and my God, whom I knew not,
Tore me from the ashes with his lightning,
In his eyes your truths count for nothing,
His mercy saves all living flesh.[14]

The narrator and alter ego admits, “Yet I belong to those who believe in apokatastasis,” citing the passage from Acts, which reads: “Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.” Miłosz explained in an interview that “apokatastasis” was a concept developed by Origen, a Church Father who was viewed askance because of what some view as his heretical views—apokatastasis among them. Miłosz explained: “In Greek it means more or less the same as ‘reinstatement,’ the restoration of the state before original sin, a repetition of history in a purified form. It’s a risky concept, very heretical.” It is a term that has many interpretations, but one in particular intrigued him:

In this poem apokatastasis tends to mean that no detail is ever lost, no moment vanishes entirely. They are all stored somewhere and it’s possible to show that film again, to re-create a reality with all those elements restored. We’ve spoken about telescreen where all our sufferings are shown. Let’s hope that memory exists on the other side of the river Lethe but that it has been cleansed.[15]

Peter Dale Scott and Leonard Nathan were not the only ones confused by Miłosz’s theological somersaults. So was Miłosz’s close friend and foremost translator, Robert Hass, who told me: “I rolled my eyes at the ‘Treatise on Theology’ because it ends with ‘Our Lady of Fatima.’ He said, ‘What I believe is that she appeared,’ and he says she hovered ‘about ten centimeters above the topmost leaves.’ He does the magician’s trick.”[16] Our conversation continued:

CH: And you rolled your eyes at the . . .

RH: I understand that you can’t resolve these issues by returning to the stories that the nuns told you in the fifth grade. That’s not going to do. But it’s as probable as Pound’s Venus, or anybody else’s deity.

CH: There’s a part of us that wants the stories the nuns told us in the fifth grade to be true.

RH: There’s an argument for—as Blake said—radical innocence. He finds a way to set it down here and take it away over here, and put it over here. Like the end of “From the Rising of the Sun”: “the form of every single grain will be restored in glory / I was judged for my despair because I was unable to understand this.” On one hand, he has the answer, and on the other, he can’t believe the answer that he has.

“No detail is ever lost, no moment vanishes entirely.” It is key to Miłosz’s thinking. Miłosz’s writing was a rear-guard mission to rescue memory, to save people, places, things—he thought it unbearable that everything passes into oblivion. If he couldn’t rescue his elderly piano teacher, crushed in the bombing, if her passage on this earth went unmarked, then oblivion won. Hence the need to remember people, places, events in his writing, to save the world from chaos and futility and meaninglessness. In one poem, “Meaning,” he writes:

When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
What never added up will add Up,
What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.
– And if there is no lining to the world?
If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,

But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day
Make no sense following each other?
And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?
– Even if that is so, there will remain
A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams.

He returned to Kraków in 2000, after years of dividing his time between Berkeley and Poland. And that’s where he died, after long illness, at the age of 93. Miłosz was controversial in life, and so in death, too. Some said that the Lithuanian-born poet was not Polish enough for the national homage; others said his courtship with heresies disqualified him from receiving Catholic rites. The protests were in the news for weeks. Again from Bob Hass:

RH: We were marching along the streets of Kraków that morning. It was thronged. The Fox News of Poland unleashed this terrific attack on Miłosz because the archbishop or cardinal of Poland had agreed to officiate at the service . . . And the right took this as an opportunity to attack whatever political position they thought Czesław represented by dredging [up] lots of evidence that he was anti-Catholic and anti-Polish, and it was so strong that the cardinal said that he would be at the funeral but he would not go to the graveside, where Czesław was being buried, at the church some blocks away. Czesław had written a letter, sending the Polish version of Second Space to John Paul, saying—I don’t know what it said—

CH: I believe the letter has been lost—

RH: “You probably won’t approve of this, but I send it to you anyway with affection and admiration”—or something like that. The pope wrote him back a letter saying, “I think you have served God as a great artist”—something like that. Anyway, this drumbeat had been going on for two weeks—attacks on Miłosz in the press. On the Thursday before the Saturday funeral, the Vatican released the pope’s letter. So when I arrived on Friday morning in Kraków, in sweltering heat of the end of August, the headlines all said the pope says Miłosz is a good man . . . So the cardinal did go on to the graveside ceremony.

CH: The pope was a much more nuanced person than many people gave him credit for being.

RH: I don’t think you get much more nuanced.

Poets are full of contradictions. It is one of the tools of the trade. Here’s one of Miłosz’s contradictions, but only an apparent one: while entertaining these thoughts, these heresies, he faithfully attended the stucco, Spanish revival-style Church of Mary Magdalen in Berkeley every Sunday. He sat towards the back of the church, and some remember him serving as an usher. Another colleague remembers a time when the pews were being replaced, and all had a dispensation to sit, rather than kneel, after communion. Milosz kneeled on the floor nevertheless. And he was on his knees praying for a long time.

I was not at the funeral. I would not return to Poland until, four years later, I was invited to speak at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków with my new book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, to celebrate the centenary of the poet’s birth in 2011. Some of Miłosz’s poems were set to music and performed at a concert hall, and afterward the festival participants were shuttled by bus to a posh reception at a large, soulless, but very up-to-date convention center away from the historic Old Town.

The talk of the evening was Selected and Last Poems: 1931-2004[17], which would be appearing in English with Ecco in a few months but advance copies were already circulating.[18] Some found the last poems to be pessimistic and dark—I thought they were shot through with a luminous confidence. Like this one:

The poet William Blake lived to the age of eighty and, as he lay dying, sang triumphal hymns
. . .

I, too, want to believe, that I’ll find my way to this realm and will be able to keep doing, what I started on earth.[19]

I looked around. I had no one to talk to in this loud and rackety room. There seemed a fundamental contradiction in celebrating such an inward poet with such outward hubbub, though I sensed he would have enjoyed it. Still, how different that event was from the living man himself, something I was sure of even in my all-too-brief afternoons with him. He had asked me if I remembered what Stravinsky said about Russia. A short pause as I pretended to think but I was really waiting. “Russia? Merde, with champagne!” And then he let out the loudest laugh I had ever heard, from anyone, and it did not end soon. He kept roaring at the mild sally, his laughter ceasing only when he began coughing. Standing in that noisy convention center, I missed that laughter.

The caterers distributed fancy canapés and tiny little cakes on tray after tray, on table after table, but the enormous glass-walled space did not make for intimacy, and the high ceilings deterred conversation. I drifted aimlessly among the small groups of people clustered in the emptiness. I hovered next to two established lions in the Miłosz universe, a pair of American literary critics of many years’ standing. The man and woman were commiserating over Miłosz’s complicated and nuanced religious stance. Those last poems, she said—so bitter and so tormented by doubt!

The abyss gives no milk,
It needs no cup or plate.

What does it do? It waits.[20]

The man sighed heavily and added, “Yup.” I was puzzled. I wanted to say, but what about the lines that fall on us like a benediction? “What is a man without Your name on his lips?” he asks in “Sanctificetur.”[21] And then there’s the penultimate poem in the final collection, “On Salvation,” an emphatic end-of-life poem if ever there was one:

Saved from possessions and honors,
Saved from bliss and from worry,

Saved from life and enduring,


Perhaps being in Poland freed him to write about his doubts and misgivings, to give light to the darkness within him. In godless Berkeley, he was playing defense, but his life ended in Kraków, where every street corner has saints in niches, where the horizon is edged by the arc of cathedrals and basilicas. It is a city resonant with the ringing of bells, “At last we understood our life, / with all of what happened in it.”[23]

What were his last thoughts? Was he hovering, as the overheard critics said, between belief and unbelief, the yes and the no, even to the very end of his life? Did they remember what he wrote, in this same book of last poems? “What do we care—if in our realm the world’s din is fading / And we enter Another, beyond time and space.”[24]

In the cavernous room with vast walls of glass, the din was increasing, minute by minute. I settled for listening rather than arguing. “Why didn’t he just come out and say it all wasn’t true?” the woman asked, a little dejectedly. The man shrugged, and they both stared into their drinks.

EDITORIAL NOTE: A version of this essay was delivered as part of the University of Saint Thomas Summer Literary Series. It includes excerpts from Cynthia L. Haven’s Czesław Miłosz: A California Life, published last year by Heyday Books in Berkeley and excerpted by Church Life Journal here.

[1] Rober Faggen, “Czesław Miłosz: The Art of Poetry LXX,” in Cynthia L. Haven, ed., Czesław Miłosz: Conversations (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi), 153.

[2] Czesław Miłosz, Roadside Dog (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), 22.

[3] Cynthia L. Haven, Czesław Miłosz: A California Life (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2022), 202.

[4]A shortened version of this interview appeared as “A Sacred Vision: An Interview with Czesław Miłosz,” Georgia Review 57 (summer 2003), 303–14.

[6] “Dedication,” New and Collected Poems, trans. by Czesław Miłosz (New York: Ecco: 2001), 77.

[7]  Robert Faggen, “Czesław Miłosz: The Art of Poetry LXX,” in Haven, Czesław Miłosz: Conversations (Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi), 153.

[8] Czesław Miłosz, Captive Mind, (New York: Vintage Books, 1955), trans. Jane Zielonko, x.

[10] Milosz, Czeslaw, The History of Polish Literature (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1969), 115.

[11] Leonard Nathan, “Believers Have This Advantage,” in Cynthia L. Haven, ed., An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2011), 160.

[12] Czesław Miłosz, “Bells in Winter,” trans. by Czesław Miłosz and Lillian Vallee, in New and Collected Poems, 330.

[13] Czesław Miłosz, “Bells in Winter,” in New and Collected Poems, 326.

[14] Miłosz, “Bells in Winter,” 36.

[15] Ewa Czarnecka and Aleksander Fiut, Conversations with Czesław Miłosz, trans. Richard Lourie (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987), 247.

[16] A transcript of our conversations in 2000 was published in Cynthia L. Haven, ed., An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2011).

[17] Selected and Last Poems: 1931-2004, selected by Robert Hass and Anthony Miłosz, “Last Poems” trans. by Anthony Miłosz, “Selected Poems” trans. by various hands (New York: Ecco, 2011).

[18] The Polish Last Poems [Wiersze ostatnie] had been published in 2006.

[19] “Heavenly,” Selected and Last Poems, 317.

[20] “In Honor of Reverend Baka,” Selected and Last Poems, 280.

[21] “Sanctificetur,” Selected and Last Poems, 323.

[22] “On Salvation,” Selected and Last Poems, 324.

[23]  Untitled, Selected and Last Poems, 322.

[24] “What Do I,” Selected and Last Poems, 309.