Life is on our side

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Resurrection
Albert Pinkham Ryder, Resurrection

Life is on our side. The silence and the Cross of which we know are forces that cannot be defeated. In silence and suffering, in the heartbreaking effort to be honest in the midst of dishonesty (most of all our own dishonesty), in all these is victory. It is Christ in us who drives us through darkness to a light of which we have no conception and which can only be found by passing through apparent despair. Everything has to be tested. All relationships have to be tried. All loyalties have to pass through the fire. Much has to be lost. Much in us has to be killed, even much that is best in us. But Victory is certain. The Resurrection is the only light, and with that light there is no error.

Thomas Merton in a letter to Czeslaw Miłosz, as quoted in The Merton Journal 22.1 (2015)

The great falsity of colonisation, the art of letting go – and some other thoughts from John O’Donohue’s ‘The Four Elements’

John O’Donohue is one of the most evocative writers I know. His books, his thoughts, his phraseology are like beautiful cathedrals to me, beautiful cathedrals made of words. Here are some passages from ‘Air: The Breath of God’, the first essay of The Four Elements.

John O'Donohue, The Four ElementsMost of the brutalization that occurs externally in the world is usually subsequent to a prior brutalization that has happened within the heart.

On fundamentalism:

One of the terrible deficiencies of most fundamentalism is that the … flow and risk of life get totally managed and programmed into categories.

Talking about Jesus, O’Donohue points out that ‘any place he appeared, his presence became a challenge’. A challenge, one might add, that is as unwelcome in institutionalised religion (the Church) today as it was at the time, a challenge we so often are quick to tame, contain or ignore.

I love these observations on territorial and spiritual colonisation:

We believe that salvation can only come from outside. This is the great falsity of colonization, be it territorial or spiritual. It robs the native land, or the native soul, of the sense of its own indigenous treasures and resources. Against all attempts at programmes and methods, the great art of holiness is to let oneself be.

And here is what O’Donohue has to say about religion vis-à-vis the truly inspired, the eternal:

Something inspired has the surprise, vitality and warmth of the eternal within it. … There is none of the deadness, seriousness or narrowness which affects so much religion and which has nothing to do with the eternal, but everything to do with the fears and competitiveness of the ego.

Finally, some words about loss, the art of letting go and receiving back a hundredfold:

We need to learn to be creative about loss …. The art at the heart of the mystical is letting go. If you learn to develop this art, you will receive back again a hundredfold everything you released. If you love something, let it go, and it will return to you. … This is the free art of presence in love and friendship. The Kingdom of God is about the transfiguration of Nothingness and loss into the fecundity of possibility.

The ‘fecundity of possibility’ – something to hope for and trust in, I suppose.

4,291

It’s like there’s a scale from 1 to 10, and you always would have sworn that someone or something mattered to you with a 10. But then you almost (or you actually do) lose her or him or it or them, and suddenly your heart is filled with a 17 or a 39 or a 4,291 kind of mattering. New capacities, ones you didn’t know were possible before, open up inside you.

Rob Bell, What We Talk about When We Talk about God

I have no enemies

Some thoughts on love, fear and violence from Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence, a book that I am enjoying more and more:

Living beyond fear … means hearing God say, ‘Love, just love. Find your way to love that person, find your way to love that forest, find your way to love all things, especially the things you find so unlovable and so frightening.’

The book is about a community’s journey to overcome powerlessness and fear in the face of gun violence. It is co-authored by Samuel Wells, at the time of writing Research Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School, and Marcia A. Owen, Executive Director of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. It also tells the story of Owen’s own transformation, which came about as a result of being involved in this struggle to end gun violence.

Marcia felt a gift being given to her – the awareness that we are a profound unity; we are of equal value and worth. […] It allowed her to love. She could feel her soul grow. It didn’t change her personality – it didn’t erase all the hurts and the fears and the anxieties she had. But it let her love. And it gave her peace.

The authors quote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s apt contention that ‘if we could see the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility’. And they ask:

What makes a person lash out and make someone an enemy? It comes from a feeling of profound powerlessness and fear that says, ‘I’m not big enough for this.’ Living without enemies is radical acceptance. … You lead with your soul by taking a moment to say, ‘I accept all that is, all the suffering I’ve caused, all the suffering I’ve endured. I just accept it. There are no enemies.’ Then you can begin to see the glorious nature of each one of us.

They talk about ‘the most empowering gift in ministry’, which is ‘hearing God whispering, “I have no enemies.”‘ And they note that ‘fear is at the heart of violence’, and so ‘the final response to violence is learning to live without fear’.

When we begin to honestly feel that we are all part of the same community … then we will begin to find the grief and pain and loss caused by violence to be truly unacceptable, and we will join together to finally say, Enough is enough.

.

A proof of love

Julian Barnes’s latest book, Levels of Life, offers some intriguing observations about the beginnings of ballooning and photography. But that shouldn’t fool anyone: the book is essentially about grief, Barnes’s grief for his wife Pat, who died in 2008. Two passages struck me particularly.

In one, Barnes describes his experience in terms of a seventeenth-century map, which features ‘the Desert of Loss, the (windless) Lake of Indifference, the (dried-up) River of Desolation, the Bog of Self-Pity, and the (subterranean) Caverns of Memory’.

The other passage talks about the persistence of pain. Barnes comments: ‘Pain shows that you have not forgotten; pain enhances the flavour of memory; pain is a proof of love’.

Under the seams runs the pain

Geryon struggles on in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, grieving for the devastating loss of a lover. But we also learn about other aspects of his life. Like Carson herself (there are strong autobiographical references in this story), he is a linguist. And so, sat in a café in Buenos Aires, ‘he rummaged inside himself for Spanish phrases’. Yet what he found was that

German irregular verbs
were marching across his mind as the waiter drew up at his table and stood …

Two key issues that pervade the narrative are Geryon’s difficulties with self-acceptance (being red and endowed with wings, he is noticeably different from everyone else) and how he is perceived by others. Thus there is

the fear of ridicule,
to which everyday life as a winged red person had accommodated Geryon early in life …

as well as this telling dialogue with a woman he met in a bar:

Who can a monster blame for being red?
What? said Geryon starting forward.
I said looks like time for you to get home to bed, she repeated, and stood,
pocketing her cigarettes.

One of his endearing character traits is a desperate need for order. As he enters a lecture room, we are told:

Geryon disliked a room without rows.
His brain went running back and forth over the disorder of desks trying to see
straight lines. Each time finding
an odd number it jammed then restarted.

On another occasion, he struggles when someone he has enjoyed a good conversation with leaves the bar, abandoning him to the company of virtual strangers.

Oh don’t go, thought Geryon who felt himself starting
to slide off the surface of the room
like an olive off a plate. When the plate attained an angle of thirty degrees
he would vanish into his own blankness.

And so:

Geryon subsided into his overcoat
letting the talk flow over him warm as a bath.

Once more, I am finding myself amazed at how well Carson captures the panic an introvert might face in a situation like that.

But loss and grief remain his main problems. In a conversation with another stranger the issue of emotionlessness or artaraxia comes up, which Geryon defines as ‘absence of disturbance’ but which so evidently eludes him. Whatever he does,

Under the seams runs the pain.

In his desire to come to terms with his struggle and life generally, he eventually takes up philosophy:

We would think ourselves continuous with the world if we did not have moods.
It is state-of-mind that discloses to us
(Heidegger claims) that we are beings who have been thrown into something else.
Something else than what?
Geryon leaned his hot forehead against the filthy windowpane and wept.
Something else than this hotel room

Geryon sat on his bed in the hotel room pondering the cracks and fissures
of his inner life. …

Yet Geryon did not want
to become one of those people
who think of nothing but their stores of pain. He bent over the book on his knees.
Philosophic Problems.
‘… I will never know how you see red and you will never know how I see it.
But this separation of consciousness
is recognized only after a failure of communication, and our first movement is
to believe in an undivided being between us ….’

Carson so brilliantly exposes the autobiographical dimension that inheres in our work and study. Geryon, for obvious reasons, is particularly intrigued by the notion of redness. More generally though he is concerned with perception (how we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others), consciousness and the impossibility of communication.

His reading also leads him to explore the nature of depression:

‘Depression is one of the unknown modes of being.
There are no words for a world without a self, seen with impersonal clarity.
All language can register is the slow return
to oblivion we call health when imagination automatically recolors the landscape
and habit blurs perception and language
takes up its routine flourishes.’ He was about to turn the page for more help …

Yet again, Carson offers such an intriguing perspective in these lines. There are quite a few fascinating angles here, but I particularly love the final words, ‘he was about to turn the page for more help’.

And then the inevitable happens …

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