Wisdom’s game

Commenting on Wisdom, which in Proverbs 8 is said to be playing in the world and before God at all times, Thomas Merton, in New Seeds of Contemplation, writes:

We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts.

Anger points to life

Fire is often used to portray anger. Anger burns and blazes. It inflames the human heart. But it can also be a subtle presence. It can turn totally inward and become depression. It can also hide under several guises. However, unlike resent­ment, which points to death, anger points to life. For oppressed people, or for oppressed dimensions within the individual life, the awakening and release of anger can be powerfully liberating. Anger is powerful because it has an immediacy, innocence and action in it. The reason that so much evil and corruption are allowed to destroy so many lives is that people’s anger is cleverly managed and quelled into indifference and powerlessness. One of the first targets of prophecy is to locate and kindle this forgotten and neglected anger. Part of the wisdom of living a creative and healing life is to learn the art of using this inner fire well.

John O’Donohue, ‘Fire: At Home at the Hearth of Spirit’, in: The Four Elements: Reflections on Nature

The crumbs which clever minds tread underfoot

Those who have abandoned themselves to God always lead mysterious lives and receive from God exceptional and miraculous gifts by means of the most ordinary, natural and chance experiences in which there appears to be nothing unusual. The simplest sermon, the most banal conversations, the least erudite books become the source of knowledge and wisdom to these souls by virtue of God’s purpose. This is why they carefully pick up the crumbs which clever minds tread underfoot, for to them everything is precious and a source of enrichment.

This again is from Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence, as quoted by James Martin in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life.

Aftershocks can go on for years

The inevitable happens …. Geryon meets Herakles again, with predictable consequences:

The effort it took to pull himself
away from Herakles’ eyes
could have been measured on the scale devised by Richter.

But things are not the same, for Herakles is with another man.

Volcanoes and earthquakes make repeated appearances in Carson’s work. They also feature in Autobiography of Red, where they symbolise some of the effects of a (troubled) love relationship. So when Ancash, Herakles’ new friend, notes that ‘aftershocks can go on for years’, Geryon laconically replies, ‘I know’, thinking not of tectonic movements but of the aftershocks of his relationship with Herakles, which are still troubling him many years on.

It is all too much for him. After a while, Geryon can’t cope with the company of the two friends any more. He ‘threw himself out the door’, we are told in typical ‘Carsonesque’ fashion, only to end up ‘in his hotel room on the end of the bed staring at the blank TV screen’.

It was seven a.m. Total agitation possessed him. He had held off phoning Herakles
for two days. Even now he was not
looking at the telephone (which he had placed in the bottom of his sock drawer).

when from deep in its cave of socks the telephone
rang. Geryon dove for it.

Some time later, Herakles, Geryon and Ancash visit a Peruvian volcano, which, in ancient times, used to be worshipped as a deity. People were thrown into it, Ancash explains, not for sacrifice but as a testing procedure:

They were looking for people
from the inside. Wise ones.

‘People from the inside’ – like Geryon, in other words, who not only is an inside person, an introvert, but has shown himself to be of considerable intellectual and emotional depth.

Then, in one of the book’s most poignant moments, Ancash explains to Geryon that some of those who had been thrown into the volcano return. They manage this due to their wings:

Wings? Yes that’s what they say the Yazcamac return as red people with wings,
all their weaknesses burned away –
and their mortality.

Like Geryon again, who is red and has wings, two features that have been troubling him all his life but are here shown to be something rather special. In a book that has layers upon layers, Carson plays with the ancient story upon which it is based and which features a red monster. But who is the monster in this story, deep, thoughtful Geryon, the wise inside person, or Herakles, who comes across as shallow and selfish, oblivious to the feelings of his two friends?

Geryon, we read, ‘thought about thoughts’.

Even when they were lovers
he had never known what Herakles was thinking.

What Geryon was thinking Herakles never asked. In the space between them
developed a dangerous cloud.

Or consider the following conversation, which illustrates so well how people can be together and yet not be together at all:

Geryon what’s wrong? Jesus I hate it when you cry. What is it?
Geryon thinks hard.
I once loved you, now I don’t know you at all. He does not say this.
I was thinking about time – he gropes –
you know how apart people are in time together and apart at the same time – stops.

All the while, Geryon keeps on struggling, as my last two examples, both couched in language that only Carson could manage, illustrate:

It is all wrong.
Wrongness came like a lone finger
chopping through the room and he ducked.

He slid off the bed quickly. Thorns all around him black and glistening
but he passed through unhurt …


Best Reads 2013. VI: Rumi, The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing

Rumi, The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and LongingThis book, indeed Rumi generally, has been a revelation to me. As I have said elsewhere, I had come across him several times in the writings of Richard Rohr and others, but it was only when a woman I met at a conference recommended him with the greatest enthusiasm that I ordered my first book of Rumi poems. It happened to be this one.

This collection has been put together and translated by Coleman Barks, who has given us highly readable texts rendered in beautiful English (on Barks as a translator of Rumi’s poetry, see my earlier post And so I’m hooked. Rumi (as mediated by Coleman Barks)’). The book is divided into twenty-two chapters, each of which features an introduction by Barks. There is also an opening introduction and a brief account of the life of Jelaluddin Rumi (1207–73).

Rumi’s poems are an expression of medieval Sufist spirituality, albeit as mediated and adapted by Barks, and so it should come as no surprise that some of it feels foreign to novices like myself. It is foreign, after all! That said though, some passages have touched me in ways I have perhaps never been touched before.

How can I possibly describe its impact on me? I would have to talk about its sheer, breathtaking beauty; its role in expanding my thought, stirring my passion, offering consolation; above all perhaps, its deep and utterly compelling wisdom. But let me give you some further examples, in addition to the ones I have already provided in earlier posts.

Having gone through a prolonged period of intensely-felt grief, I have found Rumi’s thoughts on grief and pain, longing and healing illuminating, consoling and quite simply to be full of wisdom:

The cure for pain is in the pain.

Hold on to your particular pain.
That too can take you to God.

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

I’ve broken through to longing now,
filled with a grief a have felt before,
but never like this.

There’s a shredding that’s really a healing,
that makes you more alive!

Holding on to my pain, not running away from it, not denying it, resisting the urge to move on has been a source of profound blessing. The cure for pain is indeed in the pain in that it generates that longing that draws us toward union, as Rumi says, that longing that can take us to God. A shredding is not what I had been expecting, but strangely enough it has made me more alive.

Rumi on thinking:

… Leave thinking to the one
who gave intelligence. Stop weaving,

and watch how the pattern improves.

How I wish I had come across that advice some time ago, but even if I had, would I have been able to leave well alone? It is so true though. Our weaving does not do any favours to the pattern.

And on jealousy:

If you could untie your wings
and free your soul of jealousy,

you and everyone around you
would fly up like doves.

How true!

This is a beautiful collection of poems, full of deep wisdom and insight. It is a book that I will be returning to time and again. Who knows, perhaps some of the more mysterious sections will over time divulge their deep secrets to me as well.

And so I’m hooked. Rumi (as mediated by Coleman Barks)

Having come across Rumi a few times in references by several writers, I was finally persuaded to give him a go when a woman I met on a recent trip to Chicago recommended him most enthusiastically. And so I began reading him. And so I’m hooked.

But am I really reading Rumi, or am I reading Coleman Barks, in whose translation I am currently encountering him? For Barks does not read Persian and thus can only work from literal, scholarly transcriptions. And he has apparently taken not a few liberties in creating poems that feature, in the words of Franklin Lewis (in Rumi: Past, Present, East and West. The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalâl al-Din Rumi), ‘a modern American idiom’ and present Rumi’s originally ‘rhythmic and perhaps even trance-like’ poetry as free verse.

Does this really matter though? Well, yes and no, I suppose. Yes in that, as again Lewis points out, Barks, due to his lack of Persian, sometimes misunderstands the original while also teleporting the poems out of their cultural and Islamic context into a modern ecumenical American one. Yet I do believe Barks is right to claim that Rumi would have wanted his poems to resonate with audiences from a different culture. And in Barks’s translation they do, which is why I’m hooked. Would I have been as interested if I had encountered Rumi in wooden, literal transcriptions? Probably not.

There is one thing that worries me a little though. According to Lewis, Barks has turned this ‘poet of overpowering longing, [who is] trying to grope through his acute and shattering sense of loss’, into a serene dispenser of wisdom. That frenetically searching poet I would have liked to meet, but I’m hooked regardless. And Barks does give us beautiful poetry.

%d bloggers like this: