My silence is my salvation

I enjoyed reading a fascinating article on silence in the poetry of Thomas Merton and T. S. Eliot (in The Merton Journal 22.1 [2015]). The author, Sonia Petisco, quotes Merton as follows:

My life is a listening, His is a speaking. My salvation is to hear and respond. For this my life has to be silent. Hence my silence is my salvation.

Also, these lines from Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’ spoke to me:

… pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers.

Petisco herself offers some interesting insights into Merton and Eliot’s work, noting, for instance, that ‘with their poetry they were implicitly hinting at the dethronement of man as the owner of Logos, so that things around us can recover their own speech and engage in a (sic!) honest dialogue beyond the objective/subjective dichotomy. … awakening in us a new sacramental awareness of the mystery of Life’.

And some brilliant lines from Eliot’s ‘East Coker’:

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

And from Merton’s Cables to the Ace:

Waste. Emptiness. Total poverty of the Creator: yet from this poverty springs everything. The waste is inexhaustible.

Eliot again, this time some well-known words from ‘Burnt Norton’. For, addressing the limitations of language, he is all too aware that his words:

… strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
will not stay still.

‘History’, Merton suggests in The Tower of Babel, is ‘going inevitably forward / by the misuse of words’. The current public discourse around refugees and asylum seekers comes to mind. What both, Merton and Eliot, are aiming for, Petisco suggests, is ‘a theology based on the regenerative Word of God as the only antidote to the word of fear ruling the contemporary world’. However, that word can’t be heard because there isn’t enough silence in the world. Again, what is needed is ‘a Word which decentralizes man as the owner of Reason, restoring the lost dialogue between “I” and the otherness’. And, with silence being the key, Merton prays:

Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all’.

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It needs no power to kill

The following poem was written by Thomas Merton to commemorate the beautiful act of Sadako Sasaki, a young Japanese girl, who, when she was dying as a consequence of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, spent her final days making hundreds of paper cranes, symbols of healing and peace.

Paper Cranes

Sadako (Paper Cranes)

How can we tell a paper bird
Is stronger than a hawk
When it has no metal for talons?
It needs no power to kill
Because it is not hungry.

Wilder and wiser than eagles
It ranges around the world
Without enemies
And free of cravings.

The child’s hand
Folding these wings
Wins no wars and ends them all.

Thoughts of a child’s heart
Without care, without weapons!
So the child’s eye
Gives life to what it loves
Kind as the innocent sun
And lovelier than all dragons!

From: The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton

Where rest becomes luminous and play a prayer of gratitude

Sabbath

Field

Even as the subway car hurtles
into the tunnel and calendars heave
under growing weight of entries,
even under the familiar lament
for more hours to do

a bell rings somewhere
and a man lays down
his hammer, as if to say
the world can build without me,
a woman sets down
her pen as if to say,
the world will carry on
without my words.

The project left undone,
dust on the shelves,
dishes crusted with morning
egg, the vase of drooping
flowers, and so much work
still to complete,

I journey across the long field
where trees cling to the edges
free to not do anything but
stand their ground,
where buttercups
and bluebells sway
and in this taste of paradise
where rest becomes luminous
and play a prayer of gratitude,
even the stones sing
of a different time,
where burden is lifted
and eternity endures.

Christine Valters Paintner, published in: Arts vol. 29, no. 1

No intoxication of thoughts

Nothing Else Matters

From you
I don’t want anything new
no more gifts
nor the scent of landscapes
rising to fill us,
no bouquets of insight
left by my head
in the tenderness of morning

no intoxication
of thoughts that open horizons
where rooms are low,
nor the sever of spring
under the grid of old words
that has set on our skin,
nor my favourite blue,
the cobalt
colour of silence.

No.
All I want
is your two hands
pulsing in mine,
the two of us
back in a circle
round our love.

From: John O’Donohue, Echoes of Memory

Love of life, heart and being, the downward drag of gravity, hope during an endless coma of cold, cells charged with dream – the beauty of John O’Donohue’s poetry

Another book that I find truly inspiring and refreshing is John O’Donohue’s The Four Elements. Here are some extracts from three of his poems quoted by his brother Pat in the foreword.

From ‘In Praise of Fire’

As air intensifies the hunger of fire,
May the thought of death
Breathe new urgency
Into our love of life.

As short as the time
From spark to flame,
So brief may the distance be
Between heart and being.

May we discover
Beneath our fear
Embers of anger
To kindle justice.

From ‘In Praise of Water’

The courage of a river to continue belief
In the slow fall of ground,
Always falling further
Towards the unseen ocean.


Its only life surrendered
To the event of pilgrimage

It continues to swirl
Through all unlikeness,
With elegance

Let us bless the humility of water,
Always willing to take the shape
Of whatever otherness holds it.

The buoyancy of water,
Stronger than the deadening,
Downward drag of gravity

From ‘In Praise of Earth’

When the ages of ice came
And sealed the earth inside
An endless coma of cold,
The heart of the earth held hope,
Storing fragments of memory,
Ready for the return of the sun.

Until its black infinity of cells
Becomes charged with dream,
Then the silent, slow nurture
Of the seed’s self, coaxing it
To trust the act of death.

Let us ask forgiveness of the earth
For all our sins against her:
For our violence and poisonings
Of her beauty.

The storm did not lessen the least

late in evening the sky bruised
ringed them ugly and full
the sea moiled, black with heaving
feverish and wild

the rimless sky flickered with lightning
thunder padded and prowled
the wind woke, came like a beast
pawing this way and that

and the boat plunged and heaved
they held on in the scream of the sea
praying that as Christ had once calmed them
the waters might hear him again

then one of them looked and saw
in the midst of the worst of the night
a star chinking like gold
he pointed, they followed his arm

the storm did not lessen the least
but their faith was made of new fire
they fought like men unafraid
and the morning was born at last

This is an extract from Kenneth Steven’s wonderful sequence of poems, entitled A Song among the Stones, which tells the dangerous journey of four Celtic monks on their way from Iona to Iceland.