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

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.

Lovers as artists – and the inner landscape of beauty

Here are some passages from Krista Tippett’s book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, passages that struck, inspired, challenged me.

Krista Tippett, Becoming WiseIn connection with the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, she mentions his belief in ‘the possibility of creating our own inner landscapes of beauty, to keep us vital in the midst of bleak and dangerous surroundings and experiences’, a need that, as many of us know only too well, may arise at any time.

Talking about the work of philosopher and L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, she quotes his vitally important vision ‘to educate people to relate, to listen, to help people to become themselves’ rather than, as is so often the case, to subject them to a preconceived agenda, whatever that may be.

And she quotes john a. powell, Professor of Law and Professor of African American Studies and Ethnic Studies, who notes that:

people are looking for community, right now, though we don’t have confidence in love. We have much more confidence in anger and hate. We believe anger is powerful. We believe hate is powerful. And we believe love is wimpy. And so if we’re engaged in the world, we believe it’s much better to sort of organize around anger and hate.

Lovers, by contrast, as Tippett herself points out are artists who are ‘reaching out to enemies, embracing complexity, creativity, and risk’.

Lastly, here are some words from geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon, also taken from Tippett’s book, words whose truth I have come to know in my own experience:

once you enter into this way of, I would call it companionship, walking with the suffering person who has come into your life and whom you have not rejected, your heart progressively gets educated by them. They teach you a new way of being.

We have to be educated by the other. My heart cannot be educated by myself. It can only come out of a relationship with others. And if we accept being educated by others, to let them explain to us what happens to them, and to let yourself be immersed in their world so that they can get into our world, then you begin to share something very deep.

Lament

Lament means ceasing to try to protect God from our anger, disillusionment and despair.

Lament … searches out the deepest places in the heart and exposes them to the presence of God. It is a whole-body experience.

Lament can be said to have reached its core when the true dimension of grief has been felt, touched, named and articulated.

People get the idea that they’re somehow deficient and defective if they feel pain. People of faith have done a terrible disservice to one another by thinking that, if they love God, they’re not supposed to feel pain.

These thoughts yet again come from Samuel Wells and Marcia A. Owen, Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence.

‘When anyone escapes, my heart leaps up’ – Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap

Sharon Olds, Stag’s LeapStag’s Leap by Sharon Olds is a book of poetry, written after her husband had left her for another woman. I picked this up the other day because (a) I needed something to read over lunch, (b) the subject matter intrigued me, (c) the blurb had succeeded in deepening my interest, (d) the book has won the T. S. Eliot Prize 2012 and (e) I felt like buying a poetry book (I actually bought two as it happens, but that’s a story for another day). Olds’s book also reminded me of Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, which similarly won the T. S. Eliot Prize, deals with the loss of a husband, is published by Cape Poetry and which I had enjoyed.

Stag’s Leap then. This is a sequence of poems (though not quite a narrative poem in the sense of Carson’s Autobiography of Red) divided into six parts – January–December, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, Years Later – in which Olds reflects on love, the body, sex, loss, betrayal, divorce, pain, grief, anger, hatred ….

There are many poignant moments in these poems, but the earlier reflections in ‘January–December’ and ‘Winter’ moved me the most.

Now I come back to look at love
in a new way, now that I know I’m not
standing in its light. …

I am not here – to stand in his thirty-year
sight, and not in love’s sight,
I feel an invisibility

In the absence of love, Olds reflects, all that remains is ‘courtesy and horror’.

And yet, despite the horror and the pain, there are admirable expressions of tenderness and love even at the moment of separation:

In the last minute of our marriage, I looked into
his eyes. All that day until then, I had been
comforting him, for the shock he was in
at his pain – the act of leaving me
took him back, to his own early
losses. But now it was time to go beyond
comfort, to part. …

Olds finds it possible to think back on how blessed her life had been, partly because she had been able to love and had not lost her husband while he still loved her.

Here is another surprising and rather touching revelation:

… When anyone escapes, my heart
leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from,
I am half on the side of the leaver. …

The poems talk about Olds’s shame at having been left by the one who knew her best. She notes how every hour is a ‘room of shame’ but also how there’s a ‘being of sheer hate’ inside her and how, since it cannot harm him, she can wound him, in her dream.

And she reflects on having lived with an idea, an illusion of her former husband, whom she did not truly see or know.

‘Years later’, she says:

… Maybe I’m half over who he
was, but not who I thought he was, and not
over the wound, sudden deathblow
as if out of nowhere, though it came from the core
of our life together. …

Even so, she can’t let go of him yet but holds him on a string, watching her idea of him pull away yet stay, her ‘silver kite’.

These poems poignantly express the conflicting emotions experienced in the wake of betrayal and loss.

Brief but insightful spiritual reflections on the book of Jonah

Paul Murray, A Journey with Jonah: The Spirituality of BewildermentPaul Murray’s book on the prophet Jonah, A Journey with Jonah: The Spirituality of Bewilderment, is a short one. Actually, it’s a very short one. Discounting the text of the book of Jonah itself and the illustrations, it runs to no more than 49 small pages. A pretty lightweight book then? Short, yes, but no, lightweight it isn’t. Although Murray, an Irish Dominican, obviously cannot give us an in-depth explanation of the text in those 49 pages, he has nonetheless written some quite remarkable reflections on this fascinating Old Testament text.

Murray is well-informed, and he manages, again rather surprisingly, given the limited space, to engage with an astonishing variety of perspectives, including modern scholarly treatments (Phyllis Trible, A. R. Ceresko, James Limburg, Yvonne Sherwood, André LaCocque, Jack Sasson, Hans Walter Wolff), works from the long history of Christian and Jewish engagement with this text (Jerome, Augustine, Methodius, Columban, Martin Luther, Rabbi Eliezer, the Zoar), poets, novelists and dramatists (Herman Melville, Francis Quarles, Wolf Mankowitz, Hart Crane, Robert Frost), philosophers and psychologists (George Steiner, Erich Fromm, Carl Gustav Jung, Martin Buber), mystics (John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton), the list goes on ….

More importantly, in his brief comments on the lesson of the wild storm, the lesson of the great whale (before anyone objects, Murray is well aware that the Hebrew text doesn’t mention a whale) and the lesson of the wondrous plant, Murray has given us some equally brief but nonetheless insightful spiritual reflections on fear, terror and courage; compassion, love and responsibility; suffering and bewilderment; failure and breakdown; death and resurrection; anger, resentment and bigotry ….

The following quotes may give a flavour of Murray’s writing:

… the moment of actual failure and breakdown – the experience of bewilderment in our lives – can be the moment of breakthrough, the moment when God’s grace finally shakes down all our defences. And then, to our amazement, from out of the belly of failure, from out of the death of false dreams and false ideals, and even from the jaws of a living hell, we can begin to experience the grace of resurrection.

… sometimes, it is only in the midst of the ‘tempest’, in the heart of a storm of circumstances which we can’t control, that we come finally to realise something of the wonderful mystery of God, and realise also how far beyond anything we can imagine or hope for are his plans both for ourselves and for the entire world.

Here’s something else that Murray has done for me. Having come across numerous references to John of the Cross’s reflections on the ‘dark night of the soul’ in recent months, Murray’s quotes from this text have finally persuaded me that I must go and read it!