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’.

.

Friendship and intimacy

I urge you … to open your heart to friendship and intimacy, remembering that your friendships are an extension of your contemplative prayer. They are indeed contemplative friendships. As mystical contemplation necessarily brings suffering and emptiness, dark nights and enlightenment, so too will intimate friendship bring suffering and emptiness, dark nights and enlightenment. As mystical contemplation leads to human authenticity so does mystical friendship; as mystical contemplation leads to self-transcendence so also does mystical friendship. You will find that deep purification takes place, and that you become transparent to another person and she to you …

I came across this statement from William Johnston’s Being in Love: The Practice of Christian Prayer at a quiet day at Tabor Carmelite Retreat House, Preston, on Saturday. I simply couldn’t believe it when these words were read out by the retreat leader. I was just stunned, utterly stunned …

Divine love is incessantly restless

Some quotes from Belden Lane’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes to complement my previous post:

The starting point for many things is grief, at the place where endings seem so absolute.

Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, all embarrassment into laughter. In biblical faith, brokenness is never celebrated as an end in itself.

God can only be met in emptiness, by those who come in love, abandoning all effort to control …

… tragedy in one’s personal life can be trusted as a gift of God’s unfailing presence far more than trances, raptures, or visions received in so-called mystical experiences.

Referring to Moses’ and Elijah’s experience of God, Lane comments:

In both cases, their ‘seeing’ of God on the mountain was but an interlude in an ongoing struggle, given at a time when the absence of God seemed for them most painfully real. Transfiguration is a hidden, apocalyptic event, offering to those facing anguish a brief glimpse of glory to come. It incorporates a theology of hope into a theology of abandonment and loss.

Best Reads 2013. III: Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain SpiritualityThe Solace of Fierce Landscapes, says Frances Young in Brokenness and Blessing, is the kind of book she would have liked to have written herself. Published by Oxford University Press, this is a well-informed exploration of desert spirituality. But it offers more than that. Talking about ‘the permeable boundaries between critical scholarship and lived experience’, Belden Lane also reflects on his own experience of spending time in wilderness places; and he gives a very personal account of his journey alongside his dying mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and cancer as well as his attempt to come to terms with his father’s somewhat mysterious death earlier on in his life.

The book is in three parts, which reflect the traditional three stages of the spiritual life: Purgation: Emptiness in a Geography of Abandonment; Illumination: Waiting in a Silence Beyond Language; and Union: Love as the Fruit of Indifference. These three stages, notes Lane, are symbolised by the desert, the mountain and the cloud.

There are chapters on:

  • spirituality and the environment,
  • wild terrain and the spiritual life,
  • prayer without language in the mystical tradition,
  • the symbolism of Mounts Sinai and Tabor in the Christian tradition,
  • the landscape and theology of early Christian monasticism,
  • the desert Christians’ counter-cultural spirituality of attentiveness, indifference and love.

And, to give you another list, which is the only way I can even begin to do justice to the book’s richness without giving an extensively long account, Lane offers insightful thoughts on:

  • abandonment of control (and the desert as teacher of renunciation and abandonment),
  • letting go and the emptying of self,
  • loving that which cannot be understood,
  • the power of compassion as the fruit of indifference (the notion of indifference might require some explanation, but you have to read Lane for that),
  • a new harmony with the land,
  • learning to pay attention,
  • the transformation of desire into love,
  • meeting love in the most unlikely places,
  • the power of silence to connect and heal,
  • liturgy and the reaffirmation of ordinariness.

Woven into the fabric of the book are interludes, called ‘mythic landscapes’, in which Lane takes his personal account of the journey with his dying mother as well as his repeated experiences of wilderness places as the starting point for further reflections on issues such as a spirituality of brokenness, the gift of nothingness in a desert landscape, the unexpected gifts of grief, and a spirituality of desire.

Having had some recent desert experiences myself, I have found this a rich and rewarding read.