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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A sign of great insecurity

Two quotes from the diaries of Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell, better known as Anaïs Nin:

It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar, unwilling to explore the unfamiliar.

When we totally accept a pattern not made by us, not truly our own, we wither and die. People’s conventional structure is often a façade. Under the most rigid conventionality there is often an individual, a human being with original thoughts or inventive fantasy, which he does not dare expose for fear of ridicule, and this is what the writer and artist are willing to do for us. They are guides and map makers to greater sincerity. They are useful, in fact indispensable, to the community. They keep before our eyes the variations which make human beings so interesting.

From: The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5: 1947-1955

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.

Mystery vs certainty

Spirituality and fundamentalism are at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. Spirituality seeks a sensitive, contemplative relationship with the sacred and is able to sustain levels of uncertainty in its quest because respect for mystery is paramount. Fundamentalism seeks certainty, fixed answers and absolutism, as a fearful response to the complexity of the world and to our vulnerability as creatures in a mysterious universe.

David Tacey, ‘Rising Waters of the Spirit’

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.

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