The great falsity of colonisation, the art of letting go – and some other thoughts from John O’Donohue’s ‘The Four Elements’

John O’Donohue is one of the most evocative writers I know. His books, his thoughts, his phraseology are like beautiful cathedrals to me, beautiful cathedrals made of words. Here are some passages from ‘Air: The Breath of God’, the first essay of The Four Elements.

John O'Donohue, The Four ElementsMost of the brutalization that occurs externally in the world is usually subsequent to a prior brutalization that has happened within the heart.

On fundamentalism:

One of the terrible deficiencies of most fundamentalism is that the … flow and risk of life get totally managed and programmed into categories.

Talking about Jesus, O’Donohue points out that ‘any place he appeared, his presence became a challenge’. A challenge, one might add, that is as unwelcome in institutionalised religion (the Church) today as it was at the time, a challenge we so often are quick to tame, contain or ignore.

I love these observations on territorial and spiritual colonisation:

We believe that salvation can only come from outside. This is the great falsity of colonization, be it territorial or spiritual. It robs the native land, or the native soul, of the sense of its own indigenous treasures and resources. Against all attempts at programmes and methods, the great art of holiness is to let oneself be.

And here is what O’Donohue has to say about religion vis-à-vis the truly inspired, the eternal:

Something inspired has the surprise, vitality and warmth of the eternal within it. … There is none of the deadness, seriousness or narrowness which affects so much religion and which has nothing to do with the eternal, but everything to do with the fears and competitiveness of the ego.

Finally, some words about loss, the art of letting go and receiving back a hundredfold:

We need to learn to be creative about loss …. The art at the heart of the mystical is letting go. If you learn to develop this art, you will receive back again a hundredfold everything you released. If you love something, let it go, and it will return to you. … This is the free art of presence in love and friendship. The Kingdom of God is about the transfiguration of Nothingness and loss into the fecundity of possibility.

The ‘fecundity of possibility’ – something to hope for and trust in, I suppose.

Friendship

Friendship is a basic and vital human relationship that forms the social fabric of our lives. It is in and through friendships that we discover our identity, gain our sense of value and place in the world, and learn what it means to participate in community. … friendships aid the development of our self-identity. Through friendships, we discover where we want to go in life and how we should relate with others and with God. Friends help us to recognize one another and the world.

John Swinton, Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil

On love, maturity, emotions, living in the present, problems, grief and stoicism

Here are some more thoughts from Alain de Botton’s book On Love.

First of all, on falling in love:

Albert Camus suggested that we fall in love with people because, from the outside, they look so whole, physically whole and emotionally ‘together,’ when subjectively we feel dispersed and confused. We would not love if there were no lack within us, but we are offended by the discovery of a similar lack in the other. Expecting to find the answer, we find only the duplicate of our own problem.

On maturity and emotions:

We could define maturity as the ability to give everyone what they deserve when they deserve it, to separate the emotions that belong to, and should be restricted to, oneself from those that should at once be expressed to their initiators, rather than passed on to later and more innocent arrivals.

On (not) living in the present. He asks, ‘Had there not been many times when the pleasures of the present had been rudely passed over in the name of the future …?’ and talks about ‘anticipation in the morning, anxiety in the actuality, and pleasant memories in the evening’, only to conclude that ‘the inability to live in the present lies in the fear of leaving the sheltered position of anticipation or memory, and so of admitting that this is the only life that one is ever likely … to live’.

On problems: ‘One can think problems into existence‘.

On grief: ‘Bewildered and exhausted by grief, I suffocated on question marks: “Why me? Why this? Why now?“‘

On mature love:

… mature love is marked by an active awareness of the good and bad within each person, it is full of temperance, it resists idealization, it is free of jealousy, masochism, or obsession, it is a form of friendship with a sexual dimension, it is pleasant, peaceful, and reciprocated ….

On stoicism:

At the heart of stoicism lay the desire to disappoint oneself before someone else had the chance to do so. Stoicism was a crude defense against the dangers of the affections of others, dangers that would take more endurance than a life in the desert to be able to face. In calling for a monastic existence free of emotional turmoil, stoicism was simply trying to deny the legitimacy of certain potentially painful yet fundamental human needs. However brave, the stoic was in the end a coward at the point of perhaps the highest reality, at the moment of love.

There is much to ponder in these quotes.

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 …

Fifty Shades yet again

On my continuing journey through Fifty Shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach, I have just come across a new highlight. It’s Susie Orbach’s contribution, entitled ‘A Love Letter to Feminism’. Like some of the other authors, she thinks back to the 1970s and how women were ‘daring to think and enact new ways of learning and living’.

I was particularly interested in her reflections on the fears these women had to face. ‘We began to appreciate how much patriarchy was a structure undermining us’, she says, ‘within and between women, as much as a political force outside us’. And again: ‘Internal psychological chains kept us in check and away from being as full as we could be.’

Orbach notes that she could have lived like so many women before her. But she counts herself lucky that she didn’t. Feminism, she says, gave her a proper life:

Without feminism, life’s challenges could and would have stained my individual experiences – as [they] for so many of my mother’s generation – turning them sour and bitter, rather than into places of learning. Without feminism I couldn’t have understood my personal dilemmas. Nor would I have had the capacity to reflect.

I was also moved by her comments on friendships that made it possible for her and other women to ‘think and enact new ways’:

exhilarating friendships took centre stage. They were a hammock underpinning our personal and collective struggles. We helped each other find and tell our stories as we were reshaping ourselves. Inside friendship we found ways to tackle our hesitancies, our fears, our insecurities, our shame and self-doubt.

Secret places inside this violent world

Time for some more of Rumi’s poetry, again in the translation of Coleman Barks, from Bridge to the Soul: Journeys into the Music and Silence of the Heart.

I am sure I have said this before, but Rumi has been an amazing discovery for me. There is profound spiritual insight in the words of this Sufi master, and there is so much here that speaks to me at such a deep level. Some of it puts into words my own recent journey in ways that I could never have managed myself. Other parts express some of my deepest hopes and longings. And then there are many wonderful insights about God, love, friendship etc.

If only more people would read Rumi’s poetry. It would open their eyes to quite a different side of Islam. But then, he apparently is the most widely read poet in America today. There is still hope then …

We must die to become true human beings.

From gardens to the gardener,
from grieving to a wedding feast.

We tremble like leaves about to let go.
There is no avoiding pain,
or feeling exiled, or the taste of dust.

I can truly relate to those reflections on dying, grieving, letting go, experiencing pain and the taste of dust.

When someone feels jealous,
I am inside the hurt and the need to possess.

When anyone is sick,
I feel feverish and dizzy.

This I find comforting: that God is inside the hurt of those who need to possess others. And that he is inside our sickness.

For the grace of the presence, be grateful.

Imagination cannot contain the absolute.
These poems are elusive
because the presence is.

‘Imagination cannot contain the absolute’. Quite. No point to even try!

No more holding back. Be reckless.
Tell your love to everybody.


Stand up. The prostrating
part of prayer is over.

the beloved is absence
as well as this fullness.

I love that attitude to praying and loving God.

Be a helpful friend,
and you will become a green tree
with always new fruit,
always deeper journeys into love.

Worth aspiring to …

Learned theologians do not teach love.
Love is nothing but gladness and kindness.

When you see a scowling face,
it is not a lover’s.

Rumi really does understand true love.

Lovers find secret places
inside this violent world
where they make transactions
with beauty.

Reason says, Nonsense.
I have walked and measured the walls here.
There are no places like that.

Love says, There are.

Lovers feel a truth inside themselves
that rational people keep denying.

This is just brilliant stuff, so true and so well expressed. Secret places in a violent world where you make transactions with beauty – that’s truly wonderful and how I wish to live.