Poetry · Spirituality

Playing a game with oneself?

One of my principles for the content of this blog to offer positive, life-affirming thoughts and perspectives. It is no coincidence, therefore, that there is much on love and hope in these posts. Having said that, I do not intend to pretend that every day is ‘a masterpiece’, to quote from Anne Carson’s latest book Red Doc>. Pain, grief and suffering are sadly a reality none of us can avoid, and hope is not always easy to sustain. Some might even struggle with the notion altogether, a perspective that I can relate to as well. It is expressed with characteristic brilliance in Carson’s Red Doc>:

prometheus
I planted blind hope in their hearts
chorus
why

prometheus
they were breaking
chorus
you fool

This dialogue between Prometheus and an ancient Greek chorus not only showcases Carson’s classicist background; it also features a poignant observation about hope, as do the following lines:

AND YET HOPE turns
out to be let’s face it
mostly delusion a word
derived from Latin ludere
meaning ‘to play a game
with oneself or with others’ …

As I said, there are times when this unfortunately does resonate with me, and yet, as Martin Luther King points out, ‘faith in the dawn arises from the faith that God is good and just’ (Strength to Love, as quoted before).

Best Reads 2013 · Poetry · Spirituality

Best Reads 2013. VI: Rumi, The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing

Rumi, The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and LongingThis book, indeed Rumi generally, has been a revelation to me. As I have said elsewhere, I had come across him several times in the writings of Richard Rohr and others, but it was only when a woman I met at a conference recommended him with the greatest enthusiasm that I ordered my first book of Rumi poems. It happened to be this one.

This collection has been put together and translated by Coleman Barks, who has given us highly readable texts rendered in beautiful English (on Barks as a translator of Rumi’s poetry, see my earlier post And so I’m hooked. Rumi (as mediated by Coleman Barks)’). The book is divided into twenty-two chapters, each of which features an introduction by Barks. There is also an opening introduction and a brief account of the life of Jelaluddin Rumi (1207–73).

Rumi’s poems are an expression of medieval Sufist spirituality, albeit as mediated and adapted by Barks, and so it should come as no surprise that some of it feels foreign to novices like myself. It is foreign, after all! That said though, some passages have touched me in ways I have perhaps never been touched before.

How can I possibly describe its impact on me? I would have to talk about its sheer, breathtaking beauty; its role in expanding my thought, stirring my passion, offering consolation; above all perhaps, its deep and utterly compelling wisdom. But let me give you some further examples, in addition to the ones I have already provided in earlier posts.

Having gone through a prolonged period of intensely-felt grief, I have found Rumi’s thoughts on grief and pain, longing and healing illuminating, consoling and quite simply to be full of wisdom:

The cure for pain is in the pain.

Hold on to your particular pain.
That too can take you to God.

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

I’ve broken through to longing now,
filled with a grief a have felt before,
but never like this.

There’s a shredding that’s really a healing,
that makes you more alive!

Holding on to my pain, not running away from it, not denying it, resisting the urge to move on has been a source of profound blessing. The cure for pain is indeed in the pain in that it generates that longing that draws us toward union, as Rumi says, that longing that can take us to God. A shredding is not what I had been expecting, but strangely enough it has made me more alive.

Rumi on thinking:

… Leave thinking to the one
who gave intelligence. Stop weaving,

and watch how the pattern improves.

How I wish I had come across that advice some time ago, but even if I had, would I have been able to leave well alone? It is so true though. Our weaving does not do any favours to the pattern.

And on jealousy:

If you could untie your wings
and free your soul of jealousy,

you and everyone around you
would fly up like doves.

How true!

This is a beautiful collection of poems, full of deep wisdom and insight. It is a book that I will be returning to time and again. Who knows, perhaps some of the more mysterious sections will over time divulge their deep secrets to me as well.

Poetry

A pointer to pure being

Having enjoyed poetry when I went to school, I somehow never followed this up, until fairly recently, inspired by a friend, I took to reading it on a regular basis. Now there is always some poetry on my book pile, and I would not want to be without it anymore. So what difference has it made?

It does, of course, depend on the poet I’m reading, but poetry lifts my spirit, it frees me and opens me up, it provides me with consolation and keeps my desire aflame. And it gives me a voice where, in the past, my pain and grief had been mute.

Most importantly perhaps, poetry, as Coleman Barks notes (in Rumi, Bridge to the Soul: Journeys Into the Music and Silence of the Heart), points me to pure being and persuades me there. What better place to be?

Best Reads 2013 · Poetry

Best Reads 2013. V: Anne Carson, Antigonick

Anne Carson, AntigonickThis is Anne Carson’s translation (and adaptation) of Sophocles’ play Antigone. Following on from Nox, an epitaph written on the occasion of her brother’s death, Carson here revisits the theme of mourning a lost brother, for the heroine of Sophocles’ play is condemned to nothing less than a living death in a sealed cave, all because she wished to bury her dead brother.

Anne Carson, AntigonickAntigonick is a powerfully compelling work, beautifully executed while at the same time, in typical Anne Carson fashion, bordering on the incomprehensible. The text is presented in handwriting (apparently Carson’s own), in capital letters and with hardly any punctuation. It is interlaced with rather surreal illustrations by Bianca Stone, printed on transparent vellum that overlays the text. It is not always clear how the illustrations relate to the text, but they contribute significantly to the beauty and appeal of the book as well as to its overall impact by heightening the absurdity of the world that Carson’s rereading presents.

Anne Carson, Antigonick
Illustration by Bianca Stone

Not an easy read this, but a fascinating one. Like Nox, it left me intrigued and deeply touched by Carson’s creative and harrowing ways of mourning her brother’s death.

Best Reads 2013 · Fiction

Best Reads 2013. IV: Anne Tyler, The Beginner’s Goodbye

Anne Tyler, The Beginner's GoodbyeYou probably wouldn’t read Anne Tyler for the plots of her novels. It’s not that nothing happens at all, though it would be fair to say that nothing much tends to happen. In any case, the plot is not what makes her books special. So why would you read Anne Tyler? Characterisation, I’d say, it’s all about characterisation.

The Beginner’s Goodbye is a novel about love and loss, grief and also, eventually, hope. When Aaron, an intriguing character, who stammers and suffers from the effects of polio, loses his wife (and house) in a freak accident, he finds his life drained of purpose and meaning.

The story is told from his perspective, the perspective of quite an ordinary kind of guy. And this, for me, is what makes the book special. Tyler deftly avoids the trap that all too many writers have fallen into, of using their characters as mouthpieces for their philosophical reflections, reflections that can easily become too sophisticated for the characters that are made to think and share all those amazing insights. Aaron is not cast in that way. Yes, he does offer us his reflections on life, love, grief and lots of other things (how could he not after all that’s happened to him?), but there is an ordinariness about him that makes him utterly real and believable.

Tyler has once again excelled at characterisation and come up with yet another very gentle book, to mention another one of her trademarks. Here are some of the little gems that Aaron dispenses:

… I had first tried to do without her – to ‘get over’ my loss, ‘find closure,’ ‘move on,’ all those ridiculous phrases people use when they’re urging you to endure the unendurable.

‘Reading is the first to go,’ my mother used to say, meaning that it was a luxury the brain dispensed with under duress.

That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.

As it turns out, Aaron grieves the loss of a marriage that had been far from perfect. It doesn’t get much more real than that, does it?

Spirituality

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 · Spirituality

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.