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.

On death and life; surrender and buoyancy; hope, memory, dream and words

I thought I would add some reflections on yesterday’s quotes from John O’Donohue’s poems.

As air intensifies the hunger of fire,
May the thought of death
Breathe new urgency
Into our love of life.

Death can be all pervasive at times, occurring in a variety of ways and reducing us to a shadow of our true selves, lessening, diminishing, stifling life. Against all this,  O’Donohue sets his evocation of our love of life, and he’s right, I think, about the urgency of this. Death is inevitable, but we need to be careful not to think and live ourselves into an ever darker place.

O’Donohue’s second poem talks about a surrendered life, a continuous belief ‘in the slow fall of ground’, an elegant swirling through all the unlikenesses we face on our pilgrimage. These are powerful metaphors. May we learn to be like that river he talks about. And may we acquire not only the humility of water, allowing ourselves to be shaped by things beyond our control, but also its buoyancy, which, as he puts it so well, is ‘stronger than the deadening, downward drag of gravity’.

In the third poem, ‘In Praise of Earth’, O’Donohue speaks of ‘an endless coma of cold’, which is a truly chilling metaphor. Life can feel like that at times, when all warmth appears to have evaporated. May we be like the earth, holding hope, storing fragments of the memory of warmer times, and may we see and feel the sun returning one day. May our cells, too, as O’Donohue says in the following lines, become ‘charged with dream’.

For me, these are deeply resonant, life-giving words. As the Gospel of John says, in the beginning was the Word. Where words dry out, life surrenders to death.

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.

Hope = resignation?

Here’s another Camus quote, again from ‘Summer in Algiers’. I’m somewhat ambiguous about this one, although I can certainly see his point. Anyway, here it is:

Contrary to the general belief, hope equals resignation. And to live is not to resign oneself.

I can see that hope can equal resignation and probably more often does than we realise. But is this always true?

Beyond your wildest dreams

The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love. The more a soul loves, the more it longs, the more it hopes, the more it finds.

Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence, as quoted by James Martin, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life

Secondary realities that are to be strongly resisted

Here’s another insightful quote from John Swinton’s Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil:

Sin, evil, and suffering … are secondary realities, intruders into the goodness of the world. As such they require, indeed demand, to be resisted in faith and hope rather than resigned to with stoicism and despair. Goodness is our original state …. The turn towards evil drags us into a state that is alien to the desired purposes of the creator. The presence of evil separates us not only from God, but also from our true selves. As such it needs to be strongly resisted. Resistance relates to the faithful participation in Christ’s redemptive movement in the world now and in the future. Evil is that which blocks and fragments Christ’s work of reclamation, restoration, and redemption and prevents human beings from experiencing the loving presence of God in and for the world.

Stories

Stories. Mostly, as it happens, women’s stories.

One writes: ‘When I was forty-one I lost the ability to read. … I was trying to get myself and my two children free of a husband I had been with for twenty years who had become dangerous to us.’

Another talks about her sister leaving her friend’s house one night in order to take the bus home from Cheltenham, a bus she would never catch.

The third gate-crashes a party, having heard that Jesus would be among the guests, and she brings along some expensive perfume. [Click here, if you wish to read that story for yourself.]

What do these women have in common? Let’s find out.

The first is Wendy Farley, Professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University. Her book [see here for details] is not, as one might have thought, about coming to terms with the suffering caused by her husband. It is about transformation. It is about her becoming aware of her own destructive ‘passions’ – Farley uses the term ‘passions’ in the sense in which the ancients used it, as a designation of the destructive forces deep within us.

The second woman is Marian Partington [again, further details about her account can be found here], whose sister Lucy went missing on 23rd December 1973, leaving her family and friends in a hiatus of unknowing that would last for over twenty years. It finally came to an end on 4th March 1994, when Frederick West told Police investigators that Lucy’s remains were among those hidden in the basement of 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester.

In contrast to Farley’s book, Partington’s account is about her long and arduous journey of coming to terms with what had happened to her sister. Her book, too, is about transformation, a process that would not have been possible had she not become conscious of the ‘murderous rage’ within herself.

Then there is our third woman, who sheds a flood of tears (the term employed by Luke is also used to describe rain showers). She bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears (almost literally, it would seem), dries them with her hair, kisses them continually, before eventually anointing them with her costly perfume.

So how does her story relate to the other two? Well, she, too, as Jesus’ parable suggests, had become conscious of the darkness within herself. Luke describes her as a sinner, a fact that the dinner guests are only too aware of. But so was the woman herself, which is why, in contrast to Simon, the Pharisee, she knew about the great debt of hers that had been cancelled. And she was profoundly grateful for the forgiveness she had experienced. As a result, she is the one who can go in peace and show deep and real love, the kind of love that leads to the excessive and rather intimate gestures that so upset Simon, a man who had not yet discovered his own depths of darkness, thus finding it all too easy to condemn that ‘kind of woman’.

As Jesus says, the debtor conscious of the enormity of her forgiven debt is the one who loves the most. This is why the books by Farley and Partington have made such an impression upon me. It would have been easy for these women to respond with blame, judgement, condemnation and hatred. As Marian Partington herself says, ‘it is easier to hate than to love’. And who would blame her? It’s an instinctive thing to do, an attempt to keep the pain at bay; it’s an act of self-preservation, or at least, it’s meant to be.

But Wendy Farley and Marian Partington did not run away from their pain. They allowed it to touch them, and that’s what made their transformation possible. Two things happened: first, as already mentioned, they became aware of the darkness within themselves, which made it impossible for them to blame others, including those who had inflicted that unspeakable pain upon them. As long as we continue to blame, judge, condemn and hate others, we are still in the position that Simon, the Pharisee, finds himself in. Unaware of the darkness within himself, he finds it impossible to love, forgive and be compassionate.

Secondly, having endured traumatic hurt and pain, and having been transformed by it, that transformation leads to the desire for the pain not to be passed on to others. Again Marian Partington expresses this beautifully:

There is a place that understands, deep within, that violence can only breed more violence and that this is where it must stop. It is not a place where justice means more pain, punishment and revenge. It is rooted in a strong instinct for this depth of pain not to happen to anyone else. … It is a place of insight which opens up to learning, hope and compassion. It is a place that yearns for healing, which is willing to sacrifice the immediate response of revenge. … It wants to say, just wait, stay with the pain, let it burn you into a place of renewal.

Luke’s story is about an awareness of that darkness within, an awareness of our own debt, but more than that, an awareness of the forgiveness of that debt, an awareness that leads to love.

The unnamed woman in Luke’s story expresses that love in a costly, intimate, yet public display, a display that left her fully exposed and vulnerable but which became an opportunity for those witnessing it to be led down the road to transformation themselves.

Jesus, while addressing Simon, is looking at the woman, thus helping Simon to focus on her acts of love. Luke, by including her story, is extending that opportunity to us, thus allowing that woman’s love to unfold its transformative power even a full two thousand years later.

The books by Farley and Partington are similar acts of love and indeed vulnerability. It takes real courage and strength to talk about those journeys and the depths of darkness that the two women discovered within themselves. But it is by means of those acts of love that love is spread and that others are enabled to experience transformation for themselves.

Marian Partington has become part of ‘The Forgiveness Project’, which works with ex-offenders and victims of crime, seeking to model a restorative process of justice. She regularly shares her story with perpetrators of violence in prison. In her book, she gives examples of how that courageous act of love can make a profound difference. How instead of transmitting our pain to others, which is what we do when we blame, judge, condemn and hate them, our willing suffering of that pain can lead to real healing and transformation.

The stories of these three women invite us to confront our pain, our hurts and fears, the darkness inside, and allow for transformation to happen. As Jesus says, ‘the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little’. Simon, who concedes Jesus’ point only grudgingly – ‘I suppose’, he says – is still locked in that destructive pattern of blame, judgement, condemnation and hatred, unaware of his own debt. It is the woman, the sinner, the sinner who is fully conscious of her debt, the sinner who has found forgiveness, the sinner who is filled with deep, uncontainable love, who is told to ‘go in peace’. Only she can truly ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’.

Love is expected of all of us. More than anything else, it is love that makes us most fully human. But if that is true in general, how much more vital is love in the context of the Christian ministry. How much more important, then, that we allow our hurts and pain to be transformed so that we are set free to love and forgive and not transmit our pain to others, regardless of how they treat us.

Those who prefer power and violence tend to portray the love that is vulnerable – and true love always is – as weak and powerless. Nothing, nothing could be further from the truth. In his aptly named book Strength to Love, Martin Luther King talks about a steely resolve to love. He talks about what I would call ‘defiant love’. This is what he says:

We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. … But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. … Love is the most durable power in the world.

In that sense, then, let us ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’.