Over our own fathoms

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photo at pixabay

‘But the silence in the mind’

But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean
we launch an armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving.

It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still?

R S Thomas
Counterpoint, 1990

Many years ago I spent a night in a comfortable bed, set in the centre of a palatially large stone-walled bedroom, in an exquisitely beautiful converted priory in Northern France. Many generations of monks hadn’t entirely left. The beauty of deep silence all around me moved me to inexpressible joy. Silence spoke eloquently of one of the chief trials of contemporary, Western, human experience: the perils of too much noise.

In the morning sunlit-warmed mist, over wide and silent horizon, rooted me to the landscape. It was painful to leave. And I am daily faced with a choice. Either to complain about noise, or to make space often to withdraw from it. Most often I choose the latter, having found it entirely possible, for most of my adult life, and much of boyhood too. Letting go of complaining is best, for it takes up too much time and energy.

Better to remember that old priory, and the morning mist; better to listen for deep calling to deep, the bottomless ocean, the presence. Better to choose regular silent space. And to be still. It’s a matter of will. Yes: counterpoint.

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Far from the City

pexels-photo-107956.jpeg Photos at Pexels

… those worlds grand in their complexity
Known by their lesser names of you and me,
For all their flair and depth and hankerings
Hold less dimension in the scheme of things

Vikram Seth
from the poem (click the link) Far from the City Tonight
Summer Requiem
– a book of poems

It is now almost a commonplace that

‘there are more stars in the Universe than there are grains of sand upon earth, and more atoms in a grain of sand than there are stars in the Universe’.

With a click of a computer mouse one can begin to have a sense of dimensions. Earth, with its diameter of 8000 miles; Betelgeuse, inspiring the poet, the second star in the constellation of Orion, with its diameter of 850 million miles. And there’s more. Infinitely more – whether we’re looking out, or in.

There’s tenderness in Vikram Seth’s Far from the City Tonight. Recognised need for proper perspective. And tenderness and perspective too in the heart of one Jesus of Nazareth, both within the walls of Jerusalem (which name, ironically, describes a vision of wholeness, completeness and unbrokenness) and – crucified – without.

They don’t know what they are doing …

We don’t. But through all the ages nonetheless, humankind has cried ‘Hosanna!’ – ‘Save us’. Always on the lookout for Messiah, Christos, Caesar, King, Lord, powerful one, magician. 

Someone – anyone, even – save us from living death.

Someone lead us to a new life, a better life, a resurrection already! – If it’s even possible. Though we’ve had so many ‘messiahs’ through the ages we’ve become both sceptical and fickle. Wall building everywhere – because we’re desperate to hang on to what we’ve got, while simultaneously grumbling ‘Where’s the good life? Is there good life? Where’s the – is there – resurrection?’

Resurrection? Yes: of course, in the vast and alive depths of a grain of sand, of a star, of a person, of many persons, of an immeasurably infinite universe.

Resurrection? Yes: of course, in out of the ordinary Silence.

Resurrection? Yes: of course, where there’s no desire for lordship, or kingship, or national boundaries, or magic, or allowed and ignored starvation, thirst or war, or human aggrandisement and greed, or prioritised religious or secular traditions and sophistries taking precedence over prioritised loving.

Resurrection? Yes: of course, just so, said the Nazarene, for any and all who will enter into their chamber, little space, room, or tomb – setting aside (or crucifying) their too easy literalisms, their flair and depth and hankerings – reaching inwards, and outwards, to a fuller perspective, to the Heartbeat, to the Energy of the heavens, of the heights and in the depths.

Far from the City Tonight. Yes: yet in such a room, or tomb, unknowing humanity may yet encounter Jerusalem here and near – and thereby the quiet dawn, height, breadth, delight and depth of a universal resurrection.

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on :
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed ; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back ; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

R S Thomas
The Kingdom

Collected Poems
, 1945-1990
, page 233

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A turning aside

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R S Thomas
Collected Poems, page 302

I’ve noticed sunlight especially at various times and in various places in the past few days. If you close your eyes and think of a high mountainside in shade, or of a high street freshly washed with heavy rain from leaden sky – and stay with that for a moment: and then become aware of a sudden sweeping, a bright swathe of sunlight rolling out like a silk sheet across everything you can see in front of you, then you’ll readily recall the kind of experience I’m talking about.

Such a sight often stops me in my tracks when out and about. And today the flowers in our cottage garden have several times suddenly flared into the three dimensional – banishing greyness, demanding to be noticed.

And I’m always grateful when I do. And I’m always mindful that I need to more. And also always thankful to recall the wisdom of a great and reflective contemplative who inclined at times to the curmudgeonly but was, nevertheless, a channel for – as well as one most particularly attuned to – miracles of revelation.

Life is not hurrying … it is the turning aside to the miracle of the lit bush …

And I look back at the course of the hours of the day, and remind myself of the times and of the places when and where the “light” has caught my eye – and know that ground so touched is holy.

Murmuring

I’ve been “murmuring” to myself all day about a photograph. Thousands of Africans, dressed in their “Sunday best” have walked for many hours and miles to celebrate the coming of Pope Francis. It’s pouring with rain and the crowd is seated on a hillside of moving mud – in a land of sunshine. It seems so unfair!

And then I catch myself – and doubtless in company with millions of other much-too-certain keepers of traditions, disquieted by life’s upending so much we think of as “what should be” – ecological, meteorological, philosophical or spiritual, I catch sight of my ridiculous, protesting little self in a mirror and, for a while at least, am humbled and silenced.

From the margins, in Africa, the call of the twenty-first century prophet Francis urges two new ecological turning points in history: humankind must stop destroying one another and must stop destroying the earth upon which it depends.

Peaceful coexistence. Wider perspectives. Higher generosity. Deeper humility. Broad hospitality. Common wealth. Quiet speech. Attentive listening – especially, in this noisy world, to the all-illuminating, all-pervasive silent music of God.

From the margins, in North Wales, the twentieth century poet R S Thomas provided a vision of prophetic listening, an antidote to fear or pride, the possibility, having seen oneself in a mirror, of praise:

Praise

I praise you because
you are artist and scientist
in one. When I am somewhat
fearful of your power,
your ability to work miracles
with a set-square, I hear
you murmuring to yourself
in a notation Beethoven
dreamed of but never achieved.
You run off your scales of
rain water and sea water, play
the chords of the morning
and evening light, sculpture
with shadow, join together leaf
by leaf, when spring
comes, the stanzas of
an immense poem. You speak
all languages and none,
answering our most complex
prayers with the simplicity
of a flower, confronting
us, when we would domesticate you
to our uses, with the rioting
viruses under our lens.

R S Thomas
Laboratories of the Spirit, 1975

Let me not be so quick to presume!

Holding on

The Kingdom

It’s a long way off but inside it there are
quite different things going on: Festivals at
which the poor man is king and the
consumptive is healed: mirrors in which the
blind look at themselves and love looks at
them back: and industry is for mending the
bent bones and the minds fractured by life.
It’s a long way off, but to get there takes no
time and admission is free, if you will purge
yourself of desire, and present yourself with
your need only and the simple offering of
your faith, green as a leaf.

R S Thomas
Collected Poems, 1945-1990, p233

Paris in the Spring. The excitement of the colourful markets in Jerusalem’s Old City on a sunshine filled morning. Strolling through the park in Madrid. RomCom set in New York’s Central Park. Italian ice cream – in Africa. Roman Holiday.

Astonishing art in soaring mosques. Ancient praise daily ascending the heights of Westminster Abbey. Family. Fishing boats on Galilee. The taxi driver’s peaceful kindness as he spoke of his practice of the Ramadan fast.

Friends. The compassion in the face of the young surgeon saving the life of a child. The overwhelmed returning soldier holding his 9 month old baby daughter for the first time. Thich Nhat Hanh.

The young violinist wedded to channeling unspeakable joy to the ears of her listeners. The lined face of the grouchy old poet who penned visions of glory. The little girl who’s over the moon with a hand knitted jumper made specially for her.

Desmond Tutu’s giggle. The Dalai Lama’s smile. Her Majesty the Queen’s personal faith and steadfastness. A little gathering in the rain – helping to stack sand bags to redirect floodwater. Pope Francis offering a ride and a smile in the Pope-mobile and – beaming – bearing a lamb upon his shoulders.

Parisian café life. Blue skies. Snowy Alps. Venice. Persian poetry. Bedtime stories. Cherry blossom. Hot chocolate. The hand in hand. The lifeboat crew. Home. #porteouverte. The gentle border guard.

Birdsong. Jesus teaching on a hillside. Those who will willingly sit through night and day and months and years with the bewildered and the disorientated and those who have lost all hope and weep and grieve and mourn.

River running. Books. Freedom of Speech. Rolling lavender fields. Shepherds. The birth of a calf, a foal or a baby giraffe. The stars in the bright sky. Space on earth and space in the heavens. The grin on the face of a border terrier. Some folks offering – and others queuing for – “free hugs” in the Place de la République in Paris.

Ice Skating outside the Natural History Museum. Nicola Sturgeon’s warmth and openness on Desert Island Discs. Cycling with a warm wind at my back – especially near the coast. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

These are just a few of my favourite things – and people.

And when, ashen-faced, as it seems we so often are, before what can feel like world-overwhelming heartbreak, we must bring these favourite things to mind – with and for the heartbroken, for the refugee, for the sick, the terrified, the dying and the dead, as much as for we ourselves. We must bring these favourite things to mind and be thankful for them. And for the (healed and Ultimate) Kingdom.

One moment

1954

May

Attachment to the self renders life more opaque. One moment of complete forgetting and all the screens, one behind the other, become transparent so that you can perceive clarity to its very depths, as far as the eye can see; and at the same time everything becomes weightless. Thus does the soul truly become a bird.

Philippe Jaccottet
Seedtime

Is this what’s behind fishermen leaving their nets, tax collectors leaping up from their counting tables, the marginalised fed-up life-watchers leaping out of trees to offer hospitality, saints and martyrs offering up their already transfigured lives?

Is it that some person, or some thing, or some event, or some place on land or sea suddenly give rise to our forgetting our dull selves just long enough to see that where we’ve all come from and where we’re all going are one and the same – because all things are one and the same?

Arrival

Not conscious
that you have been seeking
suddenly
you come upon it

the village in the Welsh hills
dust free
with no road out
but the one you came in by.

A bird chimes
from a green tree
the hour that is no hour
you know. The river dawdles
to hold a mirror for you
where you may see yourself
as you are, a traveller
with the moon’s halo
above him, who has arrived
after long journeying where he
began, catching this
one truth by surprise
that there is everything to look forward to.

R S Thomas
Collected Poems

Poetry rising

Emerging

Not as in the old days I pray,
God. My life is not what it was.
Yours, too, accepts the presence of
the machine? Once I would have asked
healing. I go now to be doctored,
to drink sinlessly of the blood
of my brother, to lend my flesh
as manuscript of the great poem
of the scalpel. I would have knelt
long, wrestling with you, wearing
you down. Hear my prayer, Lord,
hear my prayer. As though you were deaf, myriads
of mortals have kept up their shrill
cry, explaining your silence
by their unfitness.

It begins to appear
that this is not what prayer is about.
It is the annihilation of difference,
the consciousness of myself in you,
of you in me; the emerging
from the adolescence of nature
into the adult geometry
of the mind. I begin to recognise
you anew, God of form and number.
There are questions we are the solution
to, others whose echoes we must expand
to contain. Circular as our way
is, it leads not back to that snake-haunted
garden, but onward to the tall city
of glass that is the laboratory of the spirit.

R S Thomas
Laboratories of the spirit, 1975

It is not that I choose, or have ever consciously chosen poetry as a base from which to contemplate. It is rather more that poetry chooses me – that, whilst aware of a thousand reflections upon the surface of a great lake, they are gently directed and prioritised by the rising up from the depths of some particular poem – which then affords focus and a measure of precision.

I read Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, for example, when my father gave me a framed copy of the poem when I was seven years old. It really rose to the surface for me only many years later, and keeps bobbing up, unsolicited, like whispered words from (both) parents to child.

One of my daughters wrote me a note today about thoughts having to queue up to be thought about. That is just exactly how it has always been for me. Perhaps for my Dad, for Rudyard Kipling, for R S Thomas, perhaps for all of us. Emerging.

Cycling the circle we come to recognise that its circumference is beyond our every capacity to measure. Though we return, from time to time, to “that snake-haunted garden” we are only passing through. We have not yet come Full-Circle. It is only that we are all engaged in little cycling, little circling, thoughts queueing.

What really blows the wind in my wheels is that wider gyre that, when all is eventually said and done, I must address – if any address at all is needed – as R S Thomas’s “annihilation of difference”; not a machine, but the ultimate precision – poetry risen and rising from the deep. The laboratory of the spirit. Home. God.

Not as in the old days I pray…