Eileen, a fellow writer and a new friend, mentioned Rainer Maria Rilke’s glorious circling leitmotif in one of her shared pieces at our writers’ group yesterday. Some of us were reminded (and moved to be reminded) of the Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast’s exquisitely expressive rendition – all the more glorious because of David’s profound understanding of the universality of The Great Song – the circling that embraces all of us, and everything.
“So” (after yesterday’s post) “will you point me to a bit of Anam Cara then?”
And – of course – I can, and will. But anyone would do well to have a copy of the book on their nightstand – and audio recordings of John O’Donohue’s mellifluous voice become life-treasures. John died young, but not before he’d been able to write and record a legacy that can provide peace-filled gift enough to supply a lifetime’s contemplation and reflection. Yesterday I mentioned the poetic gift that David Whyte offers to the world. Another who comes to mind when I think of John O’Donohue is the revered Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who now lives and practices at the Plum Village Monastery in France.
Here are a couple of sample paragraphs from John’s Anam Cara – which means “Soul Friend”.
The secret heart of time is change and growth.
Each new experience which awakens in you adds to
your soul and deepens your memory. The person is
always a nomad, journeying from threshold to
threshold, into ever different experiences. In each
new experience, another dimension of the soul
unfolds. It is no wonder that from ancient times the
human person has been understood as a wanderer.
Traditionally, these wanderers traversed foreign
territories and unknown places. Yet, Stanislavsky, the
Russian dramatist and thinker, wrote: ‘The longest
and most exciting journey is the journey inwards.’
There is a beautiful complexity of growth within
the human soul. In order to glimpse this, it is help-
ful to visualise the mind as a tower of windows.
Sadly, many people remain trapped at the one
window, looking out every day at the same scene in
the same way. Real growth is experienced when you
draw back from that one window, turn and walk
around the inner tower of the soul and see all the
different windows that await your gaze. Through
these different windows, you can see new vistas of
possibility, presence and creativity. Complacency,
habit and blindness often prevent you from feeling
your life. So much depends on the frame of vision –
the window through which we look.
Anam Cara, from chapter 4 – Work as a poetics of growth
The inner tower of the soul … what gorgeous imagery. It, in turn, reminds me of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “widening gyre” … but that must wait for another day!
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
Rainer Maria Rilke
Book of Hours
translation by Joanna Macy
and Anita Barrows
The beautiful face and gentle voice of the Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast always comes to my mind when I read Rilke’s ‘circles’. With unfailing generosity of spirit Brother David’s heart is big enough to encircle humankind, with all its various faith traditions, and the wider creation too, as one.
Today’s world news tells of further terrorist atrocities, deaths and hostage-taking – this time in Mali. And of growing calls to “close down borders” in France and elsewhere. I’m thankful for the voice of one young Frenchman who told a news reporter “that is not a solution. We must think together as a continent and not just as a country”. I’d want to say something very similar of the world’s philosophical and religious traditions: we must learn to think together as one …
“… life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.”
All of us “circle around the primordial tower.” It ill-behoves any or all of us to insist, to pretend, that there’s one straight path and that, surprise, surprise, it just happens to be the one that we’re on. “A great song” must eventually embrace and include everyone. The sooner, the better.