Faces

September 29th, 2015

 

“… I have never been aware before

how many faces there are.

There are quantities of human beings,

but there are many more faces,

for each person has several.”

Rilke -Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

The Greek word for face is prosopon. 

It came, for obvious reasons, to mean person. 

To see a face is to see a person.

From birth it is the face, rather than anything else,

that grabs our attention.

There are times when faces reveal and times when they conceal.

At all times the face of the other challenges me,

forces itself on my attention.

In Levinas’ words – I am not an ‘unto-myself’,

but a ‘standing-before-the-other’.

The other evokes a response,

makes a claim on my existence.

We are linked.

I cannot be indifferent.

To some extent I am responsible.

Messages

September 27th, 2015

For me now

there is only the God-space

into which I send out

my probes. I had looked forward

to old age as a time

of quietness, a time to draw

my horizons about me,

to watch memories ripening

in the sunlight of a walled garden.

But there is the void

over my head and the distance

within that the tireless signals

come from. And astronaut

on impossible journeys

to the far side of the self

I return with messages

I cannot decipher . . . R S Thomas

“… it probably sounds very pretentious when I say the I feel impelled to explain my inner processes to all mankind.

Not to some individual in a private conversation but to all mankind, yes, to all of them…

It is nonsense of course, sitting at my desk and making a fool of myself because I can’t find the right words,

but sometimes I feel as if everything I experience deep down is not just for me, that I have no right to keep it to myself, that I must account for it…

As if in this tiny slice of human history I were one of the many receiving sets which have to retransmit messages.”

(Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesom 1941 – 1943, Smelik, K.A.D ed, Eerdmans, Cambridge 2002, p. 393)

Silence

September 26th, 2015

Morning – the reality of my dreamworld imposes on my waking mood.

So real – almost tangible – emotion filled – then the dreams evaporate like morning mist.

A false reality… fake… spurious…?

Or a window into something more.

And then, during the day, during the routine activities, thoughts of another reality,

or perhaps a non-reality,

intrude – thoughts of an afterlife.

Whenever I think of the other-life world of dreams, I wonder whether the after-life world of death might not be something similar.

That would make it very like the after-life dimension of the ancient Greeks, Hades, shadowy and unsubstantial.

Not really greatly to be desired but better, perhaps, than total annihilation.

And in my heart I don’t believe the afterlife is anything like that.

The glimpses of a transcendent reality that I have had all through my life must count for something.

 

Later… walking on a beautiful sunny day.

I am deeply moved by the silence,

silence that is accentuated by the gentle sound of the sea and the wind.

The silence is like the sea – vast, deep.

I just want to stand here by the sea and lose myself in it.

Lose myself… I begin to understand the emptiness beloved of Zen.

Sunyata.

What is experienced in this vast emptiness cannot be articulated, cannot be conceived,

but it is felt.

Rage against the dying of the light

April 10th, 2014

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

As you get older the intimations of mortality increase. Abilities decline, especially the ability to do sustained and constructive work. More and more effort is required to accomplish even the most trivial of tasks. The desire and the ability to engage in the day to day preoccupations of those with whom you live diminishes and you begin to live a little apart. The temptation arises just to let go and let be, to drift, averting the gaze from the steadily approaching terminus by occupying the mind with distractions. Rather than beginning to divest yourself of the accumulated baggage, the detritus of an often uncoordinated life, you cling to memories, to the comforting and the familiar. You arrived naked and alone, naked and alone you will depart – but this thought, lurking in the shadows of the mind, is not allowed. Instead the mind preoccupies itself with entertainment.

You can see where Dylan Thomas is coming from. He was young then, full of passion and the fire of youth. To watch his father quietly approaching death was very painful. He did not understand what it is to be old, what it is to have every option taken away, what it is to be lying in the anteroom, waiting for the final door to open. He understood that his father was dying, that his body was failing and could not support life for much longer. His understanding, though, was rational, an intellectual grasp but not a physical, nor an emotional one. Marx said that, ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.’ For Marx social being included and was part of material being. Dylan’s material being was that of a young and vigorous man. He could not appreciate what it was to be old, feeble and at the point of death. So he raged, and willed his father to rage ‘against the dying of the light’.

We don’t know what Dylan’s father felt. However, the approach of death, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, does concentrate the mind wonderfully, leading to an acute awareness of this moment now. Normally we tend to live in our heads, caught up in thoughts, projecting ourselves forwards, backwards, elsewhere, as we deal with a multitude of preoccupations. Normally the mind’s focus is anywhere but here and now unless compelled by immediate circumstances. For those facing death, however, this moment now achieves an intensity perhaps never before felt. And out of that heightened awareness arise two questions, like two sides of the same coin, ‘What does it mean to live? What does it mean to die? 

For Christians questions concerning the meaning of life and death find answers in the life and words of Jesus Christ. To live is to love with a degree of unselfishness which only makes sense, and perhaps is only possible, if I am not just ‘I’, ‘me’ but ‘we’, ‘us’. Ultimately it is to make the discovery that my being is in God. And to die is to make the transition from this life to a risen life in Christ.

For Buddhists to live is to strive to unself the self; to strive to see reality as it is and not as we would have it be; to discover, as the Heart Sutra puts it, that ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’. At the heart of Buddhism is the idea ‘pratityasamutpada’, codependency. Nothing exists of itself alone, everything is dependent on a multitude of causes. To live is to strive to pierce through the multitude of appearances to the emptiness that underlies them, to the extinction that is death, to ultimate reality.

The ‘now’ of those moments before death is unlike any other ‘now’. This is where the journey ends. There will be no transition into the future. No future, simply those two pressing questions to which no satisfactory answer is possible. This is the now of the mystery of life and death. Only hope remains.

Les mille voix de l’énorme mystère
Parlent autour de toi,
Les mille lois de la nature entière
Bougent autour de toi,
Les arcs d’argent de l’invisible
Prennent ton âme et sa ferveur pour cible.
Mais tu n’as peur, oh ! simple coeur,
Mais tu n’as peur, puisque ta foi
Est que toute la terre collabore
A cet amour que fit éclore
La vie et son mystère en toi.

Émile VERHAEREN: Viens lentement t’asseoir

 

Creation and the hidden God

October 18th, 2013

Came across this the other day by Simone Weil -

La création est de la part de Dieu un acte non pas d’expansion de soi, mais de retrait, de renoncement. Dieu et toutes les créatures, cela est moins que Dieu seul. Dieu a accepté cette diminution. Il a vidé de soi une partie de l’être. Il s’est vidé déjà dans cet acte de sa divinité; c’est pourquoi saint Jean dit que l’Agneau a été égorgé dès la constitution du monde. Dieu a permis d’exister à des choses autres que lui et valant infiniment moins que lui. Il s’est par l’acte créateur nié lui-même, comme le Christ nous a prescrit de nous nier nous-mêmes. Dieu s’est nié en notre faveur pour nous donner la possibilité de nous nier pour lui. Cette réponse, cet écho, qu’il dépend de nous de refuser, est la seule justification possible à la folie d’amour de l’acte créateur. Les religions qui ont conçu ce renoncement, cette distance volontaire, cet effacement volontaire de Dieu, son absence apparente et sa présence secrète ici-bas, ces religions sont la religion vraie, la traduction en langages différents de la grande Révélation. Les religions qui représentent la divinité comme commandant partout où elle en a le pouvoir sont fausses. Même si elles sont monothéistes, elles sont idolâtres.

* Texte repris dans « Attente de Dieu », préface de J.-M. Perrin, La Colombe-éditions du
Vieux Colombier, 1950. 

I am not sure whether it is possible to have a ‘less than God alone’, but I can see where Simone Weil is coming from in saying that in the act of creation God caused something to exist which was not himself. There is a profound truth here which says something about the humility of God. And about the nature of love. Love is not coercive. It always includes the possibility of rejection. In order to give us this freedom God hides himself – a very anthropomorphic way of putting things. It reminds me of the story of children playing hide and seek. One boy hid himself so well that after a time the others, who couldn’t find him, got fed up and went off. Eventually the boy emerged and, dismayed at being abandoned, went crying to his father, a rabbi. The rabbi, when he heard what had happened, wrapped the boy in his arms and said, ‘Now you know what it is like for God. He is hidden everywhere but no one is looking for Him.’

What a complex process this journey through life is. The Ten Ox-herding Pictures beloved of Zen describe it well – again in simple anthropomorphic terms. The important thing is the initial insight, moment of curiosity, question, call it what you will. And so often the beginning of the journey is full of excitement and discovery. But as the journey progresses the going gets more difficult and we have to shed so much baggage just to keep going (useful at the beginning but now a hindrance). Or perhaps it is the case that our baggage is taken from us and we are left, bereft of all that consoled, encouraged and comforted, alone with darkness all around.

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply.It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism

of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

R. S. Thomas

The Listener

May 11th, 2013

There was the Other Voice Owl of the World.  He sat in the world tree laughing in his front voice, only his other voice was not laughing.  His other voice was saying the silence.  He had a way of saying it.  He said it wide and far when he began.  He said it tiny when it came close.  He kept saying the silence like that in his other voice and when he finished the silence swallowed up the sounds of the world and the owl swallowed up the silence.

 

No one knew he was doing it.  He was trying to swallow all the sounds of the world and then there would be no more world because everything would follow its sound into the silence and then it would be gone.  What the owl had in mind was to get it all swallowed and then fly away.  He only did it at night.  He thought he’d get some of it swallowed every night until the whole world was gone away.

 

No one knew what the owl was doing except for a child.  He didn’t have any eyes.  He listened all the time.  When he heard the owl saying the silence in his other voice he heard the silence swallowing up the sounds of the world, little and big, from the wind sighing in the trees to the ants crying in their holes.  The child knew the owl was trying to say the whole world away and he knew it was up to him to stop the owl, so he began to listen everything back.  He listened far and wide when he began, he listened tiny when it came close.  The eye of the goat and the dance in the stone and the beetle digging a grave for the sparrow. He listened them into his ear holes and he kept them all safe there.  The foot steps of the moth and the sea foam hissing on the strand.  He listened everything back.

 

The child only kept the sounds in his ear holes at night.  He kept them safe till morning.  When the cock crowed in the middle of the night it never fooled him, nor when he crowed again before first light.  He kept the sounds safe in his ear holes till the day stood up and the cock of the morning crowed everything awake.  Then the child unheard the sounds and they went back to where they lived.  The child was laughing at the owl, but the owl didn’t know it.  He thought he had done a good night’s work.  He sat in the world tree grooling and smarling all day, thinking he would get the whole world gone, only he never did.

 

The owl keeps trying and he’ll do it one day.  All it takes is for no one to be listening everything back.  He will go the world away and himself with it and that’ll be the end of it.  But it may not be for a while yet.  Not as long as there is a child to listen.

Silence

April 7th, 2013

To deliver oneself up, hand oneself over, entrust oneself completely to the silence of a wide landscape of woods and hill, or sea, or desert: to sit still while the sun comes up over the land and fills its silences with light. To pray and work in the morning and to labor in meditation in the evening when night falls upon that land and when the silence fills itself with darkness and with stars. This is a true and special vocation. There are few who are willing to belong completely to such silence, to let it soak into their bones, to breathe nothing but silence, to feed on silence, and to turn the very substance of their life into a living and vigilant silence.
—Thomas Merton

Probing the limits

February 28th, 2013

February 20th, 2013

Waiting in the doctor’s surgery yesterday for an hour. I don’t read the magazines which are all of the ‘Hello’ variety. I try to pray. As always the Jesus Prayer. And I think. I tend not to bring a book when I know I will have to endure the tedium of waiting for an appointment, or a bus or train. I try to use the enforced non-activity in a place I would not ordinarily choose to linger as an opportunity to pray and think. Prayer did not come easily. The fact that there was a new born baby in the room probably influenced the direction my thoughts took. Death is never far from my mind these days, specially when some organ or other ceases to function as it should. Whenever I think about death I tend to see it as one’s definitive birth. One has no idea of what is to come. (I find it hard to believe that death is the end, a final dissolution.) No more than a child in the womb could ever imagine what lies beyond birth. Seeing the little baby I was reminded of Lois’ excitement at feeling the movement of her baby in the womb for the first time. And this life, the end of which I am approaching, is second womb. Like the little baby I am approaching the end of my gestation. And like the little baby I too stretch out and probe the limits.

 

Now that I have raised my children and retired from work, now that my age means that I am no longer physically or mentally agile, now my days are filled with little routine tasks and activities. Of no great import. A succession of inconsequentials. Only when I sit still. Only when I still my thoughts. Only when I focus on the limits of awareness in the silence and the darkness, only then do I touch the walls of my womb. And as Michael Polanyi and Simone Weil have pointed out – a wall is a membrane which separates, and which joins. And it is permeable.

Living in the dark

November 12th, 2012

I did not go to Mass today. I am so angry at the Church, angry at myself too that I did not see through the self-serving hype – but then neither did anyone else. A Fr. McVerry put it well the other day. He said how can you expect people

“to commit themselves to a male-dominated, authoritarian institution which suppresses dissent and attempts to control what its members may even discuss?”

I am reading Christian Beginnings by Geza Vermes and also Jesus: An Historical Approximation by José Pagola. It is so refreshing to get back to the historical Christ (in so far as one can) before all the accretions, the glosses, the aggrandisment imposed by the Church from the second century on. It is the simplicity of the relationship between self and God, the directness of it, no intermediaries, that is so compelling, and this is what he preached. It is what he lived.

But people love the smells and the bells, the dressing up and the elaborate ceremonies. They like their talismans and their little rituals, their holy pictures, their statues and candles, all the things which diminish the impact of cold, hard reality. They need reassurance. They need something which insulates from the void, that sheer fall just there out of sight where one dare not look. Something tangible, something which comes with assurance that if you do this and that and avoid sin, all will be well. For many this is enough. They accept what is handed to them. And there is a simple beauty in this placid acceptance. Questions can be unsettling and raise doubts. Best not go there.

But, for all of us, darkness lurks just there at the edges of vision and many are afraid of the dark, though God is there in the darkness. And they are afraid of silence, even more than they are afraid of darkness, though one can only really listen when there is silence. I sometimes think we are like sparks thrown up by a bonfire. We flash briefly in the dark and are gone. Life is so ephemeral and as one approaches the end there is a tendency to ask, ‘Is that it?’ And yet, looking back, I felt there were times when I touched something so enduring, so fundamental, so reassuring that the passage of time had no meaning. Those times are only a memory now. Darkness pervades but, strangely, it is not the aweful black of the void with its terrifying vertigo. The darkness is close, comforting and, somehow, even luminous at times.

Communication

May 27th, 2012

“… it probably sounds very pretentious when I say the I feel impelled to explain my inner processes to all mankind. Not to some individual in a private conversation but to all mankind, yes, to all of them… It is nonsense of course, sitting at my desk and making a fool of myself because I can’t find the right words, but sometimes I feel as if everything I experience deep down is not just for me, that I have no right to keep it to myself, that I must account for it… As if in this tiny slice of human history I were one of the many receiving sets which have to retransmit messages.”

(Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesom 1941 – 1943, Smelik, K.A.D ed, Eerdmans, Cambridge 2002, p. 393)

Reading Etty this morning this suddenly struck me. Whence this impulse to communicate?  No human experience is without interest. We really are all parts of a greater whole and whatever affects another affects me. Often I think many of us spend our lives avoiding experience. Wary of the highs, fearful of the lows, we settle for an anodyne equanimity. Or, we allow ourselves to drift with the prevailing generality, passively accepting whatever comes our way. Or, we become trapped in an addiction, drink, drugs, sex, or some all-consuming and determining compulsion. For many introspection is difficult. It forces them to look at their experience, which raises questions, awkward, perhaps, and difficult questions one is not always willing to face.

This is why the diaries of someone like Etty Hillesum are so valuable. Like most of us she has her compulsions. Unlike most of us she is not afraid to look at them, however unpleasant or embarrassing, and describe them as objectively as possible. Her gaze is unflinchingly honest and direct. She allows it to lead her in a direction totally at variance with her upbringing and previous inclinations because that seems the right thing to do. To her astonishment one day she, an agnostic, nominal Jew, finds herself kneeling to pray