Archive for the ‘Reality’ Category

Silence

Saturday, 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

Thursday, 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

 

Probing the limits

Thursday, 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

Monday, 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.

To know the dark

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Wendell Berry

I don’t know whether this applies to all who hunger for God and take prayer seriously – I know it has applied to many, like Thérese of Lisieux, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton – that, after early mystical experiences, the lights go out and an all-enveloping darkness, or dense fog descends. Whether darkness or fog, the result is the same. Where before there were perspectives, illumination, above all awareness of a union that transcended bodily boundaries, now there is isolation, solitude, alone in the dark. This is hard to take. It is bewildering and disorientating. One is constantly searching for some chink, some glimmer in the darkness, for reassurance. And occasionally, very occasionally, there might be the briefest of glimmers, but never enough to lift the all-pervading gloom.

Discovering Wendell Berry’s poem above made me realise that the constant searching and yearning for light in the darkness is a failure to recognise reality as it presents itself to us. It is a failure to move on, to realise that the time of illuminating experiences was simply the beginning of the journey. It is a failure to realise that the illuminating experiences were not REALITY. An awareness, yes. An awareness of the horizon of this reality and in being aware of the horizon one is aware of a beyond but not of the beyond itself. That has been left behind now and one should not be constantly looking back, wishing that one was not where one is. The darkness is the new reality and it has much, much more to reveal.


That art thou

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

Reading Joseph O Leary

I came across one of those tantalising pieces of information that spark off a whole series of thoughts. Beethoven apparently had the phrase tat tvam asi above his desk. I wouldn’t have thought that knowledge of the Upanishads was very prevalent in Europe in his time, but there you are. It is not altogether surprising though, when you consider his music (especially the 6th and the 9th symphonies), that B was so struck by this idea that he had it before him as he worked. The Chandogya Upanishad tells story of Uddâlaka and how he gently leads his son Svetaketu to the realisation that Ultimate Reality, that whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere, is within. Life is not about acquiring that which one does not have, or becoming that which one is not, or not yet. Life is a journey of discovery, the discovery of what one is and always has been. Tat tvam asi – That art thou.

This goes right to the heart of the problem of subjective experience. Of what value are our lives? There are (rare?) days when we seem to touch the heights. There are days when the crushing weight of existence itself stifles the will to live. Most days, however, are the uneventful round of daily living, ordinary, banal even and, for the most part, unmemorable. Of what use are these lives, these days, hours of routine existence? Time passes. It seeps away like water into sand, as in a Beckett play.

Even more to the point, what about those days that are full of pain, lives that are filled with suffering? The mystery of suffering and evil is one of those factors that abrades the sense of well being and turns the gaze inward. Pain inhibits every thought but the desire that the suffering should cease. All the more shocking then, to come across these lines of Rilke

How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen,
one season in our inner ear–, not only a season
in time–, but are place and settlement, foundation and soil and home.*


Squander? Wish them gone? How can one accept suffering as part of the normal scheme of things, built in to the fabric of our existence and as much part of reality as happiness, or health, or joy? Rilke’s words shock. They are a reality check which forces us to stand back and look again, forces us to hold up our unquestioned assumptions and examine them. Happiness/unhappiness, health/sickness, joy/sadness, pleasure/pain – these are the coinage of our lives. The present moment, and only this present moment, is where we touch reality.

* The Duino Elegies, No. 10

Ash Wednesday

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

It is customary during Lent to read a spiritual book, something to encourage introspection and a more consistent attitude to prayer, etc. I seem to have gone off anything to do with spirituality, theology or prayer. I find them impossible to read now. They do not speak to me. They have nothing to say that has any meaning. Once I devoured them, searching for knowledge. All that is gone. The knowledge they imparted seemed to make sense in a former life. I have gone beyond that. I no longer live there, or anywhere, really. I am a visitor constantly revisiting where I used to live and be. No longer belonging, yet not a stranger either. So, instead of scuffing through the sawdust of yet another book I will write my own, commenting on the only literature that seems to have any meaning for me now – poetry and in particular, that of R. S. Thomas.

Young and Old

Cold sea, cold sky;
This is how age looks
At a thing. The people natter,
The wind blows. Nothing they do
is of worth. The great problems
Remain, stubborn, unsolved.
Man leaves his footprints
Momentarily on a vast shore.

And the tide comes,
That the children play with.
Ours are the first questions
They shelve. The wind is the blood
In their veins. Above them the aircraft
Domesticate the huge sky.

Age does alienate. We find ourselves strangers in a familiar land. The vast universe of former times, then so full of promise, of adventure, of opportunity, of unknown marvels – has been domesticated. The crises, the struggles and challenges are ours no longer. Another generation has taken over.

And so I sit at the edge, out of play, observing the to-ing and fro-ing, my remarks lost in the gusts of general conversation. Meanwhile the children play, oblivious in the immediacy of their experience. All this is behind me. Before me the cliff falls sheer in the darkness.

This is the reality that conventional books on prayer and spirituality never seem to touch. This is life at the edge when there is no way back into the centre of things. The world has not lost its beauty. On the contrary, but never was one more aware of how ephemeral and fragile this beauty is. A beautiful face is more poignant than ever because like old photographs it no longer belongs to my reality. At the edge a fissure begins to open in even the most intimate of relationships.

God does not exist at the edge. He is not there in the centre of things. He is certainly not there beyond the sheer cliff fall. He was present once. You felt his touch… surely that was not your imagination. But now you stand alone before the cold sea, buffeted by a cold wind. You hear its sound. You certainly do not know where it comes from or where it goes. But you suspect that that is the way it is meant to be.

Pharisaism alive and well

Monday, January 12th, 2009

I came across this just yesterday in Thomas Merton‘s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Although written in the early sixties and referring to America it seems very appropriate today given the situation in Gaza.

In politics, as in everything else, pharisaism is not self-righteousness only, but the conviction that, in order to be right, it is sufficient to prove that somebody else is wrong. As long as there is one sinner left for you to condemn, then you are justified! Once you can point to a wrongdoer, you become justified in doing anything you like, however dishonest, however evil.  *

It would seem that in Israel, even after two thousand years, pharisaism flourishes.

* Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,  Sheldon Press, London, 1977, p. 74

Glimpses of Reality

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

I am coming to love silence and I find noise excruciating – and there is so much noise now wherever you go (I don’t count natural sounds, like the wind, as noise). That’s not too strong a word. It tears into the mind, shreds thought and mangles feelings. But silence is like looking into a deep, still pool, cool and mysterious. There are depths and depths and the silence draws you in, immersing you. Silence is the baptismal font of the Spirit and if only we could immerse ourselves in it fully, eventually, when we emerged, we would be transformed. That too is beyond me. I dip into the silence like a tentative swimmer hesitant to leave the shore of the familiar – which I long to leave, but I don’t know how.

An interesting sentence from Meins Coetsier’s book on Etty Hillesum.[1]  He comments on the fact that her writing and silent meditation helped her to “tap into an area within herself that in society had mainly vanished.” Voegelin believed that the disappearance of meditation as a ‘cultural factor’ resulted in the practical ignorance of those aspects of reality touched on by myth, philosophy and mysticism. In other words the secularisation of society has deprived people, or most people perhaps, of an awareness of the depth of reality, of the spiritual dimension. He goes on to talk about a ‘perverse closure of consciousness against reality’ (p. 129).

I wonder about the ‘perverse’. For some, perhaps, yes. They make a conscious decision to ignore any spiritual promptings. But for many, I think, socialisation into a secular and materialist culture has simply obscured any such awareness. The occasions when they might perhaps suspect that there is more to reality than the material surface of things are when they encounter a limit situation. Though it is also the case, as David Hay found in his Nottingham survey,[2] that many people feel that there is ‘something there’, that there is more to reality than surface appearances. But ‘a feeling’ is about as far as it goes. This is not something people generally feel they can talk about with others. Spirituality, religion, mysticism are all taboo subjects. We all have capax dei and in some exceptional people, like Etty Hillesum, awareness of it develops in spite, or maybe because of external circumstances. But in most of us it needs to be nurtured and guided.

There are similarities between the the life of the foetus in the womb prior to birth and our lives prior to death. The foetus does not have the reflexive consciousness of self which develops in the child towards the end of the first year of life, but if it had there are many indications that there is more to existence than the inner confines of the womb. Not least of these is the sound of its mother’s voice and other sounds. If the foetus was able to reflect it could deduce that there was another world beyond the walls of the womb. But it could never be brought to understand, if per impossibile it possessed language, the nature of this world. It could have no idea of colour, or Spring with blossom on the trees, a sunset, or falling in love. Without experience there can be no understanding.

Similarly with us. There is more to our existence than positivism or materialism would give us to understand. All religions postulate a spiritual dimension to reality. There is also a wealth of evidence gathered by bodies such as The Religious Experience Research Centre at Lampeter, and the various organisations which research the Near Death Experience, that there is more to life than the physical existence of the body. Unlike the foetus, we are in a position to reflect on our experience. When Sir Alister Hardy set up the Religious Experience Research Unit (as it then was) at Oxford in 1969 he initiated a national survey based on a fundamental question:

‘Have you ever had an awareness of a power or presence different from every day life?’

The answer from many, many people was, yes, and subsequent research suggests that more than 50 per cent of us, at some time or other in our lives, have some experience of the transcendent. Hardy, and those after him who took up his research, tapped into a rich seam dating back into pre-history. He concluded that it is as natural for us to be religious as it is to be self-conscious. We have an innate awareness which transcends the concrete and empirical here and now. This awareness is not within our control. These experiences occur suddenly and are unanticipated. They cannot be produced at will.  As William James pointed out,[3]  they are ineffable, transient, they have a noetic quality and they are passive. Most importantly, they are not trivial. More often than not they convey so much meaning and are of such significance that they are never forgotten. They can be so real that everyday reality pales in comparison. They can be life-changing. They can be as simple as a sense of loving presence; as profound as union with Reality transcending time and space.

Death involves an even more radical transition than that of birth. Some would argue that it is not a transition but an extinction and in a sense this is true. The body dies, decomposes and eventually ceases to exist. But these experiences suggest that the mind, the person, can and does transcend the purely physical and that death is not the end. Just as the unborn foetus could never grasp what it is like to be born, to see, to run and play, sing and love, so too with us. In these profound experiences we get only the briefest, crudest glimpses of what lies beyond the grave.

[1]   Coetsier, Meins, Etty Hillesum and the Flow of Presence: A Voegelinian Analysis, U. of Missouri Press, 2008 p. 127

[2]   Hay, David. Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit. Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 2006.

[3] The varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture XVI

Silence

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

Je suis de plus en plus frappé par le vide des mots, des discours, des livres où l’auteur, où les auditeurs, où les lecteurs demandent à une ferveur qui ne leur coûte rien et qui ne les engage pas, une dispense de vivre. C’est pourquoi je ne suis sensible, au fond, qu’à la grandeur de vie que le silence, presque toujours, exprime le mieux.

(Boissière, Bernard De, and France-Marie Chauvelot. Maurice Zundel. Presses de la Renaissance, 2004. p. 340)

[I am struck more and more by the emptiness of words, those  discussions, or books where the author, or the readers demand, with a fervour which costs them nothing and which does not engage them, to be dispensed from living. That is why, basically, I am only sensitive to the wonder of life which is, almost always, best expressed by silence.]

I have been struck, for some time now, by the unwillingness, I would almost say the inability, of people to tolerate silence. Everywhere you go people walk about with their ears plugged by their iPods. Even here where I live they walk along the cliffs, or by the shore, with the music of the waves, the wind and the birds obliterated by electronic sounds. In supermarkets and bars, restaurants, hotels and lifts, practically everywhere, you are assailed by recorded sound. Silence, the natural sounds of life and living, the hum of conversation, the voices of children at play are not allowed. Silence, especially, must be filled with something, anything. It is not to be endured.

Why, I wonder, are so many so afraid of silence? I do not suppose the answer is simple or straightforward. There are many factors, not least the urban environment in which most people live, with its incessant noise. On all sides we are assailed by sounds which distract us from ourselves, from thoughts, from thinking. It seems as though we do not like being simply with ourselves, simply being aware – aware of thoughts as they come and go, aware of the lives of others, aware of life unfurling within and without. Silence for so many is like waiting for a bus, a barely tolerable hiatus in the onrush of doing, to be avoided if at all possible. 

Silence, and wonder, and awe, and love all go together. They are sisters inducing an inner stillness which plumbs the depths of being. The initial response may be fear, even terror, caused by a sense of vertigo before empty depths.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

And, perhaps, this is why so many avoid it if possible, want to be dispensed from simply living in the present now. In the silence there is nothing to distract, nothing to draw the attention away from thoughts and feelings that surge from within. And so, they never discover that when the thoughts and feelings have unfurled, when they have emptied themselves out, there is left a deeper inner silence. This is the hushed silence, the expectant silence, before the mystery that we are to ourselves, the mystery of being.