Archive for the ‘Being human’ Category


Tuesday, 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.


Sunday, 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)


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.


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

but it is felt.

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.


Sunday, 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

The Present Moment

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

I am conscious that I have yet to finish the Phronema entry on God Within. I want to see if I can explain immanence using Nishida’s idea of ‘front structure’. Interestingly it, ties in very well with Simone Weil’s idea that what separates us is also that which connects us. And with Polanyi’s explanation of tacit knowledge using the analogy of a blind man’s stick.

Meanwhile, I came across a very interesting interview with Jane Hirshfield,

Zen and the Art of Poetry (

Interesting, not just because of what she had to say about the influence of Zen on poetry, but also because of her mention of a poet I had never heard of before, whose discovery was for her like Chapman’s Homer to Keats – Czeslaw Milosz. So I looked up the poem of his she first encountered, titled appropriately enough Encounter.

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.

A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.

One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,

Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going

The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.

I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

The poem has all the immediacy and emotional punch of a haiku focusing on the present moment. So it is easy to see why it would appeal to anyone immersed in Zen. What appears at first to be a nostalgic reflection, a little sad perhaps, is transformed by the last line, ‘I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder,’ which refocuses the attention on a moment in that wonderful winter dawn.

Which raises again, it comes up again and again, the significance of the present moment. A moment so fleeting, suddenly… now… then gone. Not to be repeated, but neither quite forever. Because with the glimpse of a photograph, the surfacing of a memory sparked by a taste, a sound, smell, voice, or some other trigger and that moment is there again in all its immediacy. The moment was, and has gone, but its emotional impact has transcended time.

Growing older

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

L’exil n’est pas un acte anodin, et nécessite une réflexion et une maturation, souvent problématiques. Pour le poète, partir, signifie avant tout quitter un sol, une terre maternelle, et donc, physiquement se déraciner. Il faut rompre en un sens avec le passé proche ou lointain, mais aussi avec une forme de pensée qui appartient à ce sol désormais obsolète…

[Sylvène Guery, Rilke, la poésie comme seul bagage]

Growing older is like a slow journey into exile. Gradually, and one by one, the roots which bound one so closely to the terre maternelle of one’s physical self relax, loosen and let go. The mind lags behind, still irresistibly attached to younger dreams and emotions. The face in the morning mirror evokes a disbelieving, “Is that how I am?” But no, that is the aging exterior. There is more, much more, than what appears on the surface. It is time now to let go and focus on what Rilke called Weltinnenraum. The uprooting caused by the ageing process has freed you to seek that inner space which n’est ni celui du monde, ni celui de l’âme, ni non plus l’espace en trompe-l’œil d’un miroir que le monde tendrait à l’âme, mais un lieu d’échange.

The last expression is the key. That ‘inner space’ is not solitary space.  Weltinnenraum is not synonymous with sunyata. It is not the néant, or the void of Buddhist contemplation. Neither is it a solipsist retreat into some inner world detached from reality. It is that state where the distinctions me-and-not-me, this-and-not-that, disappear and everything is simply itself, completely open. This is how Rilke puts it:

‘Through all beings spreads the one space:

the world’s inner space. Silently fly the birds

all through us. O I who want to grow,

I look outside, and it is in me that the tree grows!’

I came across this story in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. His experience in the concentration camp focused his mind on the fundamental existential questions to do with life as nothing else could have.

This young woman knew she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through the window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,: she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes,” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here – I am here – I am life, eternal life’”

Weltinnenraum is the experience that all life springs from the same source and is one. It is the experience of the connectedness, not only of life, but of the sky and the sea shore, the wind in the trees and the flowers in spring.


Friday, May 16th, 2008

Thinking about anatta – the Buddhist concept of no-self. This needs to be tied in with the idea of process. There is no determined spiritual entity called a soul, incorporated at conception and evacuated at death. What there is is a process. It is becoming clear that what it means to be human cannot be understood by looking at the individual in isolation qua individual. If an individual is a process then that process can only be understood if one takes into account what gave rise to that particular process, what enables it to continue and develop and what brings it to completion. Not all processes are completed but some, I believe, are terminated prematurely and some become warped and distorted. Instead of looking at individuals as fixed entities we should look at them as dynamic processes, acting and interacting with others in a vast cosmic orchestra.

Nuala O Faolain has just died, three months to the day after she was diagnosed with cancer. The interview she gave about her impending death made a huge impression on the whole country. It is impossible not to see her life as a dynamic process, sometimes messy, often controversial, always fully engaged with others.  


Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

I had never realised before how much time is spent on trivia. Elliot was right. We cannot bear too much reality. We flee from it and cultivate areas of interest which we invest with the utmost importance. ‘Oh, I couldn’t live without my….’ Or, ‘I must have my…’ I am no better than the next person. I do it just as much but I am also afflicted, if that is the right word, with the awareness that these preoccupations, in the greater scheme of things, count for nothing. They are pass-times – literally. 

At Mass on Sunday the priest spent long moments giving a eulogy of a parishioner who had just died. He went on and on about how much he had done for the parish, how much he would be missed. I wondered what this paragon had done when Father went on to describe the hours the man had spent working on the drains in front. It was a moment of pure bathos and it was all I could do not to burst out laughing. Of course, drains are important, especially if they are not working properly. I suppose this should remind me that I am being too extreme. When it comes to human activity intention is all important. The intention of the doer can elevate the utterly trivial to the sublime. The reverse is also true. This is the incredible thing about being human. We have the power to turn the dross of humdrum activity into the pure gold of love. I am reminded of two lines by Rimbaud

 Car j’ai de chaque chose extrait la quintessence;

To m’a donné ta boue et j’en ai fait de l’or.


Friday, April 25th, 2008

Reading a lot of Eckhart lately, or rather, about him – Oliver Davies, McGinn, Joseph Milne. He is one of the few who make any sense to me at the moment. Milne has a long essay on Eckhart and human nature – really trying to tease out what E means by ‘soul’. I can remember a very heated argument when I was doing theology as to whether the soul was directly created by God and infused in the body at the moment of conception, or whether the parents engendered both the body and the soul. Our professor held to the former, the Thomistic position. I realise now that we should first have sorted out what we meant by soul. We were arguing about apples and pears, two different entities. The soul, for E, which is the Thomist view, is not the person, the self, (what I took at the time to be the soul) which of course is a product of genetic inheritance and social relationships (nature + nurture). And Thomas, were he alive today would not have argued with that. What he and E meant by soul is our inmost being, which is from God and in God. It is not correct to say we have souls, we are souls.