NOT NOW, NOT YET

VOCATION, VOCATION, VOCATION. If it’s true that these words are real features in our corporate life here in Bramhall then it’s also true that they’re undergirded by prayer, prayer, prayer. People are learning that “Be still for the presence of the Lord” is a real invitation and not just a nice first line for a hymn with a popular tune. And I keep turning, again and again, to Gerald G May’s The Wisdom of Wilderness …

Like a slave to my thoughts, my body gets up to collect what I need for breakfast. I set my coffee mug on a stone near the fire and take one step toward the car and I am suddenly overcome with fatigue and the Slowing Presence arises wordlessly inside me, in a place much deeper than my mind, and it is telling me No, it is not yet time for breakfast, not at all.

I almost feel gentle hands taking me by the shoulders, setting me back down by the fire. My body relaxes, my mind quiets. I sit. I look at the fire. I look at the morning mountainside. I close my eyes. There is no sound but the stream and the pine sap popping in flames. I watch the fire and I know time passes. Much time. Now and then thoughts of breakfast arise briefly and are stilled by the deeper sense, “Not now. Not yet.” I just sit.

And sometimes, oftentimes even, it really is in just sitting that vocation, vocation, vocation really takes shape, really makes sense, really involves ME, and leads to just the right kind of creativity and action.

MINDS WITHOUT FEAR

IT’S WHAT NATIONS WANT, on the larger canvases, and what individual persons want, on the smaller ones. Nations like yours and mine. People like you and me. Minds without fear … heads held high … where knowledge is free. “I do not put my faith in institutions”, wrote Rabindranath Tagore, “but in individuals all over the world who think clearly, feel nobly and act rightly. They are the channels of moral truth”. Winner of the The Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1913, the citation read … “author of Gitanjali and its ‘profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse'”. It’s what nations want, and persons want. And Tagore encapsulated the desire in a prayer:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Rabindranath Tagore
born in Calcutta, 7th May 1861

died there, aged 80, 7th August 1941

Egypt. Libya. Just two among the many peoples of the world who, yearning to know, yearning to be free, have taken the risk to stand up, to stand out, and to make their peaceful dreams known. And then there’s you and me, people of faith, peacefully seeking our own way to be free. “Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection”. This is what faith, this is what love, this is what life is for. “Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action”.

I mentioned the other day that I’ve been reading Gerald G May’s The Awakened Heart. He and Tagore are kindred spirits. “We dull and occupy ourselves so completely”, says May, “that we stifle our desire, anesthetize our yearning, restrict the energy of our passion”. Can we imagine a day, and better than just imagining, can we pray with Tagore for the living of Life “Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.”? “It is truly a matter of choice”, to return to Gerald May. “From love’s perspective, everything is a matter of choice”. This is grace. A risky business for Egypt, for Libya, for you and me. But this is grace. Gift. It’s what we’re all stretching out our arms for. Grace, pure gift, makes it possible for hearts, here and now in this world, to have a foretaste of what it means to be free. And beyond the grace given to us in this world? I hope to to know Grace, “the depth of truth”, with Tagore and May, in eternity.

PAUSE FOR THOUGHT

NEVER MUCH TAKEN WITH ACTION MAN I preferred playing “house” (with a small thoughtful girl) on the playground wall. From there I’d watch a noisier, busier world, trying to make sense of it all. A lover of silence, I’ve shied away from heated words, opposing teams, and perennial certainties. Prayer and contemplation meet a lifelong need to sort out the wood from the trees. Sense for me involves acres of quiet, time to look at “who, what and where, and when, and why and how?” Always on the lookout for “both sides now”.

But action’s necessary too. Colonel Gadaffi has spoken of “rats and cockroaches” amongst western Libyans. And Egyptians yearned for years for something new. What are they to do? Fight like hell in the midst of their fear, or put heart and mind and soul into gear? Action or contemplation? Well, both, I think, apparently in company with long suffering Egyptians, and western Libyans, for whom the answer’s been not “either / or”, but measured patience, and the subversive dreaming of civilised peoples who’ve never lost their memories, or their imaginations.

Time out, like this island holiday, or just pause for thought in any ordinary busy day, affords recollection that to be engaged in successful action one will have learned to live in – and out of – silence, to use imagination, to cogitate and contemplate, to meditate, to pray. I’m gently winding up to returning to the action-filled life of a parish priest, in an action-packed parish, in an action-encouraged diocese. And from where I’m sitting my playground wall still has distinct attractions. I’m still convinced that contemplation before action wins the day.

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Fuerteventura, Spain

THE GREAT SONG

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The great song, the great sound,
comes out of silence, or it isn’t a great song.

BROTHER DAVID STEINDL-RAST encourages us to ask: how can we, in the ordinary commonplace tasks of our daily lives, “come fully alive?”. Asking the question is one of our most important life-tasks, he suggests. And the answer, however it’s formulated in words, will always have a great deal to do with our capacity for “contemplative living”, with our setting out, on a daily basis, to discover The Great Song.

Now I’ve got to be honest about the folks who harrumph at such a suggestion! Many apparently devoted church-people, one or two bishops I’ve known amongst them, would take issue with my own inclination to frequent silence and contemplation, an inclination that comes the more particularly to the fore in my case whenever parish life revs itself up to being “busy”. There are the driven souls who, I sense, want to gee me up, and the wider Church, too. Such people are all for action, they tell me. All for doing. But I’ve noticed that they don’t often look very happy. And I don’t like the haunted look in my own face-in-the- mirror on those occasions when I’ve lost track of the call to find the great song.

Yet, thankfully, there are the very many others. Every day I have the privilege of conversation with people, ancient and modern, who appreciate the invitation to silence, who appreciate the invitation to recall Jesus going off “up a mountain”, who look forward all week to the “quiet bits” in our liturgical worship. And I’ve noticed in every case that the people who become even a little bit practiced in the art of contemplation smile a great deal. They look comfortable in their own skins. They often look happy!

THE GREAT SONG

Even though the world changes like cloud formations
all that is fulfilled returns home to the changeless One.
Above all the turning and changing
wider and freer, remains Your Song,
God with the lyre, God with the heart.

Sufferings have not been learned,
loving has not really been learned,
and what separates us in death
has not been unveiled.
But the Great Song above the earth
hallows and celebrates it all.

– Rainer Maria Rilke
translation by Brother David Steindl-Rast

Now, kind reader, you may well already have watched the above short video with Brother David before you’d read thus far. But whether you did or you didn’t may I encourage you to watch it now? It won’t take you long to recognise which of the two different kinds of person Brother David is. Take particular note of his face and its expressions. Listen carefully to the tone of his voice. Join me in asking, once again, Brother David’s question: how can we, in the ordinary commonplace tasks of our daily lives, “come fully alive?”. I think he’s got his finger on the pulse of an answer.

See also A Good Day