DESKTOP RETREAT

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NEARLY TEN HOURS at the desk today. Sometimes I have to tie an ankle to the leg of the desk, you know – ? – and just get down to it. Concentrate. Stick to it. Clearing the backlog. Emailing. Letter writing. Doing the thinking, planning, phoning. Poetry in the coffee breaks. Preparation. Praying – yes, praying for the loved ones, near and far, who are as much a part of my daily life when they don’t know it as when they do. And reading. And writing. And bank statements. Catching up with the 1001 things on the to-do list. Odd that a job primarily concerned with the things of God should fairly frequently involve being desk-bound? And yet, as with all things of God, not so very odd …

As it turned out, some concentrated graft at the desk today became something of a desktop retreat. For it’s sometimes in taking stock of all the little details of life that one discovers richness. God-ness. I’m struck by the huge number of people with whom I relate every day. Struck by the number of people who pray with me, and for me. Struck by the miracle that – notwithstanding the ups and downs of life as a parish priest (and there are some of those!) – I’m still enjoying it, and being challenged by it, after 32 years. Each of the hundreds of books on my library shelves has an associated story – a life and a meaning all of its own. And the letters in the filing tray, and the hundreds of emails, and the blogs “to read later”, and the photos propped up at the back of the desk – all add up to perpetual recourse to the prayer “Thanks be to God”.

Nearly ten hours at the desk. Time to call it a day for today. Perhaps it was just such a day that caused Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Leonard Cottrell) once to say – or perhaps to pray –

Near here is the land
That they call Life.
You’ll know when you arrive
By how real it is.
Give me your hand.

from God Speaks to Each of Us

THE COMPASSION QUEST

CompassionQuest

TRYSTAN OWAIN HUGHES opens chapter 3 of his The Compassion Quest with this exquisite quote from Rilke

Only one space extends
Through all beings: innerworldspace.
Silently, the birds fly within us.
and I, who wants to grow, I look outside,
But find within me grows the tree.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Nearly everything calls us to connect

What a joy and a relief to me, and a challenge too, that Trystan Owain Hughes has offered the world what Tony Campolo calls “a book that was waiting to be written”. Some books baptise us with both tears and smiles. And make us stop, look, listen. And make us turn around.

Pope Francis, thank God, calls humanity to “go out into the world”. Yes! Absolutely. But with what?

Rilke, Francis  and Trystan Owain Hughes bring something OUT into the world that has grown, and is forever growing, WITHIN them and us.

Interconnectedness. Thank God. There’s God. There’s the future.

THE COSMIC SONG

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I KEEP COMING BACK to Brother David Steindl-Rast – especially when life gets busy. I love the peace that’s so patently present in Brother David’s lovely face, and the way his eyes look gratefully, joyfully, to the sky. And I also love Rainer Marie Rilke’s glorious poetry (translated here by Brother David)

All that is fulfilled returns home to
The One, to the Changeless One …

the Great Song above the earth hallows
and celebrates it all …

Joy and peace for all who spend a few moments in company with holiness in this little film today – or anyday. All that is fulfilled returns …

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GIFTS FROM MY BREAST

A HANDWRITTEN CARD found amongst the papers of the late poet Sally Purcell bears the following anonymous and unsourced quotation:

… Y sobre todo tendras
los regalos de mi pecho,
las finezas de mi amor,
la verdad de mi deseo …

a translation of which is

… And above all you have
gifts from my breast,
the subtleties of my love,
the truth of my desire

the Epigraph in Sally Purcell’s Collected Poems

It’s possible, sometimes, to fall especially for anonymous poetry. The world’s sacred scriptures are full of it. Our ancient forebears believed that poetry (from the Greek for “to make”) carried the Word of the un-nameable maker, the breath, the creativity, the encouragement, the enthusiasm (the from-God-ness), the feeding, the fire, the grace, the glory, the hearing, the hope, the knowing, the order, the passion, the seeing, the voice, the will, the work and the yearning of the divine. So, for me, with this little Epigraph. And I wonder whether it is the very key to Sally Purcell’s life and poetry. And I wonder, too, whether I’m so attracted to it because it holds a key to what I want to be mine.

Writing for The Times of 19 November 2002, Libby Purves remembered her friend: “like Spender’s archetypal poet she was born of the sun, walked a short while towards the sun, and left the vivid air signed with her honour.” Ah! – notwithstanding my many frailties and failures I’dd nonetheless like to think that a beloved friend, some day remembering my life, might be able to say such a thing of mine. The home and the love we all long for will surely be the place where all the vivid air is signed with honour, God’s honour, your honour, and mine.

Here in this exquisite Epigraph is a hint of that Kingdom come, here, today, in us, on earth, in our breasts, in our souls, in our most intimate known and knowing depths, as it is in heaven. It’s an extra-ordinary sort of a love that tells someone that they have “gifts from my breast”. There’s warm and life-sustaining intimacy in the message that another has some understanding of “the subtleties of my love”. An achingly beautiful reaching and being reached in “the truth of my desire”. I think of “the disciple Jesus loved” at rest upon his breast. And inwardly, perhaps more intimately than outwardly, our poetry creates in the same wonderfully incarnate way as did His.

Caught up into one, in the One, because “You, You only, exist”, we hear, in our most beloved voices, an all-encompassing, life-giving and eternal Voice say

After Amairgen

I am the quiet fruit in your hand
I am the green weed that sways in the current
I am the dark red wrack
That clings to the oceans floor below all tides
I am shell or fossil that can strip no further
I am driftwood after its voyaging
I am the sunlight flickering on these pages
Who but I knows the exchange of sea and shore ?

Sally Purcell

And so we smile. Warmed inside. We pray.

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Fuerteventura, Spain

YOU, YOU ONLY, EXIST

ST JOHN DREAMED of heaven’s being a place “where there is no more sea” – Revelation 21.1 I wonder why? Danger? Unknown depths? Just a personal dislike for the ocean? I’ve always loved to be near sea. I can hear it, here, now. It was navy blue and white and turquoise when I looked a few moments ago. But the scene is always on the move. Swell. Ebb. Flow. Colours constantly changing. Deeper, richer hues. Sun shining, then, for a moment, behind a young white cloud.

Close your eyes against bright light and colour’s echoes are merging, richer, ranging. Dark reds through oranges, and gold. Vistas, like the paddlers at the water’s edge, come and go. Life is arriving and passing, arriving and passing, like the ocean’s ebb and flow. Contemplation. Twenty minute meditation. I give back the swell, “the life I owe, that in thine ocean’s depths its flow may richer, fuller be”. For

You, you only, exist. We pass away, till at last, our passing is so immense that you arise: beautiful moment, in all your suddenness, arising in love, or enchanted in the contraction of work.

To you I belong, however time may wear me away. From you to you I go commanded. In between the garland is hanging in chance; but if you take it up and up and up: look: all becomes festival!

Rainer Maria Rilke

Perhaps it’s not that John didn’t like the sea. More that he was dreaming, or recalling having dreamed to be more precise. And he’d been given a vision of a whole new shape to life, a new architecture, a new depth to the soul’s awareness of relationship to God, to our Source, to the Beginning and the End, to one another. New start. New gladness. New heart.

But rather than crashing into this awareness we dream ourselves – or pray ourselves – into it. Ebbing and flowing. Living. Loving. Dying. Rising. We’re living a passing that is a birthing, a colouring, a crying, a dying, a hearing, a learning, a listening, a loving, a painting, a poem, a praying, a resting, a rejoicing, a seeing, a shaping, a sleeping, a smelling, a smiling, a sorrowing, a sculpting, a testing, a tasting, a touching, a trying, a waking, a working: bejewelled box of words …

till at last, our passing is so immense that you arise: … all becomes festival

Today’s task then? Eternity’s task. To be, to pass, to smile, and to revel in being swell and ebb and flow. You, only you, exist …

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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

THE END OF THE MATTER

LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN, the Austrian-born English philosopher, is reputed to have said: “To be religious is to know that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter”.

Albert Einstein, one of the world’s most eminent post-War scientists wrote:

Whoever is devoid of the capacity to wonder, whoever remains unmoved, whoever cannot contemplate or know the deep shudder of the soul in enchantment, might just as well be dead for he has already closed his eyes upon life.

Wonder. Love. Praise. Enjoying the manifold gifts of God. These are the elements — the “stuff” of resurrection. And resurrection life is for living! Neither wonder, nor love, nor praise possess already the answers to all of life’s mysteries. Wondering, loving, praising people do live with some “answers”, but more widely in “resurrection faith”, that wonderful environment that is, in the fullest sense, “beyond all telling”.

God’s people are faith-filled people, who, though made to aspire and to enquire, to reach upward and outward, do not need to know all the fullness, all the detail, of the breadth or the height or the depth of God’s loving plan. We’re not made to carry the universe on our little shoulders, but rather to wonder at the entire created order being carried, gently, lovingly and patiently on God’s.

We are to be, as St Teresa of Avila would have it, the Body of Christ now on earth. When the world is in pain we are to touch, to heal, to restore and to bless. When we are in pain we are to look to the promise of resurrection. No more. No less.

Austro-German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

I want to beg you to be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek those answers that cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

One day we’ll encounter the Lord in a garden. And he’ll call us by name. And we’ll cry “Rabboni!” – Teacher! My Lord and my God.