Sunday, August 7, 2016
In my ears: the unceasing voice of the wind. I wonder where the figure has vanished to. Perhaps if I could just make it to the crest of this dune I might yet catch another glimpse of her. With the wind at my back, and the blown grains of surface sand stinging my ankles, I struggle up the shadowed face of the great crescent of sand.
With the light of the fast-sinking sun flooding my face I emerge from the dune’s shadow, and in two more paces I am standing full in the orange light on the sweeping crest of the dune. I scan the view in front of me for signs of life, and notice a dark outcrop of rock emerging like an island from the sand sea. And there in the shadow of the rock I notice a movement, as if she is deliberately revealing her presence to me – which perhaps she is. Perhaps she seeks this encounter as much as I myself do, for is that not her nature: to confront the other?
A few more minutes and I am climbing over the dark rock to reach the place where I spotted her. At first I do not see her, even though she is very close. Then two orange eyes open and stare at me from the shadows. Oh, such eyes! All the mysteries of the world are contained in those twin pools of amber. Her long mane of hair blows around her shoulders like a cloak, and her body, though human-enough, seems somehow other-than-human in a way in which I cannot explain to myself.
What does one say to a sphinx? Is it protocol to wait until spoken to when encountering such a fabulous creature of legend? Such encounters are too infrequent to really know the correct form of things. I feel awkward and unsure, and if I am truthful, also rather nervous. I notice the sphinx’s dark nails grown to the length of talons.
“May I ask you a question?” I hear a voice say. The voice is my own, desperate, apparently, to break the prolonged silence. The eyes of the sphinx fix onto and hold my own. She does not speak. “I would like to ask you” I continue, “if my life has a meaning.” Still the sphinx remains silent, scrutinizing me intently. Such silence can bring anxiety, so I continue: “I mean, sometimes I feel that it does, but at other times I feel just as equally that it’s all random, and it doesn’t matter what I do or plan because things happen anyway, but then it all more-or-less turns out in the end and I’m left wondering that even if I’d planned it all, would it have been any different? I suppose what I’d really like to ask you is: is there such a thing as free will, or is it all beyond our control? Although, now I think about it, I guess we must have free will, because it was my own free will that drove me to search for you so that I could ask you the answer to such a big, big question.”
Behind me, the pale moon is on the rise. The sphinx stares at me, and I seem to notice a faint smile. That ghost of a smile is still there as the sphinx curls up in the velvet shadows and silently falls asleep.
Artwork by David Bergen
Saturday, July 30, 2016
Desperate situations call for desperate measures. A true free spirit, the wood nymph Daphne is never happier than when she is roaming the forests. The dappled sunlight of the forest glades are more than home to her: they are her preferred company, and she vows that she would sooner keep herself chaste than exchange the familiar company of the surrounding trees for a partner in life.
All might have continued to go well for Daphne, were it not for the fateful day when the glorious god Apollo happens to catch sight of her as she dances in a sunlit glade. At once smitten by her beauty and charm, the god approaches Daphne and attempts to seduce her. Now, Apollo is used to having his way, whether with mortal or with nymph. But for the first time ever he finds his advances rejected. In a moment’s distraction Daphne seizes her chance to flee the god’s amorous advances and runs away as fast as she can, hoping that her familiarity with the forest trails might offer her an advantage in her flight.
But Daphne’s knowledge of the secret paths through her beloved forest is proving no advantage when matched against a god’s bruised ego. Wounded pride mixed with ardour for the fleeing nymph only fuels the pace of Apollo’s pursuit. At the last moment of her flight, when the god is so close behind her that she can feel his hot breath on her back, Daphne calls out in panic to her father, the river god Peneios.
The great river stirs angrily, and white-topped waves slap its banks in a frenzy of fury as Peneios sees the plight which his daughter is in. Unable to leave his watery domain, the river god makes a last-resort move to save his daughter. Just as Apollo reaches out to seize the nymph, his all-too-eager hands grasp, not soft and yielding female flesh, but bark and branches and dark green leaves. Peneios with his powers has changed his daughter into a laurel tree: one more tree among all of its fellows in the wood nymph’s beloved forest.
A handful of laurel leaves are Apollo’s only gain. How to save face? How to restore a god’s bruised ego? By declaring a defeat to be a victory and founding a tradition. Apollo decrees that from that moment on, a crown of laurel leaves will become the worthy symbol of a victor. And the god promptly begins the tradition by weaving for himself a crown from the leaves that just moments before had been the living flesh of the beautiful nymph.
How often has it happened that reality has been turned on its head, and those who have been bettered have, through one means or another, insisted that they have in fact triumphed? Saving face in such a way is familiar enough to us from our own current news events. But in the story of Daphne and Apollo we can perceive a deeper meaning. Sometimes circumstances force us to change, and to change dramatically, and we become something other than that which we were before. It might not always be a change which we have wished for ourselves, but it has been a change made necessary for our survival, in whatever form that might take.
But Daphne’s fate also gives us reason to hope. The nymph’s essential nature was that of her own beloved forest, and her essence did not change. Instead it became absorbed into what she truly loved the most. Even in dramatic change, even undergoing apparent complete metamorphosis, our true essence survives in some form, and endures beyond even the great change at life’s end.
Art: Daphne and Apollo by John William Waterhouse
Sunday, July 24, 2016
Where are you, my beloved? Are you in that little
Paradise, watering the flowers who look upon you
As infants look upon the breast of their mothers?
Or are you in your chamber where the shrine of
Virtue has been placed in your honor, and upon
Which you offer my heart and soul as sacrifice?
Or amongst the books, seeking human knowledge,
While you are replete with heavenly wisdom?
Oh companion of my soul, where are you? Are you
Praying in the temple? Or calling Nature in the
Field, haven of your dreams?
Are you in the huts of the poor, consoling the
Broken-hearted with the sweetness of your soul, and
Filling their hands with your bounty?
You are God's spirit everywhere;
You are stronger than the ages.
Do you have memory of the day we met, when the halo of
Your spirit surrounded us, and the Angels of Love
Floated about, singing the praise of the soul's deed?
Do you recollect our sitting in the shade of the
Branches, sheltering ourselves from Humanity, as the ribs
Protect the divine secret of the heart from injury?
Remember you the trails and forest we walked, with hands
Joined, and our heads leaning against each other, as if
We were hiding ourselves within ourselves?
Recall you the hour I bade you farewell,
And the Maritime kiss you placed on my lips?
That kiss taught me that joining of lips in Love
Reveals heavenly secrets which the tongue cannot utter!
That kiss was introduction to a great sigh,
Like the Almighty's breath that turned earth into man.
That sigh led my way into the spiritual world,
Announcing the glory of my soul; and there
It shall perpetuate until again we meet.
I remember when you kissed me and kissed me,
With tears coursing your cheeks, and you said,
"Earthly bodies must often separate for earthly purpose,
And must live apart impelled by worldly intent.
"But the spirit remains joined safely in the hands of
Love, until death arrives and takes joined souls to God.
"Go, my beloved; Love has chosen you her delegate;
Over her, for she is Beauty who offers to her follower
The cup of the sweetness of life.
As for my own empty arms, your love shall remain my
Comforting groom; your memory, my Eternal wedding."
Where are you now, my other self? Are you awake in
The silence of the night? Let the clean breeze convey
To you my heart's every beat and affection.
Are you fondling my face in your memory? That image
Is no longer my own, for Sorrow has dropped his
Shadow on my happy countenance of the past.
Sobs have withered my eyes which reflected your beauty
And dried my lips which you sweetened with kisses.
Where are you, my beloved? Do you hear my weeping
From beyond the ocean? Do you understand my need?
Do you know the greatness of my patience?
Is there any spirit in the air capable of conveying
To you the breath of this dying youth? Is there any
Secret communication between angels that will carry to
You my complaint?
Where are you, my beautiful star? The obscurity of life
Has cast me upon its bosom; sorrow has conquered me.
Sail your smile into the air; it will reach and enliven me!
Breathe your fragrance into the air; it will sustain me!
Where are you, my beloved?
Oh, how great is Love!
And how little am I!
Text and Artwork
Thursday, July 7, 2016
Really it takes so little.
No, not the act itself, but the decision
made in a sliver of time: in a single heartbeat.
No more time than it takes
for the rustling stroke of a bird’s wing.
No more time than it takes
for the slash of light that sears the sky
when my cloud-shrouded father draws near.
No more time than this is needed
to change my world, my everything:
my own life’s passing
in the cycle of a single year.
And I will change.
The decision was snatched from a moment
a thousand years ago,
before I even knew the darkness
of my mother’s womb
I knew another darkness.
In that moment, in that eon,
through the sheer force of my will
my blood drained from my body,
disappeared as water from a pool.
Now look upon me: a shell thing,
strangely echoing, never growing old:
a hollow creature
white as the snows of Parnassus
and as cold.
Now I will know a new darkness.
Only a few seeds are needed
for a new life with my lord:
the ingestion of a new fruit
far from the sun,
swallowed in the bridal chamber
of a new dark accord,
far from my mother’s sustaining love,
far from the rustle of birds’ wings,
far from the rolling ghosts of clouds,
far from any hope of return
from this shrouded world of shrouds.
My new blood will be
the red sap of pomegranates.
My new subjects will be
these pale shades of the once-alive.
My new desire will be
desire for these shadows
where the only fulfilment will be
to know that I will remain
The dry white husk of my body will be
sustained by the lymph of pomegranates.
And I will be queen to a darkness
both wished-for and unwilled.
Photo: Anna Chipovskaya, photographer Nikolay Biryukov for Interview Magazine Russia, Febr. 2014
Sunday, May 29, 2016
True prayer requires no word, no chant
no gesture, no sound.
It is communion, calm and still
with our own godly Ground.
- Angelus Silesius
On the Silent Wings of Prayer
What is it to pray? If we say the word ‘God’ to ten people in a room, then it is quite likely that in those ten different heads there will be ten different ideas of what ‘God’ actually is, and what God means to them. Perhaps prayer is like this as well. We have a general idea of what a prayer is. We think of an attitude of praying, and of reciting, either aloud or silently, either in company as part of a congregation, or in solitude, a formularized verse or passage of text. Or perhaps our prayer is in the form of a petition: we are asking for something of a higher Self beyond ourselves.
What that ‘something’ is might cover a spectrum of interests and hopes. On a rather material level, we might pray for victory in a conflict, or even success in some sporting event. On a more personal level, we might ask for help, or for strength and courage in a situation which we feel overwhelms us. We might ask to keep a dear one safe in a situation of peril, or for guidance in navigating our way through trying circumstances which bewilder us, and which leave us unsure which way to turn.
As well as the above examples there might be many more situations in which we pray, the form which our prayers take, and what we are praying for. But one thing which all these sorts of prayers have in common, whether spoken aloud or voiced silently within ourselves, is that they are all, in some form, prayers with words. We use our own familiar language in which to pray. But is this the only way to pray?
Prayer is prayer, and perhaps prayer can be reduced to intention only. Perhaps, if our intention is there, then we do not even need words to pray. In this sense, perhaps intention is the purest form of prayer: a silent connection with the Divine that not only is without words, but which goes beyond words, beyond the limitations of language to become a pure expression of the spirit. The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore described trees as the expression of an endless striving of earth towards heaven. In this mystic striving of the forms of nature we may glimpse this wordless prayer, this intention of all things to connect with that mysterious Other, encountered in a place beyond words, beyond human language.
The other evening I watched a large flock of starlings wheel and turn in the soft light of dusk. What mysterious figures were they tracing out in the twilit sky? I could only stand in silence and wonder at the myriad pairs of wings turning in perfect harmony, describing their unknown language in the paths of their flight. I could not interpret their lace-like traceries, but in those many wings I felt that I had glimpsed a wordless prayer made visible.
Sunday, May 22, 2016
In the thin air of morning
I speak with sweet sounds
drawn from all the
that yesterday were left
at the waves' edge
Listen to what I release
into the morning:
shards of myths
and ancient voices
echo over the shore
I am the daybreak
my slender body
born from the sea
my flute now whispers
and then cries out
my other self
who stayed behind
among the waves
having no desire
to be tailless
Now at each sunrise
and again at sunset
I make my flute speak
I know the night is near
when my eyes colour
from meadow green
to the deeper green
of the waves
while my heart listens
waiting, ever waiting
for my love
in the light
of the silent moon
Sculpture: La Sirène by Camille Claudel
Sunday, May 15, 2016
Today is Pentecost. For Christians it commemorates the occasion when after the ascension the Spirit descended to the apostles in the form of twin flames of fire, allowing them to ‘speak in tongues’. Amazed, they realised that they could speak all the languages of the lands to which they would journey to bring the message of their new faith.
The miracle lies in the fact that the varied languages which the apostles could suddenly speak were all recognisable to the native speakers of those lands – the text mentions Parthians, Cretans, Arabians and others. This episode is related in the Acts of the Apostles, towards the end of scripture. It is near the beginning, in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Genesis, that we read of another episode about many tongues: the story of the tower of Babel, familiar even to those who have not read the story in scripture.
In the story of Babel, all of humankind can speak one language. There is no difficulty with communication, and even strangers from far lands can readily understand one another. With a co-operative will they construct a tower so tall that it begins to reach beyond the clouds into heaven itself. This human presumption is thwarted by divine will, which at a stroke causes the many languages of the world. Communication breaks down, the tower is left unfinished, and the builders scatter to their different lands.
One story seems to mirror the other. In the Babel story, communication breaks down. In the story of Pentecost, the barrier to communication is miraculously overcome. Both stories are concerned specifically with the language barrier: one story causes it, and the other story overcomes it. My own Netherlands native tongue is spoken by a comparative minority in Europe, and at school it was standard practice for us to learn three other major European languages – French, German and English. Being multi-lingual in this region of the world can at times be a necessity, but the language barrier can be overcome, not with miracles, but with simple work and study.
In the end, it’s all about being able to communicate effectively with each other, wherever we come from. And communication does not always rely upon language. A sense of communication can come from sharing a piece of music, for surely music is a universal language beyond any limitations of speech. And sharing emotions which bring joy or simple pleasure make any language barrier meaningless. Such sharing of emotion needs no Pentecostal fire, no speaking in tongues, no miracle. It relies only upon what we feel in our hearts, and the language of the heart is universal.
Art by Iris Sullivan
Saturday, May 7, 2016
In my mind I need only to hear
that soft rush and sigh
of imagined waves at my feet,
feel the wash of wet sand
and hear the harsh cry of sea birds.
In that imagined moment
I am there once more.
I search for her, my eyes straining
in the white light of a thousand morning stars
as the sun strikes sparks from the breakers.
And I wait, and I wait
to glimpse her amazing Otherness.
At times I wonder:
will I see her now?
Although secretly I know the truth:
she will be there somewhere
for she waits for me also.
Patiently she waits
as she has waited for a day,
or a year, or a thousand years,
knowing that I will come,
knowing that our meeting
has already been inscribed
in the fixed patterns of stars,
even though those same stars
are now dimmed by the day’s white light.
How could I not love the sea?
I, a landsman with a mariner’s heart.
How could I not love the very thing
that I know is so dear to her?
How could I not love her true home?
Those secret blue deeps
gave birth to her,
and to me also; but for that
I must journey further back in time:
much further, to a world of silence
and ancient corals, and the beginnings of us all.
Her amazing Otherness fills my life,
fills my heart, as I have chosen her,
as she has chosen me,
for I have as my wife
The Woman from the Sea.
Written for me by my dear husband David
to commemorate our 30th wedding anniversary
Today, 7th May, 2016
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
May 4, Rememberance Day 1945 - 2016
In honor of Alice Herz-Sommer who has been a true inspiration to me.
"Music is God. In difficult times you feel it, especially when you are suffering."
~ Alice Herz-Sommer
I first came to hear of Alice Herz-Sommer in January 2009, while I was browsing through the biography section in our local book store, and this book, written by Melissa Müller, almost fell into my lap: "Etudes of Comfort" - and inside I read the original title in German: "Ein Garten Eden inmitten der Hölle - Ein Jahrhundertleben" (A Garden of Eden in the heart of hell - a life that lasted more than a century).
Born in 1903 in Prague during the Habsburg monarchy, Alice grew up in a liberal family where authors, philosophers, painters and actors were regular visitors, among whom were Freud, and Kafka, who was like an elder brother to Alice. As a very young girl she discovered her love for music, and at twenty she was the most famous pianiste in Prague. She travelled through Europe to play in concert halls, until the Nazi regime ended her career. When her mother was deported in 1942, Alice fell into the deepest depression. To hold on to life, she decided to study all 24 piano etudes of Chopin.
Twelve month later, in 1943, then age 39, she and her husband Leopold and their 6 year old son Raphaël were deported to Theresiënstadt (Terezín). For propaganda purposes, Theresienstadt was the only camp in which children were not taken from their parents. It was a 'show-camp' for visitors from the Red Cross, simulating a rich cultural life amongst the inmates. As Alice recounted the experience: "We had to work all day. I only played when I had a concert. Music is so wonderful, it brings you into another world. You are not here anymore."
She gave over one hundred concerts in the midst of hunger, fear and death, and so gave strength and hope to her fellow captives. For her son Raphaël she created a world which helped him to forget camp life as much as possible. Her husband, who played the violin, was sent to Auschwitz in 1944. He died of typhus shortly before the end of the war. After the war she and her son returned to Prague. When Israel was founded, Alice moved to Jerusalem with Raphaël, who became a famous cellist. In 2001 Raphaël died in Israel during a tour. "He used to come every day to eat," she reminisced, "and he was still sitting afterwards and we spoke for hours. Wonderful relationship. He learned from me, I learned from him."
Alice Herz-Sommer had seen the worst life has to offer, having survived the holocaust and owing her survival to the talent she had been blessed with. She was a world famous pianist, recognised amongst musicians like Gustav Mahler (whom she apparently described as a "difficult character"), Antonín Dvorák, Josef Suk, and Vítezslav Novák. "I played especially Czech music, and they were thankful for what I did. Everywhere in the world I played Czech music. People loved it."
Even at the grand age of 107 Alice continued to play for three hours every day: "It's the most beautiful thing I have." Her favourite pieces were Chopins études and Schumann's Fantasia in C Major, which are also the ones she found the most difficult to play. But she started with Bach – "the philosopher of music." She worked hours to learn it by heart. "Bach is the hardest thing. Extremely complicated. I write it down sometimes, out of memory."
"I have had such a beautiful life. And life is beautiful, love is beautiful, nature and music are beautiful. Everything we experience is a gift, a present we should cherish and pass on to those we love."
Alice Herz-Sommer expressed and conducted herself in the face of death and destruction with grandeur, spirit and humor. She died in London at the venerable age of 111 years, Februari 23, 2014
Sunday, May 1, 2016
I have at times found myself fascinated by the attitudes of others to ‘darkness’. So often it seems to be linked to something sinister, even evil, and I wondered why this might be so.
In most contemporary spiritual and New Age thinking it is light which truly matters, and consideration for darkness in any form might meet only with head-shaking disapproval. Darkness is thought of as being something to be banished, even to be conquered. Light, on the contrary, is something to ‘go towards’, to be sought after, to be ‘worked with’. Within Christian doctrine the emphasis is also upon the desire for light and the striving to ‘ascend’.
But in Greek myth it is the story of Icarus, who flew with his strapped-on wings too close to the sun only to plummet to earth, which warns us of a too-eager pursuit towards the source of heavenly light and the folly of the ego in its fixation to attain this bliss. His wiser father Daedalus flew the middle way, between darkness and light, and so landed safely back on earth. It is a simple truth that the farther we go in the direction of the light, the longer and larger the shadows become that we cast behind us.
This simple truth has long been known to the mystics, who valued both darkness and light in equal measure. Darkness was itself viewed as a powerful spiritual instrument, perhaps even fuller of creative potential than light itself. In the light we see exactly what is in front of us. But what darkness might contain is limited only by what we can imagine that it contains. It can be full of unknown worlds awaiting discovery – and perhaps it is. In our universe it actually is visible light that is only a fraction of the whole, and darkness easily predominates. At first we might imagine that the universe itself is ‘out of balance’, for should not darkness and light be in equal amounts?
Eastern tradition speaks of the Paramatma light: that divine light invisible to matter which permeates all things. Surely this invisible light is what provides the balance, for not all things in the universe which provide this perfect cosmic balance need be apparent to our limited senses. Spiritual seekers from many ancient traditions - Celtic, Eastern, Indian, Tibetan and African - have treated the darkness as an instrument for spiritual enlightenment. The literal definition of the word shaman is 'he or she who sees in the dark'. The shaman would say that there is no such thing as darkness: only an incapacity to truly ‘see’.
Western mystics also recognized the importance and the power of darkness. The Gnostics referred to the creator as ‘Dazzling Darkness’, (see my post: Dazzling Darkness) and John of the Cross spoke of "the dark light". The idea of balance is always what lies behind these ideas: neither to concentrate on light at the expense of darkness, nor to become preoccupied with darkness at the expense of light. Spiritually, both are of equal value, and wise Daedalus shows us the course that we should follow.
Painting: Balance is the Key by Aleister Gray
Sunday, April 24, 2016
Sophia, who, personifying the wisdom of the soul, brings the deepest meaning of the Self into our everyday life. Sufis are known as “God’s spies” for they see into the hearts of people where the real mystery and meaning are hidden. Ibn ‘Arabi described Sophia as “an image raising its head from the secrecy of the heart.” She connects us with our own divine nature and so allows us to see the inner purpose hidden within everything. Within all of creation is a hidden message reminding us of our real home, for everything - every leaf and stone - sings the song of its creator.
Through her ears we can hear this sublime song, through her eyes we can see the face of Divinity reflected in every sky and every street. Her greatest wisdom is the way that she beckons us into the beyond. In her highest emanation she is the Divine Sophia, the feminine aspect of the Higher Self. Our union with her is a merging into our own mystery:
I have called you so often and you have not heard me.
I have shown myself to you so often and you have not seen me.
I have made myself fragrance so often, and you have not smelled me,
Savorous food, and you have not tasted me.
Why can you not reach me through the object you touch
Or breathe me through sweet perfumes?
Why do you not see me? Why do you not hear me?
Why? Why? Why?
For you my delights surpass all other delights,
And the pleasure I procure you surpasses all other pleasures.
For you I am preferable to all other good things,
I am Beauty, I am Grace.
Love me, love me alone.
Love yourself in me, in me alone.
Attach yourself to me,
No one is more inward than I.
Others love you for their own sakes,
I love you for yourself.
And you, you flee from me.
You cannot treat me fairly,
For if you approach me,
It is because I have approached you.
I am nearer to you than yourself,
Than your soul, than your breath.
Who among creatures
Would treat you as I do?
I am jealous of you over you,
I want you to belong to no other,
Not even to yourself.
Be mine, be for me as you are in me,
Though you are not even aware of it.
Let us go toward Union.
And if we find the road
That leads to separation,
We will destroy separation.
Let us go hand in hand.
Let us enter the presence of Truth.
Let it be our judge
And imprint its seal upon our union
Painting: Divine Light by Arild Rosenkrantz