Sunday, May 29, 2016

On the Silent Wings of Prayer

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
unknown murmurs
that yesterday were left
at the waves' edge

Listen to what I release
into the morning:
each tone
another story:
unearthly tableaus
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
for her:
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

I shiver
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

Speaking in Tongues

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

Dancing under the Gallows

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

Light into Darkness

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