Saving & Being Savable

The sun was out and a stiff breeze blew as I crossed the bridge to the library to pick up some books for the weekend. I noticed the flags were flying at half-mast and in a flash remembered that it was the 3.11 memorial day for the East Japan disaster of 2011.

I was out walking that afternoon and this, riverside. To be in the presence of water – life giver & death dealer – seemed right. My spontaneous prayer was a quiet walking meditation along an enchanted, little-used path that touched, as I was capable of sustaining the images, on catastrophes of scale utterly beyond my understanding.

In my mind, somewhere, somehow, I re-see the roiling black waves, living nightmares, looming over seaside towns up east, insatiable, leaving profound devastation in their wake. Is this a face of God? The elemental face of the Deep, beyond our human ken?

In my body, I register the way the light shines, the luminous jade colour of the riverbed, and I catch sight of the little placidly paddling nutria pup hoving into the sparkles under the overhanging boughs, beside the scrubby, sun-bleached pale yellow reeds. Easy to feel the Presence here. Even to exalt.


Miroslav Volf recently tweeted:

 Our task is not to save the world; only God can do that. 

 Our task is 

 to protect and enhance flourishing life 

 in a world we cannot save.


I was struck, and a little annoyed (feeling I should know), by the question: What does ‘save’ mean here? [1]. Keep the same? Rescue? (From what/whom? For what/who?) Is the message emancipatory, hopeful? Something about limits? Does it have anything to do with its Latin roots in ‘health’ (salvus) or its other cognate, ‘holiness’? Is the message meant to be anti-hero/anti-individualist, inviting a non-zero sum play, instead? [2] Not, of course, that the positive task of protecting and enhancing the flourishing of life is for sissies. But, inescapably, for me, at least, when I think about what it could mean to ‘save the world’, it is to that benighted figure from the myths, Sisyphus, that my mind goes.

I wondered, watching as much as I could, my collar soaked in tears, the deeply terrifying National Geographic-edited live footage of the disaster: What is saving for? Why save? What is worth saving? Is what is saved unchanged and/or unchanging? How does one live, being saved, with trauma? In certain lights the answers present with absolute clarity. One saves because one chooses Life. Perhaps what troubles me is the assertion that our work is not to save the world. That ‘the world’-whatever that means- cannot be saved, by us (be made to conform to our fantasies?) seems evident. On the other hand: who else is there, to meet it, as it is, in the vein of St.Teresa of Avila, but us?


Something Dame Ellen MacArthur said in a recent interview stuck in my brain: deep water is safer than shallow. This burrowed in as I read more about tsunami. When the conditions are bad, the advice goes, move either to higher ground or further away (inland or toward the horizon), or into deeper waters, the deeper, the better (it’s friction that increases the devastating power of the wave). [3]

There are times when it appears we can do things to be savable. Equally, there are times when we cannot, and we sink. It may be terrible this self-emptying, responding to what we do not choose, what we do not will for ourselves. To answer with surrender means a rejection of what we may have once imagined as true of saving and of safety. It is, essentially however, an expansion. A busting of limits. The submission represents, paradoxically, a leap, beyond, into the Unknown. The act of surrender moves us out of shallow waters, farther from the shore and into the deeps. Then what? I like to think, and hope, that the saving graces here continue to unfurl, even while they happen off the page, underground, in darkness, outside of the range of human comprehension.
Volf is right about one thing: while we can, let us choose Life, and in any way open to us, protect and enhance flourishing.


[1] A quick look in a dictionary calmed me somewhat. It is a word with a lot of meanings.

[2] Robert Wright describes the non-zero sum game as the kind in which everyone’s interests are aligned, so that everyone wins or loses together. Wright argues that history tends towards more and more non-zero-sum co-operations and higher … levels of social complexity. See Alex Evans’ The Myth Gap, 41-2.

[3] I blush to think how closely this aligns with my reflexes where conflict is concerned. There is useful friction, we can agree, I think, and then there is the corrosive and ultimately destructive kind. Discernment advised!


Ascension: Becoming Fully Alive

I flipped open a book on my desk before I set out and read this:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e.e. cummings

I flung open the doors and into my senses an early summer’s day rushed.

The fullness of green entered, a layered patchwork of hues. Nightingales sang at full throttle, holding notes, trilling through bird scales with brio, racing up and down the sound spectrum, whipping out intricate lassos of sound (I their captive!) From a bench in this verdured auditorium this exuberant performance leaves all other cheeps and chirps, tweets and twitters pale, seem, even, brave.

An early risen cicada family quack, but these are lonely Matins to me. The full force of their choir is months away.

IMG_1555Dizzy butterflies, a piece of turquoise sky in their wings, dance along the path in front of me.

Immaculately drawn fields, curved lines and straight, await their rice seedlings. Knee-high already, the young green, grainy heads of barley stand alert.

Wild wisteria hang in large voluptuous lilac and white clusters, bees their nectar sucklings. From above, jasmine blossoms scent the ways; from below, the sweet rain-drenched earth mixes with pleasantly astringent notes of cypress and artemesia. There that deep, clean, green smell of forested hills soaks your soul.

Royal purple irises are growing tall on small islands in the pond, bright yellow buttercups litter the river banks and a heron standing stock-still seems to be doing her impression of a rock, knee deep in the stream. We eyeball each other a while. I do not blend quite as well. The rock is steadfast. I move on.

Homeward bound, with the sounds of The Messiah coming in through my ears, again. Strangely, I was not able to listen to it for Easter as I usually do. But straight to my heart these words came:

And the glory, the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all flesh will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah, 40:5)

All flesh, I heard, then – was it ‘will see’, or ‘will sit’, together? See makes sense, a synonym for know, but it’s nice to imagine me, and the birds, and the bugs, and the people, and the dogs, and the fish-the council of all Beings-sitting together and seeing each other for the first time, in glory.

I wonder about the mystical mouth.

But who may abide the day of his coming?
And who shall stand when he appeareth? (Numbers, 7)

Will I? Will the birds? Moses could. Could I?

For He is like a refiner’s fire . . .

My version of this recording features the Welsh mezzo soprano, Helen Watts. In this line I find notes just like the belly laugh of a friend beyond the veil. There is delight in that, but also a chill. The sublime depth of expression here has always seemed to me to express a terrifying beauty.

I think of the wildfires in Canada.

(He shall) Purify (the sons of Levi) . . . that you might offer up to the Lord an offering in righteousness (Mal.3-1-3)

Can I cultivate the spaciousness of heart that will bear this Purifying fire? Can I maintain equanimity and trust? I know, in my bones I know and I believe, I can do nothing alone. (And I would happily toss the haunting whisper of solipsism into that fire.)

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion

get thee up into the high mountain;

O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem

lift up thy voice with strength;

lift it up, be not afraid;

Say unto the cities of Judah,

Behold your God!
(Is.40: 9)

At sunset, I am facing the hills to the northwest, rapt. What are these words that feel so potent, so tender, so encouraging?  What is this world, so beautiful? Several ancient, stone buddha figures stand outside the little white shrine at the side of the field and keep watch with me. An otter pup glides up to the shore near the bridge. Around me waft the smells of woodsmoke and fertiliser. A red tractor rumbling softly nearby is ploughing the fields, the farmer aglow.

Arise, shine;

for thy light has come,

and the glory of the Lord

is risen upon thee!
(Is. 60:1)

Peering (‘earing) into the Darkness, or Modern Iconography

My last couple of posts have been concerned with the emergence of ugly things but I find that if i can sit long enough and wait and allow my fists (literal & figurative) to unclench, stillness ensues and comfort comes.

Once upon a time I was a student of Joanna Macy’s (if you don’t know her, you should. Start here.) We were, as it happens (see previous posts), learning to mourn. Everyone feels sad every now and again, but this exercise was aimed more at facing the arrogance of humanity & its complicity in the degradation of God’s creation, specifically of the natural world. Each of us was to choose an object from nature with which to dialogue, just the kind of exercise that, while seeing, in principle, the value of, I must confess to finding, personally, utterly cringeworthy. I chose a rock. Joanna signed the book Thinking Like a Mountain, ‘To Dear Rock’.

This came to mind a few evenings ago crossing the bridge on foot on my way home. That day my mind had been blown by the images of Young Tau, that precocious little million year old star, 450 light years* away, with its flamenco skirt swinging around it, a disk positively shining, made up of a series of bright, concentric rings, separated by gaps .

young tau

This is what I read from the press release from the European Southern Observatory site:

“Stars like HL Tau and our own Sun form within clouds of gas and dust that collapse under gravity. Over time, the surrounding dust particles stick together, growing into sand, pebbles, and larger size rocks, which eventually settle into a thin disc where asteroids, comets and planets form. Once these planetary bodies acquire enough mass, they [and please note the striking collection of verbs that follow!] dramatically reshape the structure of the disk, fashioning rings and gaps as the planets sweep their orbits clear of debris and shepherd dust and gas into tighter and more confined zones.”

I was remembering the stone, the living stone, the stone becoming,






Will you ever look at a stone again in the same way? Will it not be illumined?

The science–the knowledge–is amazing enough but what particularly interests me, aside from the sheer poetry of creation and humanity’s participation with it, is the fact of the image(s). A new image. Something never before seen. We are saturated in imagery in this age. Can we take it in? This is something that humanity has never before seen! This plays wildly in my mind.

High on a plateau in Chile, in a large desert expanse, there is what looks to be a little field of mushrooms with their domed caps turned upward.

Image by Babak Tafreshi

By Babak Tafreshi

This is Alma, the Atacama Large Millimetre Array. Alma is very clever and I would say synaesthetic for she can take even better pics than Hubble, but she is not in the business of capturing light. Alma tunes in to radio waves instead and these, it turns out, are like the X-ray specs I used to read about in comics. Word is that the radio sky looks quite different than the visible sky. If you ever looked at the sky with a radio telescope you wouldn’t see pin-prick stars, you’d see it looking perhaps fuzzier, filled rather with distant pulsars, star-forming regions, and supernova remnants. Alma can see right through the massive cloud of dust and gas Young Tau is dancing behind and she does this by cooperating with another antennas in the field. Mostly antennas are a couple of kilometers apart. Alma is considered one of the greats because she plays with others at a distance of about 15 kilometres to make her gorgeous ‘radio images’!

I confess I don’t really get it all in a scientific sense. I don’t know what it means that radio waves are longer than optical waves and I don’t know whether that is even of importance to understand. I know what I see. But these images are iconic in the true sense: a sign of the presence of God, something that travels a path from the visible to the invisible, the material (pixelated) to the spiritual. They are images, sacred doorways indeed, to pray with.


*what is a light year really, you ask? See here.

Listening (to good scents)

Star Festival (Tanabata) decorations (image by OK)


The star festival celebrated in east Asia as the planet makes its earliest, barely noticeable, dip toward autumn has the legend of a love story attached to it. Each year, on the seventh day of the seventh (lunar) month we wonder: will the cowherd boy (Altair) be meeting the weaver princess (Vega) across the Milky Way? I’ve long thought of this event as a summer festival with resemblances to some traditions around the winter Christmas festival. Instead of decorated evergreens, for example, tall stalks of bamboo can be found all over town. These are festooned with colorful pieces of paper on which, in beautiful calligraphic script, wishes are written. Should the star lovers meet the wishes are bound to come true. Once, wishes for greater skills in the arts–writing, painting, music and weaving–were traditional. One story has it that, if on the day of the star festival, you collect water from a lotus leaf to use for grinding ink on your inkstone, your longing to become better skilled in calligraphy could be fulfilled.

Silver Puddle Lotus

Lotus leaf puddle mirror (image by OK)

Collecting this enchanted water would most certainly have been possible on the night of the Star Festival as a light rain was falling on the evening I made my way over to the island and through the forest to the big thatched house in the Garden where the incense ceremony, my favorite summer game, was to take place. The air had that rain-freshened earthy, green cleanliness about it, accented by faint hints of moss, fragrant bark and damp undergrowth. The theme of this year’s ceremony (naturally enough) was the Star Festival, though it was plain that we would not be seeing the lovers meet. Outside the front door a pot of pink lotus blossoms wore delicate silver raindrops and in their large elephant ear-like leaves lay puddles like mirrors.

There are certain tastes and smells in east Asia that one is said to ‘hear’ and I’ve always found this synaesthesia quite delightful: one ‘listens’, for example. to incense.

photo (1)

I had been thinking of listening having come across, for the first time, the concept outlined by a 70s era theologian, of ‘hearing to speech‘. If you have ever experienced such a hearing, it is something you never forget.

Depth hearing […] takes place before the speaking – [it is] a hearing that is far more than acute listening. A hearing engaged in by the whole body that evokes speech –a new speech—a new creation. (Morton)

Living where I do and between languages and cultures this particular quality of intimacy is now rare in my life. But I was reminded of this kind of hearing again in the reading for the recent feast* of the Assumption that tells of the encounter of Mary & Elizabeth as their bodies began to stir with the promises of the prophets.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, [… she] was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth said to her cousin,”As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

I have always loved this sound-activated spurt of inner joy. Who does not thrill to the sound of the beloved?

*(Gentle reader: a tangential question. Have i missed something? Why do they use the word “solemnity” rather than “feast” nowadays, I wonder? There is a place for solemnity, I know,but it is an inner, mental posture whereas a feast is a communal, relational celebration. Does not the latter seem more apt, at least for something as wonderful as this encounter?)

The surround-sound cicadian racket seemed to have been dampened. The only sound was that of the subtly percussive effects of the rain on the leaves of the surrounding trees. Our footsteps crunched on the gravel as we walked toward the door, my friend wearing a softly colored kimono with a playful obi featuring the image of a seasonally apt cricket cage.


Small calligraphy box set (image by OK)

We knelt in the spacious tatami room on a red mat in places each marked by a small calligraphy set (ink stone, block of pressed ink, brush), prepared the ink and, using our brushes, filled in our carefully folded score papers. The game began with the master setting the scene by telling the story of the star-crossed lovers. There would be (a whopping!) seven rounds of incense he said. First, two scents would be circulated, the first representing the Cowherd and the second the Weaver. The aim of the game would be to identify which scent, of the seven rounds to follow, belonged to each.

Listening to incense makes me aware of different parts of my mind becoming animated. There is nothing linear (IFTTT) or strictly rational about distinguishing between very slightly different blends of fragrance. It is like having a sense experience of grace; no will in the world can command it. The purpose is play (something many
adults don’t get enough of), to relax, attend, enjoy and allow yourself, as you become in-fused, (and sometimes a little con-fused :), to be, above all, in the manner of Elizabeth & Mary, enthused (en-theos-ed).

Mirrors, a Summer Reflection

At the heart of the up and coming Extremely Large Telescope they are building in Chile, there will be a mirror. That mirror that reminds me of a honeycomb. A rather large honeycomb, though, which is about half the size of a football field.
This curved mirror will be segmented, all 39.3 metres wide of it, and consist of 798 hexagonal mirrors, each 1.4 metres across and 5 centimetres thick. It will catch loads more light than is currently possible and be able to create images 16 times sharper than those of the Hubble. (Do these numbers not strike you as Biblical in the manner of Noah-like cubits, say?) This amusingly-poorly-named telescope (younger relative to its neighbouring ‘Very Large Telescope’) will enable some astonishing depth of vision, however. Astronomers will look further into space in more detail than ever before. Stretch your mind into this:
This telescope will be so powerful that it will collect enough light to look to the observable limit of the Universe – soon after the Big Bang when the first stars and galaxies formed.
I don’t really know what this means. Sometimes I get glimpses or fleeting dreams leave a taste.
I wonder: Do each of us have mirrors collecting light in our hearts? Is that what a soul is?

I was thinking about the glass.
The primary symbol of self-discovery, self-knowledge, contemplation and reflection is the mirror.
The earliest mirror known was water, in the surface of which the human saw her soul reflected. Like consciousness itself, the mirror possesses the capacity to reflect the actuality of the visible world.
I was daydreaming about the telescope, and light and seeing to the edges of the known, as I buzzed by a few silvery flooded rice paddies on an errand earlier in the week. How could I not think of Alice and her Looking Glass? What if, I thought, we could see a patchwork of rice-paddies from a bird’s eye view? Or, say, from space? Would they not look like eyes, too, mirrors or gateways? Who would take time to reflect at edges of these pools? Who would dare to follow Socrates injunction to ‘Know Thyself’?
Mark Miodownik writes of the reflexive relationships; I wondered about glasses and our sense of ourselves.

The material world is not just a display of our technology and culture, it is part of us. We invented it, we made it, and in turn it makes us who we are.

This is a lovely idea:
Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself.
Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies.
We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, its magnificence.
Alan Watts
So is this:
Christ has no body but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion on the world.
Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which Christ blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes:
You are Christ’s body.
Christ has no body on earth but yours.
St. Teresa of Avila
And this, the simplest formulation:
We are a way for the universe to know itself.
Carl Sagan
This week, post-solstice, we are celebrating, serendipitously, the feasts of Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart. Here, in the northern hemisphere, the very fullness of life is vivid around us.
May we know the body as temple and consent to shine the light that is uniquely ours to share.
Images: wiki commons

Up in the Air

The Feast of the Ascension has passed and soul-kindling is being gathered for the feast of Pentecost. I am thinking aerial thoughts.

Over the weekend, I encountered, for the first time [here], the superb story of Henri Nouwen’s friendship with The Flying Rodleighs, a troupe of trapeze artists. The story seems to have resonated with a number of other things lately on my mind. The story goes,

One day while he was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, Henri fell into a discussion with him about flying. The acrobat told Henri this: “As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.”

Henri asked him to explain how it works. “The secret,” Rodleigh said, “is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar.” “You do nothing!” Henri said, surprised. “Nothing,” Rodleigh repeated. “The worst thing the flyer can do it to try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe’s wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.”

I am reading Endo Shusaku’s collection entitled Foreign Studies at the moment. Endo’s book is-and is not-a memoir. Its core energy is melancholic and aggravating, a masterfully sustained mood that expresses the vulnerability of being foreign and the deep unease the characters experience studying in France away from their native Japanese environment. I picked it up out of curiosity and perhaps also for consolation. Sometimes, even after 20 odd years away from home I want it affirmed that foreignness can be a fragile condition. Endo interests me as a cosmopolitan Japanese, and as a Christian, and also as someone who questions whether the two can, or do, ever really fit together. (Should they, I wonder? I mean snuggling with (any) ideology seems to me not such a good idea . . . ). In Foreign Studies, Endo elaborates the ‘unfathomable distances’ between cultures , between differences in daily life, customs, social mores and ways of thinking. Indeed, the strength of alienation in his characters might lead one to strongly suspect Endo had little hope that meaningful East-West dialogue was actually possible. In his later reflections, however, he gives some ground saying that

despite the mutual distance and the cultural and linguistic differences that clearly exist in the conscious sphere, the two [cultures, East and West] hold much in common at the unconscious level.

There’s a connection between the book and the aerialists in flight; or, rather, the connection is the moment of disconnection, that sublime moment when things, bodies or minds or simply possibilities, could go either way. That moment when the flyer is in flight and the catcher has not yet caught. Endo suggests that what we are not actively in control of (the unconscious) is what has the greatest potential to save us. The flyer, as Nouwen learned, must trust that connection will be made.

For fun I am appending this reliably beautiful post from a guy who is a rock star in my galaxy. Here is Ben Myers’ post on my favourite animator, Hayao Miyazaki, called “In Praise of Air

Oh, to be clipclopping along on the back of an Ox . . .

Lately I have been remembering a good slow walk I took with Thich Nhat Hahn and a large bunch of friends, known and unknown, in an Oakland park in 2000. It was the kind of walk that was beautiful, strange and otherworldly in so many ways. With all that company just as ordinary, and just as weird (or even weirder) than you looked or felt, walking as if for the first time, any sense of cringey self-consciousness was cancelled out. There we were: open, intentional, attending, grateful.

That walk has been on my mind because a couple of weeks ago, as a result of a misstep, my knee caps have become partially (and temporarily, pleasegod!) untrammelled. I have been decelerated and now walk with an ungainly hobble or an oozingly slow gait. I take great pleasure in the monk-shuffle-one-small-step-for-humankind type of walking when I have committed to a slow walk but my ordinary velocity from place to place is rapid. To me, walking is medicine. St Francis de Sales said “Half an hour’s meditation is essential except when you are very busy. Then a full hour is needed.” Replace the word ‘meditation’ with ‘walk’ and you get the picture. (Though as walkers will tell you, walking itself often is a meditation . . . even when you don’t do it in a formalised manner)

Serendipitously I came across Mags Blackie’s recent pensees on questions of freedom and was especially (and perhaps obviously) struck by one on Interior Freedom [see posts on May 14, 19, 23]. In her series of reflections she raises questions about fears and insecurities, how one appears to others, one’s engagement with the Idealised Self and the degree of transparency one is able to bench press. How apposite as I make reluctant acquaintance with Limitation.

Mulling over this notion of Interior Freedom I was reminded of one of my favourite stories from the Buddhist tradition that comes in handy with any and all kinds of problem solving: the parable of the OxHerder. It is a story about being human. At the moment, I’d be grateful to hitch a ride on the Ox – making peace with the condition in which I find myself – but truthfully, I estimate myself to be around the 4th stage.  The Ox & I have to go a few rounds yet before I return to the marketplace utterly transformed and completely – blessedly – ordinary.

Parable of the OxHerder



A Wholly Loving Gaze: Questions for a Waiting Room

Finding myself in a hospital waiting room yesterday for a large chunk of the day, I was grateful to Mike Higton for these marvellous, dizzying riffs on the central question at the core of the Christian gospel:

What difference would it [make] if I . . . let myself believe that . . . I was held in a wholly loving gaze?

“What difference would it make if I believed myself subject to a gaze which saw all my surface accidents and arrangements, all my inner habits and inheritances, all my anxieties and arrogances, all my history — and yet a gaze which nevertheless loved that whole tangled bundle which makes me the self I am, with an utterly free, utterly selfless love?

What difference would it make if I let myself believe that I was held in a loving gaze that saw all the twists and distortions of my messy self, all the harm that it can do and has done, but also saw all that it could become, all that it could give to others, and all that it could receive?

And what difference would it make if I saw each face around me . . . as individually held in the same overwhelming, loving gaze?

What difference would it make if I believed each person around me to be loved with the same focus, by a love which saw each person’s unique history, unique problems, unique capacity, unique gift?

And what difference would it make if I believed that this love nevertheless made no distinctions between people more worthy and people less worthy of love, no distinctions of race, religion, age, innocence, strength, or beauty: a lavish and indiscriminate love?

. . . to believe in such a loving regard, and to let belief in it to percolate down through all the sedimented layers of my awareness, may indeed be shattering. Such unfettered acceptance is utterly disarming; to believe such good news, such a Gospel, [seems to be] very, very difficult.”

Mike Higton, pp1-2. Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams (lightly edited)

 Yes: you may now gaze off into space. May your contemplations be fruitful!