A quick anthology (an extract and four short poems) to exemplify one of the aspects of “dancing above the hollow place,” that complex and simple phrase of Ursula Le Guin’s in The Farthest Shore that I first explored a couple of years ago.
First, T S Eliot, striving to express the apophatic in East Coker:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
And then his younger contemporary, Thomas Merton:
When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a home.
Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions.
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.
Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.
What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.
Then the great and painful Elizabeth Jennings, whose poem Teresa of Avila for me has the saint and her experiences just right:
Spain. The wild dust, the whipped corn, earth easy for footsteps, shallow to starving seeds. High sky at night like walls. Silences surrounding Avila.
She, teased by questions, aching for reassurance. Calm in confession before incredulous priests. Then back – to the pure illumination, the profound personal prayer, the four waters.
Water from the well first, drawn up painfully. Clinking of pails. Dry lips at the well-head. Parched grass bending. And the dry heart too – waiting for prayer.
Then the water wheel, turning smoothly. Somebody helping unseen. A keen hand put out, gently sliding the wheel. Then water under the aghast spirit refreshed and quenched.
Not this only. Other waters also, clear from a spring or a pool. Pouring from a Fountain like child’s play- but the child is everywhere. And she, kneeling, cooling her spirit at the water, comes nearer, nearer.
Then the entire cleansing, utterly from nowhere. No wind ruffled it, no shadows slid across it. Her mind met it, her will approved. And all beyonds, backwaters, dry words of old prayers were lost in it. The water was only itself.
And she knelt there, waited for the shadows to cross the light which the water made, waited for familiar childhood illuminations (the lamp by the bed, the candle in church, sun beckoned by horizons) – but this light was none of these, was only how the water looked, how the will turned and was still. Even though the image of light itself withdrew, and the dry dust on the winds of Spain outside her halted. Moments spread not into hours but stood still. No dove brought the tokens of peace. She was the peace that her prayers had promised. And the silences suffered no shadows.
And lastly, although I can’t replicate his indents in the text, R S Thomas’ Waiting, the final stanza of which is also in my breviary:
Face to face? Ah, no
God: such language falsifies
the relation. Nor side by side
nor near you, nor anywhere
in time and space.
. Say you were,
when I came, your name
vouching for you, ubiquitous
in its explanations. The
earth bore and they reaped:
God, they said, looking
in your direction. The wind
changed: over the drowned
body it was you
they spat at.
I pronounced you. Older
I still do, but seldomer
now, leaning far out
over an immense depth, letting
your name go and waiting,
somewhere between faith and doubt,
for the echoes of its arrival.