Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Inner Landscape of Beauty

I first heard John O’Donohue’s voice during a profoundly dark season of my early adult life. I was sick as a dog, barely crawling through a brutal depression, and shut up in a proverbial dark night of the soul. My quest to save the world had been sharply aborted and turned upside-down by a mystery illness, and I’d been pretty much shipped back to a country I thought I no longer had a home in.

So there I was, very alone in a new state, working temporarily in a part-time office job someone had kindly offered me as I attempted to get treatment and maybe heal.

As anyone who’s suffered any kind of non-incidental depression knows, it was a crapton worse than any of the physical suffering I was trying to survive. I could barely think; I could barely pray; I could barely hear God or sense any kind of presence that was once so natural to breathe in. Every day after work, I’d drag myself outside to the forest by my house and trudge through the woods for half an hour in a desperate attempt to stay alive on the inside. Those days when spiritual books seemed full of dry, muted words, trudging through the forest was about as good a prayer as it got.

And then, one day a random newsprint catalog was being passed around the office advertising random overstock stuff sitting in some warehouse, calling our names. Did we want anything? I didn’t see anything interestingexcept...there was this audiobook on cassette called Anam Cara. I had no idea what Anam Cara meant, but there were a bunch of Celtic knot designs on the cover along with a photo of what I [very mistakenly] thought looked like Stonehenge, and I admit I'm a sucker for Stonehenge (primarily because I’ve never seen it in real life, so they say). 

Soon, I was driving to the doctor or grocery store and sitting longer than necessary in parking lots, because I was listening to this voice with the distinct cadence of a native Irish-speaker speaking words to me about the soul, about God, about story, about pain, about connection…that I could actually hear and understand.

I probably listened to those tapes a zillion times. 

Since then, I’ve still yet to read a single book by John O’Donohue; Id get the book…but then find that I just wanted to listen to him talk about all the things he was so excited and inspired and enlivened by. (Because reading big abstract words is a shifty business, but when John O'Donohue says them as he means them, they're authentic and pulsing with life.) Somy experience of his ideas has been solely based on listening to his voice on audiobook. And because of that, when I finally heard The Inner Landscape of Beauty,* Krista Tippett’s monumental 2007 On Being interview with him shortly before he passed on, I felt I was listening to a friend. (Although I’m sure everyone else did, too.)

Anyway, beauty is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. As in beauty will save the world beauty. Of course beauty draws every human being (whether or not we’re aware), but I don’t know that you look for it or recognize your need for it quite as desperately as you do when you’re in pain. Because it’s not simply a pretty landscape; it’s a landscape of power and presence that you see as it is only when your inner eye has been opened. And that landscape can be anywhere, strangely. So…this evening as I was driving home, I listened to John O’Donohue read his incredibly profound 2003 treatise on beauty for a few minutes. And suddenly, I had to shut off the stereo, because I realized I wasn’t really seeing anything, and I needed to see. And then the light hitting the leaves on the trees lining the freeway nearly pierced my heart.

This preamble is way too long, but I had to at least try to explain a little of why this one relatively short conversation/interview meant so much to me. I could be wrong, but I think it was the last time the voice of this philosopher/poet/scholar (who really stayed a priest even after he stepped away from official priesthood) was recorded. So tonight, I couldnt help but return to it and distill a bit of his voice into another “found” poem. (Although Im not sure you can really distill his voice.*) The strangest thing was that I couldnt see these words without hearing them as hed say them...I guess his voice is still uncannily present.

Again, none of these words are technically mine—only the spaces and dots and dashes. I do take full responsibility for playing with the connections between the words (and any possible mis-juxtaposing that may have occurred). So if you don’t think something works, oops.

*If you've never heard it before, listen to the whole unedited interview. Absolutely worth your time. 



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Wind from the South, Zhang Guanghai
The Inner Landscape of Beauty
An interview with John O’Donohue  (a found poem)


I.
Still in the west of Ireland, where I live,
there’s time for things. And when God made time,
he made plenty of it.

Bare limestone laid down by some wild kind of deity—
an ancient conversation between the ocean and stone—
being a child and coming out into that—it was 
waiting like a huge wild invitation to extend 
imagination.

Emerging into a landscape
that is just as much alive as you:
if you go towards it with watchful reverence,
you will be amazed at what it will reveal to you.
You can truly receive time.

There’s an uncanny symmetry
between the way you are outward
and the way you are inward.
And I feel there is an evacuation of
interiority going on in our times.
It’s taking something from inside us.

Surface time:
1) over-structured and
stolen from you;
2) to mistake glamour
for beauty.

Time has become the enemy.
You have become its target and victim.
We vacate our language and evict spirit from it.
We lose sight of how strange we are.

We have no idea what will land on the
shoreline of morning tomorrow.

There’s no fixed world;
the world is coming toward you
and you’re coming toward it,
and between the two of you,
you construct the world.
It’s never as given as it looks;
you’re always receiving and shaping.

So when the mind draws barriers so that
there’s no longer porous space for breathing,
the imagination is committed
to a justice of wholeness.

Draw back inside.
Imagine the surface of the ocean, restless.
Then slip down deep below the surface
where it’s still and things move slower.
There is a place in the soul that neither time,
nor space, nor created thing can touch.

There is a place in you where
there’s a seamlessness, where
you have never been wounded.
                                      

Landscape, Wu Yi
II.
The forces around us are not kind.
The impetus and spur—we need
something to push against
in order to grow.

Dawn goes up
and the twilight comes,
even in the roughest city place.
The outer presence
can be brought inward
as a sustaining thing.

When I think of beauty—
I think of people that cared for me
in bleak unsheltered times;
I think of those unknown people
on the frontiers of awful want
who manage somehow to go
beyond the given impoverishments
to offer gifts of possibility and
imagination and
seeing.

And they are able to sustain it,
holding the humane tissue alive,
because of beauty in them that
knows the horizon we are called to.

Kalon, kalein; the Greek root
for the word beauty is related
to the word for calling—it means
in the presence of beauty.
It’s not a neutral thing.
It’s actually calling you.

The heart of creativity—
this calling forth—
being called to be yourself and
called to transfigure what has
hardened or got wounded within you—
you’re suddenly
surprised.

If you can glimpse sideways
you can endure great bleakness.

You hear it in the music;
even in the fast and the light music.
You hear the undertones and the
quiet spaces where the echo of
this hauntedness comes through.
Friends of mine, when they play,
they’re in another place. They’re
serving the music.

I went to a Tchaikovsky concert
and I said, My god, Im too near.
But then I knew why I was two rows in
the front: this beautiful violinist in her debut
was playing a Stradivarius from 1727.
You could almost see the music hurting her
even when she wasn’t playing.
Everyone was touched—
there were hardened critics there—
and people spontaneously stood up,
and she just held it.
And I cried.
An event had happened.

Even in landscapes of
corrugated control,
You can be swept
off your feet.


Autumn Mountains, Li Huayi
III.
The solid ground we’re on
is so tentative; even mountains
are suspended on strings.
How we cross the line that
separates two territories is key.

Fifty things to do in the middle of your busy
life and you get a phone call that somebody you
love is suddenly dying. Takes ten seconds to
communicate, but when you put the phone down, 
you’re already standing in a different world.

We are missing these thresholds.
In our culture there are no rituals
to help us to cross them worthily,
to separate the grain from the husk.

There is loneliness here
covered over by this fake language of 
intimacy you meet everywhere.

Stand back and see:
that spirit and soul dimensions are not
luxury items; they are the very origins,
the sources which enable everything
to flow and unfold in a new way.

Seeing is birth: the invisible world
can be released and excavated for areas
of ourselves weve forgotten.
At night when the forest is quiet,
these animals come to the water to drink.

When everything else has calmed,
beauty can somehow overtake you.

The visible world is the first shoreline
of the invisible world. Being is always
there, and we’re neck-deep in it.
The little splinter, the fragment that doesn’t
belong—that opening to the eternal in us
means we’re always trying to get home.

It means that when you change time levels,
something can transform quick. There are huge
gestations and fermentations going on in us
that we’re not even aware of. And then, we come
to a thresholdcrossing over to become different—
because secret work has been done in us.

Step back and see:
who are those that truly see me?
We reawaken each other.

Beauty is not a luxury;
it’s the exciting question,
once you awaken to
the presence of God.

Then you are on a real safari with
the wildness and danger and otherness
of God. This idea of intimacy: true belonging,
being seen, the ultimate home of individuation—
the art of homecoming.
Your whole heart wakens up.
The glory of God is you fully alive.

Beauty is about becoming.

When we cross
a new threshold worthily,
patterns of repetition
that had us caught somewhere
heal. We cross on to new ground;
a kind of homecoming 
for the enriched memory 
of your unfolding life.

Where are you stretching your own boundaries?
When is the last time you had a great conversation?
When is the last time you overheard yourself saying
things that you never knew you knew? That you heard
yourself receiving words that found places within you
that you thought you had lost? A conversation that
continued to sing in your mind?

I’d say to anybody who’s listening,
who is maybe being coaxed a little away from
believing it’s all a naïve, doomed, illusion-ridden thing:
You can be surprised.
What a homecoming
it could become.









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