In August 2010, just past the waxing quarter moon, I attended a retreat on Celtic spirituality and peacemaking in Northern Ireland. The hosts of the retreat asked us to respect the safe and sacred space created by the community, and refrain from attributing direct quotes to any of the attendants or speakers. With that in mind, the following are excerpts from the journal I kept.
Day Four — Poetry, Landscape, Lectio Devina
I sat to pray by the side of the water, and everywhere in the mountains it was morning. I could watch the sun creep down towards the shore, slowly down the sloping hills, down the green, down from the low clouds where they drifted like hardly-held breath.
I sat to pray, and no words came, except the sacred silence, the intake of breath, the slow and gentle rearranging of my body to open and let in just a little more sky. What kind of prayer could I utter after this? When what I wanted most was only to keep moving, to keep shifting in this way, until every part of me was open, and the waters and the clouds and the mountains in their shining came rolling in.
I wonder if the gods feel this intimacy too, and if, in coming with my ancestors to America, they feel the loss of it as well. Does the land seem larger to them, sprawled out and scaled up — do they miss the smallness of it? That such a small and intimate land could be so full of gods — how could there be enough room? — and yet such a large land have only one.... In some ways it makes no sense.
I woke up at about ten of seven this morning, and slipped out of the house before anyone else was awake. It's so gentle to sit here — though my toes are starting to get cold. I think I'll walk some.
Every poet has their mind full of images — each poem by that poet might have lace, in every poem, or shimmering butter-gold sunlight, or the word "pouring," or the slip of some animal like a knife through the thin flesh of the world. Every poet has an eye and a mouth that holds the world differently, uniquely, the way no one else can.
This is the re-tuning or attuning or attending to the world. We bring ourselves back into tune, we tighten or loosen our being until we can sing in the key of our longing, until we are making the music of the World Song.
What are the themes of my attuning? Perhaps I cannot know unless I do the work, unless I write — for years and many years — and only looking back can recognize the patterns. Or maybe I will never recognize them, and this will be the work of someone else who will know or see me better than I can know or see myself.
Just as the light reached the water, the low clouds overtook it and now there is low fog coming down from the mountains. Mountains. This is such a small land. Over and over I am struck by its delicate minuteness, every detail. There isn't the overrunning of everything everywhere with the same huge corporations and conglomerates. And there could be (and I'm sure locals would say there is beginning to be). Yet maybe its very smallness keeps it safe, keeps it hidden from too hungry eyes. I have an image in my mind now of sprawling America, a whole continent, and how hungry as wolves the powers of consumerism have come sweeping over everything so that everywhere is the same.
Perhaps I should worry that this is not Ireland that I'm experiencing, that I have not seen nearly enough of it to make these kinds of judgements and observations. Maybe this is all what I'm projecting. But then, I can only record my impressions honestly and carefully — and maybe leave to others, or to my future self, to discern what of this is me, and what of it is the land in which I am moving and sleeping and listening.
As if there could be such a difference.
I think Spirit has to find people where they are, and that these experiences really are available to everyone. No need to threaten their religion or their current beliefs. Just show them beauty and connection, and they will follow their longing where it leads them, towards that sacred place, that song and center.
At home — I had no roles to play that I was unsure about. There's a routine at home, and you know what others' expectations are and when they're reasonable and when they're not. And my life is in some ways so anti- or non-social, it's usually easy for me to navigate the few relationships that I need to. But here, there's so much, so many people, and so many chances to step on toes or say the wrong thing.
We are such fragile creatures and we care so much. Why should I care if the others think I'm a wet blanket? Why should I care if this or that person was a bit cold to me? Maybe it is my own tiredness and uncertainty and self-doubt projecting outwards. Maybe I'm really worried that my behavior comes across to others as a "cold shoulder" and I'm locating that behavior outside of myself.
How do we ever manage to establish intimacy and honesty with other people with these kinds of barriers and projections always in the way? This is why I'm an introvert — I have no answers to these questions. I don't know how to navigate these things.
As C. said earlier about introverts — give them a script and it's a kind of safety net or comfort zone. But here I have no script, no way in which I can communicate my sincerity in a way that I can be sure will be understood. When there is that script, that shared social ritual, then the form is well-known and taken for granted, and the substance can be perceived and appreciated more directly. Without the script — the substance is in part the form itself, the form we choose and what that says about the substance. As a writer and artist, I know this. But as a socializing person, perhaps it's that I don't trust in my own spontaneity, my own ability to spontaneously create and construct the appropriate social form for the substance of my sincerity, as much as I wish I could.
I wonder — is there a way in which listening can feel intrusive? I don't mean eaves-dropping, but something else. Sometimes I feel that I listen so intently to a person when they're talking — and this is becoming increasingly the case as the week goes on and I move from that place of waiting for my turn to speak and tell my story, to a place where I am just totally immersed and involved in the other person's story — sometimes I wonder if this is kind of an auditory form of staring. Does it make others uncomfortable or vulnerable, to have that witness there?
I think Sartre wrote about the power of the witness, the seeing and witnessing Other — he wrote that hell was other people, because their presence to us and awareness of us was reflected and echoed back in a way that gifted us, sometimes terribly, our own self-awareness of being the seeing seen. I'm not sure I've got his views exactly right — but there is something about witness and attention that makes us vulnerable, and perhaps even to some extent ashamed.