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 Seven — Day of Silence
Is this a dream of mine, or something somebody told me? There is a house full of people, all of them moving and silent, and you cannot know where they are because you cannot hear them moving. It is dark. And so every once in a while, in the dark, suddenly you come upon another person — and you are both surprised, and horrified, to discover one another in the quiet, busy emptiness of the world.
Today, the house reminds me of this dream — except the rooms are full of sunlight, and against every windowpane a bee churns away its noisy presence into dust and nothing.
Perhaps I'm overly sensitive. I do still remember — in my awkward teenage years (ha.) — being invited to a birthday party and, when I arrived, ended up spending the entire evening hanging out with the girl's older sister, talking about who-knows-what downstairs in the basement. It was only afterwards that I discovered I'd only been invited as a courtesy, without any expectation that I would actually show up, and had been engaged by the older sister as an emergency measure, a way to keep me busy and out of the way while the other girls enjoyed themselves (doing hair and make-up or giggling or whatever teenage girls are supposed to do). And yet, I remember very much enjoying the conversation with the older sister, and feeling somewhat proud and gratified that I could hold my own in intelligent conversation with someone so much older than me. Only later to feel embarrassed and ashamed.
There are times on this retreat I have felt this way — so caught up in some conversation or personal musings that I have come to my senses later only to realize there was an expectation (for instance, being competent in the kitchen work) that I had utterly failed to live up to, or that the group as a functioning social entity had moved on to other things while I was still very much in my own head and my own world.
Or perhaps I am just grumpy, irritable, angst-ridden because all I've had to eat today was a small green apple, and there were strangers in our kitchen who were loud, and I couldn't hope to compete, in my silence, for any kind of help or attention. And so again, I feel silly for taking so seriously things — the silence, the fasting — that for all I know the others have already abandoned out of perfectly reasonable pragmatism.
What is the connection between silent contemplation and peace? Is there one? I have been hoping for a bit more detailed explanation, but so far the lesson of this week seems to be that: silent contemplation leads to connecting with God (or merely feeling good?), which leads to being a good person, which naturally involves being peaceful. Several times various speakers have mentioned that they believe without God or religion, there could be no peace — but none of them have gone into the details of exactly why this is. Is it merely the same kind of tendency as thanking Jesus for your basketball win? I think it must be deeper than that.
At the same time, maybe in some ways it really is that simple. Physician, heal thyself! We cannot begin to help others without first, or at least also, helping ourselves — and attending to our needs and our happiness on a spiritual level. Of course, I want to understand the mechanisms whereby connection with God sustains and inspires our peace work — but maybe just because I don't believe in (that) God and yet want so very much to be a good person.
I have been thinking about Brigid as goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft: inspiration, integration and transformation.
O Brigid, inspire me with peace.
O Brigid, heal me through peace.
O Brigid, transform me for peace.
Inspiration — that first thought that the world might be different than it is. The first vision and breath of a new life. Perhaps not even a new world, but a new way for us as individuals and communities to be in this world. That vision of the world as a whole, as a whole which is necessarily beautiful and sublime because we can see its balance and patterns, the way the whole is delicately and gently reflected in all its details. Inspiration as that vision, the breathing-in of the Divine, the gasp of recognition and awe. To begin to work for peace, we must have this kind of vision, this kind of awe and understanding of what is possible in the world. In order to understand what is possible, we need that connection to Spirit which can see all things and appreciate the patterns as they are, can move through those patterns with grace instead of with disruption or conflict.
Integration — and with that vision, we must first work to become whole in ourselves. If we're not whole, then we may be missing bits and parts of ourselves that are off doing damage elsewhere beyond our knowledge. To be effective peacemakers, we must be whole in ourselves and learn to more and shape the patterns of our own lives. This, really, is true of any work, I think — to be effective we must be whole, and bring to bear our whole being on our passions. (Case in point? A person's voice like a flailing limb, cast about without an awareness of the frustration it might be causing. Or another person's frustration can cause them to glare rather than smile at someone passing in the hall (damn it!).) Working to be whole — to know this god in all its parts. When we know ourselves intimately, when we can feel every part of us in relationship with those around us — we can better do our work.
Transformation — yet becoming whole, we must also change. Sometimes working towards wholeness is the necessary first step that makes change possible. Again, if we don't know ourselves as a whole — shadow and all — then we will not be able to see and understand what changes are happening in us. Without wholeness, transformation can be painful or, even worse, fragmented. We must bring all of ourselves along, and yet allow the work of Spirit, to Song of the World, to raise us to a new place. We cannot make peace without the cooperation of Spirit, without being in community with Spirit. We need to participate in Spirit, for participation in Spirit is participation in the World and the Song of the World. The World Song moves in us, changes us, it becomes a modulation and tuning. When we participate in Spirit, transformation of our self is transformation of the world, and transformation of the world is a transformation of the self.
I was struck again during my walk about how intimate spirit and matter are, how they are not separate. Your soul-song is your body — your body sings the song of your soul. And it is completely involved with and tied up in the landscape and the physicalness of your life and your body. Though I am mostly still myself, I am different in Ireland than I am in Pittsburgh, because the land is different and shapes me differently.