Jeremy Driscoll OSB
A Monk’s Alphabet
Moments of Stillness in a Turning World
DARTON - LONGMAN + TODD, 2006
For Paul Murray, OP who helped so much with this alphabet and who helps so much in general
Between the Lines
On the day the war began, I lay down on the floor, flat on my back, to pray. I stared at the ceiling as if looking for heaven, but I could not even get past that ceiling. Still, it seemed God was somehow present to me. Then slowly I felt a force coming into my body, a terrible force. People's suffering was pouring into me: the frightened people in Baghdad and the other cities, especially the children, the soldiers on both sides fighting and dying, prisoners being tortured, people flagging for want of food and water. As all this carne into me more and more, I felt a terrible imbalance in my body. Anguish, restlessness, near despair, a sense of being cut off from God's love, a sense of the whole human race abandoned by him. From time to time I would think that this is perhaps some sharing in Christ's sufferings, his agony. I suppose I know enough theology to have considered that as a possibility. And although such an understanding is an important guide, it really cannot help much inside the experience itself. Otherwise, how much of a sharing would it be? But at least I know from Christ's example how to pray, and I have at least the theoretical hope that it will turn out as resurrection, a hope that perhaps he was closed off from in the midst of his own agony. In any case, imitating his example, I do not cease to cry out "Father!" In fact, I use all of the seven last words of Jesus on the cross to guide my prayer now.
In daily living it seems as if it would be a good contribution to be beside others with a greater graciousness and kindness. I try this, but the whole world seems on edge, myself included. All the more reason, though, to keep on trying. I want to thank God for every day of life and live life's joys in humility. But also here I falter. I have a sense of not deserving to live so well while others are suffering so terribly. Yet this is in God's hands, not mine. If today, while war rages elsewhere, he gives me a peaceful day, food to eat and good people all around me, then I want to thank him in all humility and cherish his gifts. I remember the example of Czeslaw Milosz, who continued to write lyric poetry during the worst days of World War II.
I feel in me a terrible something that I sense as vibrating through the whole world, as gripping billions of human hearts; namely, a sense that we are cut off from God and are left to our own worse instincts. But for the Christian such a thought must be considered a lie, the very conclusion desired by the Evil One who incites us to these wars. So, I am trying to battle against that thought. If the content of Christian faith and hope can vibrate in me, then maybe it can spread to the countless others who are also under the terrifying spell. Doing good - this will be my resistance to what the war has unleashed.
When I was 19, I had a summer job as a cowboy in New Mexico. I went with three friends: none of us knew much about serious riding and work with cattle; but we went to learn, ready for the adventure. We were trained in our new skills by riding alongside real cowboys, both boys and men who had been raised in that land and in that work. Riding home at the end of the day, there would often be long hours of banter. We were amused by the real cowboys, and they were amused by us. The banter would often include the rubric of insulting the horse that the other was riding that day. You were expected to defend your own horse and trash the others.
Some new horses had recently been added to our herd and were without names. We saw that these horses would eventually be dubbed according to what they revealed of themselves after several days of riding. And so our horses had names like Dime (short for Diamond), Dent (caught in barbed wire and so putting a dent in his flank), Flash (who was fast), and other such names, usually of one syllable. One of our new horses was an impressive bay, with beautiful proportions of the black markings on brown that characterize this coloring. My three friends and I took to calling him Beethoven - to honor his beauty, to suggest that there was strong music in his gait. The real cowboys heard with curiosity our three-syllable name for the splendid steed; and in the banter coming home one late afternoon, Beethoven's rider (clearly unaware of the great musician of the same name) asked me, "Why you calling my bay Beethoven?" The Muse of Banter entered me in a flash, and I thought in that moment, sweetly inspired, to say, "Because a toven is a no-good horse and you're riding a bay, so it's a bay-toven." Re didn't know the word toven, and fair enough, for, as I say, it had only just then been invented. But he immediately responded, "Well, it's a bay, but it ain't no toven."
For the rest of the summer "toven" was a word of our banter vocabulary. We all carne to use it in the varying contexts in which there was reason to criticize a horse. I've often wondered if the word might still be in use in that region. I imagine some future entry in a dictionary: "toven, a flawed horse; regional only, Southwest USA; origin unknown."
As a Benedictine monk, I am naturally inspired by the figure of St. Benedict, whose wise document, which we call The Holy Rule, is the basis of our way of life. Re was born in Norcia in Umbria in 480, lived for a while as a student in Rome, left the city disillusioned and became a hermit monk in Subiaco. After fame of his holiness and wisdom spread, he was pressured into founding what became a great monastery, Montecassino. It was there that he wrote The Holy Rule, which exercised enormous influence throughout the subsequent history of Europe. Re was dead by the year 550.
All that we know of his life comes to us from St. Gregory the Great, who was himself a monk before he was pope from 590 to 604. On the cusp of the sixth and seventh centuries, the bishop of Rome lived in a world that is not without parallels to our own. The Roman Empire was crumbling all around him, the culture that had carried the best of pagan and Christian insight was vanishing, and the invasion of barbarians raised the question of whether it would any longer be possible to live the Christian life in depth. One of the ways in which Gregory attempted to give light and hope in such a situation was by recounting the life of St. Benedict, and one of the stories of that life has been especially formative for me. I use it as an image of how I want to work and what I want to think about as a monk and theologian.
The scene which Gregory describes begins with St. Benedict seated quietly at the door of his monastery, absorbed in reading. Suddenly, crashing unexpectedly into the peace of the scene, there comes riding on a horse a rough-mannered and haughty barbarian, shoving before him a poor peasant, who is bound with ropes. The peasant owes the barbarian money and has claimed that his goods are deposited in the safekeeping of Benedict's monastery. Without any introduction or any attempt at graciousness, the barbarian shouts at Benedict, "Get up! Get up! No tricks, just get me this guy's money, which he says you have." What follows is a quintessential monastic moment. It is, if you will, the monastic contribution to the world, the world being represented here in one of its unhappier aspects by the barbarian. We are told that, in response to the barbarian's rude and abrupt command, St. Benedict calmly raised his eyes from his reading and looked for a moment at the barbarian. Slowly his gaze turned toward the poor peasant, noting how cruelly he was bound. This is an image of monastic reading; this is an image of Christian contemplation. The monk, looking up from the Scripture, fixes his gaze on the suffering of the world. In that moment in which Benedict's eyes fell on the suffering man - it could be called the moment in which the light of Scripture penetrates the darkness of human suffering and injustice - a tremendous wonder was worked. The knots in the ropes which bound the man suddenly unraveled, and he stood there completely free. Re, of course, was not displeased; and the barbarian was terribly impressed, and threw himself at St. Benedict's feet, asking for his prayers. Benedict effortlessly returned to his reading, ordering several of the monks to prepare some refreshment for the barbarian. As he was about to depart, Benedict simply took the occasion to tell him not to treat others so cruelly.
With wisdom like this - calm and kind, attentive and straightforward, anchored in the Word of God - St. Benedict created the monasticism that was to have such an impact in the history of Christian Europe and eventually in many other parts of the world. It is a wisdom still needed by us today: in the midst of the massive inhumanity we direct toward one another and see all around us, to stay calmly anchored in the Word of God and to let its power set us free.
Between the Lines
Of course, God cannot be just another of the things of this world, to be noticed also alongside all the rest. God's very being requires more than that, not more in the sense of quantity but in the sense of quality. And so, if God is here at all - and God must be because all the rest is - then it would have to be in the quality of something like "between the lines" of things and persons, of something like the desire which others awaken in us but never satisfy, of something like a hidden radiance that we are longing to see, whose presence we sometimes suspect, but never see.
So then, this is a fine mess: a concrete, marvelous, beautiful world of things and people, and yet no ultimate satisfaction in it, only an increasingly restless heart. I am longing for the divine glory hidden in everything to burst forth and present itself to our vision. How much longer must we wait for this? As the delay continues, our faith and hope naturally weaken. How are we not to look to particular people and things - so exquisite, so beautiful - to satisfy our longing, even when we know quite well that they cannot? All this must be what inspired that poor and simple prayer, "Come, Lord, delay your coming no longer."
Why does a person write? To find a thought. To give form and body to an intuition. To find what it is that makes an idea hold together. Great authors keep repeating themselves. Something profound lies in this. They are working through a few big thoughts and intuitions. These come from the heart; they rise up; and one tries to sound the music in a thousand different ways. It is a thought, a set of thoughts, or one complex thought, that is lived through many years.
The Bible shares in this mystery of writing. It has many human authors, but it is also one big book by one same divine author, who is working out one complex thought. Or it is a whole library of books by this author, employing many literary genres. But what is this writing? It can be pondered from different points of view. They are all placed within a narrative form: "In the beginning ..." - these are the very first words of the very first page, but that structure holds all the way through to the last pages of Revelation. Covenant is perhaps the single most unitary theme of this divine author. Very interesting also is the idea of intervention: God's great, surprising, unexpected interventions in human history. God is the one who intervenes in history from above. In any case, the image of God is continually refined throughout the course of this book, slowly molding historical figures to form one complex figure: a new Moses, a new David with a new Covenant - the awaited Messiah. It is overloaded writing. There are many meanings, many interpretations. In a sense, they are all literal meanings because they are part of what the book has come to mean.
The Bible is like a church - centuries old - which has seen restorations in many styles (e.g., Baroque inside Romanesque) and then is restored to a supposed original, which never in fact really existed. This supposed original is the way that hard core historical-critical exegesis tries to read the Bible sometimes. But all the periods, all the interpretations have a kind of truth - and especially all of them together.
Yet ultimately we are not talking about the Bible until we have faced the strangeness of the Christian Bible and its central message: resurrection. This is something utterly unique, even if we have become too used to hearing it. But it is an extraordinary claim: the survival of each individual historical existence. If this is so, everything is new. History, as we would otherwise conceive it, is over. A new time opens. It is a definitive passage.
We are just a few hours away from Evening Prayer on Christmas Eve, and with our singing we will begin the feast. The day is crisp, cold, and blue - beautiful. There is a lovely slanted light from the feeble sun. I feel quite empty, and I am not expecting to feel otherwise, yet I hope this might be my learning a new kind of hope, hope that is deeper in and less like joys that are too bluntly material. But I do not know. It may just be a great emptiness.
The visual image is that of having a black hole in the middle of me, in my stomach or in the place where my stomach is meant to be. AH around it, the rest of my body and even my person continue to function. I have thoughts, I say and do the right things, I feel the feelings that people feel, I even help people and encourage them. But all of this circles around a darkness in the middle of me.
When I ask myself, "What is it? What does the darkness mean?" I move between two poles as I grope toward an answer. One pole says that this is Evil and all of its awesome power to devour and destroy me, to destroy us all. The other pole says that it is the luminous darkness of the mystery of God. Or to combine the poles in the terms of the Christmas feast: it is God's light come cloaked in the garment of flesh and the garment of sin.
With this hole in the middle of me I will celebrate the liturgy and participate in all the festive gatherings. Lord, show me the way I should go and save me from crumbling. The words of John's prologue describe my hope: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:5)
Paul Murray's book, These Black Stars, arrived in the mail the other day, and I am enjoying reading again on the handsome printed page all the poems I have read before in the manuscript, many of which I had read and discussed with him. As I finished it a first time and read the last poem, called "Beginning," I wondered if I would ever write a poem with such sentiments. I would like to; I am just wondering if it can ever happen for me. He begins,
Now after a long night
Of stillness and longing
That is the night in which I still find myself; and being in the midst of it I wonder if I will ever be able to speak of an "after" to such a night. A few lines later he says
And what I had despaired of so long is here.
I am still despairing, and I see no after.
Ah well - as so many of his poems suggest, if something changes for me, it will not be my own doing but a grace received. I am waiting.
To state it bluntly: Jesus Christ puts me in a relationship with God otherwise impossible to me.
I'm in Paris, and Ghislain and I saw a splendid French classic film this afternoon, Jean-Luc Godard's Ŕ bout de souffle or, in English, Breathless, made in 1959, filmed in Paris, on the streets we pass. It seems primitively made by today's standards, but that precisely is its force. It has the feel of Hitchcock from the same period, at least insofar as the camera is so well used, always speaking by its unexpected angles and many overdrawn scenes. You still feel cinema as a genre of art and not merely, as it is so often now, simply a technical wonder. Ghislain says that all of Godard's films treat the theme of our inability to love. Breathless is certainly about that. A totally cool gangster is betrayed by a New York girl come to Paris, and he truly loved her in his own way. She experiments (shamefully) with him, and in the end he dies for it. His last words are directed to her: "You're a lousy bitch." Then he reaches up, c10ses his own eyes and dies.
My room, with its open windows, is filling with lady bugs and potato bugs. I don't mind, though I wish there were not so many. Yet they are quiet and seem c1ean, unlike the annoying and now sluggish flies, every one of which I would gladly kill. This October afternoon is magnificent. The air is clear and warm. The sun on the valley discloses a miracle of colors: scores of kinds of green in fields and trees, marvelous ranges of browns in other fields and in the changing leaves, yellows and oranges and reds in other leaves, even a great patch of black in a nearby field burned yesterday.
Why does this vision not calm me and give me peace? I think, because it is all passing and even now, for the most part, is unseen. And even if seen, so what? What does it mean? What is it all for?
The bugs are coming into my room because they know that soon it will be too cold for them. It won't be long. We needn't wait till winter. The autumn cold will annihilate them. In here, with me, they will last a little longer. But again, so what? It is no wonder we have constructed ways of living that make us insensitive to all that is around us, inc1uding one another. Who can absorb this much mystery? Who can bear its burden? A thousand years ago, ten thousand years ago, there would have been a bright afternoon like today's in this season of the year. Bugs swarming, panicked at the coming cold. What were those days then? What is this day now?
Splendid countryside, holding very still under the hot sun. On the bus I was looking at the land, admiring it and thinking about Christ. Did I feel his presence? Perhaps. Something filled me briefly between my thoughts and the vision of the land. Perhaps it was he. In any case, it was something very big, elusive, wide like the land, textured like the land, peaceful like my thoughts. I wanted to talk to him directly, to say things to him and interiorly to be sure of his response. But there was none of that. Yet perhaps all that was Christ, ever so much bigger than my small what-I-have-to-say-to-him and what I wish he would say back.