Monday, 22 September 2014

Saint Teresa of Avila -- Listening to her story

 This month Adrian Jones gave a presentation at the Spiritual Reading Group, held at the Carmelite Library, on the ‘Vida’ or ‘Life’ of Saint Teresa of Avila. Here are some of Adrian’s words, written in reflection at home after the session.

We have come to value the telling of story. We realize that it is in hearing the life journey of one another that we can know the person and the source of their wisdom. While Teresa of Avila has written such classics of the spiritual life as The interior Castle (seen as her masterpiece), and The Way of Perfection (written primarily for her sisters) a study of her Life or Autobiography will lay out for us her journey of transformation. Teresa, in prose that at times is difficult to follow, tells of her struggle with herself, with God and with those who were suspicious of the story of her surrender to the intrusion of God into her life.


Teresa’s autobiography was written just before 1565 but the original version has been lost. The book consists of four parts: Chapters 1-11, are mainly biographical; Chapters 12-22 give a description of the life of prayer using the imagery of watering a garden. Chapters 23-31 speak of her experiences with God and what she sees as teaching us about progress in spiritual life and Chapters 32-32 give the history of the reform of the Carmelite order in Spain as led by Teresa. The Life was actually written in stages. The biographical part was written first and later parts were written at the suggestion of her spiritual advisors as something of an apologia for her chosen life of reform and her prayer experiences.


The third child of her father Alonso’s second marriage, Teresa grew up in a prosperous family where she was happy. Hers was a family in which her religious sense was encouraged. She had a strong personal awareness of the humanity of Jesus Christ which stayed with her throughout her life. She was a lively social girl and young woman who in the vibrant spiritual climate of Spain in the 16th century felt the call to religious life. When at the age of 20 she joined the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation in Avila in 1535, her joy in doing so was mixed with sadness, sadness at leaving her father especially and unhappiness because he was not happy with her choice of vocation. As we shall see Teresa’s strong attachment to her father contrasted with what almost amounted to pity for her mother, had interesting effects on her life’s journey. She saw her mother’s lot as restricted to one of bearing children and Teresa was not greatly attracted to such a married life.
 Teresa’s social nature along with her felt love for God prospered for a few years in the regime of the convent of the Incarnation at the time. The convent lived the medieval life of liturgical prayer and communal life. There was not the strong emphasis on private prayer and its forms which was growing at that time in Spain.
From 1538 Teresa began to feel dissatisfaction with how her life was going. She felt pulled in different directions and being someone of strong affections the dissatisfaction grew. Her father died in 1543 and because of her strong attachment to him the event added turbulence to her unsettled life which expressed itself in an illness severe enough that she went to live with her uncle to recuperate. . As often happens, one of the side effects of such an event was that he introduced her to a book by the Spanish Franciscan Fra Osuna called The Third Spiritual Alphabet. The core of this book was a call to practice what was called the prayer of recollection a way to find the God within. There was a call to just be in the presence of God and this exposed Teresa to be open to the direct invitation to be familiar with God. Teresa continued to be encouraged by the wisdom of this book over the next 20 years of her life.
The way in which Teresa lived through the period from 1538 till 1556 seems to exemplify the mid life experience of many. We have developed a way of living, a career, but there are stirrings within us inviting us to go deeper to live more from what we might call our centre, from who we are.
The challenges for Teresa were found in her gifts. She was a lively outgoing person who had rich and varied relationships. She felt strongly about the people she loved and the people with whom she lived. However given the choices she had made in her life, she was torn in her relationships between the God who was calling her to life through being a Carmelite nun and the rewards and demands of the relationships with others. In her Life (Ch. 7, 17) she speaks of living a burdensome life, “because in prayer I understood more clearly my faults. On the one hand God was calling me; on the other hand I was following the world. All the things of God made me happy; those of the world held me bound. It seems I desired to harmonize these two contraries- so inimical to each other-such as the spiritual life and sensory joys pleasures and pastimes.”
We need to understand Teresa’s language and how she saw the human person. The prevailing philosophy saw us compartmentalized. Our outer layer was seen as the sensory layer through which we took all we knew of our world. The next layer was the soul layer where we functioned psychologically. We would say it is our life as managed by our persona or ego. The inmost part was the spirit, the deepest part of our life and the place where we meet God intimately.
Teresa saw her life as burdensome because she was trying to hold a middle road to control from the place of the ego the pull of God and the attraction and demands of others and life in general. She sought to have an EFFECTIVE detachment from others, one which she could control and then she could live her life in peace. She came to realize after the long struggle of 18 years that what was needed to live at peace was AFFECTIVE detachment. This was not a denial of herself or the giftedness of relationships with others and our world. What was called for was that she be IN TOUCH WITH HERSELF and what was her heart’s desire. This came to her the more she allowed herself to become IN TOUCH WITH GOD.
Teresa speaks of the value of praying to develop our being in touch with God. She says (Ch.8, 2) “though we are always in the presence of God it seems to me the manner is different with those who practice prayer for they are aware he is looking at them.”
She also says in the same chapter (No. 12) “I did not put all my trust in His Majesty and lose completely the trust I had in myself. I searched for a remedy, I made attempts, but I did not understand that all is of little benefit if we do not take away completely the trust we have in ourselves and place it in God.”
Teresa needed to have the whole of her experience brought to her depths so that she could live out of that place and not from the half way house of the control of her ego.
We again need to understand Teresa’s language here. When we hear her speak of ‘losing complete trust in myself’ she is not speaking about a person’s proper self esteem. We have learnt in our own times of the barrier that poor self esteem can be to personal and indeed spiritual maturity.  However when we look to theories of personal maturity we note that a sense of self esteem is hopefully gained reasonably early in life so that in the later stages of life we can be called beyond ourselves to have intimate relationships with God and with others whom we are called to serve.
What happened for Teresa was that when she finally became overwhelmed by the love of God in her life, she saw herself, others and her world in a new light.
Conversion for her amounted to a powerful experience of God at the centre of her life and an awareness that the rich life of creation and relationships which she loved and lived could only have meaning in the light of God at the heart of the person. Her immediate life of interest was understandably the life of the Carmelite. She wanted her sisters to live as closely as they could the life of the early Carmelites of Carmel. The ideal of these men choosing to live in the presence of God spoke to her profound discovery of God at the centre of her life. This prompted her to seek to live a reformed life based on the original rule of the Carmelites who lived on Mount Carmel. This she attempted to do with the founding of the convent of St Joseph in Avila in 1562.

Selected Readings

The following selections from Teresa’s autobiography might flesh out the brief sketch of her life above:

Ch 7: 16-19 her experiences at a significant time in her life

·         How to live at such times, e.g. death of loved ones, stirrings for change from within, when because of how we are feeling we are tempted to give up on the practices which we have known have been life giving for us.
·         She was surprised that in her time of felt inadequacy, sinfulness before God, God showed her with gifts and she found this harder to accept than she would some kind of correction.
·         (7:20 value of  friendship/spiritual direction at this time to discern how to respond to and handle our experiences)

Ch.14:9-11, ch.15:1-4       Giving oneself over to God.

·         14:9 God leaving the person humbled to understand that progress is based on God’s gifting the person
·         14:11 She realized that she had been ‘carried out of her soul’ to praise God better. She notices change the beginnings of the prayer of quiet.
·         14:12 Looking back on one’s life in the light of the experience of God’s grace
·         15:1 won’t be able to sustain this state ourselves because it is purely the gift of God.
·         15;2 many achieve this state but few pass beyond. She also seems to refer to the sadness of those who have experienced these gifts and then for whatever reason,  given up.
·         15:3 Don’t abandon prayer if challenges, ‘serious faults’(15:2) come to the fore to discourage us.
·         15:4 the challenge for us of seeking the delights of this kind of prayer.
o   The delight from God will be notices no matter how small it is.
·         15:5 The importance of getting some understanding of God’s gifts to us and responding as ‘good friendship’ requires.

Ch 22 9-18 the importance of living close to the humanity of Jesus

·         22:1 Speaks against the discouragement of ‘corporeal images’ i.e. reflecting on Jesus in his humanity.
·         22:3, 22:5 speaks of the importance of her experience and her reflection on it that taught her of the value of meditating with Jesus about his life experience.
·         22.9 The difference between God taking away the consolation of meditating on the humanity and our deciding not to do it. Also understand that we as humans need human support.
·         22.10 Christ sustaining us in times of busyness or dryness
·         22.11 whole groundwork of prayer based upon humility. Also the importance of not forcing oneself to think about God when God is inviting us to respond to his movement. Maintain that poverty of spirit that keeps us focused on God and not on our own efforts worthy and all as they may seem.
·         22:12 ‘walk along this path of freedom placing himself in the hands of God’.
o   ‘God is more careful than we are and He knows what is fitting for each one’.
·         22:14 ‘Let us strive to keep this divine love always before our eyes and to awaken ourselves to love’.
·         22:15 God enables and calls forth growth in virtue the more we are encouraged by this enduring sense of his presence. This underlines the importance of prayer for our living as we want to.
·         22:16 The ‘food’ for those granted the state of union is no different to that of beginners. The difference is in the person allowing God to share more with us. It is the taste of God granted by God. If we can become more detached from our wishes we can thus allow God to give us more.
·         22:17 Teresa speaks of God testing people. This seems to presume that the person and God have a familiar relationship. So God invites and says ‘see what I give’, ‘do you want more?’. The choice is ours.
·         22:18 The importance of the ‘spiritual person’ for a companion on the journey. ‘Experience and discretion are important in this matter’.

Ernest Larkin O.Carm. has been the person who most encouraged me to immerse myself in the writings of Teresa. Another helpful commentator has been Rowan Williams. I conclude with two brief quotes from his book:  Teresa of Avila, Rowan Williams, 1991, Outstanding Christian Thinkers Series (Ed. B. Davies O.P.)

“The life therefore is anything but an anecdotal compilation of rare and interesting experiences; Teresa’s has a perfectly clear apologetic purpose. She has to show that she cannot be an alumbrada enthusiast because she wants only what God wants, and more specifically, what God wants through the mediation of the teaching church.” (P. 44)

“To understand the Life then, we need to read it as the story of a twofold victory. On the one hand it is about the triumph of discipline, about the shaping of a Christian discernment by reading, friendship and conversation, sacramental practice, the candid and unsparing exposure of what might have been and exciting ‘private’ world of experiences to the common speech and culture of the church; the triumph of discipline over plain idleness, over the obsessive concern for status and reputation in Teresa’s society, over the construction by the self of an identity that is ‘holy’ or ‘special’. On the other hand it is the story of God’s triumph even over the disciplined spirituality of a loyal catholic- the triumph that makes it possible for a disciplined and loyal catholic to be also a prophet and critic. Thus the main interweaving themes in the life are Teresa’s willingness at every point to submit her experience to the judgement of others (though not necessarily to submit in the sense of accepting their judgement) and her inability to resist the disturbing impulsions coming to her in prayer. The Life is centrally and basically about struggle and conflict- Teresa’s struggle for acceptance and legitimacy, and God’s struggle to be present to Teresa.” (P. 44-45)

Friday, 22 August 2014

Friday with ‘The Magdalen Reading’ by Rogier van der Weyden

‘The Magdalen Reading’ by Rogier van der Weyden, circa 1435-38.

A visitor to the Library today asked who is the person in the large framed print near the main entrance. “It is Mary Magdalene,” I replied. “She is doing what she would do. See! She reads a book of hours in a state of complete beatitude. She is looking upon the beauty of Christ.”

Amused by the incongruity of a first century Galilean Jewish woman from Roman Palestine sitting wearing gorgeous green garments in a Dutch apartment sometime in the late Middle Ages, the visitor and her friend took a closer look. Perhaps the idea of anyone like Mary Magdalene reading a book was enough to make them question their own assumptions. Books of this kind were developed some time after the composition of the Gospels. A woman like Mary Magdalene was not a noblewoman from the Netherlands and would not have been addressed in the Greek or Aramaic equivalent of Princess. Actually, we don’t know if Mary Magdalene was by status a noblewoman, but it is unlikely.

“The painting is in the National Gallery in London,” I advised. “It is called ‘The Magdalen Reading’ and is by Rogier van der Weyden.” This information seemed mere information to the visitors, who were now noting closely the fact that the other figures in the painting have been, if not airbrushed, then certainly sectioned out of the picture. No one seems to know for certain why this is, except that the work in the National Gallery is a fragment of what was a larger altarpiece painted in oils. Catalogues claim it was completed “circa 1435-38”. The visitors seemed satisfied that the woman was in a state of contemplation and could therefore, hypothetically at least, be Mary Magdalene. That this particular painting stands at the entrance to a theological library seemed fairly logical.

The staff of the Carmelite Library live with this painting week in, week out. If you had to choose one painting to live with every day in your workplace, you could do a lot worse than Rogier van der Weyden. We know she is who she is because of the jar of ointment in the foreground, a traditional symbol for Mary Magdalene. It would be good to know if her green clothing has any symbolic significance. Apparently the people excised in part from the picture are, standing, Joseph with rosary and, kneeling, Saint Catherine of Alexandria probably, who enjoyed one of the greatest of all medieval saintly cults. We know this because, while Mary Magdalene is in London, Joseph and Catherine are in Lisbon. The original altarpiece constituted a sacra conversazione, a genre of late medieval painting in which the Virgin and Child are surrounded by a group of saints. It is out of this tradition of painting that we have later what are called conversation pieces, i.e. informal group portraits, normally of people we would not describe as saints. Hence the expression ‘conversation piece’, like the print at the door of the Library that, by chance, may prompt discussion.

All of which leaves us with certain overwhelming questions.

What is the book? It looks like a book of hours from the period. The pages have two columns of close calligraphic script, with red letters at the head of paragraphs. The book has gold clasps. Books of hours contained selections from Scripture and Tradition intended to concentrate the mind and body upon the greatness of God, his blessed Son Christ, and the mighty power of the Spirit. The viewer is expected to identify with Mary Magdalene, as she, or even he, sits in her chamber doing likewise, concentrating on the greatness of God, his blessed Son Christ, and the mighty power of the Spirit.

Why is Mary Magdalene, a person not famed for her reading habits, reading? She reads the story told by all those who knew Christ, the reality ever before her eyes. Just as those who read the books of hours now, in the bright interior light of 1430’s Holland, recover the Word each time they engage with their holy words. She leads by example.

Why is Mary Magdalene, a peer in age, present in a painting of the birth of Christ? Because Christ is Alpha and Omega, just as he is to the Magi and the old folk in the Temple at age 12 and the Forerunner in the River. Just as he is to anyone who would be present at his incarnation.

Why is she wearing green? To symbolise life renewed. She is first witness to the Resurrection, life brought back from death. She wears life renewed, has taken it on and is at peace in this clothing.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Poems by Tony Kelly

Poems by Tony Kelly read at Poetry for the Soul at the Carmelite Centre on Tuesday the 22nd of July, 2014

Address for a Special Occasion

How the bishop gamely tried
to tickle the plump sense of occasion
into a little transcendence! -- 
To take a step beyond
the mundane of the heat, summer frocks,
smart suits, and rows of polished cars;
beyond where family values are secure,
spouses faithful, children obedient,
motherhood a treasure, and even fathers
have a special role – 
to that other region...

In the religious perspective
the vanishing point
makes all meaning shrink:
old bird-words are no longer winged;
no more abiding the open air
they roost, moulting,
pecking seed from the preacher's hand.

Some wild amazing thing has flown away:
once reachable in a bound of hope or praise,
or in the dart of love or pang of guilt.
Piety lives here now
as a drugged bird of paradise,
smuggled in, and revived,
allowed to live decoratively,
at least as a specimen
in the ecology of a cage.

Customs check the contraband:
importing exotic fauna
is against the law.
The safer option is taxidermy...
But jokes get by --
ironic resonance
with what we barely know,
as everything comes tumbling down,
and nothing sure can stand
against the earthquake tilt from nowhere.

For all I know, tears may be
a surer path, a strange confiding gift
flowing with more elements,
and welling up from where forgotten things
are felt – and spell,
in a giving too deep to be one's own,
existence, if only for the moment,
shamelessly ecstatic.


To write again, if not perfect poems,
at least to feel that excess of meaning –
awkward in corridors and too loud in libraries,
cluttering desks, a distraction at prayer –
unsettling the agenda generally.
Its the old thrill, to write freely,
not knowing what you have to say,
but being written in a way:
Lower case inspiration, you might call it.
Whatever the case, despite the theories,
things get given: there’s store enough
in nostril and tongue, in skin and eye and ear,
and in the push and pull of being here,
to say nothing of a larger undertow
of that presence and absence somehow --
even enjoying the limits of vocabulary,
its resonance and dance;
and, the times being as they are,
to wait, pencil poised, or fingering a keyboard,
listening. . .

Coogee Beach

Languorous corporation of hazed consciousness,
basking collective sprawled
in undulant, pendulous embodiment,
contoured in sand, or ambling to water's edge. . .
the limp pennant of bright towel marking each place.
A sacrament of sorts, when blessed by these elements,
baptised in brine, posing turns innocent
and all is forgiven –
though capering kids agitate the truce
by throwing stuff, and tongues of foam hiss
envious of this prone and pacific state:
left with nothing, not even the clothes on our backs –
all survivors from the ordeal of going in,
stiff-kneed against the undertow,
pummelled by a good natured surf –
then dumped, and dragged into higher consciousness
oblivious to city streets and long dry roads;
then to wade out in a daze
to hug the promised land,
noses running salt water, sharing this hour
as no friends or strangers could – 
every body on Coogee Beach.


The century dies
with too many deaths. . .
I survived, I think –
though a refugee
from a succession of grey Utopias,
even if now hesitantly naturalised
in this present place.
Still, you learn something
from the crash-course of history;
mostly irony – after being
ill-prepared, late, and too often wrong.
But now, what makes me hesitate
beyond clear borders of love and hate,
is a gentle Jew.

                     John The Baptist

Would that I could make clear,
and cleanly real now,
the way it is these days,
the whole damn wonderful way
it all is now:
I have no skill in proclaiming
non-dreadful things –
just this need to goad
all the demeaning witless
unfeeling of life into something else...
Maybe flame and darkness
are not more understood;
but at least now we must sweat blood
in a million luxuriant Gethsemanis,
and see the lilies waving splendid
in the threatened field;
while that wretch at the gate
will have a place, if not at our tables,
well, at least in the awakening heart.
Let sins have the proper scale,
to test the stuff of mercy...
if not, then be utterly, utterly lost..
in a huge and  negative praise
of straighter, narrower ways:
Now no need to tip-toe
as before, when they, neither saints not sinners,
feared to alarm lazing demons,
shuddered to make idols tremble,
or summon too quickly the holy ones.
It's different now: this time – 
It’s all so climactically appalling!


Such a short time,
A smokey blue understatement
Yet luminously clouding
Every view—
Condensing sky-blue and dawn pink and grey,
A cool blue profusion, incense like,
An advent wreath
Tranquil after the strident wattle,
And before orotund poitsiana;
Blooms strew the ground;
Still, a tracery of leaves is left--
And a dull sturdy trunk
The streak of parrots


Poor old fellow,
angular, pinched awkward man,
taut and pink-faced,
like a preserved quince;
shrewd and sensitive despite his endless chatter:
even now, the original orphan
left at every doorstep;
Everyone hesitates to take him in,
wincing at his eagerness,
and protecting conversation
from his fantastic interruptions,
his perverse skill in missing every point.
His need is to construct the world
in every instant from the start:
recently he discovered the name of his mother,
long dead, and found some brothers,
and the strange world of blood relations...
Now a gush of communication
after the long legal amnesia,
he reports a big barbecue
to celebrate the discovery
of belonging after all:
the heat is off us now --
unless, of course, you take him
as a parable...

                                    The Photo

In the cool gloom
of the old chapel
between the mountains
I first saw his photo:
Franz, with your Iron Cross,
the hero of this valley,
dead now these many years,
killed out there on the snows of Russia.
The little posey to honour you
and those nineteen others
from this valley
who died as soldiers,
is plastic:
memory kept as best it can...
So, there you are, Franz,
still looking out
with that quick eye,
having seen too much.
And eyes now meet
after all these years,
in the darkening alpine afternoon.
You look so young...
Did you ever think that someone
whose father was your foe,
would, one day,
in your tranquil valley,
look you in the eye,
in a moment of recollection,
though you are gone
these many years,
frozen out there...
Well, an introduction of sorts:
not much worse than the tawdry flowers..
and the brown stain creeping
over your photo.
Who bore you ill,
Franz, poor lad
to wrench you from these slopes
to die a frozen thousand miles away?
A fateful history
too many evils,
and presumably the watching Love
you worshipped
in this musty little place,
-- all were working,
then as now...
to give this instant too:
Friend, Franz, in the growing gloom
I kneel and let the oneness grow,
looking at your photo,
looking through a window.

        An Irish Lament
[After an afternoon of Irish Music in THE DAN O'CONNELL]

I lament in heart and soul
for those whose blood is untroubled
by the passion of the fiddles and the throb of the drum
and the sweet exultation of the pipes,
who cannot move to the fanatic merriment of the reel,
for all who have grown old and cold and numb and cannot feel,
for all know nothing of song and feast and dance,-
the whole merry madness and sad gladness of this inheritance -
I lament, yes, I lament.

And for those who can neither brood nor dream,
nor pray wild prayers,
who know not any leaping and bounding of spirit;
for those who cannot die boldly,
who, so sober, have settled so easily with death,
for them, I lament.

I so lament the clouding of bland mens' souls,
their torrents of tears unshed,
their songs unsung, their great deeds undone;
I bewail the flat, grey bays of fear that lap them now
in their dread of the wild open waters:
and by their cool tidy graves, I lament.

For all the faith grown faithless over prayers unanswered,
for all the humbled hopes and the crumbling of great dreams;
for all the loves that once flamed, then turned to ash,
to be blown, traceless, so quickly away:
in all the mourning of the world I lament:
for the men who go lonely, the women unloved and the children unwanted;
for all the timorous, the stunted, the broken, the haunted;
for the sweet ones who have turned sour,
and the old ones who have grown bitter and bent,
pent up in despairs with no hope for mercy,
and stiffened against any grace,
I lament, I lament.

Now, in this time
between the flowering of the wattle
and the blossoming of the plum,
I lament for all who have snugly settled in the heart's winter
to the forgetfulness of shining summers,
who suffer in lifeless places for no reason,
who coldly know that the wattle's exploding gold,
like the luminous fragrance of the rose,
are all dangerous inventions:
for such, too, I lament.

And for gaunt children with empty plates around bare tables
and for their mothers pretending that something is cooking;
for all the great houses that were once built for love,
but never gave rest to friend or stranger;
for cold priests who too easily speak beautiful words;
and for beautiful people whose eyes look only for mirrors,
I lament, yes, I lament;
-- for homes where no music plays,
for faces where no smile plays,
for the promises made but not meant,
for the letters written, but not sent,
I lament.

I lament from the grief that lives in that deep place
where the heart breaks and the soul prays,
where smooth respectability stays
on steady plains, in dread
of the heights and depth of the spirit's space.

I lament for the peace that is not yet,
for the cup of the world's tears not yet filled,
for the cause of my sorrow and all sorrows,
for the fighting and dying not yet over,
for all loves as yet unlearned,
I lament, yes, I must lament.

          Lost Art

            Even in these lovely lands
            you must rise with open hands
            to let all you held be free,
            to find its own and fly away:
            let all your doves and eagles
            have the freedom of the sky.

            The wise ones will always say
     that suddenly, on a summer day,
            the returning eagle will look with eyes
     alight with the span of heaven --
     where all is healed and forgiven:
     and wink knowingly, an angel in disguise.

            And the doves? Take this one here:
            Look, now she has no fear!-
            In the surrounding darkness no longer lost,
     she was the one I was missing most..
            Perhaps she is the Holy Ghost?

            An other holds a splinter in its beak,
            plucked from once sightless eyes:
            that is what she flew off to seek.
            Now blind eyes see, for the dove is wise.
            She comes to hand.. but I set her free..
            whispering, `Love, go! ... bring back the branch
        of the olive tree.'


How can one of living flesh
not sense that most human joy,
body alive to body's beauty?
Enjoyed, enfleshed, secure delights
Gently eager for the coming nights.
Yet stark in hope, there is a stranger,
this poor monk sleeps alone,
with God alone to say, Goodnight,
and him alone to greet in morning light,
and him alone to hear the groan
should the dark be less than friendly.
He stirs to murmur:
Gently now, my lovely ones,
Waste not your pity here:
I lie stretched cowled between
Vigil and sleep’s half-dream,
divining answers about that end
when you too will need a friend;
and you too must sleep alone
to wake to no familiar form.

          Other Owners

Often around the bend of the river
mostly in early morning and at evening,
wandering amongst the flowering gums along the banks,
surprising improbably bright parrots,
I have a sense that this, all this
is still known, owned by invisible others --
catching me midway between some feeble praise,
and expatriate envy of those who knew by belonging...
as they dwelt in reverence's vast,
tender accumulation
of a whole world beyond me;
As I stare untutored at flower, and tree,
and at places where animals are supposed to be,
I know they saw;
and breathed what I glimpse,
and danced what I clumsily survey.
-- I am where they were made to disappear;
still animating the place, I think,
still in cosmic dreaming...
and I mourning absence
or sensing presence,
beyond the reach of politics,
in this teeming, shifting seeming.


We speak most fully the words we do:
unanswered the question:
whether we are spoken for
or spoken to?
And the rare conversation
not so much breaking the silence
but sounding it,
not to paper over the cracks
in the world's meaning
but to prise at them
in the little metaphysics
of our scope.
There are other ways;
but soon the abyss
discretely yawning through the chatter
invites us to be more at home
with what must be unutterable.
Souls weary and retire
to cryptic crosswords
only occasionally to consult
the dictionaries of desire
hoarding signs of silence sounded
or silence broken:
still, all too late
at great meals
or in the bed of love or death --
the heart desperately inarticulate.

They were twins, this strange pair,
very hard to tell apart:
they lived not far away
in a great old shambling house
at the very end of our longest street.
They had a funny trick of startling neighbours
with a sudden cry of recognition;
or, one of them, waiting in the dark,
would surprise some passer-by
by jumping out to ask, `Which am I?'
Despite their bad reputation
with the older folks,
with all this nonsense and endless jokes,
there is no harm in them really.
Only this evening we talked:
having just returned after some time away,
I asked them about old friends.
Their eyes brightly met:
`They're safe and doing well:
so and so bought a farm and had a drought,
another became famous and was then found out;
this one was strong despite the heart that failed,
but the other prospered after being gaoled...
Then, there was Jack who loved Jill,
but Jill loved Will
which proved quite a problem until..., well,
Look, there is so much to tell
and it is early yet --
(they seemed so delighted that we'd met)
come inside and talk some more:
No, its not too late!".
So, the darker one opened the garden gate,
and the other, so much fairer, laughing led me
along the path to a great ancient door.

             Strange Universe

The evil is too much
of course,
beyond all measure.
But of late --
was it the winter sun this Melbourne afternoon?
Or that old fellow helping
that long-haired, limping girl?
Or the lilied tranquillity
and the bell-birds
of the Yarra billabong
exploding in the laughter of two kookaburras? --
I have begun to take
great pleasure
in this strange universe.

The Pope's Day of Peace, Assisi October 27, 1986
They met for peace that day,
far from my own heart's foreboding,
in the city of the Poverello --
to pray, these holy ones,
in a conspiracy of faiths and ways,
bright spirits, in hope that darkness
need not be our doom:
the TV showed them almost as boys playing,
as they set the white doves free --
distracted to a smiling fluster
from the solemnity of ceremony
in the elusive practicality
of in opening cages,
and letting startled birds
flutter off...
to what fate?
White doves in grey landscape,
whirling up and off
defying the gravity of the occasion,
into certain danger:
a fleeting gesture to decorate
the perilous land of the heart:
No more cages, only wings,
and the hawks of winter waiting..
what of the prayers?
Flying doves, falling leaves,
old men smiling,
attempting greater goodness,
a hour of good behaviour,
even for the religious,
with some guns stopped,
and the missiles waiting for another day;
though no pause, I think,
in the great factories of death;
and the world as my own heart felt.
Still, withal, the imagination
just a little bit disarmed
by possibilities of mercy...