in search of diamond country
sometimes i feel like a pilgrim without certain destination. i left a shore that no longer feels like home, like safe harbor, and i’m either adrift or paddling like hell toward parts unknown. i need to remind myself that not knowing does not equal nowhere.
i’m speaking of the realm of religion; i’m speaking of a search for something beyond creed and dogma. i’m speaking of the search for something truer, for something eternally sacred, not outlined within the confines of human imagination, human motivations ill-begotten or simply mistaken. or cruel.
i firmly believe i’m pulled toward and by the pulsing heart of the purity i know as God. but, still, it’s shaky out here beyond the boundaries. beyond the catechism i was so dutifully taught so long ago.
i suppose i’ve always been drawn to margins, to the outer rim of wherever i wandered. i remember a third-grade essay that got me in trouble. i remember watching a long litany of others get picked for red rover. i remember how in the halls of my high school, i huddled often with those sitting alone on the benches outside the lunch room. i remember i was certain it was why i was homecoming queen; i’d rejected the confines of cliques.
and then, in a newsroom years and years later, i fell in love with and married a man of another religion, an interweaving not without hurdles and hard spots. we were squarely on the uncharted margins.
but i never let go of my core beliefs, never let go of my own guiding principles: turn the other cheek; love as you would be loved; welcome the little child; do for the least among us. seek the face of God in all faces, seek the sacred — in all peoples and places and things.
and over and over, my mother taught me one indelible thing: don’t let the church get in the way of God.
and so, in stumbling along, in my wanderings that in some ways mimic the ancient celtic tradition of peregrination — setting sail into the unknown — i gather up my own lifeline of wisdom seekers whose words illuminate my zigzagging way. they’re my personal pantheon of saints. some, i read about in the pages of books. some i meet in the checkout line.
which brings me to kenneth white, a scottish poet, and modern celtic prophet. born in 1936 in the slums of glasgow, he’s spent most of his adult life in france, teaching modern poetry at the sorbonne, and, though not all critics concur, he’s been hailed there as “one of the foremost english-language poets of today.” his poetry, it’s been said, holds traces of william carlos williams, ezra pound, and walt whitman, and, too, it weaves in filaments of zen buddhism and american transcendentalism.
what i love most, in the not enough that i know, is that he points us toward seeing the shining deep in the natural landscape and seascape and skyscape. that shining, he teaches, is the light of the divine. he calls it “the diamond country” in the heart of all things. he sees it, writes j. philip newell, “glistening in earth, sea, and sky.”
in a poem titled, “a high blue day on the scalpay,” white writes:
…the sea shimmering, shimmering
no art can touch it, the mind can only
try to become attuned to it
to become quiet…open…still…
knowing itself in the diamond country, in
the ultimate unlettered light.
white belongs in a long line of thinkers who subscribe to an ancient theology known as the Book of Nature, a theology i’ve written a book about (though it waits still for an editor to send me her notes), a theology that holds that God’s first text was and is in and through creation, a text spelled out in the alphabet of leaves and stones, stars and sunlight, and the dawn and dusk of each day. a text birthed anew with each breath of creation.
it’s a theology that draws heavily from ancient celtic threads, threads that trace their roots to ancient eastern religions, to desert mothers and fathers of egypt, to persia and beyond. it’s a theology that subscribes not to pantheism but panentheism, God in all things.
white, like emerson and thoreau, merton and all indigenous peoples, sees the natural world as a sacred text: “the sound of the wind in the treetops, the roaring of the waves, all these are sacred voices,” he writes.
put simply, it’s being awake to the sacred in all its iterations and voices, understanding the divine glistens and shimmers and stirs deep in the heart of all that is of this earth and its heavens.
judaism teaches that at creation every drop of divine light was contained in a single vessel, but the vessel couldn’t contain it, so it shattered, scattering shards of light throughout the cosmos. our job, the rabbis teach us, is to search for and gather up those shards.
kenneth white teaches so, too. “look for the shining in the deep of all things.” white is no romantic. he knows that the world is both “terrible and joyous.” (that’s an especially apt description of the now, though white wrote those words at another moment in history; terrible and joyous, a refrain without end.) yet beneath the glory and pain, the beauty and suffering, the pulse point, the epicenter, is always the deep, deep shining. the sacred eternal. the glistening of the diamond country.
the loveliness is everywhere
in the ugliest
and most hostile environment
the loveliness is everywhere
at the turning of a corner
in the eyes
and on the lips
of a stranger
in the emptiest areas
where there is no place for hope
and only death
invites the heart
the loveliness is there
it rises in its own reality
and what we must learn is
how to receive it
i find solace in white’s promise, comfort in the embrace of his sharp-edged seeing. he’s not glossing over the pox, not disregarding the brokenness. he’s reminding: the sacred is ever-present, God doesn’t retreat. even when we cannot, for the life of us, make out even the faintest of outlines.
and there’s our pursuit, our life’s work: seek the loveliness, find your way to the diamond country. the sacred is stirring, is waiting….
gather the shards, glistening…
name a shining you’ve noticed of late. name ten shinings if you’re so stirred….
*photo above by will kamin
Wise mama! “…don’t let the church get in the way of God.” I hope to leave that same wisdom with my children. Lovely blessing to warm this chilly day, thanks friend. Joannie
Ever wise. Of all the lessons she’s taught, tgat one is firmly fixed.
“my mother taught me one indelible thing: don’t let the church get in the way of God.” Wise woman.
Many years ago I told a Methodist theology professor, “My faith is bigger than the Catholic Church” – and he pointed me to James W. Fowler’s book, Stages of Faith. I discovered I was not alone. Neither are you.
Oh my! Add that to my list!
Definitely put my soul out on the line this morning. Scary, but truth most often ties us together.
How well and beautifully you describe the search for faith and God. Just knowing there are so many others on this search is comforting. I appreciate the base of religion given to me by my family and community but take joy in seeing G everywhere: in nature, in the beauty of a textile, in the sweet ‘thank you’ that high schoolers give me every morning at work. G is everywhere and maybe, as our children give up on organized religion, they are realizing this sooner than us? Hmmmm……
your litany of shiningness is so beautiful and broad, it took my breath away. yes, yes, it is in all those voices and faces. i love that you included the beauty of textiles, for i know there are other dear dear souls here at this table who similarly see it there.
i love knowing we are a pilgrimage of pilgrims. and that the noun is one that is plural…..
Oh my!! I need to print this so I can read often!! Unbelievable and perfect!!! Soul touching!!! Your mom, I love, don’t let a church get in the way of God! Our moms so on point! How lucky are we to have their insight!! Thank you for this beautiful piece! Going to track down Kenneth White!! XX
Sent from my iPhone
oh, mary, mary, and how blessed am i that when you mention your mom, she pops back to life in my imagination and my heart. she was one of the beacons in my growing up. the delight she and my dad shared in their brilliant brilliant irish wit and banter, their luxurious love of language.
it is always a grand thing to hear from north of the border in your magnificent nook and cranny of the world.
i miss you. we are sooooo long overdue.
Wish I had words to respond. But knowing there is such good company on the search/journey is such comfort. xo
giant squeezy hug.xox
one of the dearest souls i have ever known sent me this poem this morning. of course mary oliver has been preaching these sermons for ever and ever. here, mary says it as purely and plainly and poetically as any words i’ve ever read. and thank you, beautiful paula for sending along.
By Mary Oliver
Do you bow your head when you pray or do you look
up into that blue space?
Take your choice, prayers fly from all directions.
And don’t worry about what language you use,
God no doubt understands them all.
Even when the swans are flying north and making
such a ruckus of noise, God is surely listening
Rumi said, There is no proof of the soul.
But isn’t the return of spring and how it
springs up in our hearts a pretty good hint?
Yes, I know, God’s silence never breaks, but is
that really a problem?
There are thousands of voices, after all.
And furthermore, don’t you imagine (I just suggest it)
that the swans know about as much as we do about
the whole business?
So listen to them and watch them, singing as they fly.
Take from it what you can.