the soundlessness must have been haunting. a timber still cracking. a stone falling. ash settling down. the faint few echoes of footfall as one or two tiptoed in, in the first light of dawn, to begin to measure the devastation. the loss.
and there, radiant, rising from out of the billows of smoke, caught in the slant of the beams of light: gold cross glowing.
it refuses to die.
and this is the image i carry forward. this is the image i heave to my shoulder, bring to my landscape of silence, today the day of deep stillness.
the world this week stared in horror. the spire of notre-dame snapped like a pencil, teetered, crashed into the molten sky. tongues of flame, rising inferno. millennia lost, masterpiece burning. but the lasting image, the one i can see with my eyes closed, is the radiant cross — not tinged, not charred, still hanging.
seems to me the world might begin to focus on those rare few things that survive the conflagration, the fire. the dross left in the crucible. those things that can’t be burned. the ones meant to last. radiant cross rising.
seems to me this humble little planet might be wise to consider the sacred acts of starting over. rebuilding. sifting through the ashes and rubble, finding those rare few gems on which to begin again. rising out of destruction.
such is the backdrop to these holy days: the ones that draw us back to the narrative of agony, prayer, betrayal, crucifixion. the ones of exodus, too. escaping the plagues, crossing the red sea, running from slavery.
resurrection. rising. breaking into freedom.
before i get there, though, i have hours to cross in deep silence. it’s always my way on this day of remembering the dying and death on the cross. the hours of darkness, noon till three, till the heavens roil and split wide open, the hour of final surrender, when the one on the cross cried out, “father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” and then, “father, into thy hands i commend my spirit.”
words i could ponder for hours and days and weeks and years on end. words i will ponder in silence, the posture of monks and poets.
because i’ve been burrowing in the bookshelf of silence, i’ve learned of an ancient practice, one with deep eastern orthodox roots, called hesychia, “a graced depth of inner stillness.”
one of the great monastic wise men, a fellow known as saint joseph the hesychast, wrote, “the aim was hesychia, quiet, the calm through the whole man that is like a still pool of water, capable of reflecting the sun. to be in true relationship with God, standing before him in every situation—that was the angelic life, the spiritual life, the monastic life, the aim and the way of the monk.”
one of joseph’s fellow monks, abba alonius echoed, “unless a man can say ‘i alone and God are here,’ he will not find the prayer of quiet.”
as we enter into the silence, i will wrap myself in text and verse, the literary nooks and folds that hold me, blanket me. for the last six weeks, all of lent, a priest friend and i led a small circle in readings that drew us deep into the still center of the season — t.s. eliot, wendell berry, mary oliver and mary karr, pauli murray, the great civil rights lawyer and episcopal priest, were all in our lenten lectionary. we ended our weeks together with mark strand’s breathtaking, “poem after the seven last words,” a work originally commissioned to be read between movements of haydn’s opus 51, which happens to be titled “the seven last words of christ.” the performance of strand’s poem and the brentano string quartet’s haydn premiered here in chicago in 2002.
although strand, the u.s. poet laureate and pulitzer-prize winner, didn’t pretend to be religious, he turned to the gospel of thomas to find the seven last lines of jesus on the cross, and masterfully wrote lines that all but pull me onto that cross, into the darkness and depth of the hours of crucifixion. every line is a burrowing deep into the whole-body living of that crucifixion. we taste and see and hear moment after moment. strand positions us on the cross, and carries us through the agonies, through the love (glances from mother to son) and the faith (crying out to the Father), delivering us, spent and exhausted and crushed, to the final commitment, when strand writes: “to that place, to the keeper of that place, i commit myself.”
here, for your own hours of silence, perhaps, is mark strand’s meditative masterwork:
Poem After The Seven Last Words
The story of the end, of the last word
of the end, when told, is a story that never ends.
We tell it and retell it — one word, then another
until it seems that no last word is possible,
that none would be bearable. Thus, when the hero
of the story says to himself, as to someone far away,
‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do,’
we may feel that he is pleading for us, that we are
the secret life of the story and, as long as his plea
is not answered, we shall be spared. So the story
continues. So we continue. And the end, once more,
becomes the next, and the next after that.
There is an island in the dark, a dreamt-of place
where the muttering wind shifts over the white lawns
and riffles the leaves of trees, the high trees
that are streaked with gold and line the walkways there;
and those already arrived are happy to be the silken
remains of something they were but cannot recall;
they move to the sound of stars, which is also imagined,
but who cares about that; the polished columns they see
may be no more than shafts of sunlight, but for those
who live on and on in the radiance of their remains
this is of little importance. There is an island
in the dark and you will be there, I promise you, you
shall be with me in paradise, in the single season of being,
in the place of forever, you shall find yourself. And there
the leaves will turn and never fall, there the wind
will sing and be your voice as if for the first time.
Someday some one will write a story set
in a place called The Skull, and it will tell,
among other things, of a parting between mother
and son, of how she wandered off, of how he vanished
in air. But before that happens, it will describe
how their faces shone with a feeble light and how
the son was moved to say, ‘Woman, look at your son,’
then to a friend nearby, ‘Son, look at your mother.’
At which point the writer will put down his pen
and imagine that while those words were spoken
something else happened, something unusual like
a purpose revealed, a secret exchanged, a truth
to which they, the mother and son, would be bound,
but what it was no one would know. Not even the writer.
These are the days when the sky is filled with
the odor of lilac, when darkness becomes desire,
when there is nothing that does not wish to be born.
These are the days of spring when the fate
of the present is a breezy fullness, when the world’s
great gift for fiction gilds even the dirt we walk on.
On such days we feel we could live forever, yet all
the while we know we cannot. This is the doubleness
in which we dwell. The great master of weather
and everything else, if he wishes, can bring forth
a dark of a different kind, one hidden by darkness
so deep it cannot be seen. No one escapes.
Not even the man who saved others, and believed
he was the chosen son. When the dark came down
even he cried out, ‘Father, father, why have you
forsaken me?’ But to his words no answer came.
To be thirsty. To say, ‘I thirst.’ To be given,
instead of water, vinegar, and that to be pressed
from a sponge. To close one’s eyes and see the giant
world that is born each time the eyes are closed.
To see one’s death. To see the darkening clouds
as the tragic cloth of a day of mourning. To be the one
mourned. To open the dictionary of the Beyond and discover
what one suspected, that the only word in it
is nothing. To try to open one’s eyes, but not to be
able to. To feel the mouth burn. To feel the sudden
presence of what, again and again, was not said.
To translate it and have it remain unsaid. To know
at last that nothing is more real than nothing.
‘It is finished,’ he said. You could hear him say it,
the words almost a whisper, then not even that,
but an echo so faint it seemed no longer to come
from him, but from elsewhere. This was his moment,
his final moment. “It is finished,” he said into a vastness
that led to an even greater vastness, and yet all of it
within him. He contained it all. That was the miracle,
to be both large and small in the same instant, to be
like us, but more so, then finally to give up the ghost,
which is what happened. And from the storm that swirled
a formal nakedness took shape, the truth of disguise
and the mask of belief were joined forever.
Back down these stairs to the same scene,
to the moon, the stars, the night wind. Hours pass
and only the harp off in the distance and the wind
moving through it. And soon the sun’s gray disk,
darkened by clouds, sailing above. And beyond,
as always, the sea of endless transparence, of utmost
calm, a place of constant beginning that has within it
what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand
has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart.
To that place, to the keeper of that place, I commit myself.
(from Man and Camel: Poems, 2008)
how will you enter into the silence, today or any day soon? how close have you come to that deep, deep stillness, the one the monks describe as “like a still pool of water, capable of reflecting the sun”?
may your Easter weekend and your Passover be blessed…..