Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Out of the silence


A few last words about Douglas Christe's The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, the title of which is drawn from the 4th-century monastic writer Evagrius of Pontus: "When the mind has put off the old self and shall put on the one born of grace, then it will see its own state in the time of prayer resembling sapphire or the color of heaven."

It is a beautiful image, although I am not at all sure what it means. We are separated from Evagrius by centuries, by a Scientific Revolution, by the Enlightenment. I am not suggesting that we have nothing to learn from the ancients, or that certain of human longings and concerns are not so deeply ingrained in our biology as to resist cultural modification. Only that the metaphors we use to describe our most profound experiences are drawn from the times in which we live, and it is difficult for a person of the 21st century to enter into the mind of a 4th-century monk.

Doug's book is about the Word, which I take as an expression of the Divine as revealed though the world. The Word graces and redeems the world; we have only to listen. Which, in Doug's view, is the importance of the contemplative tradition. His wonderful book is an extended hymn on the art –- or grace –- of listening.

But what are we listening for?

Doug quotes the early monks of the desert, who lived in a world of ghosts, dreams and spirits, physical deprivation, and (presumably) sexual sublimation. He also quotes (for example) the modern poet Theodore Roethke:
Voice. Come out of the silence.
Say something.
Appear in the form of a spider.
Or a moth beating the curtain.
Doug's book is about the art and grace of listening, which as many poets and saints have suggested is the highest form of prayer. It is his contention that listening is a prerequisite for love, and we will only save what we care for. I imagine his "blue sapphire" is also the Earth, suspended like a jewel in the deep darkness and silence of space.

Doug's book speaks, I think, to both believers and agnostics. In the moth beating against the curtain, Doug hears the voice of the Word. I hear a moth beating against the curtain. I'm not sure the difference is as important as the hearing –- for us and for the moth.