Tag Archives: compassion

The caged bird learns from the silent lily.

“Let us now look more closely at the lily and the bird from whom we are to learn. The bird keeps silent and waits: it knows, or rather it fully and firmly believes, that everything takes place at its appointed time. Therefore the bird waits, but it knows that it is not granted to it to know the hour or the day; therefore it keeps silent. ‘It will surely take place at the appointed time,’ the bird says. Oh no, the bird does not say this, but keeps silent. But its silence speaks, and its silence says that it believes it, and because it believes it, it keeps silent and waits.” -Søren Kierkegaard

I worked very hard last week to compose a second post on Kierkegaard’s The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, which I am reading along with Mags. No good fruit seemed to come from my effort, though I wrote many words in a draft and searched for appropriately themed photos. When earlier this week I heard from Simone Weil through her anthologist Laurie Gagne, who was interviewed on Mars Hill Audio, that a writer must often wait patiently for the right word, it made me think more hopefully about the outcome.

I had begun at least two weeks ago, writing about the new bird community just on the other side of my fence, a few feet away from me when I garden. They are tropical birds in several large cages, temporary residents while their owners are between houses, and they are noisily chirping and even screeching from dawn to dusk. That long time ago, as it seems now, I was focused on their being jungle birds, surely not the sort that inspired Kierkegaard’s contemplations. I cleverly speculated that if Kierkegaard had lived in the jungle he wouldn’t have been likely to write the book he did.

But more pertinent to my present situation, only days later, is the fact that they are caged birds. And right now, many of us the world over feel like caged birds, in our efforts to slow the spread of a quickly spreading virus. Some are less restricted than others because they are in a type of helping role, but they also are at more risk. I, who am healthy and feeling in some ways younger than ever, have been grouped with The Elderly; I am trying to submit meekly, in my mind as well as my body, to my classification and assigned task: to stay home. In this regard, what Kierkegaard writes about seeking God’s kingdom first is something to take to heart:

“But then, in a certain sense is there in fact nothing I shall do? Yes, quite true, in a certain sense there is nothing. You shall in the deepest sense make yourself nothing, become nothing before God, learn to keep silent. In this silence is the beginning, which is first to seek God’s kingdom.”

He does talk about how humans often enter into this silence when they are praying: “…as he became more and more fervent in prayer, he had less and less to say, and finally he became entirely silent…. indeed, he became what is, if possible, even more the opposite of talking than silence: he became a listener.”

Currently, the whole world is waiting. The necessity of waiting is a gift given to us, an opportunity, but if I only wait on the decisions of authorities and on the latest statistics, my waiting is of little value.

“This is also how it is with the lily, it keeps silence and waits. It does not ask impatiently, ‘When is the spring coming?’ [see Pippin’s daffodils at right] because it knows that it will come at the appointed time; it knows that it would not benefit in any way whatever if it were permitted to determine the seasons of the year. It does not say, ‘When will we get rain?’ or ‘When will we have sunshine?’ or ‘Now we have had too much rain,’ or ‘Now it is too hot.’ …. Then the moment comes, and when the moment comes, the silent lily understands that now is the moment, and makes use of it.”

Obviously I myself know little of this subject experientially, but Søren Kierkegaard and the birds and flowers and all of nature have a lot to share, which I love to pass on! Glory to God, that He somehow arranged for me to find this particular book, chosen for its brevity. Ha! Every paragraph seems to have a world of meaning that one could meditate on for a year. The author must have known how to wait for the right word, as Simone Weil talks about.

Suffering. Are we not all suffering right now? Suffering at the most superficial level by our own movements being curtailed, or because we can’t find our favorite food in the stores, all the way to those who are suffering in a holy and productive way, deeply in their souls, expressing coinherence with the healthcare workers of Italy or with the helplessly panic-stricken of any place. When I think of all the monastics and even my priest, who are accustomed to self-containment and waiting on God, who are praying for all the rest of us who pray little, I feel both grateful and ashamed. When I pray with them at all, via their live-streamed services, it strengthens my ability to wait.

Simone Weil

Charles Williams coined that word coinherence that I used above, but I don’t think he invented the truth that each of us is mysteriously and mystically united to the other. Simone Weil knew about this, too, and not in a theoretical way, but in the compassion and solidarity that emanated from her heart. When she was only five, she heard that soldiers (in the first World War) had no ration of sugar, so she refused to eat sugar. And much later, when she was at the Sorbonne, we learn more from fellow student Simone de Beauvoir’s writings. When Weil heard about a famine in China, she burst into tears; de Beauvoir envied her for having a “heart that could beat across the world.”

Christ suffered on the Cross in taking on Himself all the death and suffering of mankind, and He calls us to do it for each other, to be little Christs, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s a mystery to me, for sure, but I hope that praying with my fellow creatures everywhere will help me to acquire more of this grace.

Regarding our own personal pain and death, Kierkegaard says that when we are silent, it makes our suffering less. This runs counter to modern culture in which we all want to talk in an effort to relieve suffering.

“The bird keeps silent and suffers. However much heartache it has, it keeps silent. Even the melancholic mourning dove of the desert or of solitude keeps silent. It sighs three times and then keeps silent, sighs again three times, but is essentially silent. For what it is it does not say; it does not complain; it accuses no one; it sighs only to fall silent again. Indeed, it is as if the silence would cause it to burst; therefore it must sigh in order to keep silent.”

And by that silence under suffering, Kierkegaard lists several ways suffering is eased; the bird – and potentially us humans! – are freed (I put these points into list form):

“1) From what makes the suffering more burdensome: from the misunderstood sympathy of others;
2) From what makes the suffering last longer: from all the talk of suffering;
3) From what makes the suffering into something worse than suffering: from the sin of impatience and sadness.”

Oh my, I’m afraid I have tempted you to the sin of impatience by my long post, so I am going to stop for now, though I still haven’t come to the end of my meditations on Kierkegaard’s First Discourse. Let me say, in closing, that I am praying with and for people everywhere who are distressed, joining my sighings with yours. I pray that our afflictions may be turned into the sighings of the mourning dove, who after all may be understandably melancholic about the true and sorry state of mankind. Her heartache and sighings become silence, and that is her prayer.

I need more than energy.

Yesterday when I wrote about my grief, I had started out to write a critique of the book I quoted from. Being my sweet self I had begun my essay not with what I didn’t like, but with something I appreciated about this grief counselor’s message. Immediately I realized that I wasn’t competent at that time to do anything requiring intellectual focus, because the quote helped me to see that I was scrambling to find my bearings without my “landmarks,” and that can consume all of one’s inner resources. So I wrote about that.spiral staircase

The fact is, I recommend the book with great reservations. It is Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate and Spiritual Guide to Coping With Loss, by Sameet M. Kumar. The author presents several helpful metaphors like Landmarks and (traveling up) a Spiral Staircase, and important warnings about not trying to relieve the pain and depression with drugs, because that prevents you from doing the work of grieving.

All of those good things, and even the advice I didn’t find useful, could have been presented in a book half the length. The author is very repetitive, as though you are consulting him in his office for a year during which he has to reiterate the prescription every week.

Kumar is a clinical psychotherapist and grief counselor, and a Buddhist who credits the Dalai Lama with giving him the tools to find his career path and change his own life for the better. I mentioned some major concerns I had about his philosophy in my post on Changing Views, so if you like you can read them there; today I have thoughts on other aspects, though I haven’t the time, and maybe not the ability, to treat all of the problems I find.

I just read over that article and find that back then I unknowingly used a phrase that I hadn’t yet encountered in Kumar’s book: emotional energy. On the day I was writing about in August, I was surprised to find that I lacked emotional energy to do simple everyday tasks that should have been easy and even fun. But Kumar says that we should “use the tremendous influx of emotional energy that comes from experiencing loss to nurture life.” This labeling of the debilitating pain of grief as just another kind of power we can use to drive whatever activity we want is very odd, if not ludicrous.

Kumar writes a lot about compassion, and how we can turn the energy of our grief to compassion for others, but the book is short on concrete examples of what this looks like. From what I can tell, it means telling people, “Everyone suffers. Get used to it.” Can compassion be cold? Buddhists say yes.

Recently I read a brief account of a Buddhist who converted to Orthodox Christianity and became a monk on Mount Athos. He was questioned by a visiting priest about his reasons for leaving “such a great cultural tradition,” and he answered,

“Divine companionship!…In Buddhism, my Father, you are very very much alone. There is no God. Your entire struggle is with yourself. You are alone with yourself, with your ego. You are totally alone in this path. Great loneliness, Father. But here you have an assistant, a companion and a fellow-traveler in God. You are not alone. You have someone who loves you, who cares about you. He cares even if you don’t understand Him. You speak with Him. You tell Him how you feel, what you would have hoped for – there is a relationship. You are not alone in the difficult struggles of life and spiritual perfection.”

I can well understand this man’s natural desire to be with God, a Trinity of three persons in love and community, because it is a desire instilled in us by that God, who made us in such a way that we can’t be fully ourselves until we are pulled into that love relationship.

But Kumar says, “The acceptance of emotional hardship is the core of radical acceptance—simply being present with your feelings in the here and now, rather than longing for something different.” [italics mine] Acceptance, I realize, is the path I am also on, but I think of it as being something like full contentment. My favorite word on contentment is in the book of Hebrews,

Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.”

For many of us, being with God is something different and well worth longing for. To accept and be content with our lot is only proper and possible if we have found the One who will never leave us or forsake us. Divine Companionship is the very Presence of the Almighty God who has many names, each one speaking to one aspect of our heart’s longing.

Names_of_God

This brings me to the last point of disagreement I will address, which is the form of mindfulness and meditation that is taught in this book. I don’t think it hurts to “simply be present with your feelings,” or to “come in full contact with yourself,” at least as a starting place. But I don’t believe that those encounters are likely in themselves to reveal “how capable we are of containing and healing the grief we carry.”

Jeffrey Brantley tells us in the Foreword that “…the benefits depend not upon trying to change anything, but instead mainly upon one’s willingness and commitment to reside in the present moment, while making room and becoming intimate with the texture of unfolding experience – whatever that is.”

And Kumar goes further in describing the intended results of this activity: “Mindful attention does not try to change what is happening. Instead, it reflects— accurately and precisely.” This idea of the accuracy aHolyTrinity new sketend precision of our thoughts that float by also seems to me lofty and unrealistic.

What we need is PRAYER, People! I am no expert on it, except to know assuredly that I need to do it, and that it is work. It doesn’t spontaneously generate from my random thoughts, but it comes from finding God in the present moment, in spite of our thoughts. Just google Orthodox and Prayer and you can find all the resources you need for getting started. My spiritual father told me early on to read anything that Anthony Bloom writes on the subject. It is in real prayer, in Divine Companionship, that we will find healing and contentment and a truly spiritual kind of energy, the Energies of God.