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Baltimore_Oriole_eating_orangeBrowsing the Internet one summer afternoon, I learned that Baltimore Orioles relish grape jelly. Cut an orange in half, my source instructed me, and place a dollop of grape jelly at the center of each half. Hang the halves from a branch, and you will soon have those beautiful birds in your own backyard.

Enticed by that prospect, I put grape jelly on our grocery list. And before long, I found myself in Aisle 10B at Wegman’s Supermarket, searching for that elusive product.

“What are you looking for?” asked a petite, white-haired lady standing nearby, as she deposited a jar of Bonne Maman Apricot Preserves in her cart.

“Grape jelly,” I replied. “Baltimore Orioles like it.”

“They do?” she asked, giving me a wary, quizzical look, as though I had just said something very strange. “I never heard that. I used to live in Baltimore.”

Realizing what had just occurred, I hastened to explain. “I mean the birds, not the baseball team.”

“Oh,” she sighed, visibly relieved. Meanwhile, I was imagining the Orioles in their dugout, passing around a jar of Welch’s Grape Jelly. Perhaps that image had crossed her mind as well.

“What we’ve got here,” remarks Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke in the movie by that name, “is a failure to communicate.” In the present case, what was lacking was a context, a verbal frame around the naked fact. But as Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and writer, has observed, what is often needed in our efforts to communicate and connect with other people is not more words but fewer. What is needed, he suggests, is the dimension of silence, which he figuratively describes as the “silence around the words.” Absent that silence, much of our speech amounts to very little.

In Fr. Rohr’s view, silence is more than an absence of sound. Silence, he asserts, possesses an “ontological identity,” which is to say, it is a being in its own right. Most of our speech, for good or ill, is “ego-based.” The ego uses words to get what it wants, employing argumentation, judgment, and analysis toward that end. Used in those ways, language is innately dualistic; it emphasizes preferences and differences. By contrast, silence “absorbs contradictions.” It is a “wholeness of being” that “holds the contraries in a way that words cannot.” When silence is absent, “words take over,” producing a barrage of language whose purpose is to explain, sell, charm, persuade, punish, and the like. But when silence is present, “chaste, well-chosen words” can arise from the silence, words with silence around them. No longer based in a dualistic, “either/or consciousness,” such words “open a portal to a deeper connection,” both with the world of things and with other people.

Fr. Rohr’s evocative description brings to mind a four-line poem by the Irish poet Michael Longley. Its subject is the poet’s youngest grandchild:

                                    MAISIE AT DAWN    

                                    Wordless in dawnlight

                                    She talks to herself,

                                    Her speech-melody

                                    A waterlily budding.

In these lines an attentive grandfather listens to the inarticulate sounds his granddaughter is making. Hearing them as a melody, he likens that melody to a waterlily on the verge of flowering. Just as Maisie’s “speech-melody” has arisen out of the quietude of early morning, her first words are soon to emerge as the flower of language. Longley’s haiku-like poem is at once a loving study of a child and a contemplation of the mystery of silence, sound, and language. By leaving much unsaid, Longley’s spare words evoke the silence around them.

Zen has been called the study of silence. The practice is more than that, of course. But by sitting still, even for the space of twenty minutes, we can allow our minds to settle and our inner chatter to diminish. Resting in open awareness, we can sense the eternal silence beneath the onrushing images, memories, and other mental phenomena. By making that silence the object of contemplation, we can witness the arising of thoughts and their emotional subtexts from the depths of silence and the ocean of consciousness. And should we then choose to speak, our words are far more likely to connect us with nature, ourselves, and other people, whether our subject is the appetites of Baltimore Orioles or the murmurings of an awakening child.

______

Father Richard Rohr, “Finding God in the Depths of Silence,” Festival of Faiths, May, 2013.

“Maisie at Dawn” is used by permission of Wake Forest University Press and the Random House Group (Jonathan Cape).  The poem appears in Michael Longley’s collection The Stairwell (Wake Forest University Press, 2014).  The Stairwell was originally  published in the UK by Jonathan Cape. Cf. Michael Longley’s poem “Private Ungarettti” in the same volume: “We / Hear the din of battle / In the white silence / Around his words.”

Photo: “Baltimore Oriole Eating Orange,” by John Kees.

156. The Book of Janet

730px-Old_book_gathering_2I have a friend by the name of Janet, who regularly consults what I call the Book of Janet, especially when she’s feeling blue or vexed or insecure. If she makes some trivial error, like misplacing her car keys, the Book of Janet reminds her that she is not well-organized. If she enters a competition and receives a letter of rejection, the Book of Janet informs her that her work is not all that good. And if she’s feeling less than beautiful on any given morning, the Book of Janet confirms her worst fears. On all three counts, the Book of Janet is wide of the mark. It is out of touch with the present reality. Unfortunately, that makes little difference to Janet, who swears by her Book as if it were her Bible. Continue Reading »

155. O great mystery

Cortical Columns      Greg A. Dunn

Cortical Columns
Greg A. Dunn

It’s no great mystery, my friend used to say. He was a gifted mechanic and a natural handyman. How do you replace and properly gap the spark plugs on a ’63 Ford pickup? It’s no great mystery. Just read the manual. How do you fix a leaking toilet? Rewire an electrical outlet? No problem. And no great mystery either.

In practical terms, my friend may have been right, but in ultimate terms, he was wide of the mark. O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery”), a responsorial chant in the Roman Catholic Christmas Mass, celebrates the mystery of Jesus’ birth in a lowly manger. In its reverence for the ineffable, as manifest in humble environs, that sacred text shares common ground with Zen teachings, which enjoin us to hearken, in a spirit of “not-knowing,” to the hidden, unknowable, and indescribable dimension of ordinary life. Continue Reading »

ASC trackHere in the village of Alfred, New York, those of us who like to walk can often be found on the Alfred State College track. Situated on a high elevation , the track affords a panoramic view of the surrounding wooded hills. Designed though it was for athletic competition, the track is also an excellent venue for walking meditation.

On a windy day last summer, I took a walk on that firm but forgiving track. Above the line of trees, the blades of the college’s wind turbine were revolving briskly. And on the tall flagpole near the entrance, the American flag was flapping audibly. I was reminded of an old Zen story, which features a pair of quarrelsome monks and the enlightened master Eno, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. Continue Reading »

153. Not two, not one

Inside_Looking_Out_-_geograph.org.uk_-_767556“Up!” implores my granddaughter, looking up at me and raising her arms. Allegra is fifteen months old. Up was one of her first words.

I gladly pick Allegra up, and for the next few minutes I take her for a walk on my shoulder, making rhythmic noises in her ear. This seems to please her, but eventually she decides that she has indulged her grandfather long enough. “Down,” says she, and I reluctantly comply.

Up and down, down and up. Over the next year and beyond, Allegra will learn other pairs of words and other dualities: left and right, inside and outside, high and low. Through the medium of language she will learn not only to speak but also to think in dualistic terms. Soon enough, I suspect, she will enlist the duality yours and mine, with a pronounced emphasis on the latter.

As do we grown-ups, every day of the year. Dualistic thinking is so familiar and so necessary for navigating the world, it goes unnoticed and unexamined much of the time. Yet, as the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observes, our familiar dualities are relative in nature and impede our apprehension of reality: Continue Reading »

Chevy interior cropped“Put it in neutral, Bud,” my father said, quietly but firmly. It was the summer of 1958, and I was learning to drive. The car was a 1950 Chevrolet sedan with a three-speed transmission and the gearshift lever on the steering column. “Three on the Tree,” it was called. Learning to put the lever and the Chevy itself into neutral was my first lesson.

It might also be the first lesson for the Zen practitioner. Wherever else it might lead, the practice of Zen meditation begins with finding, establishing, and maintaining a neutral center, both for the body and the mind. Neutrality may well be the body-mind’s most natural condition, but for many people it is far from habitual. In a culture as competitive as ours, neutrality is often not an option, much less a state to be cultivated and explored. To do so requires training and sustained attention Continue Reading »

151. Yeah, whatever

Luca Giordano, A Cynical Philosopher

Luca Giordano, A Cynic Philosopher

“I think most people would lie to get ahead.”

“It is safer to trust nobody.”

“Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it.”

If you would tend to agree with those statements, your outlook on life and human nature might fairly be described as one of cynical distrust. And while you might be well established in that outlook–and even take pride in being a curmudgeon–a recent Finnish study might give you pause. Continue Reading »

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