Thursday, October 31, 2013



Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters 
and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say:
"It is I you have been looking for"
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye

Painting Circle of Light by Sandra Bierman

Friday, October 25, 2013

Six Persimmons

How simple can a painting be? As simple, apparently, as the painting above, which depicts six persimmons (almost) in a row. It is painted on plain paper in black ink, so there is not even any suggestion of colour to stir our senses. It was painted in the 13th-century by the Chinese artist monk Mu Qi, and I have lived with this painting since discovering it in a little book of Chinese art which I bought for myself when I was still at art school – more years ago now than I care to remember!

But if this painting is so simple, why, then, is it widely regarded as one of the greatest works of art ever created? One can point out the virtuosity of the bravura brushwork, in which no single stroke is repeated, and the way in which even the little stalks on the fruit resemble Chinese calligraphy at its shining best. The composition as well is masterful, daring as it does to leave the top half of the painting completely untouched, and offsetting one of the six fruits below the line to add an unexpected dynamism. But all these things have to do with the technique behind the painting. They do not tell us why the painting endures after so many centuries, and what lessons it might contain.

Emma has given her blog the title of Sophia’s Mirror, and her introductory post tells us that Sophia, the embodiment of wisdom, is the creative force behind all things. But Sophia did not exist, as it were, of herself; she was not an equivalent of the omnipotent male creator god of scripture. Behind Sophia was the Unknowable – what Emma in a previous post described as the Dazzling Darkness – and Sophia was herself the first emanation from this Unknowable Mystery. This Mystery is conscious, and consciousness is thought. These thoughts remain as thoughts only. But Sophia with her creative powers can take these thoughts from the Mystery and give them form, make them actual. Whole worlds are created, with their tigers and their tamarind trees, their islands and their oceans and their wheeling flocks of seabirds. Sophia’s mirror reflects all that Sophia has created, all that she has made real from the emerging thoughts of the Mystery.

Look again at those six persimmons. Now view them, not as a whole composition, but as if they were a line of text. Whether you choose to read them from right to left or from left to right does not greatly matter: the result is the same. Those six simple pieces of fruit portray nothing less than the actual act of creation. At the beginning we are in a formless state: a blank emptiness, a ‘no-mind’ bounded by a grey but defining circle. It is the symbol of Zen. Moving along the ‘line of text’ this formless state is no longer a blank void. It is now filled with a tangible ‘something’. But Mu Qi’s brush is not yet fully-charged with ink: these ‘half-manifested’ persimmons are still an intermediate grey. Ah, but the centre persimmon! This one is solid black, as full of ink as the artist’s brush must have been when he painted it. This persimmon is fully-realised, a small piece of fruit manifested in reality. It is not a part of the shadow world to either side of it. It simply ‘is’.

And then the process goes into reverse: from black to grey and again to a blank nothing. Mu Qi (and Sophia!) have taken a raw unformed thought and made it manifest, have caused it to exist. But like life itself this existence is not the end. We have come from the formless, and to the formless state we shall return. How long did this painting take to execute? Sixty seconds? Less? Under the brush of a genius, six persimmons are still enough to portray the entire process of creation, and to chart, as on a graph, the course of every human life. 

Painting: Six Persimmons, by Mu Qi (Mu Ch’i), known in China as Fa-Chang. Ink on paper, Song Dynasty, 13th-century.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Singing Very Softly

The conditions of a solitary bird are five:
The first, that it flies to the highest point;
The second, that it does not suffer for company, not even of its own kind;
The third, that it aims its beak to the skies;
The fourth, that it does not have a definite colour;
The fifth, that it sings very softly.

These beautiful lines by the 16th-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross are from verse 121 of his cycle of reflections Sayings of Light and Love. John himself tells us that the lines are intended to convey devotion to God, a surrender to the Oneness beyond our own limited horizons, and a sweet contemplation of the reuniting of the soul with the spirit. In this the lines convey the same sense of mystic surrender as Hildegard von Bingen’s comment that she saw herself as ‘a feather on the breath of God’. 

But lines which contain such greatness of spirit can reach beyond even the meanings which their author intended. The fourth condition, that the solitary bird ‘does not have a definite colour’, might at first puzzle us. Why should the bird have no definite colour? Everything in nature has a colour which can be defined. Outside my window I can now see the leaves on the trees turning from summer green to autumn gold. The colours of the leaves change with the seasons, but I still can look at them and see what colour they are. We habitually name things, we classify things into categories and subcategories. A lion is a lion, but it also is a member of the big cat family, which are in turn carnivorous mammals. Everything needs to be named and grouped. The book of Genesis even tells us that Adam’s first task was to assign names to everything in Eden.

Even when I watch a wildlife documentary, the narrator assigns names to those lions, apparently to make the animals more like human characters, and therefore to appeal more to the viewer. They become Sita the lioness and her cubs Manu and Pola: names which the animals themselves remain entirely unaware of. An animal identifies another individual by a whole package of sensations: sight, scent, touch, all working together. Maybe we should, instead of foisting names on everything, try to see the ‘whole package’ more. A name can become a label, and a label is used to define something.

As John of the Cross was aware, to define something can also be a way of limiting it, of imposing personally-perceived borders and restrictions, of confining that thing to a particular set of expectations that we might have about it. He had no wish to subject his solitary bird to such confinement. His precious bird of the spirit needed complete freedom to exist. Names and definitions can so easily become walls, and even to assign his bird a specific colour would have been to build a wall of sorts around it.

And John of the Cross knew about walls. Imprisoned by his own Carmelite superiors for his reformist views, he was confined for years in a dark cell barely wider than he was tall. The lines which begin my post were written on paper smuggled to him by his guard, and written by the dim light of a small window to the adjoining cell. His triumph was to dissolve the walls which confined him, to allow his solitary bird to soar to the skies, without restrictions, without definitions, singing very softly, but still with a song that would be heard over six centuries after he had launched it into the skies.   

Image: Performance of the Momix Dance Theatre Company 
photographer: Allessandro Bianchi

Friday, October 11, 2013

Sophia's Mirror

The planet we call home is a mirror. This is literally true, as the waters which cover so much of our world reflect the sky above them. The sea appears soft and grey or azure blue, depending on where we are and what the weather is doing. The waves reflect the sky. Last Sunday I stood on the shore and took the photo of the sea that is the background of my new blog header. The sea was glass-calm, and the weather was very still, and a little misty. Such absolute tranquillity invites reflection: a moving beyond the horizon-spanning surface which lies before us as we stand on the shore. 

For me, to stand on that particular shore was something of a personal fulfilment: a promise kept to myself to greet the sea once more after many years of personal trials. I stood there in silence, feeling the crunch of wet sand underfoot, breathing in the salt air on that perfect October afternoon, listening to the soft wash and sigh of the incoming waves – the tallest barely more than ankle-high. The simplest experiences can offer consolation, even a sense of redemption, of being given a new reason to have inner faith when faith has been something that we hardly dare to feel any more.

Having such inner faith can give a sense of peace, a deep sense that things are unfolding as they should, that all is as it is because that is the way it needs to be. Even just a simple trust in what might be round the corner for us can be a silent wish. But even this silence can be full of fierce longing. We plant its flag on some shore known or unknown, and the mere presence of that flag proclaims: ‘I am here – this is where I choose to stand’. And where we stand is a place which mirrors our deeply-felt inner trust, and all is reflected in its depths. But when we gaze into this mirror of trust, is it always our own face that we see? 

The Ancient World called her Sophia – Wisdom. She is the creative force behind all things, and a line from a text written in her name promises that she will come to those who reflect on her. That line was written over a thousand years ago, and the fragile text which contains it, known as Thunder, Perfect Mind, was lost for sixteen long centuries, buried in a jar in the Egyptian sands before being unearthed by chance. It is as if some things are just not meant to be lost. That text, which contains some of the most fiercely beautiful lines I know, was adrift on another ocean – the ocean of time – before at last being washed up on our own shore.

Written by an unknown hand, the clear voice of Sophia in that text reaches out to us once more across the centuries. Such endurance against all the odds provides its own powerful message of faith, for faith as well is not meant to be lost, however long it might remain buried. Now once more we can gaze into Sophia’s mirror and, if we choose to and if we are open to her spirit, it is her face that we will see there as well as our own.