Monday, August 17, 2009

Desert encounter

This morning I am still reading Merton's writings about other writers; I am finding it rather dense and slow-going, I confess. But he said something about the poet, Edwin Muir, that struck me:

"As a poet, Muir felt himself compelled to 'divine and persuade' -- to divine in the sense of a water diviner finding hidden springs; to persuade, not by demonstration, but by sharing the water with others."

I loved being reminded of the fact that "divine" is also a verb, and love thinking that the work we do as writers, contemplatives, and artists is to unearth that which is divine, which lies beneath the surface, and then to share what we uncover.

I loved, also, our drive through the desert yesterday; the stark magnificence of the bare mountains against the blue sky. And I find it amazing, on so many levels, that such land exists; that the people who founded the communities in which I lived got here by walking over these endless dry slopes. What horrors must have driven them away from the communities in which they had been living? And what hope must have helped them keep going; surely the lack of trees and water for days on end must have been hideously discouraging.

And, as I said yesterday, how extraordinary it is, that I, who live on a beach near a rain forest, can drive a mere two hours and find myself in such a completely different landscape! But what, I wonder, is the divine purpose that lies behind the creation of such apparently uninhabitable and inhospitable land? Is it just the contrast of it, that serves, like shadows and light, to accentuate the extraordinary lush richness of my own climate?

And yet there are people who choose to live there, who revel in the hot dry climate and perhaps even find the air where I live too rich to breathe. One of Merton's letters is to James Baldwin, and he says, after admitting that as a white man he will never fully understand what it means to be black, that "there is not one of us, individually, racially, socially, who is fully complete in the sense of having in himself all the excellence of all humanity.

"This excellence, this totality, is built up out of the contributions of the particular parts of it that we all can share with one another. I am therefore not completely human until I have found myself in my African and Asian and Indonesian brother because he has the part of humanity which I lack."

Perhaps it is also true that our country, our world, our universe, our complete and total divinity, will never be fully grasped until we understand that what is different from us --what we lack, or cannot understand, or cannot tolerate -- is in fact a vital part of who we are in toto. Until we can experience, accept, and even welcome all those other ways of thinking, living, and being; until those who dwell in the rain forest can see the value in the desert; we will never be fully human, which is to say, fully divine.

And how can we begin to know until we engage with that which is other; until we choose to step outside our own narrow worlds? According to Merton, Camus saw this clearly, and understood that though we who are artists, writers, and contemplatives are tempted always to solitude and silence, "he always felt that this attraction was a mere temptation to be resisted. He needed to be present among men, for his own sake as well as for theirs... In his notebooks he writes, 'Peace would be loving in silence. But there is conscience and the person: you have to speak."

It is not enough for me to sit in my own little corner of the world and pontificate about whatever occurs to me: it is imperative that I balance my alone time with ventures out into community; that I balance the solitude and sameness of my life with human interaction and with the different and the unfamiliar. I must also learn to balance silence with speech, working, like Merton and Camus, "to find those few words by which to appease the infinite anguish of free souls;" using art and language to convey a welcoming awareness of other that can help fill the emptiness that results from our disconnection with our complete humanity.

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