The gospel of light is the crossroads of - indolence, or action.

Mary Oliver
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Last week I talked about how things shine and how, through their shining, we can discover, directly and without any existential doubt, the things about which we already care and also find ourselves always-already-in a world filled to the brim with deep meaning and connection. Today, using the example of Mary Oliver's poem 'What I Have Learned So Far' I'll continue to explore something of what this might mean for our own lives as we seek a meaningful way of being religious in an age and secular culture which finds it difficult to subscribe to the religious certainties of old.

So, here is Oliver's poem:

    Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
    not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
    looking into the shining world? Because, properly
    attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
    Can one be passionate about the just, the
    ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
    to no labor in its cause? I don't think so.

    All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
    story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
    Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
    light is the crossroads of - indolence, or action.

    Be ignited, or be gone.


            (From New and Selected Poems, Volume Two)

As you can see, Mary Oliver also believes that the world shines. Her regular ritual of sitting on a hillside, commingled in the world of the hillside allows her to *discover* how things shine and have meaning for her, just as the various things involved in my morning tea ritual, about which I spoke last week, shine and have meaning for me. Remember here that I am using the word 'ritual' as a contrast to 'routine' in which a ritual is a meaningful celebration of what it is to be-human-in-the-world and not merely a generic performance of a function.

One way of summing up both Mary Oliver's sitting on the hillside and my own drinking of tea of a morning is to say that they are meditations of a mindful kind.

Now, because I think meditation is a key practice which can help us leave behind the old idea of a transcendent God and to see the meaning of our life in the shining things of this world, not surprisingly I want this address to be an encouragement encouraging all of us to meditate more. But, in modern Western culture, there is a problem with the way we have generally come to understand in what consists meditation and so, in order properly to sow the seed I wish to see grow (and to do it with a reasonable chance it will bring forth good fruit) firstly, I need to ensure the seed falls upon good soil and not among thorns.

Our modern culture has, for all sorts of reasons, come to understand meditation primarily as an inward, private and somehow "pure" affair, wholly free (potentially at least) from the distortions of time, culture and place and which, it is claimed, gives us access to a core, universal spirituality. Importantly it also often tends to hold that meditation is weighted towards helping us experiencing only the kinds of shining we would call delightful. But, as Ernst Bloch noted there is a very real danger connected with this kind of inward turn:

"Someone goes into himself. He thinks that will heal him. But if he stays in there too long no one will notice. He will end up trampling around on himself"
(Atheism in Christianity p. xii).

One reason why this inward, solipsistic and, ultimately, self-destructive move may have occurred is because of the culturally influential Authorised Version of the Bible in which we read that Jesus taught us that the kingdom of Heaven (primarily understood as an eternal state of delight) is 'within' us. This 'within' is, in my opinion at least, the major, choking thorn that we have to try and cut down. It's certainly one that has ensnared me for years.


And when [Jesus] was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you
(Luke 17:20-21).

We can lay the axe at the root of this thorn by reminding ourselves that the Greek word 'entos', which gets translated in the AV as 'within' and, as the Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon notes you will discover that 'entos' refers to "a position within an area determined by other objects and distributed among such objects."

Now it is this mention of objects that I find so suggestive because objects - that is to say things - are clearly *in* the world. So the first thing I want to say is that this suggests Jesus may well have been gesturing towards the idea that the kingdom of heaven is to be found, not in some inner, abstract delightful state of mind nor in some Platonic world beyond, accessible only by introversion, but always-already distributed among the things of the world and that this kingdom is to be discovered by going out of oneself into the world.

It is vital to remember that on each occasion we read about Jesus retiring into some solitary place, there to pray or meditate, the result is always for him a deepening involvement in *this* world either to teach or heal. So, for example we read in the Gospel according to Mark:

And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed. And Simon and they that were with him followed after him. And when they had found him, they said unto him, All [men] seek for thee. And he said unto them, Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth
(Mark 1:35-37).

In passing, but importantly, I think we can legitimately suggest Jesus practised some kind of mindful meditation as well as prayer because of his constant teaching to look outwards and consider the delights of the natural world, whether the lilies of the field, birds of the air (Matthew 6 and Luke 12) or the skies in the morning or evening (cf Matthew 16:2-3 and Luke 12:56). We may point also to the pull into the world which Jesus feels because of less delightful things which cause havoc in our world, namely poverty, disease, injustice and hypocrisy.    

This same is also true of Mary Oliver and we can see her lay great emphasis on the way she has learnt that meditation always results in her experiencing a strong pull out of herself and ever more deeply into the world. Please notice that she, like Jesus, makes it clear that this pull into the world is as strongly felt when she is amongst the things that bring her delight as it is when she is amongst the darker things that bring havoc. As Oliver says and Jesus shows, delight is (or should be) as much a suggestion for us to act in the world as is havoc and it is a call always to labour for maintenance and growth of the delightful shining things we perceive to be just, ideal, sublime, and holy.

Oliver's next lines subtly gesture towards the thought that, in truth, we are always-already-in-the-world among things and that no-thing can ever step outside the world - even when our language and cultural training tempts us to think this is possible.

So she begins this by saying 'all summations have a beginning' which seems to me to gesture towards the thought that all apparently self-contained wholes rely upon some 'beginning' external to it but which is, itself, also always-already-in-the-world. If we are minded to take seriously the Christian myth that Jesus is the incarnation of God - and I am minded to take it seriously - then this myth is a way of decisively bringing even God always-already-into-the-world and, therefore, dependent upon the grace of the shining things outside us but which are still always-already-in-the-world.

The next few lines build on this thought. 'All effect has a story' she says and here I suggest that Oliver is gesturing to the thought that even our most apparently abstract ideas, such as God as an uncaused cause, is something that, in truth, can only arise in an already existing grounded, ongoing, unfolding story about how we as humans take a stand on what it is to be in the world.

Then she notes, 'All kindness begins with the sown seed' which, similarly, suggests all goodness - whether we label it human, divine or merely providential - is also reliant upon some prior 'goodness' that was always-already sown in the world and which we try to pass on through our stories, generation after generation, and which, if we wish to see such kindness continue to grow amongst us, we must from time to time remove invasive and choking thorns.

Lastly, she says that all thought - even though our language tempts us into thinking it is an inward thing - is, in truth, always budding 'toward radiance'. In other words what we like to think of as 'inner' is always-already out in the world budding towards radiance. I am increasingly taking Jesus well known saying about light as it appears in Luke as a particularly felicitous expression of this thought:

No man, when he hath lighted a candle, covereth it with a vessel, or putteth [it] under a bed; but setteth [it] on a candlestick, that they which enter in may see the light. For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither [any thing] hid, that shall not be known and come abroad
(Luke 8:16-17)

Nothing is secret because there is no secret, hidden inner world and every thing, in the instant it becomes, is always-already budding toward radiance and for those who have entered into the world everything always shines out like a candle on a candlestick.

And then we approach directly what she has learnt so far: 'The gospel of light is the crossroads of - indolence, or action.'

As Jesus said, all those 'which enter in may see the light' may see this budding towards radiance and it seems to me that we can only enter into the world (of which both Jesus and Oliver speaks) and see the shining of all things when we take care daily to practise a life shaped by mindful meditation.

The pressing question for us is whether we are willing to enter in and see this? And then whether, in response we allow ourselves to 'be ignited' - to become ourselves the light of the world. Make no mistake the stakes are high for to refuse this call towards radiance is to be gone. Far better, surely, to be ignited.

    Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
    not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
    looking into the shining world? Because, properly
    attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
    Can one be passionate about the just, the
    ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
    to no labor in its cause? I don't think so.

    All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
    story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
    Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
    light is the crossroads of - indolence, or action.

    Be ignited, or be gone.


             (From New and Selected Poems, Volume Two)
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