Having Listened — On prayer and fenceposts — a response to what lays claim to us

Readings: Matthew 6:5-15

From Wise Thoughts for Every Day" (trans by Peter Sekirin, Arcade Publishing, 2011) by Leo Tolstoy:

“Prayer reminds you who you are and what your purpose is in life. Think this over in solitude, when you are not distracted by anything else. When you pray, pray only for yourself. Do not think you can please God with your prayer. You please God only when you follow his will.”

To Fencepost by Gary Whited from Having Listened (Homebound Publications, 2013, p. 5)
(This poem can also be viewed at this link)

It knew my breath
and knew my cheek.
It was yesterday,

a long time ago, 
when I stood alone 
next to any old fencepost

and waited before I knew 
I was beginning 
a practice of listening to what stands still

a long time. 
Today, standing anyplace,
that yearning might come

for a way in
to where fenceposts stay without ceasing,
each one a priest of stillness.

Any day this is so—
on a hillside where wind trembles the grass
stands a quiet gray weathered post,

crust of golden lichen 
on the shadowed side.

His Religion by Gary Whited from Having Listened (Homebound Publications, 2013, p. 26)
(This poem can also be viewed at this link)

Thundered sky, tattered by lightning, 
comes back whole but blackened, 
clouds full with the promise of rain.

My father looks west from the barn 
before descending the rickety wooden steps 
to the corral and his one Holstein cow 

waiting just beyond sunup for oats 
by the door where she always waits 
and to be relieved of the load brimming in her udder,

the fresh milk she’s been making all night 
while these clouds gathered, 
filling with what by late afternoon

could be hail instead of rain, his biggest worry, 
what makes him light another cigarette, 
wondering if his fields will be saved 

from the hail stones’ torture, 
his wheat crop gone in minutes. 
His hands protect the match’s wobbly flame, 

his deep breath sets the cigarette on fire, 
its smoke rising, his ritual, his prayer.



As many of you know a figure who remains highly influential in my own religious thinking is Leo Tolstoy and, during the course of this year, I’ve been using a book of daily readings drawn from his final major work written between 1903 and 1910 called, “A Calendar of Wisdom” (Russian: Круг чтения, Krug chtenia), or “Path of life” or, as my edition translates it, “Wise Thoughts for Every Day”. It is a collection of insights and wisdom, both Tolstoy’s own and many others including Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, Jesus, Muhammad, Confucius, Emerson, Kant, Ruskin, Seneca, Socrates, Thoreau and even James Martineau.

Anyway this week, on Thursday 18th June, the entry for the day contained the words you heard in our reading about prayer:

“Prayer reminds you who you are and what your purpose is in life. Think this over in solitude, when you are not distracted by anything else. When you pray, pray only for yourself. Do not think you can please God with your prayer. You please God only when you follow his will.

Now, I heard these words this week alongside a recent set of poems by Gary Whited and it was the resonance set up between them that gave rise to the address.

I came across Whited’s work because he was a student of another of my philosophical heroes, the philosopher Henry Bugbee some of whose thinking I brought before you during Advent and Christmas. Whited contributed a beautiful piece called, “Henry Bugbee as Mentor” to a book of essays about Bugbee put together by someone who over the past year has become a good friend of mine, Ed Mooney. In that piece Whited writes that he feels that the central theme of Bugbee’s work was:

“To see our life as a response to what lays claim to us and, as best we can, to remain true to this in order that the meaning and purpose of our life, and the things that touch it, might dawn on us” (Wilderness and the Heart, p. 236).

I hope you can see that that these words resonate with Tolstoy’s about prayer and it strikes me that the connection between them is gestured to by the word “listening” — Tolstoy seems to be encouraging a listening for what he calls “God’s will” and Whited/Bugbee encourage a listening to “what lays claim to us”. These two things may seem to be very different but remember when Tolstoy spoke of God he didn’t imagine God in any conventional sense as some kind of supernatural being, "up there" but, as he explicitly says, “What we call God is comprehension” and that “this is the true God and is the entire fundamental principle” (Shubin). Another translation of this passage puts it as “Knowledge of life is God” (Condren).

Now, in order to discern “God’s will”, and/or that which “lays claim to us”, and through it to find the meaning and purpose of our lives (and what this is will be different for each person), we simply cannot be engaged in the kind of petitionary prayer that is all about transmitting our personal wishes outward; as Jesus memorably taught, in prayer we should not babble but become silent and enter into a quiet, un-showy, receptive way of being; it is to listen. It is this we, ourselves, must learn.

Now Whited’s new collection of poems is called “Having Listened”  and as a poet, philosopher and psychotherapist, listening is clearly of the greatest importance and I think he is a fine guide who can help us to learn to see and practice this listening.

In his poem, “To Fencepost” you’ve already had a glimpse of what began to teach him about silence and stillness but, before turning again to his poem about his father, “His Religion”, I think it’s valuable to give you a sense of what this means in terms of his work as a philosopher and psychotherapist.

As a philosopher a text that has filled his thought since his days as a graduate student is the poem, of which we only have a few fragments, by the late sixth or early fifth century BCE writer, Parmenides. On his website Whited tells us the following story. It is worth quoting in full.

“As a grad student, translating Parmenides’ poem from the classical Greek opened a floodgate of remembering my life on the prairie. That remembered prairie life became a vehicle for traveling into the language through which Parmenides’ poem evokes a journey into thought on the nature of Being and Becoming. Remembered fenceposts and my standing next to them exploring their weathered sides and imagining what they had seen and heard standing there at one spot all that time became metaphors that pointed toward the stillness I began to glimpse in the well-placed words of Parmenides.
          I’d sit for a long time next to a phrase of the Greek, waiting to hear it in its own terms, hoping to move nearer to Parmenides’ choice of a word, a verb tense, or a metaphor that evoked a sense of the one and the still and that embodied these in words that do what they say. 
          Someplace along the way of this translating journey, I began to imagine that standing next to a Greek phrase, waiting to catch its idiosyncratic lean toward its possible meaning was not so different from standing next to those fenceposts as a kid, feeling drawn toward their stillness, their ever-presence, signalled in the sound of wind fluttering through the splinters on a weathered side of an old ash or pine post. The solidity of weathered wood against the movement of wind, the earth below me feeling still even while spinning, all of it conveyed into my body an interweaving of movement and stillness toward which Parmenides’ poem pointed in sound and word as I came to hear it. It was in this standing next to Parmenides’ Greek phrases that I began to remember the longing I felt while standing next to the fenceposts, the longing for “what stands still a long time.”

Beautiful and helpful words, I think.

Now let’s hear Whited talk about his work as a psychotherapist. He begins with a headline quote, “One condition for the possibility of listening is silence. A second is stillness” and he continues:

“Each time I sit down to do a session with a client, I approach the experience in the same way I approach reading or hearing a poem. One day it dawned on me that every session is a new poem and my job is to hear it, to hear it as fully and deeply as I can, and out of this hearing, with as open an ear as I can offer, to reflect it back to the speaker in a way that helps the speaker hear his or her own story and his or her own listening to that story. The shared listening between myself and my client carries both of us toward what is ready to be uncovered. It carries us toward the truth in the spirit of the ancient Greek sense of “aletheia,” or “to uncover.” Listening to Parmenides’ poem encourages me to expect that something unexpected and amazing can happen in any single therapy session, as in an entire therapy process, as in life itself, when our listening carries us toward what we don’t know yet, toward what is still hidden even as it is being uncovered. Moving toward our not knowing is where healing happens. As I hear Parmenides, he encourages us to live there where our knowing borders our not knowing, to lean into our not knowing as we listen, to speak into it, to let it show itself to us and to invade our knowing.”

Again, I think these are beautiful and helpful words. So, now, with them in mind, let’s turn again to Whited’s poem, “His Religion”.

When I read Tolstoy’s words this week I felt it was worth bringing them before you today. But I knew it would be helpful to ground them in a memorable and very accessible example and I think this poem offers that.

Now, in such a dry climate as that found in the prairies it should come as no surprise, to quote Joni Mitchell’s beautiful song, “Paprika Plains”, that the people living there, particularly farmers like Whited’s father, are “such sky oriented people/Geared to changing weather”.

So, Whited’s father stands at the barn door looking west contemplating the coming storm because he knows that rain is necessary and the promise of it falling is something to be welcomed and celebrated; without rain there comes the dreadful destruction of drought. However, he also knows that a summer thunderstorm can bring with it, not only life-giving rain, but also “the torture of hail” which, if it falls, will take his wheat crop from him in minutes. As he steps out of the barn in the early morning to walk to the corral where his Holstein cow is waiting to be relieved of the fresh milk, “brimming in her udder”, his whole being is filled with the knowledge of the storm’s double aspect and this stops him in his tracks to contemplate the approaching storm once again. Faced with such a reality — one in which he realises his utter dependence upon something greater than himself — there remains nothing to do but, in one way or another, to pray. So, Whited’s father strikes a match, protects it’s wobbly flame with his hand, and lights a cigarette which, along with his deep breath and the rising smoke, his son came to see as his father’s “ritual, his prayer”.

As some of you will be aware, the smoking of tobacco also had an important place in the rituals and prayers of the Plains Indians such as the Crow and Sioux and for them the smoke was “believed to carry prayers to the attention of the Creator or other powerful spirits.” I’m sure that here, Whited is quietly making a deep connection with the prayer of those who had earlier inhabited the same landscape as his father.

It would be easy to assume that his father’s prayer is, underneath it all, merely a petitionary request for rain, rather than hail. But the whole tenor of the poem — and his father’s general deportment (at least as Gary Whited presents him to us) — suggests that he is not asking for the former rather than the latter — for rain rather than hail — but rather that he is a man listening with his whole being to what the world around (and within him) is saying to him. His prayer seems to be much more of a silent acknowledgement of “what lays claim to him” in the totality of his life as a farmer in this landscape and whether that life experiences rain, hail or bright sun. In a sense, does this not make Whited's father the human analogue of a fencepost, “a priest of stillness” that, as Whited says in another poem (“Grief in Fenceposts”), “knows every sunrise to sunset, each moon’s wax and wane, every season, every storm, the cow, the deer, the meadowlark and hawk, rattlesnake, magpie, badger and horse”? To put it in the way Tolstoy does, does not his prayer, his lighting of his cigarette seems to be akin to saying, “Thy will be done”.

Whited’s work as a whole seems to me to be a powerful invitation to a prayer that is a kind of listening which allows the full import and meaning of our life to dawn upon us — to hear our own story and our own listening to that story.

As Whited said “One condition for the possibility of listening is silence. A second is stillness” and is this not what Tolstoy was also saying in his own way? We need to stop and find quiet and solitude when we are not distracted by anything else and we also need to pray for ourselves to be stilled, which is, in turn, to be opened up to the "will of God", to that “which lays claim to us.” 

So, as we join together now in the communion of music (the musical offering followed the address) my question for each of us today is twofold. Firstly, what have been for you “priests of stillness” — from what still and silent things have you learnt to listen to that which lays claim on us? And, secondly, what are your rituals and prayers that have come to express this?