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Posted by on May 30, 2007

Restlessness and prayer



I have been rereading a little bit of Kahlil Gibran recently (incidentally a nice site for this is http://leb.net/~mira/) and have been moved by the real simplicity of his verse. It is simple but it really cuts to heart of the matter, the heart of passionate and spiritual verse.

I find Gibran to be a perfect example of the spiritual as opposed to the religious, not laying judgement on the merits of either. Gibran praises instinctively, passionately, like a pilgrim, with all the reverence and awe of a child. And that reminded me of what someone told me, one of those real profundities that goes beyond the teller and lingers in your head. You remember the words but not the speaker; the transcend the proprietary nature of authorship. This person said that prayer is praise, prayer, real prayer is celebration of the holy, the purity in all of us.

Prayer, the kind of prayer that asks for forgiveness or strength in the face of adverse circumstances, is humility; it is a gentle, natural dignity. Prayer of celebration, art, is the language of festivity, of joy and rapture, of acknowledging all that is good, was good and can be good again. Prayer, a pledge of community, is powerful in its uniformity, in its sacrifice of identity for the larger power, the larger community.

Yet prayer, except in certain writers like Gibran and Thomas Merton, often escapes metaphor. It often defies literary explanation or escapes artistic tendencies. That is a shame.

What is the metaphor of prayer? It is an abstract concept, something wrought with seeming contradictions. It is intensely personal, yet can be communal.

In “To The Lighthouse”, Virginia Woolf takes great care to demonstrate how two characters stare at a piece of fruit, knowing full well they are admiring different qualities of the fruit, the texture as opposed to the symmetry. However, they are both aware that they are joined by this admiration. Prayer is like this.

I stare at the ocean and admire its vastness. I am fearful. It is fluid. My wife might stare at this same ocean and admire the gentle crashing of the waters on the shore, the sound of seagulls, or the texture of the sand. Yet we are joined by this admiration, by this prayer. This is communal, this is a church of sorts.

Water, the ocean, the river, the shower or tub, this is the metaphor or prayer. The fluidity, the purity of water ebbing and flowing is profound.

The ability to get completely lost in the water, both physically and spiritually, is the enabling agent of prayer. Herman Hesse describes it perfectly as such:

Siddhartha listened. He was now nothing but a listener, completely
concentrated on listening, completely empty, he felt, that he had now
finished learning to listen. Often before, he had heard all this, these
many voices in the river, today it sounded new. Already, he could no
longer tell the many voices apart, not the happy ones from the weeping
ones, not the ones of children from those of men, they all belonged
together, the lamentation of yearning and the laughter of the knowledgeable one, the scream of rage and the moaning of the dying ones, everything was one, everything was intertwined and connected, entangled a thousand times.

And everything together, all voices, all goals, all yearning, all suffering, all pleasure, all that was good and evil, all of this together was the world. All of it together was the flow of events, was the music of life. And when Siddhartha was listening attentively to this river, this song of a thousand voices, when he neither listened to the suffering nor the laughter, when he did not tie his soul to any particular voice and submerged his self into it, but when he heard them all, perceived the whole, the oneness, then the great song of the thousand voices consisted of a single word, which was Om:the perfection.
“Do you hear,” Vasudeva’s gaze asked again.

Brightly, Vasudeva’s smile was shining, floating radiantly over all the wrinkles of his old face, as the Om was floating in the air over all the voices of the river. Brightly his smile was shining, when he looked at his friend, and brightly the same smile was now starting to shine on Siddhartha’s face as well. His wound blossomed, his suffering was shining, his self had flown into the oneness.

This passage highlights the precedent of the Om that millions of monks chant each and every day. It is the righting of the soul, the adjustment of the navigation of the spiritual Id. It is Amen. It is communion with the larger Us, it is water flowing gently down the river, never the same, never that far from what it is. It is transience, the perpetual movement towards from where we come, where we will be once more, changed, altered, temporary.

The Kahlil Gibran poem that sparked this whole train of thought can be found below. It has spoken to me recently due to my restlessness, that feeling that the world is calling, somewhere is calling me out, further out than ever before. To explore another continent. To eat exotic foods. To meet people and live with them, in their habitat. To understand a little more about life, to perhaps quell the fires in my mind, in my body. To appreciate beauty. To transcend in pursuit of the truth, of love, of exultation. Maybe, just maybe.

Then the gates of his heart were flung open, and his joy flew far over the sea. And he closed his eyes and prayed in the silences of his soul.
But he descended the hill, a sadness came upon him, and he thought in his heart: How shall I go in peace and without sorrow? Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city.

Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?

Too many fragments of the spirit have I scattered in these streets, and too many are the children of my longing that walk naked among these hills, and I cannot withdraw from them without a burden and an ache.
It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin that I tear with my own hands.

Nor is it a thought I leave behind me, but a heart made sweet with hunger and with thirst.

Yet I cannot tarry longer.

The sea that calls all things unto her calls me, and I must embark.
For to stay, though the hours burn in the night, is to freeze and crystallize and be bound in a mould.

Fain would I take with me all that is here. But how shall I?

A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that give it wings. Alone must it seek the ether.

And alone and without his nest shall the eagle fly across the sun.
Now when he reached the foot of the hill, he turned again towards the sea, and he saw his ship approaching the harbour, and upon her prow the mariners, the men of his own land.

And his soul cried out to them, and he said:
Sons of my ancient mother, you riders of the tides, How often have you sailed in my dreams. And now you come in my awakening, which is my deeper dream.

Ready am I to go, and my eagerness with sails full set awaits the wind.
Only another breath will I breathe in this still air, only another loving look cast backward,Then I shall stand among you, a seafarer among seafarers.

And you, vast sea, sleepless mother,

Who alone are peace and freedom to the river and the stream,

Only another winding will this stream make, only another murmur in this glade,

And then shall I come to you, a boundless drop to a boundless ocean.
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