The Not So Serene Disciple

I have been listening to Richard Rohr speaking of the life journey and describing four stages of life as depicted in the windows of a Hindu church: the student, the householder,  the forest dweller who gives up the status quo, and finally the wise sage.  

He finishes with this poem by Thomas Merton:

When In The Soul Of The Serene Disciple
Thomas Merton

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.

Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions.

Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire

Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.

What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.

From New Seeds of Contemplation 1961

Rohr also has a great commentary on this poem in his book Falling Upward : A Spirituality of The Two Halves of Life  in the context of the second half of life and the necessary suffering that is associated with passing across the threshold from the previous stage of the householder.

Rohr says we need to appreciate that forest dwelling is one of the gifts of the second half of life.

This article is on modern day forest dwelling from The Washington Post - from the secular point of view of a very privileged modern forest dweller like many are in the West and Northern Europe. Life is very different elsewhere !!

Rohr talks about something called A Bright Sadness, a term which he found in a book  on orthodox religious art. which defines the sign of a good religious icon as when it communicates simultaneously a brightness and a sadness, a gravitas. 

I am struck between the parallels in Merton's poem and the second half of life to the story of Elijah in Sunday's first reading and so have tried here to apply some of my own thoughts and interpretations to the story.

The broom tree indeed could represent the forest dwelling stage. 

The dilemma that confronts Elijah fits the Jungian adage "that one cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie." True, but it's one hell of a journey trying to edit the script by your own efforts.

                                                                        Image source

Something happens to Elijah when he sleeps and when the angel visits him that brings a transformation, a transcendence.

For those not easily open to visions of angels the image of transformation is still valid.

Elijah's visions and tasks in the first half of his life had led him on an orthodox heroic journey, familiar to Old Testament  prophets, full of brim and vigour.

But what is apparent is that his tasks were driven more from the motivation of ego fulfillment, but when the fall came as it inevitably does,with it came the despondency, and sense of futility, the recognition and acknowledgement  that all his actions were straw. Emptiness ensues and almost suicidal he crawls under the tree and he begs to die.

After the angel provides the drink and the bread via the raven from God twice it seems that Elijah's perceptions dramatically change.

It's as if he didn't need his own version of prophetic visions anymore because he is now participating fully in God's vision of him. He has relinquished control.

God was able to come alongside him in his desperate emptiness and his affliction.

 Rohr says its is important to recognise that at this stage of life  there is nothing you have come to or crawled down to by your own effort or insight. 

So I'm thinking too that Elijah's point of despair is inevitable as night follows day. It also give me some hope that if it can happen to prophets then the pity party we all go through at some points of life are not unique- even prophets succumb. Job and Jeremiah had similar epiphanies.

It's interesting to me  that the raven was the first bird to leave the ark after the flood and so here too, the raven brings a new gift after the deluge of human tears and  a new food to a refreshed virgin territory of the soul. 

A raven is a carnivore who feeds on scraps-  a nice allegory for the way in which the Lord can feed us from our scraps and detritus and the wasteland we often find ourselves in at various points in our lives.

                                                                       Image source
But we have to realise that just like Elijah we are taken there and our "there" is precisely nothing; i,e it is "everything", but not what we expected "everything" to be. 

The wonderful dreaming and the dreamer that we were in our early years have morphed into Someone Else's dream for us..... We are henceforth a "serene disciple", living in our own unique soul as never before, yet paradoxically living within the mind and heart of God, and continuing to take our place in the great and general dance.

Of course the path is not a linear one - the plan is a circular spiral one with many reversions and backtrackings; one step forward, three steps back but through the mire, we can intuit it, an inner drive, to find our deepest self whether we know it or not, an inner call to urge us to the risks and promises of the second half of life even if our culture often represses these voices as indulgently crazy. 

The God sized hole in us can only be filled by God and God creates us like that.

St Thomas Aquinas said that God is "pure act" - that there is no potentiality in Him, only actualization; whereas we mortals are only potential, always longing to actualize our reality.

We long for reality, but it does not belong to us.

Our ego is illusory, but our true reality is from God, who alone is actual, according to St Thomas.

Elijah being fed by the raven Source

For me, the solid rock on which the bread is given to Elijah by the raven, is the altar for his Eucharist.This is his home base and laid on it is a promise that by eating the Eucharist what is now, will always be. 

I think too of this phrase  
"'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. 

 Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.

In the last days and I say, How Long O Lord How Long, before we live on this planet with Your Vision and Your Dreams..

Finally this from Richard Rohr again..

"A phrase that dominates much of the self-help jargon of our society is “take control of your life.” To be in control of one’s destiny, job, or finances is an unquestionable moral value today. It even sounds mature and spiritual. 

On a practical level it is true, but not on the big level. Our bodies, our souls, and especially our failures, teach us this as we get older. 

We are clearly not in control. It is amazing that we have to assert the obvious. This is not a negative discovery but, in fact, the exact opposite.

 It is a thrilling discovery of one’s fate, divine providence, being led, being used, one’s life having an inner purpose, being guided, having a sense of personal vocation, and owning one’s destiny as a gift from God.  

Learning that you are not in control situates you correctly in the universe. You cannot understand the joy and release unless you have been there. "
Richard Rohr,  Adam’s Return.

As for me , I am far from being able to identify my soul as resting in the final stages of a serene soul dweller but I hope I am learning at least a little to take in some of the lessons of the second half of life. Bright sadness indeed.

                                                                    Image  He Qi  source
After I finished writing this post and checked it I noticed that just at the point where this post ends on the right hand margin of my blog is this image I have had there since Easter. Wonderful serendipity.Thank you Lord!

 I had been wondering what the raven's brew was !!

 I Wandered By A Brookside.... a lovely song of life transition and transformation from self serving ego fulfillment to communion with God. 

The angel appears but it seems she is still waiting for the arrival of the raven in this song.. Full lyrics here

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