Authors that “Sit” on Top of Your Head

October 31, 2010 § 13 Comments

There’s a challenge going around.  I got roped into it.  It has kind of a fancy name, but basically it requires you to come up with the authors or books that have impacted you so much they rise into your consciousness almost unbidden, once challenged to come up with a list (in 15 minutes more or less).  I must admit a good number of these books were ones that came to mind a bit over a year ago when a neighbor, interested in deepening his  prayer life, wanted some recommendations.  (He thought it would take me some time to compile such a list, but I had gathered all the the books into a pile by the next morning.  Most are on this list, and that was before I ever even “thought” of becoming Orthodox.)

Twice in my life my work has literally “driven me” to prayer.  The first time was during my 8 years teaching young children.  The second time was during my decades doing psychotherapy.   I’ve practically starting writing my “memoirs” about some of that at Nothingness, so I’ll just link to those posts if there’s a need for further explanation of some books on this list.  Intense work (either with rambunctious children needing so much from a teacher or troubled adults needing so much from a therapist) presents so many challenges in the areas of emotion, intellect, and personal presence, that, as I wrote elsewhere, “over and over I have needed to turn to God – or perhaps you could say: God has turned to me.”

The List of books:

  • TS Eliot:  Four Quartets
  • Andre Louf:   Prayer and Humility
  • Anonymous Author:  The Way of a Pilgrim / Philokalia / Prayer of the Heart
  • Anonymous Author:  The Cloud of Unknowing
  • Walter Ciszek:  He Leadeth Me
  • Lanza del Vasto:  Return to the Source
  • Abhishiktananda: Prayer and a Christian approach to Vedanta
  • Ruth Burrows:  prayer, biography, spiritual life
  • Jean Marie Howe:  Secret of the Heart
  • The Gospel of John
  • The Psalms
  • Aelred Squire:  Asking the Fathers
  • Solzhenitzin’s early novels
  • Theophane the Monk:  Tales of a Magic Monastery

Also, all too many books that I am currently reading… or “getting to”.

Nearly everything I’ve listed I’ve read and reread, sometimes so many times that the copies are nearly falling apart, or else I’ve had to replace them, because I’ve loaned them out and sometimes they never return.

Prayer, the spiritual life, is like taking a journey.  So maybe it’s not surprising that many of the books listed relate to journeys.  The Way of a Pilgrim.  Return to the Source.  He Leadeth Me. Even Ruth Burrows and Abhishiktananda. I’m never likely to reread the first, because it set me off on a journey of my own, but it’s certainly an unforgettable book and may have been one of the first that set me on a path to Orthodoxy… little did I know.  For it led me to purchase volumes on the Philokalia or on Prayer of the Heart (in the Orthodox tradition).  Thus I’ve grouped those books along with Way of a Pilgrim as they’re companions, so to speak.  (I have just realized so many of the books and writers above date back to a Benedictine monastery I used to live near – in the 70’s, a place that is close to my heart.)

Return to the Source tells the story of a young Frenchman who went to India, thinking he’d stay there and work with Gandhi, but whose life took another turn after he made a pilgrimage to the source of the Ganges.  For many reasons that book spoke to me long ago.  The connection with Gandhi.  The idea of a search for the “source” as well as the metaphor of climbing into the mountains.  The idea of a pilgrimage.  All of these metaphors have been fruitful in my life.

He Leadeth Me is the story of a Jesuit priest, trained to work in Russia, taken prisoner, held in solitary for 3 years of interrogation and finally released for 20 years of hard labor in Siberia.  A powerful story of one man’s dependence on God, his “school of prayer” in solitary confinement under interrogation, and his suffering servanthood to his fellow prisoners during the long years of forced labor.  It’s a little-known book; it has been very helpful to me in my work and as an example of learning to accept everything as coming from the hand of God (if only I did learn it!).

Ruth Burrows was extremely helpful to me at certain points (especially years ago) and with certain concepts.  She provides very interesting metaphors of the spiritual journey and has some interesting insights about how God gives some people a kind of light on experience, so that they can explain that journey to others, while most people have a light off type of spiritual journey where they are feeling their way in the darkness.  (I have to admit to a lot of stumbling in darkness, punctuated with sparks of light.  Also, I will forever be indebted to her for introducing me to the concept of Holy Mystery as a term for God.)

And in the journey category, another Frenchman who went to India as a Benedictine monk, remaining there and living very simply.  But I’m saving that for my last paragraph.  A teaser… to keep you reading.

Several books could be grouped as “books that led me towards Orthodoxy” – though I had no idea of it, especially long ago.  I’ve already mentioned the books on prayer of the heart, but I would also include Andre Louf, Aelred Squire, and Jean Marie Howe in that category, for they either deal with the Fathers (Squire and Louf) or introduced me to modern Orthodox thinking (Howe).  Howe, an elderly Cistercian nun, was particularly helpful related to the subject matter of this blog, for she coined the term “spiritual priesthood” as a way of discussing theosis, explaining me to myself in a sense and helping me to discern my way forward at a very crucial point.   Louf also refers to prayer of the heart and the priesthood connected to an inner liturgy of the heart (in his book on prayer).  His little pamphlet on Humility is so helpful; humility as ultimately the breakdown of everything in yourself (as a project), that casts you into the waiting arms of God.

Poetry:  The Psalms which are prayers, poetry, wisdom literature, and an endless source of delight, in that the psalmist has seen it all, felt it all, knows the highs and lows, the dread and the exaltation, the atheists, the cynics, the pious, the needy.   Did I say I love the psalms?  And my all-time favorite poem:  Four Quartets. A mystical poem.  One that is so much fun to declaim aloud.  So full of wisdom.  A great poem as you grow older, though I first read it in my early 30’s.  I may have read it a hundred times!  John’s Gospel is like that too.  So rich and poetic.  I recall the summer after my Sophomore year of College being entranced with John’s Gospel.  Puzzling over the lines.  Feeling the meaning just out of reach. Stretching to find that meaning.  And rediscovering that same fascinating pull decades later – only to be shocked that some of the meaning had already revealed itself or explained to me things I’d experienced, allowing me to plumb them at a much deeper level.  Like TS Eliot, John’s Gospel does not yield it’s wisdom easily.  And that’s true in some ways of the psalms as well.  You keep finding deeper meanings, deeper allusions to other parts of the bible.  Words ring in my mind across books and verses.  I’m sure TS Eliot has some lines about that – much better than what I’ve just written.  But he also describes how words slip and slide, how hard it is to understand things sometimes when they’re happening and you get the meaning later, or how you can miss the present moment in your effort to grasp it’s meaning right now.

Which brings me to favorite quotes.  One from Four Quartets:

“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility.  Humility is endless.”

And another from Solzhenitsyn, one I copied out at maybe age 23 from Cancer Ward, one that has seen me through many troubles:

It is not the level of prosperity that makes for happiness but the kinship of heart to heart and the way we look at the world. Both attitudes are within our power, so that a man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy, and no one can stop him.

I am a pondering person.  I end up with lots of questions.  Unless I start out with them.  A question is a very good place to start.   Sometimes a single word sets me off on a search.  Or a line or verse.  When I say “search” I could mean decades.  I’m not talking the kind of thing you could find on google, but the kind of thing that grabs your attention and forces you to dig deep, to read and reread.  The kind of thing that rings bells when you catch a glimpse of it in some strange place or manner you never thought of before.  I like writers who tend to be pondering people too.  The Author of the Cloud of the Unknowing would like us to forget about all that pondering.  Leave it aside and just let the wings of your heart, so to speak, beat against the “cloud” of darkness, that Eliot would call the “darkness of God”.  And there’s a certain side to me that really “gets” that too.  Or at least tries to rest in that way station of nothingness and emptiness.  Ah yes, Rest. That’s one of the words I’ve been pondering and following for decades.  The rest that Jesus promises.  The restthat is promised by God in the Old Testament.  The Spirit rests. I also wonder if the Spirit is involved in forgiveness, in mercy.  The author of the Cloud …  would have me drop those questions, I’m sure…

Which brings me to Theophane the Monk.  But first a digression.  For a long time I’ve enjoyed Teaching Tales. I have copies of Hassidic Tales, Sufi Tales, Zen Tales, Tales of the Desert Fathers, Merton’s translations of Chuang Tzu’s Tales.  I recommend them all!  But the best of these comes in one tiny book by Theophane, a Cistercian monk who spent at least a year in a zen monastery and whose Tales of the Magic Monastery take pondering to a whole new level.  Every once in a while I begin to fathom the deeper meaning or a new meaning or at last some of the meaning of these Christian stories in a Zen style.  I have a little story of Theophane himself.  It happened about 10 years ago.  We were leaving Snowmass Monastery and Theophane, this tiny slip of a frail old man, did a little jig in response to my request for “some words of wisdom for the journey.”  That was so Zen!  It was so apt!  I will never forget it!

There is one tiny book on prayer that I still read from time to time, one I have underlined so much there is hardly a paragraph that isn’t full of underlines.  So I’ve also copied lots of quotations onto sheets of paper – as if the mere copying would somehow seal the thoughts into my brain.  For his writing is so densely beautiful, so rich, and yet so simple.  The mark of a man full of Holy Presence:  A French Benedictine, who so identified himself with the tradition of Indian sunyassi that he took an Indian holy name and integrated his prayer life with the Vedas, sacred Hindu hymns dating back thousands of years before Christ.   In 63 pages he presents the whole of the spiritual life, together with the essentials of Christian doctrine, integrating that with the long tradition of spirituality in India.  Quite a feat!  (His other book, related to Vedanta, is definitely out of my league.  But I possess it.  I’ve had thoughts of trying to wade through it on various occasions.  But we all have our limits…)


§ 13 Responses to Authors that “Sit” on Top of Your Head

  • Butterfly says:

    This is a beautiful blog from a beautiful person. Thank you for sharing the books and authors who have impacted your spiritual journey. God has blessed us with many wonderful people of light and I know that the Divine shows up and makes that “present” in these and other author’s writings. Eternal wisdom, not worldly knowledge, is what frees us from the shadows of our ego-selves to become other-selves. We learn in stages, layers, moments and phases in our lives. As we try to take or receive this new thought or wisdom into our being and consciousness it revolves and evolves, much as the material world does in metaphors. For example, the phases of the moon, the tides of the seas, thoughts will ebb and flow, come and go and we will see its glow in new light each time.

    I have much more reading to do. I have learned much from just the few things I have read. The Psalms have also really helped me to understand about myself, others, and God too. It is so true that the questions keep us searching. Oftentimes I will hear or remember words or phrases, they’ll come to my mind and then I receive an answer. But I never ever really think that I truly “get it” all, in the sense that the all is not in time or space or knowledge as we all know it, as the Divine is all. It is a humbling experience whenever I learn anything from the “source.” It truly is breathtaking and words still cannot describe it, at least for me.

    Love is a Holy Mystery. Also, a gift. Thanks so much for being an encouragement and not a drain into darkness and despair, or in trying to control others. I truly see you only desire to love others. You are truly a light in the world TheraP. Thank you for shining it upon me.

    For some reason we cannot stare at the sun or we will go blind. Within the eternal of our heart’s soul and mind and senses there is the light that does not blind and always glows outward. The light shows in your caring so deeply for others.

  • Butterfly says:

    I love the story of Theophane that you give here:

    “Theophane, this tiny slip of a frail old man, did a little jig in response to my request for “some words of wisdom for the journey.”

    It is so apt and zen as you say!

    I’m going to the bookstore to get Tales of the Magic Monastery. Also want to read TS Elliot: Four Quartets

    Thanks again for sharing and still being “present”…. and a present in the gift sense.

  • TheraP says:

    Dearest Fran:

    Blessings upon you for your beautiful, heart-felt comment. I will ponder it at length, again and again.

    The web is an amazing place, a place of light and hope and love, even in spite of so much darkness all around us.

    It’s good to have people like you to “hang in there” with!

  • Butterfly says:

    I think people are confused, dazed, bewildered, not glad
    I hear the song that dances from their hearts going mad
    Sometimes the words are chilling, biting, bitter, chad
    I hear them echo in the silence when alone, so very sad

    Unfriendly, suspicious, uncaring, unloving
    In waves their words unceasingly keep coming
    Like a grand conspiracy of death’s shoving
    To darkness all life instead of to the light of loving

    I feel shaken like an autumn leaf off an oak
    To the earth’s floor to where the rain will soak
    Like tears flowing down enough to drown and choke
    All the desires of dreams that they no longer provoke

    I can bite my tongue for so long against the hurt inside
    Then must speak the truth to a friend I trust and can confide
    I speak it to God and He tells me my friend has betrayed and lied
    I pray and let the bad feelings pass as love cries and the pain dries.

  • Butterfly says:

    TheraP, the above is a poem inspired by many things in my consciousness which includes the politics in the RCC and in the US that is in conspiracy to pushing out all the light and life from it and reordering it into chaos and idiocy, selfishness and greed. It’s a poem about not just my hurts and personal issues, though they are there too. It’s a poem about what I witness in the world today and in the past, my family and many families, what I read in the news about so much injustice, suicides, killings, wars, invasion of privacy, betrayal, hatred, violence, lies, deception, weapons of mass destruction. It all seems to be swirling around in my thoughts at once and making me sad for the moment. I believe a lot of people are feeling these things. These words are my attempt to organize my emotions into a poem that may become a song with music. The last few lines are meant to encourage people from going into despair or in giving up hope. I’ve always believed that a good writer will do that. I am truly “hanging in there.” I know tomorrow will be a better day and I hope to make it better.

    I’ve had times in my life in which I was just numb, could not sing and had lost any sense of emotion, was always searching and always working and reaching dead ends. So many dead ends and crushed hopes and dreams. Yet, I was able to take and learn from each experience and grow from it and move on. I can remember a piano tuner telling me in so many words that I didn’t “have it.” I did not let him deter me though from continuing to compose. I must have sounded really awful back then. I knew inside that I was learning and each time I improved. He did not know that though.

    I will be making some editorial changes to the poem as I was thinking afterwards the last word might be changed to dies.

    I’d really like to thank you for writing back about what I had written before. If I ever get too intense for you, I am getting used to rejection.

    • TheraP says:

      My delay in writing back was due to a “dead modem” – not to any reluctance to have you write here.

      When I read your poem (above), it seemed to me right away that it was already a song you might sing. When you have a creative spirit, words/images just flow, don’t they? It’s like being inspired – and you need to write down what comes. And later perhaps revise.

      I know exactly what you mean about being bombarded, filled to overflowing with all the pain and suffering and darkness. At times I feel that way too. I think to be a sensitive person is a great gift – though at times it can be a painful gift. (I’ve written blogs here and elsewhere that speak to that.) At the same time, to write a poem or a comment, for me anyway, allows me to put my thoughts and feelings into words/images – in a way that is cleansing. At times I also feel words come (during that process) that are comforting. In any case simply writing your feelings into a poem, as you’ve done, is a way of lifting yourself above the pain and sorrow and darkness, allowing yourself to have a God’s eye view – and that awareness of God’s Presence – in and through what you’re feeling as well as what’s bombarding your feelings – takes you into another dimension – that of the Divine Life of the Trinity, where Jesus’ life, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension is a Mystery surrounding and healing and uplifting you.

      Sometimes I find it helpful to read history – to see that what’s going on now, in the RCC and in politics and across the world, has been occurring unendingly, punctuated with respites of peace here and there.

      The task, I think, is to shelter ourselves under the “shadow of the wings” of Holy Mystery. To remember we are not alone, that our sorrows are completely known by God – due to the Incarnation, and that, even if unseen by us, reconciliation and redemption are always going on. And to allow that peace that passes understanding to dwell in our hearts – and to radiate outward (even if unseen by ourselves) so that we, as well, take part in this cosmic redemptive process, in which Christ – impelled by the Spirit – is bringing all things to Father .

      Faith is TRUST. And while I share all your concerns, I am completely sure we can trust God’s love, compassion, tenderness, and unceasing efforts to seek out and heal the lost, the broken-hearted, even the hard of heart. God knows the way into each and every heart and never gives up on anyone, no matter how much they may have cursed the darkness.

      Peace be with you. Maybe you need a poetry blog, where you try out your lyrics before putting them to music? God will never give up on you – and loves your creative efforts. (How could a Creator not love creativity?)

  • Butterfly says:

    Thank you, TheraP. Your response is therapy! I’ve thought about, just a little bit though, starting a blog such as you suggest here. I just feel so swamped right now. I will certainly give it more consideration.

    One of the reasons that I have composed so much music in the last two years is because I did not have to also write lyrics and sing too on top of that. It was really too much for me to do & I did not have the resources to do that anyway. I was learning all kinds of new things, including the practice & development of skills musically, as well as technical issues dealing with the sound quality, learning the music software, and numerous other time consuming and draining matters pertaining to what I was learning in politics, as well as developing social and communications skills with others, while having to deal with other difficulties financially. The music I developed really helped me to deal with and organize my emotions. I’ve been very consistent with following what is going on in the world and not being an ostrich or hiding my consciousness from the things that are emotionally hurtful and ugly to look at. I really felt that redemptive process and cleansing as you describe when improvising / composing music. I definitely felt a sense of healing come from the product of my labors.

    I’d like to really thank you for hanging in there, which I understand as a life-long process of hanging in there. Sometimes it is a moment by moment, day to day hanging in there. The darkest times of my life have been when no one was around that seemed to care. I’ve sought out, reached out to find people that care, and not in a selfish sense but in a survival sense. I was led to God, Jesus, the Bible, Thomas Merton. But I had to meet people who were in the here and now, not just in eternity. It is so important to have feedback, which can come from authors, as well as an exchange of ideas, and to have friends that truly care about us and can relate on a deep level. Left to the devices of the self one becomes lost, turns inward to condemn the darkness. I am conscious of that process and was even able, with the help and grace of God to enlighten me, to strengthen not the darkness or pain. I’ve seen the light. I’ve seen it in others. I’ve seen it in history. I’ve heard comforting sounds of music and read words that have helped to lead me out of darkness.

    I am just starting to really understand the creative process somewhat and I thank you again for adding your words of wisdom, comfort, light, grace and insight on the subject.

    • TheraP says:

      In no way should you force yourself to do a blog. It seems that you are following your own path here. You need to follow what flows from inside. I am sure of that.

      And as you say, there is no substitute for finding real live persons engaged in a similar process – seeking the path of spiritual enlightenment. No substitute for people of our own day and age and circumstances who nevertheless try to rise above all the hubbub and pain and sorrow, seeking what endures to eternal life; trying to contribute, even in small ways, to the “pockets” of goodness in the universe, which will ultimately triumph over the darkness, even if at times that darkness appears to prevail.

      When the spirit moves you, the music will come. Or the words. And certainly the goodness of people.

      Peace be with you. Deep inner peace – to surround the dark places.

  • Butterfly says:

    TheraP, you asked “When you have a creative spirit, words/images just flow, don’t they?’ Yes. Very quickly.

  • Butterfly says:

”My delay in writing back was due to a “dead modem” – not to any reluctance to have you write here.” I did not perceive any delay to that comment. Sometimes we need time to reflect before commenting back. I only meant that I know I can be intense and not everyone is adept to understanding as well as you.

    My computer is nearing the end of its life. The sound card has been acting up by giving up some of its sound sometimes; from overuse I suspect, and age. So, if you don’t hear from me for a bit of time it could well be because the computer died.

    Glad that you are up and running again. Have a wonderful and peaceful Sunday.

    • TheraP says:

      Well, just be sure you’ve saved everything! So if the hard drive dies, you haven’t lost precious material.

      Enjoy this holiday week. Peace be with you.

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