Retreat

…yo​u will not find my actual life in these pages so much as my thoughts on the graces Our Lord has given me. I have reached the stage now where I can afford to look back; in the crucible of trials from within and without, my soul has been refined, and I can raise my head like a flower after a storm and see how the words of the Psalm have been fulfilled in my case: “The Lord is my Shepherd and I shall want nothing…”

St Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul

My brother led me to prayer,
a child, afraid in the dark.

My sister taught me, downcast, to say,
Why so downcast, O my soul?

My parents taught me to ask and search
yet not be controlled by the heart’s wild waves.

My teachers fed my questions
and books sustained my mind.

Lewis taught me magic
and Love deep, deep in time.

Robert Frost was early rhythm;
Eliot and Herbert came later on.

Auden taught me the happy eye,
the sober perspective on the folded lie,

Kierkegaard the lily’s glory
and the grace that strikes in anxious thought.

Bunyan and Luther and Thérèse
knew the scruples that strike, and the way –

the Little Way at Jesus’ feet –
so once again I’m led to pray.

My wife has taught me the open heart;
now my home and hearth expand.

O Love that finds me everywhere:
Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.

Resolution: No Clutter

Too fidgety the mind’s compass
(R.S. Thomas, “Adam Tempted”)

I pile books on books and
thought on thought. I pile
obligation onto guilt, and duty 
onto resignation. This
is panic in my breath and limbs
tingling with the pace of things.
There is no end, the wise teacher said,
to all flesh-weariness of thought.
I must find instead a small
pocket of my father’s grace;
I must breathe and breathe and breathe
in pinpoints where His kindness rests.
Not absent, Lord – You have never been
on holiday; You, O God, don’t sleep.
Yet in Your weekly scheme is space;
all Your bookshelves mouth Your peace.
Not absent, Lord. It is I who have been
too busy with my piles and piles
of nothing. You are everything.

No Ghosts This Year #9

No answer was forthcoming simply from passing the crime scene. Nor did his family know anything about it when they came home. It had to wait until the six o’clock news for anything official, though Pa had a friend visit his caravan out the back with word of what had happened. The story was that the police had arrived around midday after a tip-off that someone had died at number 12. No-one could remember who lived there now. The old family had moved a few years ago and there had been a stream of tenants since then. Pa’s sources had no information about the current tenant or who it was that had died. Had it been suspicious? Suspicious enough for the police to be there. Had anyone heard anything? Had anyone odd been seen around the house? Many questions were asked, many theories shared. Philip had ears only for the ones in his head.

As far as he could see, it all made sense, and it was all traced back to him. The lines were so clear that, when the police officer on the news was heard asking for all who knew anything to come forward, Philip’s face was sweaty with the urgency of the moment. Yet nothing came out, not even a confession to his parents, not even a mumbled question about what the police might be after. Although he rehearsed many such questions in his head, and at a speed that defied the movement of light, only silence seemed a clear enough response to what he had heard. While the rest of his family had nothing else to talk about but the death at Number 12, Philip had no desire to talk at all. After the news, and after dinner, he took himself to his room, where he sat on his bed and tied knots inside his mind.

*

Pa found him on his bed, the light still on, around 9 o’clock that night when he came to say goodnight. He didn’t, of course, see the knots, but he did see Philip staring blankly into the wall as though seeking to see through it. He paused in the doorway and asked, “Is everything okay, mate?”

Pa was the only one who called him that, “mate”. Philip looked over at him. He had a book in his hand. Philip looked at the title. An Advent and Christmas Treasury, it was called.

Philip didn’t reply. Pa stepped in closer to him, close enough to pass him the book, but he held it briefly suspended between them, letting Philip’s hand touch it but not quite giving it to him.

“I brought you this,” he said. “I knew I had it somewhere. I remembered it when you talked about ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ the other day.” He moved in now to sit beside Philip and, taking the book back, he opened it. “Look,” he said. “It’s got some other Rossetti poems in here that I thought you might like more. There’s one…” His hand hovered over the pages, as though trying to summon up the exact page from memory. “‘The end of all things is at hand’,” he said, then chuckled. “It’s a grim name. But it’s a beautiful poem. I think – ” He turned to a page near the centre of the book and, finding the poem, looked over the words to remind himself of them. “Yes, I think you’ll see her skill more if you read this one.”

Only then did he look up at Philip, whose eyes were directed towards the book but focused on nothing.

“Phil?” He paused. “Is there anything…?”

The question hung incomplete, slightly inflected, with Pa’s eyes asking the rest.

“Pa,” said Philip. “If…”

“Yes?” prompted Pa.

Philip paused, rearranging imagined words somewhere above his head.

“Is it…can someone be arrested for helping…for making a crime possible?”

Pa’s eyes turned more intently toward Philip’s.

“Do you mean…being an accessory?”

“Maybe…” said Philip. “I mean, if…”

Pa closed the book. Philip saw the picture on the front cover. He recognised the scene: Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present. He stared at it while he spoke, though the image slowed his words, almost blocking them somewhere in between brain and mouth.

“If…what happened at Burden Street…if someone had done something…not meaning to…something that helped…”

“Phil,” said Pa, moving closer, “have you done something?”

Philip’s eyes settled on Scrooge’s face. He tried to see into them, but couldn’t. The Ghost of Christmas Present, large, jolly, full of yuletide cheer – what did his glowing cheeks seem to say to Philip that night?

No Ghosts This Year #8

That lunchtime, before Drama class, Philip had nearly lost a prop that he’d brought from home for the performance they were doing, and had spent so much time running around looking for it – opening up and emptying the contents of his bag and locker, checking his home room, everywhere he could think of – that when he had arrived in class, he had been more flustered than usual for an afternoon class. And, to top it all off, when he’d finally come to class with his prop in hand and sat down, the boy next to him, a new boy to the school called Simon, had said, “I thought I smelt something.” It had taken a few minutes to realise that this was Simon’s latest joke – he was using it on most people in the class that afternoon – but even then the joke had stuck on him like his sweaty shirt did. The whole lesson after that, he’d had that same feeling about him as though he were no longer inside him but watching. As he had lain on the floor pretending to be a paintbrush, talking about what a hard master Van Gogh was, with the coloured wool he had brought to school gathered around his head, he had felt as though that very well might have been true. Better to be a paintbrush than what he was.

And so, by the time Sarah had come to fetch him, Philip had nothing to say. There had been plenty of material for conversation throughout the morning: all the ridiculous and frustrating things his teachers had made him do, as though they mattered at all by this time of year. Yet the afternoon’s Drama class had overshadowed all of that, and done so in a way that words could not convey. The mute position he’d taken on the Drama room floor seemed somehow the most fitting way of expressing what had been and gone through the day. Sarah tried to make conversation a few times but, failing altogether, had settled into silence herself, though almost certainly a very different silence to the one that Philip inhabited.

Sarah would not, for instance, have been ruing Philip’s awkwardness with Laura that morning when passing the milk-bar had made him think of her offer to walk to school together. Nor would Sarah have felt that odd mixture of fear and shame that assaulted him when they approached Burden Street. Yet she would certainly have shared his surprise at seeing the police barricade outside Number 12, yellow-and-blue police tape marking out a temporary fence across the front lawn and white-and-blue cars in the street. And, in that moment of shared surprise, Sarah’s silence turned to now expressing Philip’s thoughts when she said, “What happened here?” But before she could speak Philip’s thoughts had turned to white noise in his ears.

No Ghosts This Year #7

“Hey,” called a voice from the other side of the road.

Reluctantly he looked over. It was Laura. She was crossing to meet him. But what was she doing here? She didn’t normally walk this way to school.

“I slept over at Stacy’s,” she said, as if she knew that an explanation was needed. “Are you walking to school?”

For some reason, he paused before saying, “Yeah.”

“Want to walk together?”

He looked over to where Stacy, a girl from his class whom he didn’t think much of, stood with some of the other kids from their class. They looked like they were waiting for a few more to join them.

“Aren’t you going with Stacy?” he asked.

Laura shrugged. “They’re waiting for the others,” she said. “I don’t mind walking ahead.”

It should have been an easy enough question to answer. Sometimes, since they had moved closer to school instead of coming from the next town away, he had wondered if he would bump into Laura while walking. It had never happened, though he had sometimes seen her in passing, when she had others with her or when he was with his family, and it had only ever been awkward. But now – now she was offering to walk to school with him – and he couldn’t answer her. He looked over at Stacy and the others, imagining what they would be thinking. It was always best to imagine what others thought, in case they thought something that might hurt you.

“It’s okay,” he said. “You go with them.”

And he kept walking.

“Bye then,” called Laura.

And, in an action that would confuse even him and circle around in his head in the days and weeks to come, he simply lifted his hand up in a kind of absent wave, not looking back, not even letting her see the side of his face as he walked.

No Ghosts This Year #6

The day after, he always felt like a wounded soldier. And, while there was a certain manly glory in the feeling, it was hard for others to see or understand it; and what good, really, was there in having survived a battle that no-one else knew you had fought?

As a younger child, he had tried at times to get his parents or Sarah to understand. Sometimes they seemed to, yet only sometimes. It was easiest for them to understand when there was something tangible to explain the battle: a sickness, f0r instance; something that could be observed and diagnosed. Fear of sickness did not seem to amount to the same thing. Being convinced he had asbestosis because Pa had brought out a piece of asbestos at the dinner table one night and had shown it to them: that had not been legitimate. The night that the left half of his face felt paralysed, that night they had understood, for a time; until it had been revealed that there was nothing really wrong with him, only fear.

So, on days like today, he learnt to simply endure it. School would go on, the battle would go on. Perhaps, he reflected, he shouldn’t have read that book before bed. Perhaps he should have drunk his before-bed glass of milk. There were no explanations, only guilt. So he took it on his own shoulders, and went to school.

Sarah, although offering to drive him from school, had no intention of driving him there. “I’m on holidays,” she’d said, when he’d gone to her room to say goodnight. “I’m not getting up that early.” And so it was with some level of fear that he set off walking to school, passing Burden Street as he did, not sure if he was afraid of the stranger he had met or of the strangeness of his thoughts on going to bed. He could reflect now, in the relatively calm light of day, that there had been no reason to think that he had feared – what was it? What even had he feared? The content of the book? The face of the stranger? His own heart? Having no idea what, he could only try to shrug off the odd sensation that clung still about him.

It was another sunny day, likely to make him clammy and grumpy by the end. He hated the sensation of summer about his face and limbs. Only when he could be still and at rest in the sun did he not mind. When he had a fan and a book, or a beach to dip into, then the sun did not trouble him. But when his uniform clung about him and the sun beat down with the pulsating urgency of timetables and the scrutiny of familiar schoolyard faces: then sun was only torture.

So he did his best to walk in the shade, and shade there was if he crossed the road. The shade took him also away from the milk bar where some of his classmates met in the mornings to walk to school together. Crossing over, he averted his eyes from the milk bar and focused on the shade.

“Hey,” called a voice from the other side of the road.

Mental Health November Week 1: Anxiety

This year, the people behind Movember are having a particular focus on men’s mental health, a topic close to my heart. So, while I won’t be shaving off my beard to grow a new mo from scratch, I have decided to take a handful of my old poems on mental illness and give one of them a visual reinvention for each week of November. Here’s the first, a poem I wrote back in early 2013 at one of my darker times. May we all find different ways of shining light into an all-too-common darkness.

  

Hidden Grace

image

Senseless acts of beauty went
unnoticed as the runners ran
and golfers golfed
and my head span.
Full of self I stormed upon
the beaten earth and missed the shades
of microscopic brown and green,
the flower hidden in the leaves,
the pounding in the runner’s ears,
the grace which binds me to these years
and notices it all.

From Ashes 10: Søren Kierkegaard – Original Sin and the Fear of Possibility

450px-Royal_Library_Garden_-_Søren_Kierkegaard

“When you’re absolute beginners,” folk singer M. Ward tells us, “it’s a panoramic view, from her majesty Mount Zion, and the kingdom is for you.” What he seems to suggest here is that, at any beginning point, there appears an infinite potentiality to life, stretching out like a majestic panorama before us. W.H. Auden, in his poem “Horae Canonicae”, suggests something similar, harking back to the story of Adam and Eve when describing the beginning of the day before God:

…smiling to me is this instant while

Still the day is intact, and I

The Adam sinless in our beginning,

Adam still previous to any act.

This can, of course, be a joyful moment of possibility, yet Auden recognises that the moment of potential sinlessness is an illusion. The day holds another truth as it unfolds:

I draw breath; this is of course to wish

No matter what, to be wise,

To be different, to die and the cost,

No matter how, is Paradise

Lost of course and myself owing a death.

All action as we enter our day, Auden suggests, is somehow driven by the fact that, as humans, we have desired and chosen a wisdom in ourselves, apart from God; we have desired a paradise which would have been given to us had we trusted but which we sought by our own merit and our own means and thus lost.

This moment of decision, begun – and decided – for us in the Garden of Eden yet also enacted daily in every human choice, fascinated an anxious Danish philosopher-theologian to the extent that he used it as the very basis for his seminal – although at times nearly unreadable – thesis on anxiety. The philosopher was Søren Kierkegaard, a man whose name is nearly synonymous with anxiety or, as it is sometimes translated in his work, dread. The Danish word which he used, “Angest”, has a common root to our word “angst”, which is sometimes a synonym for anxiety yet often has something of a more metaphysical or existential connotation to it. Kierkegaard, often considered the father of modern existentialism, is no doubt also partly responsible for this fact. He did not write about anxiety that had a clear foundation in circumstances, though here it is helpful and important to distinguish anxiety from stress: Kierkegaard was not concerned with what we might call anxiety which is driven by something quite clear and located in circumstances. The kind of anxiety or dread about which Kierkegaard wrote had more to do with potentiality: with the possibilities which clouded the human mind, most of them to do with what we as humans were and are capable of. For Kierkegaard, this began in the Garden of Eden, with original sin.

We need to note that, in Kierkegaard’s early life, anxiety had a more immediate meaning and significance. Accounts of his life emphasise the anxiety that his own father passed onto him, begun with his father’s terrified belief that, in cursing God as a young man, he had subsequently cursed himself and his family. Peter Bolt notes in his essay on Kierkegaard that his father “had a rather dark and grim Christianity”, which was no doubt at least in part the result of his belief that he was living under the curse of God and therefore could only fear Him, not love Him. Whether this is the primary “barb of sorrow” in his early life to which Kierkegaard refers in his journals, we cannot know for sure. However, there is another story he tells in his diary, told – in the kinds of veiled terms quite typical of Kierkegaard – as if it were hypothetical, not autobiographical, yet which has more than a ring of familiarity to it when we have read also of his relationship with his father. The story he tells concerns a father and son, “both very gifted, both witty, especially the father”. They share a relationship which is surprisingly intimate and tender, but nonetheless characterised by mutual despair:

Once in a long while the father would look at his son and would see that he was troubled; then he would stand before him and say: Poor boy, you are going about in quiet despair; (but he never questioned him more closely; alas, he couldn’t, for he too went about in a state of quiet despair). Beyond that no word was ever breathed about the matter. But within the memory of man this father and son may have been two of the most melancholy beings that ever lived.

We cannot know for sure that Kierkegaard’s own father-son relationship had any direct bearing on this story, and certainly he used his journals not only for personal disclosure but also as testing-grounds for ideas and modes of expression which would later appear in his published works. This story itself appeared in a slightly different form in his book, Stages on Life’s Way. Yet what he tells us in this chillingly simple story is that fathers and sons can so often keep one another in states of “quiet despair”. Kierkegaard would later call despair “the sickness unto death”, describing it as such because it caused the despairing subject to be altogether unable to find hope of transformation in God. In this way we see that despair and anxiety can be two ends of the same spectrum: anxiety lies when we see the potential for destructive action within us, and despair when such destructive action, occurring against or within us, has led us to a point of hopelessness. Yet both are based on the invisible and the inward: there was nothing objective to tell Kierkegaard’s father that he was cursed, any more than could be said of any other family that experienced suffering. Both anxiety and despair therefore seem to deal with the realms of possibility: either negative possibility, or the apparent absence of any possible good. Kierkegaard’s father despaired because he believed himself and his family cursed; his actions and choices seemed then to determine their future, and that future was an altogether helpless one.

Significantly, Kierkegaard notes in The Sickness Unto Death that the human ability to despair is a positive thing; yet the actuality of despair is not. If humans can despair, they are able to anticipate a negative situation and stop it before it happens:

The possibility of this sickness [despair] is man’s advantage over the beast; to be aware of this sickness is the Christian’s advantage over natural man; to be cured of this sickness is the Christian’s blessedness.

Yet to sink into the sickness leads to death. This moment of potentiality lies at the heart of much of what Kierkegaard writes about both anxiety and depression. Writing elsewhere on “the despair of possibility”, he says:

In possibility everything is possible. Hence in possibility one can go astray in all possible ways, but essentially in two. One is the wishful yearning form, the other is the melancholy fantastic – on the one hand hope; on the other, fear or anguished dread.

For Kierkegaard, the kind of “panoramic view” which M. Ward describes is not always positive. We can go astray when we think of possibility in too “wishful” and ungrounded a manner. Yet more importantly we can go astray when we fear possibility. The panoramic view could hold any number of things, both good and bad, much as an agoraphobic will fear an open space for the dangers or threatening crowds that might soon occupy it.

But why would we fear open possibility? Kierkegaard writes of such fear as the consequence of original sin. In a highly complex thesis, he explores how our sinful action now differs from original sin: “Adam’s sin”, he writes, “has sinfulness as its consequence”, whereas our sin “presupposes sinfulness as its condition”. That is to say, just like in Auden’s vision of waking to a new day, it has already been predetermined in humanity that sin will influence our actions and our decisions. Yet on-going human action perpetuates sin: “sinfulness is in the world only insofar as it enters through sin”’; that is, each time we sin, sin “enters the world”. It only exists in the world through sinful action, because, if it pre-existed human action, then it could only be said that Adam sinned because sin already existed, and thus he would not be culpable; nor would we.

This is a line of argument which is bound to make many people’s heads spin, and some may feel more anxious on reading Kierkegaard’s account of anxiety than before they began. Yet there seems to be a very helpful thread within his thesis onto which we can hold: just as humans have been able to take a “qualitative leap” into sin, so too can we take an equivalent, though infinitely more liberating, leap into repentance and freedom. We feel anxiety when we stand at the moment of decision, when we recognise in ourselves both the desire for goodness and the impulse towards sin. In this vein, Kierkegaard defines anxiety as “freedom’s self-disclosure before itself in possibility”: anxiety stems from the possibility that something destructive may happen, and invokes fear through the possibility and the tension that it brings before it turns into reality. Kierkegaard notes that, because of our conflicted and corrupted natures as humans, we can feel anxiety both about evil and about good; neither sits comfortably within us, at the moment of decision.

If we follow this line of argument, then anxiety, much like the ability to feel despair, can be a good rather than a negative force within us: “Whoever has learnt to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate” (emphasis added). While we may not agree wholly with Kierkegaard’s polemical language here, we can hopefully still see the merit in what he says: that, when we learn to listen to what anxiety tells us – much like when we listen to pain and know that we should act to remedy our physical distress – we can use that moment of anxiety to turn towards God and away from sin.

In this sense, Kierkegaard can take the rather radical step of describing anxiety as “saving through faith”. Making the clear distinction here that he is not speaking of anxiety which “is about something external” but rather in “the sense that it is the person himself who produces the anxiety”, he goes on to note that anxiety can in fact be seen to be “freedom’s possibility”. If sin is our preconditioned nature, then the fact that we feel anxiety over sin indicates that we have the potential still to turn from sin. Sin, however ingrained it may be within our natures, still remains a choice, so long as it has the potential to cause us anxiety. The man who can kill without any dread over the act he is about to perform has, in this sense, lost “freedom’s possibility”; there is nothing in his mind which enables him to recognise the moment of choice between sin and righteousness.

There is, no doubt, a more nuanced theological discussion needed here, about the two natures of man and about the extent to which sin hardens us to the possibility of righteousness. Yet we see, for instance, in Paul’s account of sin in Romans 7 that the human heart is capable of swinging between a desire to do good and an inability to do so. This, of course, remains an impasse, so long as human strength is our only enabling force. The means by which anxiety about sin can be transformed into a positive, Kierkegaard writes, is “saving through faith”. In a powerful closing statement to The Concept of Anxiety, he declares that “the person who, in respect of guilt, is educated by anxiety will rest only in the Atonement”. There is a firm theological message contained in this brief statement: if we are “educated by anxiety”, we learn of our potential to turn from sin, but also know that it is only Jesus’ sacrifice which can enable that turning to take place. Otherwise, we are stuck simply in the moment of anxious potential, like St. Paul without Christ, doing what we would not do and unable to do the good that we would do.

Kierkegaard, of course, knew very little about the science of the human brain. What we know now is still miniscule compared with what there is to know, yet we are still aware of facts which would, to some eyes, seem to negate Kierkegaard’s highly philosophical and theological thesis. Yet all that we say about the human brain, if we believe that we live in a fallen creation, can only be descriptive, not prescriptive. At best we can say, “Now the human brain appears to operate in this manner, and as a result we feel x in response to y.” We cannot say, “This is the way that humans were meant to be.” If sin, as Kierkegaard firmly believed, has corrupted our ability to choose between right and wrong and has left us anxious, then it seems perfectly plausible that scientists could still find evidence of this problem in a section of the brain – the amygdala, for instance, in matters of post-traumatic stress – which, broken by the cause of sin, now contains the effect. Anxiety which results from the sins of others, though different in its nature, has the same cause as the anxiety which Kierkegaard describes: we fear others, because we know what others can do to us, and our awareness of this has as much to do with our own ability to sin as it does the ability of others to do so. Bullies who become bullies themselves enact this fact daily: that the sin which occurs in another can equally occur in us, and lives on in acts of self-perpetuating, mutual culpability.

Kierkegaard’s life was, sadly, a troubled one to the end. Despite experiencing grace and forgiveness later in life in a way which seemed to transform him significantly, he nevertheless went on to attack the established church in a way which, however righteously motivated it may have been, was not especially gracious. It also remains unclear whether, in breaking off his engagement as a young man, he did a righteous and obedient act before God or made himself a needless martyr. Yet we can be thankful nevertheless that Kierkegaard helped us see a way for anxiety to be, harmful though it is, a pathway to repentance in showing us our own weakness and brokenness before God. If Kierkegaard was indeed “educated by anxiety”, then we can at least to some extent credit his experiences of anxiety with the profundity and beauty of his devotional writings and the many magnificent, God-focused prayers which, broken in himself, he penned as he turned himself and others towards God. This prayer, one of my favourites, is a perfect expression of this:

Father in Heaven! Thou hast loved us first, help us never to forget that Thou art love so that this sure conviction might triumph in our hearts over the seduction of the world, over the inquietude of the soul, over the anxiety for the future, over the fright of the past, over the distress of the moment. But grant also that this conviction might discipline our soul so that our heart might remain faithful and sincere in the love which we bear to all those whom Thou hast commanded us to love as we love ourselves.

Or, in still more elegant simplicity, this perfect prayer for any anxious soul:

Teach me, O God, not to torture myself, not to make a martyr out of myself through stifling reflection, but rather teach me to breathe deeply in faith.

To that, we can only say: Amen.

 

 

References

Auden. W.H. (1972). Collected Poems, ed. E. Mendelson. London: Faber and Faber.

Auden, W.H. (1952). The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard. New York: New York Review Books.

Bolt, P. (2008). “Kierkegaard on Anxiety”. In B. Rosner, ed., The Consolations of Theology. Grand Rapids, Mi.: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Kierkegaard, S. (1993). The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard, ed. P. Rohde. New York: Carol Publishing.

Kierkegaard, S. (1996). The Prayers of Kierkegaard, ed. Perry B. Lefevre. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Kierkegaard, S. (2004). The Sickness Unto Death, trans. A. Hannay. London: Penguin Books.

Kierkegaard, S. (2014). The Concept of Anxiety, trans. A. Hannay. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Ward, M. (2009). “For Beginners”. In Hold Time (Album). Merge Records.