“There is a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: it can’t be spoken. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it. Our culture is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self.” Thomas Merton, Love and Living.
Steve Griffin, owner of Island Carpentry, has done much precise, beautiful work in our house in Middletown. We have come to know and value Steve’s friendship. Last year when he directed the installation and did the carpentry to install our gas fireplaces, he built a box over the mantle of one of them to mount our television. Bartering for our replaced electric kitchen stove, Steve’s wife, Mary Ann, created with Steve a four panel door to hide the box. Using old photographs Rita gave her, she painted a composite scene of our many summers spent in a rented old camp on Webb Lake in Weld, ME. This week she finished.
One of the many gifts Webb Lake gave us was solace and silence, especially early in the morning when the lake was mirror calm. I’m an early morning riser and have been for at least fifty years. Silence for private time, prayer and reading that leads to reflection and meditation is a before dawn activity for me, as it was on Webb Lake in the canoe. Here it is birdsong and sometimes the distant, muted foghorn in Newport Harbor which carries in the pre-dawn stillness. Is there anything more grand than that first cup of coffee in the sunroom looking out over the garden, the eighteenth century stone wall and Rhode Island Nursery across the lane? As Thomas Merton wrote, “our culture is geared…to help us evade any need to face (our) inner, silent self.” Yet this “inner, silent self” is where we most need to wander at leisure if we ever expect to find our peace, our self-knowledge, our connection.
“We live in a state of constant semi-attention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. We are more or less there.” Thomas Merton, Love and Living.
To Merton’s constant semi-attention in the last few decades, we’ve layered on omnipresent emails, texts, Facebook, Snapchat, Tweets, YouTube, television with a thousand channels, Pandora, videos and video games on demand, the insistent phones on our belt and on and on. And on. We don’t have to do much to completely avoid our silent, inner selves and the meaning of our increasingly preoccupied lives. In truth, we seek commotion: for after all, within those distractions persists our ability to avoid what we truly need to engage. For the ‘unexamined’ life is frenetically busy, exhausting even, but on the surface painless, while vaguely troubling underneath is a deep discontent like a tumor without symptoms yet. Without recognizing our core, what is left wanting, and what change is prerequisite to peace, we are left without a center at rest. Human beings are born with restless hearts, with a hole in the center. Do we seek what will truly heal it or do we squander our time by obfuscating with the deluge of stimuli?
” A great strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire the sound of a gentle blowing. When Elijah heard this, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold a voice came to him and said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1 Kings 19: 11-13
“What are you doing here?” is the only relevant question we all must answer.
As I was going through the painstaking process of pulling the disassembled tomato support cages from the ceiling joists of the shed, straightening out the bent members, cobbling them back together for one more year and erecting them around this season’s hope for red tomatoes, Rita remarked to me that I was a patient gardener. I have never thought of myself as particularly patient; Type A, driving for perfection, impatient with myself especially. But times and souls change, especially when we spend the time to fill the hole in the middle.
I realized planting the last of the pole beans, the yellow bush beans and peas today with Gianna and Ellie, our two oldest granddaughters, that the hours pass quickly. We laugh, teach, learn and plant. They tell us where to put the pumpkins and sunflowers, their favorites. We can also be quiet together. Gianna is eight and now is the official reader of seed packets, discerning depth and spacing. Why are cucumber and the various kinds of squash planted in rings called hills? Why are some seeds planted an inch deep, and some only a quarter inch? Why is the squirrel eating the new corn and cucumber sprouts? If we see the baby rabbits out there in the garden, will I turn into Mr. McGregor?
I further realize that the overriding sensation of the garden in the sun with sore muscles, dirty feet, red knees and calloused hands is contentment, deep, abiding contentment. And that is enough.
“We are not fully present and not fully absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available. We just float along in the general noise which drowns out the deep, secret and insistent demands of the inner self.” Thomas Merton, Love and Living.