“Re-Minding Ourselves” – Silence as the Test of Speech

All Nine is pleased to welcome our newest addition to the line-up of a-Musing contributors, Doug Jackson. Doug is a preacher/professor/poet who after a quarter-century in the pastorate now teaches spiritual formation, pastoral ministry, and Greek for the Logsdon Seminary program at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi. His first contribution provides a wrap-up to the discussion on Wendell Berry’s “How to Be a Poet.”

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“Re-Minding Ourselves” – Silence as the Test of Speech

by Doug Jackson

Eugene Peterson calls Wendell Berry, “one of our century’s wiser guides,” whose work consists in “re-ordering our Christian imaginations to cultivate totalities, to live life as a spiritually organic whole.” In his poem “How To Be A Poet,” Berry calls, not for re-ordering so much as for re-minding. “To remind myself,” says the subtitle, like a scrawled sticky-note slapped over a memo. In this brief piece, Berry offers the opportunity for more than good writing; he calls us to good praying.

Let’s begin with the poem itself:

How To Be a Poet

BY WENDELL BERRY

(to remind myself)

i

Make a place to sit down.

Sit down. Be quiet.

You must depend upon

affection, reading, knowledge,

skill—more of each

than you have—inspiration,

work, growing older, patience,

for patience joins time

to eternity. Any readers

who like your poems,

doubt their judgment.

 

ii

Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three-dimensioned life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

 

iii

Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

out of the silence, like prayers

prayed back to the one who prays,

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came.

 

Source: Poetry (January 2001).

 

First, of course, come the jokes.

“Make a place to sit down./Sit down.” It’s like the shampoo bottle with instructions that begin, “Wet hair.” Or a colleague of mine who insists, “There’s no mystery to writing a dissertation: Just sit down and resist the first thousand impulses to get up.”

“Any readers /who like your poems, /doubt their judgment.” Classic Groucho Marx: “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”

And yet both bits of advice invoke the wisdom of the desert fathers. “Go and sit in your cell,” said Abba Moses, “and your cell will teach you everything.” Amma Syncletica advised, “If a hen stops sitting on the eggs she will hatch no chickens.” “Make a place to sit down./Sit down.”

Saint Antony, hearing other monks praise a particular brother, tested him to see if he could bear being insulted. When the brother proved incapable of this, Antony said, “You are like a house with a highly decorated outside, but burglars have stolen all the furniture by the back door.” “Any readers /who like your poems, /doubt their judgment.”

Then comes the call to attention: “stay away from screens./Stay away from anything/that obscures the place it is in.” Missionary martyr Jim Elliot urged, “Wherever you are, be all there!” But the ubiquity of “screens” – on laptops, tablets, cell phones – urges us instead to adopt the old hitchhiker’s sign, “Anywhere but here.” The monk no longer must leave the cell; the cell has Wi-Fi.

But inattention to one’s writing (or toilet-scrubbing or flower-staring) does more than delay the poem: It desecrates the holy. “There are no unsacred places;/there are only sacred places/and desecrated places.”   “We have no non-religious activities,” C. S. Lewis admonishes the fictional Malcolm, “only religious and irreligious.” Brother Lawrence “was pleased when he could take up a straw from the ground for the love of God,” adding that, “The time of business dos not differ with me from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”

One should never mistake her poem for the blessed sacrament but if, at a given moment, God has called her to write and not to commune, she must bring to it the same reverent attention. If I wouldn’t whip out my cell phone as the deacons pass the plates, I shouldn’t do so while pondering the next simile. Remember that the title is not “How to Write a Poem,” but “How to be a Poet.” What we become as we write matters far more than what becomes of what we write.

Finally comes the mysticism: Speech born of silence, the pray-er as one who is prayed. Wait to speak, not only until speech is better than silence, but until it extends it. When King Claudius protests, in response to one of Hamlet’s trademark wisecracks, that “these words are not mine,” the prince quips, “No, nor mine now.” “Why words,” cried Abba Arsenius, “did I let you get out? I have often been sorry that I have spoken, never that I have been silent.” Once you share the words, they leave your control. Wait to speak until you would be sorry not to have spoken. My preacher-grandfather, rugged of soul and vocabulary, used to say that it took a hell of a good deacon to beat none at all. Dare we apply that standard to our speech?

“To remind myself”: to re-mind myself.

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