Widening Circles

A box contained God

A book, a prayer, a community

All you have to do is think the right things

Say the right words

Feel the right feelings

When the cage broke for others, I clung to it 

with more insistence

Seeking the press of the confinement

The comfort of the known

My certainty grew into a warrior

I did not see when the walls crumbled

Still huddling, eyes squeezed shut,

the skin of my fingers sought the edge 

and found the rush of air


I’m standing now, wreckage at my feet

Breathing in hope I didn’t realise was 

possible, pain I never wanted to feel.

I am, in this space

cautiously curious.

When I think about the start of my story, the first tangible moments of the divine being explained to me – reduced to concepts a four year old could grasp – I remember a sense of wonder. Or at least knowing that my response of acceptance unleashed some unknowable joy in my hovering parents. The sun streamed through the window, I repeated the hushed words and somehow crossed over a threshold.

There is a part of me that is still that wide-eyed four year old. Like the tiny frame of the Babushka doll, carried around underneath other, more cynical layers.

The God that I grew up with was predictable. He could be summoned forth by passionate prayer, a force of love if you just practised the required daily rituals, a shadow of immense disapproval if you swore, drank or indulged in sex outside of marriage.

It is tempting to feel contempt for my earlier understandings and the previous versions to which I held as true… but I am resisting that. If anything, it seems that the God I am beginning to open my gaze to is accustomed to working with rudimentary tools.

I see beauty everywhere. In the fiercely contained faith of my upbringing, in the selfless act of a father offering to pray for the owner of a dog that had just mauled his son. There is a heart that beats in the earth, and it heaves with sorrow in the midst of all suffering. An inestimable Patience that waits, through waves of self-hatred and depression, for us to look outwards.

I have discovered the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. He writes with such eloquence and peace about the certainty of mystery. I resisted mystery for so long, preferring the answers devoid of emotion or empathy that seemed to tick the box of satisfaction. Now I am relishing the search, realising how much I don’t know and learning to embrace that. Taking solace in the fact that my part of the quest is but an extension of the one that has been going on through the ages, since the first flare of life. One of Rilke’s poems that I have just discovered speaks directly to this:

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

Book of Hours, I 2

Fear acts as a gatekeeper, confining us to thoughts that are safe and cynical. If we can deny, define and reject the unknown, maybe it won’t consume us. Choosing our victims to protect, we use them as a shield to deflect Truth and Beauty. I spent a long time in that box. Yet, a powerful line that has been attributed to composer, John Cage – “the past doesn’t influence me, I influence it“, speaks volumes to me. At any moment in time, we have the requisite materials to move forward, to choose love and mystery, to learn to be present and mindful, making a ‘heaven out of hell’ as Milton proposes.

Elizabeth Gilbert was recently interviewed by Krista Tippett at On Being. She spoke of creativity and spirituality as a quest to follow the clues laid out before us. “The universe is looking for collaborators because creation’s not finished. It’s not something that happened in seven days and ended. It’s an ongoing story that we’re part of. And it’s a much more interesting way to be part of that story to work in collaboration, and in partnership, and in friendly curiosity with it than to be terrified of it.” I love this sense of partnership with something greater, something that defies containment or category. And I feel it too, whenever I rest my fingers on the keys or bleed ink onto the page.

When it comes down to it, all that any of us can do is follow the breadcrumbs – the clues to the notion of what is greater. We don’t have to know the whole picture to relish in the moment, that spark of epiphany or sigh of wonder. Indeed, these moments are fast becoming what I live for.

Answers will come, though maybe not the ones I expect. In the meantime, I resolve to ‘be’ in this space, to let go of my tightly held expectations of what ‘should’ happen, and rest in the peace that is the Ground of Being.

“In this moment you are alive… you can dial up the magic of that at any time.”
– Joanna Macy, ‘A Wild Love for the World’, On Being

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