Patterns from new disorders

org-ettyplay-susan-stein-in-the-role-of-etty-hillesum

photo: Ricardo Barros

Yehudi Amichai’s poem The Place Where We Are Right describes certainty as a barren yard where nothing will grow.  ‘Doubts and loves’ are what can turn the earth over like a mole, or a plough, and allow new things to take root.  It’s in the ruined house, a whisper can be heard.  We need to be quiet, we need doubt and love and we sometimes need our houses to be ruined for there to be new flowers. To put it another way, at the swimming pool, most noise comes from the shallow end.

This poem was cited, along with several other poems, by Richard Holloway in a moving talk at St Peter’s Contemporary Theology Group in Canterbury.  The theme was his ‘on-again, off-again troubled life-long romance with religion’.  He rose to be a Bishop of Edinburgh in the Episcopal Church in Scotland before resigning over the church’s ‘cruel’ treatment of women and gay people.  The talk was wide-ranging but throughout came a plea for actions that foster peace and joy, that are kind rather than cruel. He first married a gay couple who approached him in the seventies because he felt it would be cruel not to.

Time and again, when he was searching or lost, poems spoke to him, sometimes sent by strangers, enclosed in letters of support.  When someone in the audience asked him about prayer, he said that his approach was to read poetry, walk on the hills and to be attentive.   A newspaper article refers to Mr Holloway describing himself as an ‘Anglo-Catholic Quaker Buddhist’.

In this past week, I’ve had lots of what a friend calls ‘input’.  I sometimes worry that my hard disc is getting full and that if I read or hear anything new, I’ll have to wipe something old.  But in fact, it’s been one of those weeks of synchronicity, where the books I’m reading and the people I’m hearing seem to be part of one conversation.

On Sunday, I attended a remarkable show in a private house high on the cliffs above Sandgate.  ‘Etty’ is a touring one-woman play, adapted from the diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum. She was born in Russia but her family moved to Amsterdam where she lived under the German occupation before being sent to Westerbork and eventually Auschwitz.  The piece was performed with intensity and immediacy by American actress Susan Stein who takes it into prisons and schools as well as theatres and salons.

Etty, in spite of her troubles, which range from the threat of the Nazi occupation, unwanted pregnancy and a psychoanalyst who cures depression by bouts of naked wrestling, is on a constant inner journey, not dissimilar to Richard Holloway’s. In answer to another question, Richard Holloway said she, and other luminous individuals, give us a hint of grace.

Her diaries are a great ‘yes’ to the universe.  Even from the camp, she manages to write a letter to her teacher, telling her, ‘Despite everything, life is full of beauty and meaning.’ She, too, turns to poetry, specifically Rilke for guidance and illumination.

“Slowly but surely I have been soaking Rilke up these last few months: the man, his work and his life. And that is probably the only right way with literature, with study, with people or with anything else: to let it all soak in, to let it all mature slowly inside you until it has become a part of yourself. That, too, is a growing process. Everything is a growing process. And in between, emotions and sensations that strike you like lightning. But still the most important thing is the organic process of growing.”

Her diaries are concerned with this growth, the search for meaning and joy in the world.  Similarly, Richard Holloway talked about his recent memoir as ‘personal archaelogy’ and ‘an act of discovery’.  It is through the process of writing, whether memoir or diaries, that you can get a sense of who your past self was, a self-knowledge that gives some ‘leverage on personality’.

He finished by quoting from Louis MacNeice’s Mutations.

Yet each of us has known mutations in the mind

When the world jumped and what had been a plan

Dissolved and rivers gushed from what had seemed a pool.

For every static world that you or I impose

Upon the real one must crack at times and new

Patterns from new disorders open like a rose

And old assumptions yield to new sensation …