In perfect silence

National Poetry Month, Day 13  //  Seeing past the surface of life to the “something more of the depths” that Robert Frost glimpsed at a well-curb may be an unexpected gift, but it doesn’t very often come out of the blue. Often it’s preceded by nudges as subtle as mere whim, boredom, impatience, or the “sound of sheet silence” that drew Elijah from his hideout (1 Kings 19:1-12), experiences of prevenient grace that draw me toward insight before I’m aware of seeking it.

Decades ago I saw Annie Dillard’s “tree with the lights in it” (“Seeing,” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) when I was leaving the cemetery that overlooks Neely’s Landing on the Mississippi near my hometown, heading downhill toward car and home. I don’t know what made me look back over my shoulder at the foot of the hill, but that’s when I saw it, a parting gift from the numen of the place. “Oh, by the way,” the numen whispered, “take this with you.” And – wham! – the sight stopped me in my tracks. I’ve never again seen the tree, but the reverberations of that single sighting have never left me, the results of a slight nudge to take one last look.

Such nudges can be the gift before the gift. It seems to have been so for Walt Whitman when a graceful lassitude moved him to trade a lecture on astronomy for an experience of the stars. There are only so many books you can read about gardening before you need to get your hands in the soil. There are only so many books you can read about prayer before you have to pray, or about silence before you have to put the books aside and listen for whispers of the spirit. There’s only so much news and analysis you can absorb about the wider world before turning attention to news of the inner world that so subtly asserts its prior claim. We’re not meant to study the meaning of life; we’re meant to look up in perfect silence at the stars and experience what Joseph Campbell called “the rapture of being alive.”

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

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