Instances of Discovery

A former mother-in-law of mine meant to say the standard prayer in which we ask God to make us ever mindful of the needs of others, but it came out “make us ever needful of the minds of others.” I have been ever thus needful. I am grateful for the minds of many others who have given me guidance and clues along the way.

Briefly, six of them.

First chronologically, and in importance: John Keats, whose principle of Negative Capability – when one “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”[1] – has been for me, ever since I read it in my junior year in college, the surest ground of faith, hope, and love. Keats does not say that fact and reason are of no value, but that they are not to be rushed at, forced, premature. Uncertainties, mysteries, doubts are room to move around in, not a pit to try to scramble out of.

Second, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democratic forces in Burma (Myanmar). Some of her actions in recent years have tarnished her reputation, but this does not diminish the significance for me of what she said in 1995 in an address via videotape to the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing. “The last six years [of house arrest] afforded me much time and food for thought,” she said. “I came to the conclusion that the human race is not divided into two opposing camps of good and evil. It is made up of those who are capable of learning and those who are incapable of doing so.”[2] On reading these words, I was instantly transferred from a Euclidean spiritual geometry to a non-Euclidean one.

Third, Margaret Coulling, a student of mine at Swarthmore forty years ago, who said on an examination that if God had wanted to appeal directly to our minds, Mary would have written a book instead of bearing a child. As Socrates used to say, the unexamined life is not worth living, but Margaret’s fresh and winsome observation reminded me that life is prior to the examining of it.

Fourth – this one I can actually credit to myself. It was March 26, 1975, in the era before the word processor automatically inserts the date. I was typing a letter, my finger slipped, and I sat transfixed: “March 26, 19756.” At that moment my imagination was sprung free from the trap of time as I had learned to calculate it in my study of church history. It was a kind of spiritual vertigo – from the perspective of those descendants of ours in the 198th century, we of the first 2000 years would comprise no greater a portion of the whole story – 10 percent – than those of the first two centuries constitute for us. It feels different when you think of the early church as what you’re part of, not what you’re looking way back to.

Fifth is T. S. Eliot. If Keats, with his Negative Capability, maps the terrain in which my spiritual search has taken place, Eliot, in “Little Gidding,” the last of his Four Quartets, charts the itinerary of the journey within that territory. Before I cite the lines, though, I need to set the stage for them.

In my undergraduate work, and probably all the way through graduate school, I was persuaded of the view that biblical thought, with its linearity, was radically distinct from Greek and Oriental, with their cyclical patterns, and I thought the biblical superior. Over the decades, as I’ve encountered Buddhism and have had a sequence of feminist conversion experiences, I have come to see circles where before I noticed only straight lines, webs instead of arrows, and have also discerned the many different patterns within the Bible. I long ago gave up an irritable reaching after the unique and unrepeatable.

I may well have read “Little Gidding” the same year I read Keats’s letter to his brother, but it took a long time for me to “get” what Eliot is talking about.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.[3]

Eliot teaches me that the goal of the exploring is not to reach the end. “We shall not cease from exploration,” he says, but does not add “until we reach the end.” Rather, the point of the exploring is a surprise, and it’s active – “to arrive,” not “an arrival” – you don’t get to the end by trying to get to the end. And the surprise is that you’ve been there all along.

I said there would be six whose minds I’ve been ever needful of, and so far I’ve named five. The sixth will come shortly. First, though, I reiterate what I’ve learned from Keats, Suu Kyi, Coulling, myself, and Eliot. I’ve indicated how I have been encouraged by them. Now I want to look from another angle, at how they caution me.

Keats teaches me to beware anxiety. Uncertainties, mysteries, doubts abound, but life and joy do not require that they all be resolved, immediately or ever. Some of the greatest havoc ever known has been wreaked by people who too quickly and too irritably claimed to have put an end to uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, whether in the name of God or racial purity or the dialectic.

Suu Kyi teaches me to beware neat distinctions. With an acute Buddhist sensibility she sees the world not in static categories but in motion. “To be capable of learning” and to be “incapable of doing so” is, to be sure, a distinction, but it is written on water, not chiseled in stone.

Margaret Coulling teaches me to beware intellectual snobbery. I suspect that most people like me, if given a choice, would prefer that Mary had written a book. We have been well trained to take the measure of someone else’s writing – we can locate its genre, identify its style, place it in context, and generally demonstrate that we are at least its equal if not its superior. A child? That’s a different story, one that can make our intellectual pretensions ridiculous.

I teach myself to beware what C. S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery.”[4] Being later doesn’t make us better. But there is a flip side to this: if I have no warrant for thinking myself a cut above those who have gone before, I have every right to think of myself in the game right alongside them. “Chronological regret” is ruled out too.

Eliot teaches me to beware the illusion of maturity. A friend of mine once told me that her whole adult spiritual quest has been to rediscover things she knew as a child about God that adults kept telling her could not be true.

And now the sixth of my spiritual guides. It has been my good fortune to spend much of my career in close proximity to men and women who have chosen the Benedictine monastic life. One of them, Father Kilian McDonnell, OSB, who celebrated his 100th birthday earlier this month, started writing poetry at age seventy-five, and has published five books of poetry. His images are wizardly. One of them, the fruit of wisdom that Kilian has distilled from more than 27,000 days of following a 1500-year-old Rule that is as fresh as tomorrow, sums up what I have learned from the other five guides: “All our truths need bungee cords.”[5]

[1] Letter No. 45, in Hyder Edward Rollins, ed., The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), Vol. 1, 193.


[3] The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1952), 145.

[4] Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1955), 207.

[5] “Then it is finished, done?” Swift, Lord, You are Not (Collegeville, MN: Saint John’s University Press, 2003), 26.