WALKING – THE WAY OF AFFIRMATION
Some years later – in another country -
A little way from the village I found an extraordinary cottage. It was almost as if it had been a cottage once but had fallen into the earth. I had caught a glimpse of someone living in this earthy and overgrown place. It was a young woman. I quite expected it to be an old hag or village witch. A few days ago, taking that track out of curiosity, I found met her coming out of the hovel. She was dressed in a mad mixture of old clothes, with an indescribable hat of blue felt. She was no old witch. She was young, perhaps in her twenties, with untidy light brown hair beneath the hat, a quizzical kind of face and astonishingly clear eyes – not blue but a colourless silver grey. She knew who I was, perhaps from village gossip.
“You’re a musician of some kind?”
“Yes, a composer.”
“There’s music in these woods. Do you want to come and listen? Let’s take a walk.”
So we did, a walk from her cottage through the woods nearby and up to a ridge a mile or more away, and the whole walk was bathed in some kind of clear light from this strangers own enjoyment, as if the walk was a sonata, she the performer on her spiritual violin, and I the audience. I can see that it was her own enjoyment of the things we were seeing that was so enjoyable in itself. I mean that it was a communicable sense of enjoyment. Isn’t that how it should be? True happiness should be something open and communicable, or infectious, not something contained, that cuts us from the world. You know the difference between people who have a silly grin and just irritate and those who transfer their own happiness to others by being more open and alive because of their joy. In the first case it’s not enjoyment at all but more like the effect of a mind numbing drug. So, in the case of Thalia, she made you see the world as she saw it by communicating her joy. It was a partly the expression, or the openness of her eyes, and partly something invisible and spiritual. Perhaps spiritual. She never told me her name. I call by the name of the muse of the earth and of comedy. It seems appropriate - and there was a familiarity in her way of walking, her quirks and turns as she spoke, that reminded me of one of the tumblers I had seen in the gardens at Ravello.
“I love my old trees!" she said.
"And yours too. What's yours is mine and mine is yours. The woods, their music - and our souls."
"Goodness. Do you think so? Are you a philosopher then? I keep meeting philosophers."
"I don't know about that. Nothing so heavy! But we have souls, don't we? And they contain all this. And everything."
"It depends on what you think of as your soul."
"Well, simply what you are I would think. Wouldn't you? What you really are."
She said that each soul is infinite and must contain each other infinite soul. We are each ourselves but in joy and love we contain the other. Yes, that’s true enough in its way. But how did she find this simple attitude of joy in all things? By complete humility and simplicity, and by believing that everything was hers. This isn’t a possessive feeling because she believed that everyone was equally the possessor of everything if they could see the world that way.
“It’s hard to do that, “I said, “when you know that these woods are someone’s property. There are even signs warning us to keep out. Would you take no notice of the signs and wander into them because you own them all?”
“Not at all, “she said. “Why should I? Wouldn’t that be a kind of arrogance, imposing myself on someone else’s property?”
“But you believe it’s your property.”
“No, no. It’s not property at all. That’s something quite different. I might disapprove of the idea of property, but that’s a very worldly idea, an idea belonging to the world I have no time for. I’d rather let people own it in their worldly way and simple care nothing for it. If I invaded their property I would be mixed up in their worldly attitudes. I can see what I can of these enclosed woods, and I can care about them, but I don’t need to invade them. Besides it would not be a wise idea as they are the property of the Army. There may be serious dangers, armed guards, explosives, poisons. No, the spiritual ownership is also a belonging to all, and a responsibility to all.”
“So you love and enjoy everything that we see on this walk. Even the explosives and poisons that may be in that wood?”
“You are being difficult! I think I would not enjoy the explosives and poisons as they are the product of man’s own evils. I can love and pity the woods where they are hidden and the people who make them. I could, do you suppose, fight them? Or protest? Better, surely, to love and laugh.”
“What of these trees here – these seem to be diseased. This walk isn’t all through a paradise by any means.”
“How can you enjoy anything without enjoying what it is? You said you were a musician. Do you only enjoy happy music? That would be very boring. Enjoyment comes from being part of something as it really is. The greatest part of enjoyment is simply being, being itself. These diseased trees may not be alive anymore but they are there. If you try not to see them you are denying being, imposing what you want to see. Enjoyment can be sad too.”
(I remember Peter Sterry, who I so often find strikes a chord with me writes : "Divine love (which transcends all human wisdom) knows how to joint even hell into its work, with such surprising skill, that even hell be beautiful in its place, and add a grandeur, a symmetry, yea, a loveliness to the whole ")
“I see what you mean – so enjoyment is really a matter of seeing things as they are.”
“Yes. Things as they are, all of them.”
“Can’t that be a bit mindless? Do you switch off your own thoughts?”
“No, of course not. I’m real too. My thoughts are real. What do you think I meant by “things as they are?” Just these lovely trees (and the sad ones)? Nature?”
“I suppose I was thinking about the natural world, rather than the “products of man’s evil.”
“So do human things not exist? Do thoughts not exist?”
“I suppose I tend to think thoughts were as real as anything. They’re made out of experiences of real things.”
“Seeing things as they are means everything. You know this really, don’t you? This wood isn’t just trees, it’s us seeing it. It’s our own thoughts about it. It might be stories about it. You know, they say there are still wild men living here. On certain days you hear them moving between the trees, hiding from our eyes, but if the wind is in the right direction their scurrying is carried to even our deaf old ears. Now that might not be true, but can you look into the depth of these trees and forget it now I’ve told you? The invisible shadows behind the deeper trees have an extra mystery, don’t they? Some stories are good, some are bad. A house isn’t just a lump of stone or brick. It’s a home. A church, too. What’s a church, really?”
“So to enjoy things as they are we have to be ourselves too. “
“Yes, and it’s so hard, because we keep trying to shut ourselves away, switch off our own feelings, or trying not see things we don’t like.”
“Why do we try to shut ourselves way, do you think?”
“We shut ourselves away by our own selfishness. We want to drag things out of the world into ourselves. We want to own things. We want them to be like us. But we can’t know what we like unless we walk in the world with open eyes and let the world explore our own souls and discover what’s in our own nooks and crannies.”
“Like a light shining into a cave, gradually exploring the secret openings, rocks, stalactites?”
“Yes. Enjoyment is that light.”
"I will do my best to see all of this as mine - and yours - but it's very hard. It brings responsibility too."
"And I feel it might mean that I try to love everything and end up loving nothing well. Isn't it as good to love just part of the world and love it well? Just as a more earthly person may love one person."
"I don't see why not. You're right about the risk of loving nothing well. It's no good being false. If you love one small bit of the world and love it well that means that it isn't a selfish love. You don't try to drag that little world into you anymore than you should a person. And you know you can see it all in one little place. In one little thing. The world in a grain of sand...that sort of stuff."
"Good. I'm relieved to hear. Dante saw it all in Beatrice. I may not meet a Beatrice but I might find one small place that I can get to love really well. Somewhere I can listen to properly."
I might have let this girl go as a rather fey traveller with innocent fancies, but I don’t think she was remotely innocent. She knew the world. Perhaps she had recovered innocence, or found a quite different and wise form of innocence. She was nothing like a witch. She might like stories but she never spoke of anything supernatural. Of course I know now that you don’t need spirits and the supernatural to make a place sacred. Those things are distractions. They may exist, they may not, but they are just part of the scene, like the badgers and toadstools. The real meaning and mystery is in the things themselves, and the Spirit in our relationship with them.
When I thought of our walk and what she had said in the light of Maude’s conversation I realised that it could be that simply walking was a form of prayer. By walking we are engaging with the world, if we go with the clear mind and this spiritual enjoyment. Simply in our relationship with the world we are allowing the Spirit to work in us, and in going with a clear mind we are listening to the hidden music, the meaning, the Word. I might have thought that this was all too simple – but why not? We can find this sacred thing in ourselves and our experience, or in Maude’s negative way - our real experience not in any fantasy or false mysticism. We walked through the woods, beyond the fenced area that she had said was used for military purposes with its dark secrets and the dark place of the Wild Men.
The track turned and climbed and through the trees I became aware of descending ground as if we were now the ridge of a valley. She accelerated her pace. She was far fitter than I. She was eager to reach the summit, which we presently did, and we looked down on a river below. The sweep of the river (perhaps it was the Severn, or a tributary) flowing through the wooded slopes was exhilarating – the view accompanied by a breeze of fresh pine scented air.
The girl gave a kind of skip and twirl of her skirt and she raised a hand as if to present the river – as if to say, here, this is mine – you are welcome to it. She made a few turns, a dancing gesture.
“It’s not just pictures, you know. It’s all alive and we’re part of it. Better see the world as a Dance. Sometimes we know we’re dancing, touching the magic, sometimes we might just have a passing shiver – someone else’s dance has passed through us. We might have caught just a beat of it. Why do people see things flat all the time?”
Perhaps I could translate this scene into music – the landscape of forest and river – and that dance that passed through everything…
Thomas Traherne wrote: “Angels ears hear the melodie, which Gods Goodness Wisdom and Power maketh in the visible and created world, which is the organ of all Eternity.” (Select Meditations)