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  • Linda Odhner, with photos by Liz Kufs

Excerpted Inspirations #38


"I was alone with my books. I would get up each morning, eat breakfast, and drink a cup of coffee while I walked around my long, narrow garden, examining the plants or my elderly apple trees, and then go up to my study. The street outside my window was deserted; the clock on my desk ticked steadily, hypnotically, and nothing came between the words on the page and me.


"At first this silence had seemed a deprivation, a symbol of an unwanted deprivation. I had resented the solitude of my life and fought it. But gradually the enveloping quiet became a positive element, almost a presence, which settled comfortingly and caressingly around me like a soft shawl. It seemed to hum, gently but melodiously, and to orchestrate the ideas that I was contending with, until they started to sing too, to vibrate and reveal an unexpected resonance. After a time I found that I could almost listen to the silence, which had a dimension all of its own. I started to attend to its strange and beautiful texture, which, of course, it was impossible to express in words. I discovered that I felt at home and alive in the silence, which compelled me to enter my interior world and walk around there. Without the distraction of constant conversation, the words on the page began to speak directly to my inner self. They were no longer expressing ideas that were simply interesting intellectually, but were talking directly to my own yearning and perplexity. I was no longer just grabbing concepts and facts from my books, using them as fodder for the next interview, but learning to listen to the deeper meaning that lay quietly and ineffably beyond them. Silence itself had become my teacher.


"This, of course, is how we should approach religious discourse. Theology is -- or should be -- a species of poetry, which read quickly or encountered in a hubbub of noise makes no sense. You have to open yourself to a poem with a quiet, receptive mind, in the same way you might listen to a difficult piece of music. It is no good trying to listen to a late Beethoven quartet or read a sonnet by Rilke at a party. You have to give it your full attention, wait patiently upon it, and make an empty space for it in your mind. And finally the work declares itself to you, steals deeply into the interstices of your being, line by line, note by note, phrase by phrase, until it becomes a part of you forever. Like the words of a poem, a religious idea, myth, or doctrine points beyond itself to truths that are elusive, that resist words and conceptualization. If you seize upon a poem and try to extort its meaning before you are ready, it remains opaque. If you bring your personal agenda to bear upon it, the poem will close upon itself like a clam, because you have denied its unique and separate identity, its own inviolable holiness. I had found this to be true in my study of literature. As soon as I had stopped trying to use it to advance my career, it began to speak to me again. Now I was having exactly the same experience with theology."


-Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase (2004), pp. 283-285



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