Last week reading Richard Rohr’s book The Divine Dance with a small group of lovely people with whom I am studying the book, we stumbled upon a few powerful lines from Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Rose.” Near the end of his poem in nine short lines Roethke offers a luminous vision of what it might mean to be truly human:

“The Rose” by Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)

Near this rose, in this grove of sun-parched, wind-warped madronas,
Among the half-dead trees, I came upon
the true ease of myself,

As if another man appeared out of
the depths of my being,

And I stood outside myself,
Beyond becoming and perishing,
A something wholly other,
As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,
And yet was still.
And I rejoiced in being what I was

The poet portrays himself traversing a barren, dry, landscape of “wind-warped madronas” and “half-dead trees.” In this desolate terrain he comes across a rose. This unexpected vision of beauty awakens in him something so radical that it is “As if another man appeared out of the depths of my being.”

He encounters that within himself which enables him to rejoice “in being what I was”.

What is this mysterious force stirred in Roetkhe by the vision of beauty in that rose? He calls it “the true ease of myself.” It is a quality that, even in the midst of “the wildest wave alive,” is able to be “still.”

It is a compelling vision. There is within “the depths of my being” a steady, abiding, unshakeable reality that is stronger than the constant fluctuations and turmoil that unsettle the surface of my life. This reality exists, the poet says, “Beyond becoming and perishing.” It transcends the changeableness of life and the inevitability of death.

I long to connect with this strong deep place that the ancient Hebrew poet in the Book of Psalms called “the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2). My heart desires to know that dimension of reality that is “still”, where I am able to “rejoice” simply in what is and to rest in “the true ease of myself”.

The “rose” has the capacity to awaken me to this changeless eternal realm within, but is powerless to bring it about. My awareness of this depth is a gift; it arises in response to the unexpected encounter, the sudden surprise of delight and beauty, or perhaps in response to the startling flash of pain brought by tragedy, betrayal or injustice. The important thing is to acknowledge that I cannot manufacture this arising. I can only prepare my self to receive it when it happens to emerge.

I prepare to perceive that place to which”the rose” points by withdrawing my attention again and again from those things that cause me to fail to see deeply. I come to this “true ease of myself” when I turn aside from those agitated restless thoughts, emotions, and distractions that keep me trapped in the surface details of circumstance. Through beauty and pain I gain access to a fuller vision of my true nature. I become aware at the centre of my being of a place of deep rest; trust is born.

Even in the face of the darkest realities, I begin to know, as the great mystic Julian of Norwich declared, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Therein lies the only hope I know of finding that “true ease of myself” for which my heart longs.

**************

T.S. Eliot also intuited this still place. But he saw it, not only as a potential experience in the human heart, he expanded the vision to encompass a vast dimension as the cosmic reality at the centre of the universe:

“Burnt Norton”

II

At the still point of the turning world. Neither
flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there
the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not
call it fixity.
Where past and future are gathered. Neither move-
ment from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point,
the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the
dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to
place it in time.

(T.S. Collected Poems 1909-1935, pp. 215, 216)

Wendell Berry also knows about this quiet steady place in ourselves and in the world:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 

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