Last night, I sat with about 50 others. Same thing. I was able to sit without fidgeting or yawning or even much mind wandering for 45 minutes in complete silence. I could sit with that scorching pain in my scapula, without once climbing out of my skin and screaming. How? All those warm hearts and still bodies, like standing stones in a circle beneath the moon, patiently holding a sacred space for thousands of years no matter what the weather brings.
Something happens together that transcends our lonely individuality. Some spark jumps the gap between us, and ignites the dry tinder of our souls.
Now here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter if each one of us is flawed. In community, something greater emerges. Something nearly perfect in itself, and luminous. We glow. And the fire does not belong to me, or to you, but to us. All of us. Whoever we are. In the circle of community. It is what scientists call an emergent property. It emerges from and belongs to the whole, not to any one part. That’s what makes it so lovely. And so mysterious. The white fire of a great mystery.
It is what Mary Oliver is talking about in her poem “The Ponds” (House of Light, 1990). Gazing with soft eyes upon riotous masses of water lilies emerging from the black waters of mid-summer ponds, at first she sees only their apparent perfection. Their communal beauty. Their light, as she puts it. They glow. You can almost hear her sigh.
But then she bends down for a closer look. And the light begins to dim.
Well, okay, this one is a bit lopsided, she admits. And that one appears diseased. And something has eaten away much of this fine blossom. Hmm—(now I’m starting to interject myself into her poem!)—and this one seems to be going bald, while that one clearly has something wrong with its left shoulder, and, hey, isn’t this one just a tad neurotic? Oh, what a mess these lilies are, after all.
I imagine Mary Oliver standing at the edge of the pond, furrowing her brow, wishing she hadn’t whipped out the magnifying glass and peered so intently at all the details. It was so much more romantic and luminous from afar. But now she’s pondering the meaning of all these imperfections. The broken individuals in this botanical community. And, wisely, she chooses to soften her gaze again.
The way we do in meditation, when we leave our eyes open. To see, yet not to stare.
“I want to be dazzled,” she decides. “I want to believe the imperfections are nothing— / that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum / of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And,” she concludes, “I do.”
After our last Lectio Poetica gathering, in which a handful of us gazed upon this poem for a time, together and alone, I realized how much I depend on community to help me keep my gaze soft, to see beyond the apparent flaws—in myself and others—to the inherent beauty of being human, of being alive, of rising and, yes, even of fading . . . together.
Just as light appears to be an emergent property of a pond full of water lilies at mid-summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, so also does some transcendent luminosity of the heart and mind seem to emerge when we come together in contemplative community.
As I sit here alone now and blow out the candle, that light still glows within.
—Jay E. Valusek