Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Four Elements of Deep Silence: Water

"Be praised my Lord for Sister Water who is very useful to us, and humble and precious and pure. . . "—but like most translations, this one (and all the English ones I've read) doesn't quite convey what St Francis had in mind. The Italian word that is translated with the word 'pure' is in fact nubile, from which we get our word 'nubile'. The Italians are much less shy about the fecundity of purity than the British and the Americans, for the word carries not only a sense of purity but someone in full blush of ripe womanhood, beautiful in youth, as yet innocent, a potential giver of life—all these nuances and more wrapped in this single musical word that in itself sounds like clear water running over pebbles.

Water: I'm a shameless over-user of the word 'wellspring' for the water of life welling up in deep silence, in the hidden heart, but I beg my readers' indulgence, for it has a particular meaning for me. In the early 80s (see Seasons of Death and Life) I lived in a cabin in a wild ravine. The neighbours ran to lions, bears, bobcats, wild boar, deer, coyotes, raccoons, rattlesnakes and innumerable birds. My only source of water was a spring across the creek and halfway up the side of the next mountain. Someone had developed this spring with great and loving care. The basin was hewn from the rock. At one end it narrowed. A filter had been inserted to protect it from debris and contamination; a pipe ran from the filter into a 10,000 gallon redwood tank. During the parched summers its overflow valve was one of the only hidden water sources for wildlife for miles around.

The basin was covered by a redwood lid, concealed by tarps, the whole weighed down by several large rocks to keep it from being dislodged by wind and large animals. The first time I lifted everything off and gazed into the pool it was if I became rooted to the spot [yes, Bo, like Daphne]. Sunlight seeped through Douglas fir and madrone. It gilded the water which seemed utterly still but was welling strongly from the rock. Yet the sun was feeble compared to the eldritch light coming from within the spring itself, holding me in thrall. The spring became the centre of my forest universe; it seemed that my whole purpose for being there, my entire reason for living was to guard that spring and its secret. It was metaphor come alive, a wellspring in deed.

Water is nubile, life-giving, in all its forms: to the bacteria that live around steam vents in ocean trenches; to the redwoods for whom fog is more essential than rain; to the beetles in the Namibian desert who manage to thrive among the dunes on the single drops of water that form in morning condensation along the Skeleton Coast. Water is music and melody. The Alhambra haunts my dreams; perhaps one day I will wander there before I die.

I began to understand some of the desert images when I lived for a short while in the Middle East. Beyond the compound, wasteland shimmered with heat. The chief joy of the day was to wander as evening fell among the roses as they emerged from their daytime stasis, beginning to breathe their moist coolness into the atmosphere.

One day we hiked to a remote monastery, miles through red rock, following an artificial watercourse clinging to a sheer escarpment, a humble aqueduct maintained for millennia. Precious and pure . . . . Days later we washed the sandy grit off in a shower, not the Jordan . . . but that journey taught us the blessing of thirsty and parched, so that we might know the joy, the nubile of Sister Water.

Baptism is but a token, as the early Syriac writers knew. The real baptism is of tears, which still our interior noise and erase what we have smeared on our soul's mirror. Weeping leaves us emptied out, vulnerabile, nubile, plunged into the deep that has called to our deep, and salted us with fire.


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