An Irish Jesuit, Fr. Michael Paul Gallagher, who died four years ago at the age of 76, used to give an introductory course to students of English literature in University College, Dublin. In one of his first lectures he would write these three intriguing words on the blackboard: “ha”, “aha”, and “ah”. Needless to say, this would take his students by surprise.
He then would go on to explain that these three sounds – “ha”, “aha”, and “ah”- represented not only the three basic approaches towards literature; they represented also, he said, the three fundamental approaches towards human life as a whole.
For the first sound “ha”, he asked his students not to fall into the trap of arriving too quickly at judgements. They should be careful not to rush quickly into uttering a dismissive, smug and even contemptuous “ha” before they even took the trouble to experience and understand a thing properly. So they needed open, not closed, minds to all learning experiences.
He then pronounced the second sound – “aha” (with a rising rhythm). This is the sound we make when we come to understand something interesting we never have known before. He explained that life, especially student life, was meant to be full of these “aha” moments, as they learned new things and discovered new insights. These “aha” moments also are possible only with having an open mind.
Finally, Fr. Michael Paul would warn his students not to become so excited by their “aha” moments, their moments of discovery, that they ended up stifling the deepest and most central experience of all – the experience of wonder and awe, the experience which leads us to say “ah”.
Fr Michael Paul led a retreat to the priests of this diocese 10 years ago when he introduced us to a poem by the American poet Mary Oliver titled ‘Praying’. (Now did I hear some of you going ‘ha’ there?) Oliver, who died in January last year, was of no declared religion but many of her poems describe spiritual experiences she had when exploring the natural world, moments when she had those “ah” experiences described to his students by Michael Paul.
Praying by Mary Oliver (b.1935)
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
The need to ‘pay attention’ to what’s around is in nature is a recurring theme in Oliver’s poetry. In this poem she invites us to take the time to dwell on the the ordinary, common and less spectacular things in creation which can escape our attention.
It’s easy to be impressed with the immediately beautiful, glorious and spectacular things – like the blue iris. But here she invites to also observe the ‘weeds in a vacant lot’ or ‘a few small stones’ – the common and less obvious things in the natural world that we ignore. When we truly ‘pay attention’ to any one of these, we should then go on to ‘patch a few words together’ to express what we feel. The words don’t have to be ‘elaborate’ – we are not engaged in a ‘contest’ or trying to impress anyone. Silently and with simple words in our head we then enter a ‘doorway of thanks’ to respond to what she calls ‘another voice’. This other ‘voice’ is what is silently communicating with us through the object we are contemplating.
An encounter like this is what Michael Paul Gallagher calls an ‘ah’ experience. Where we might previously have offered a dismissive ‘ha’ to something as trivial or common as a weed, now we are engaged in an encounter that is one of the deepest and most central of all.
This process of ‘paying attention’ and encountering nature in silence is what Oliver calls ‘praying’, the title of her poem. For her it is a two-way conversation, conducted in silence, between you, in wonder and awe, and the ‘another voice’ speaking through the created thing to which you are ‘paying attention’.
In the Church we name Oliver’s ‘another voice’ as the Holy Spirit, the life-force or creative energy of God that creates life, to flows through all creation and which took flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.
In the Bible there is a range of images to describe this creative energy or Spirit of God in creation, among them wind, fire and water. Mary Oliver adds to this list the less powerful and dramatic features of nature such as weeds and a few stones. You’ll have your own list to add to hers.
On this Pentecost Day we are celebrating how the life-force of God that created and flows through these things breathed new life and dynamic energy into the first disciples of Christ, forming them into the Church to which you and I belong. This same Spirit, alive in each one of us, leads us to those ‘ah’ experiences when we contemplate the beauty and glory of all creation, as Mary Oliver invites us to do, and as Gerard Manley Hopkins does here:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Holy Name, Jesmond
15 May 2020