Where I’m at … for now
Graham R. Cooper
It’s only natural to want to answer some questions more than others. We all like to think we know some of the answers.
There are those amongst us who have all the answers to life’s big questions. Or to be fair and more to the point, they’ll point you in the direction of the Big Guy, who, in their belief system, does.
And, of course, they’re more than happy to act as conduits – ask the questions and they’ll do their utmost to help you find the answers. There are no fundamental flaws to their way of thinking.
What about me? Well, the advice given by Rainer Maria Rilke in one of his ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ is a way of thinking that has really helped me get a handle on where I’m at these days:
… Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves … Do not … seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will … gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Letters to a Young Poet. Letter No. 4 by Rainer Maria Rilke
And you know what, at the grand old age of sixty-six, I’ve got to a stage in my life where I think that I “will … gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer”.
However, it is another idea, one that I came across a few years before I read the advice of Rilke above, that I credit with giving me a very personal and personally meaningful way of understanding him. I imagine, “try to love the questions” and so on would have been cause for only brief reflection and puzzlement, if I hadn’t previously engaged with that other idea.
I came across it in a book by Joseph Campbell. He devoted his working life to the study and teaching of the world’s mythologies. His retelling and interpreting of myths held the reader spellbound because he was also a gifted teller of stories.
Anyway, the personal revelation came to me after reading his account of one of the legends to do with the search for the Holy Grail.
Now, when Perceval comes to the Grail castle, he meets the Grail King, who is brought in on a litter, wounded, kept alive simply by the presence of the Grail. Perceval’s compassion moves him to ask, “What ails you, Uncle?” But he doesn’t ask the question because he has been taught by his instructor that a knight doesn’t ask unnecessary questions. So he obeys the rule, and the adventure fails.
And then it takes him five years of ordeals and embarrassments and all kinds of things to get back to that castle and ask the question that heals the king and heals society. The question is an expression, not of the rules of society, but of compassion, the natural opening of the human heart to another human being. That’s the Grail.
The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell (in conversation with Bill Moyers)
Perceval went in search of the answer to what the Grail really was in the five years of trials and tribulations he endured before he finally made it back to the castle. All the while that question, “What ails you, Uncle?” festering in his mind as he sought answers to other questions that he thought might lead him to the Holy Grail. Bringing in Rilke’s point here, all those questions came to nothing because Perceval’s intention was to “seek the answers”.
It took him five years, but in that time he learnt to “love the question” with all his being, and so was able, at last, to go against all that his knightly training had taught him in order to ask the king: “What ails you?”
And so we can ask the question of ourselves, in the words used by Rilke: “Perhaps you will … gradually without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer?” We know that Perceval did, because he asks “the question that heals the king and heals society”.
For me, “What ails you, Graham?” is the question that makes me believe that: “Perhaps [I] will … gradually without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” That, for me, will be the Holy Grail.
That’s all for this week from Little Owl Gully. In next Monday’s post I’ll tell you about our clump of poplars and how I use the pasture beneath them for grazing.
Bye for now. Thanks for your company.