A deep tranquillity - Madonna Magazine

A deep tranquillity

Julian Butler SJ 03 March 2023

In Year Seven our English teacher decided it was time we learned some poetry by heart. This would have been unfashionable in some sections of his department, but he was a man for whom fashion had become immaterial some decades prior. We only got through two poems, so far as I can remember. One was Wordsworth’s Daffodils, which I can still recite by heart.

Something about wandering lonely opens out the possibility of calm, serenity, a deeper self-possession. The poignancy is in savouring a moment of such sticking beauty, to which the writer returns:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

The sense of stillness not interrupted but somehow deepened by beautiful flowers that dance, that were, and are, ‘Fluttering and dancing in the breeze’. As a 13-year-old I was so intrigued by what a pensive mood might be, and just as much by how memory of something so seemingly simple could fill a heart with pleasure. I still am, though I’ve now had experience of both.

The other poem we learned by heart was the Australian classic, The Man from Snowy River, about ‘the colt from Old Regret’ that got away, ‘And had joined the wild bush horses’. A juxtaposition, maybe, from those bushmen who loved hard riding to the subtle beauty in the other poet’s wandering.

Yet in Patterson’s tale that man from Snowy River who ‘never shifted in his seat’ as he pursued the wild horses, is as one with his moment. Different in exertion and in outward temperament from one floating over ‘vales and hills’, following the horses ‘like a blood hound on their back’, nevertheless he is present, focused.

Obviously, it is not the same thing. Two different men, two different moments. But however haphazardly brought together, maybe suggesting something of how persons can be in their surrounds. Suggesting even how we are called to be in our surrounds. If we are to be tranquil, we can withdraw from all difficult moments, we can savour only what is immediately pleasing, and this may work for a while.

Soon, though, we will have to recognise that we are ignoring much of the messiness of life, all that is displeasing and difficult. Sidestepping moments when hard work is required, when we must be determined, even tenacious. Or when there is a hardship to be experienced, without immediate riposte. As Christ experiences his Passion, experiences carrying his cross.

I have always found the three falls in the Catholic version of the Stations of the Cross to be profoundly powerful. They are not scriptural, of course, but they are so evocative of the humiliation and suffering Jesus experienced. It seems to me that we are called to imagine Jesus tranquil in these moments. Tranquil in that, despite outward struggle, he is calm, even serene and experiencing that deeper self-possession that suffering can bring. He knows who he is in those moments as much, and more, as in any moment.

Jesus was probably frustrated, humiliated and maybe even angry during his Passion. Being very much human we can imagine all those things being true given the nature of the experience. In some sense, as we know from his dialogue in the garden, he would not have had it be this way. But the Father did not remove the cup to be drunk, and so Jesus goes from the garden knowing what will come.

In Jesus the Christian has the most perfect image of ‘calm under fire’, that heroic cultural archetype. Usually, the warrior who is almost self-forgetful. Jesus is tranquil, though, to the extent that he is not defined by the violence that is done to him. There is a depth to the calm that gives it virtue. He is in possession of a self that eschews violence, and the power that might come with it, for humiliation and the service that might be done through it.

Such an example might make us wonder about the tag ‘tranquil’ for the bushman chasing horses to tame them, or the poet stumbling on experiences to delight his quiet moments. I would not want to foreclose on either being tranquil. For as with all things, Jesus is the great leveller. His example suggests a depth to the term that should not make us dismiss other experiences of unity with a moment.

Jesus’ example invites us to consider how we are in and with the moments of our own lives. Do we savour what is beautiful, holding it gently? Do we engage headfirst in tasks that feel right, that allow us to contribute to our community by doing our best? Do we take up our cross when required and live in the moment, however painful, aware of our human integrity? If we do these things, even some of the time, we might notice God accompanying us as we are, in the moment as it is.