Cups of Quietude and the companionship of listening hearts

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 6, 2015

“In sadness, melancholy, and fear, the soul tells us things that we normally refuse to hear.”
—Ron Rolheiser

Last week’s column spoke of being cups of Light to each other when darkness invades our space.

But are there times when darkness itself might be seen in a better light?

That question was addressed by one of our coffee companions in a column he wrote around the same time I wrote mine – and the answer may surprise you.

Ron Rolheiser, president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas, is a popular speaker/writer on spirituality and life, and a welcome visitor to Cochrane.

The Saskatchewan-born priest has been a refreshing cup of Light to me all the years I’ve known him. In fact, it was Ron who first opened the door for me to begin writing newspaper columns back in the late 1980s, encouraging me to sip from cups of Light served by my readers.

Ron wrote his Jan. 26 column on the topic, “The Positive Side of Melancholy.”

“Normally none of us like feeling sad, heavy, or depressed,” he says. “Generally we prefer sunshine to darkness, lightheartedness to melancholy. That's why, most of the time, we do everything we can to distract ourselves from melancholy, to keep heaviness and sadness at bay. We tend to run from those feelings inside us that sadden or frighten us.

“That's why, for the most part, we think of melancholy and her children (sadness, gloomy nostalgia, loneliness, depression, feelings of loss, feelings of regret, intimations of our own mortality, a sense of missing out on life, fear of what lies in the dark corners of our minds, and heaviness of soul) as negative.”

But, he argues, there’s a bright side to such feelings. “They help keep us in touch with those parts of our soul to which we are normally not attentive.”

Such dark moments encourage us to listen attentively to the voice whispering to us in our darker moods.

“In sadness, melancholy, and fear, the soul tells us things that we normally refuse to hear.”

This is “the positive side of melancholy,” he says. It can lead us to wholeness.

“In many cultures, and indeed in all of the great world religions, periods of melancholy and sadness are considered as the necessary path one must travel in order to sustain one's health and come to wholeness.”

In fact, he says, “in many medieval and renaissance medical books melancholy was seen as a gift to the soul, something that one needed to pass through, at certain points in his or her life, in order to come to deeper health and wholeness.” 

This is a normal, healthy kind of melancholy, Ron says, and is not to be confused with clinical depression, which is quite another matter.

This healthy melancholy is about “the soul itself signalling for our attention, asking to be heard, trying to ground us in some deeper way.”

But we must not let it master us.

“Keep it close, but contained,” he says. “Make sure it stays available, but don’t let it take you over.”

Now, just how does this deep, very private experience of melancholy relate to my topic of being cups of Light for each other?

Does serving a cup of Light necessarily mean going out of our way to save a person from such darkness through lightheartedness and chatter?

An old proverb comes to mind: “Like vinegar on a wound is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.”

Another proverb adds, “There’s a time to keep silence.”

Yes, there is something better than lightheartedness at such times, and it has lot to do with the importance of community.

The renowned Helen Keller, blind from her youth, was asked once whether she’d like to have her sight back more than anything else in the all the world.

She responded, “I would rather walk with a friend in the dark than walk alone in the light.”

This, I think, points to a special way we can be cups of Light in times of melancholy: we can walk with others in the comforting silence of our presence.

About this, members of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation at Morley have taught my wife and me so much over the nearly 50 years of our association with them. This wisdom has been especially apparent at wakes, those days of grieving between the death of a loved one and the funeral.

Friends and relatives of the grieving family will come to their home and just sit quietly for hours and hours – perhaps even all night. They may or may not bring food for the table, but they most assuredly bring the gift of their presence. When words cannot speak eloquently enough, the silent conversation among caring hearts whispers love and strength for the journey.

Yes, cups of Quietude and the companionship of listening hearts.


© 2015 Warren Harbeck

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