Skip to main content

The Bell and the Blackbird

Nikon D7100, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G, 1/400 f8, iso200

A couple of weeks ago Clemency and I drove to Queenstown to hear the poet David Whyte. I think that people resonate with writers when they articulate for us the doings of our soul, and David Whyte has done that for me several times, as I have mentioned here and here and here and here.  I had seen that he was in New Zealand to conduct one of his famous, week long walking tours, which I would dearly love to have joined, but my budget didn't stretch to the $US5,000 a head ticket price. But I saw  A Day With David Whyte advertised and decided that whatever the cost, I was going. Turns out it was only $95 a head, so Clemency, despite the fact that she was only vaguely aware of who he was,  came too.

We left home in the dark and arrived in plenty of time for the 10.00 am start. The venue was a kind of back packer type place on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. About 60 or so people were there, mostly women, all of them looking like the kinds of people who would give up a day to see David Whyte, ie well heeled, late middle aged hippies. Like me. We met in a kind of garage, with rows of church hall chairs set just a bit too close together and a microphone and a barstool and an old wine barrel at the the front' by way of a lectern . There was a large desk at the back with piles of books which quickly sold out - these people were serious fans. Like me.

David Whyte arrived on time looking reassuringly scruffy. Well crumpled black pants tucked into unbuckled beatle boots. A high quality though slightly dishevelled striped shirt and a corduroy vest. Black hair greying at the temples. Dark brown eyes. Yep. A poet. We had a lengthy lunch break with the food, surprisingly, already paid for in the cost of the ticket, but apart from that he spoke all day until 4 pm. The chairs were hard. It was a cold day and the venue was uninsulated, but who cared? I know a good public speaker when I hear one, and he was as good as it gets. By turns funny, erudite, surprising, provocative and witty he spoke with an impossible to place accent, in a wonderfully modulated, beautifully paced voice, quoting his own poems and those of others, pausing sometimes in complete silence to gather his thoughts, and drawing us all into his unselfconscious and assured stillness. And all this without notes, for about four and a half hours. The audience jammed into that uncomfortable little space didn't stir for all that time - not the true believers nor the novices, like Clemency. Spellbound. Charmed. Inspired. And once more, he articulated for me the doings of my soul.

Sometime in the first hour he retold an old Irish folk tale. One day a monk was sitting in his cell when he heard the sound of the chapel bell. He said to himself, that is the sweetest sound in all the world, calling me as it does to stillness and depth and time with my Lord. Before he had time to rise and make his way to the chapel, he heard the sound of a blackbird, calling from beyond the cloister wall. He said to himself that is the sweetest sound in the world, calling me as it does to the world and all its majesty and beauty. The story ends there. No one knows which call the monk followed. 

After 18 months away from paid employment I find myself in a strange place of blessedness. Life is unstructured but there are two things which are becoming increasingly important, and to each of which I try to devote at least an hour a day. One is to sit on my prayer stool in silence; to be present to the one who calls me there and to my own elusive being. The other is to take my camera and go outside and seek to find a beautiful image, not because I particularly need or want to show it to anyone, but because the act of doing so draws me into contact with this elegant, intricate, awe-some universe which lies everywhere at hand about me. It is these two things around which, increasingly, all the rest of my life arranges itself; which sometimes seem to pull me in opposite directions, but, lead, invariably, to the same place.

If I'd had to leave after that first hour I knew I'd had more than my money's worth. But there was much more to come. Much more. Then, at when he was tired and drained from giving and we from receiving, we queued for him to sign our books, and he wrote in the front of my copy of  The Bell and the Blackbird, "Kelvin. For the birdsong in your life." In my old Pentecostal days I’d have called that a prophetic word.

Clemency drove home. We stopped for fish and chips in Alexandra. It began to rain somewhere about Lawrence. We didn't listen to music but instead talked about the day, about what we'd heard and what it had meant to us. We arrived home in the dark.


The sound
of a bell
still reverberating,
or a blackbird
from a corner
of a
Asking you
to wake
into this life
or inviting you
to one that waits.
Either way
takes courage,
either way wants you
to be nothing
but that self that
is no self at all,
wants you to walk
to the place
where you find
you already know
how to give
every last thing
The approach
that is also
the meeting itself,
without any
at all.
That radiance
you have always
carried with you
as you walk
both alone
and completely
in friendship
by every corner
of the world

-David Whyte


Alden Smith said…
In his poem ‘The Bell and the Blackbird’ David Whyte presents the choices (Echoing the Monks choices in the Irish folk tale) as Either / Or choices :

“Asking you to wake into this life OR inviting you deeper”…… and again : “EITHER way takes courage”… etc.

The poem presents, lets call it “The Way” as a duality (which it is) as something that you choose between. I feel and think (in my humble opinion) that if the Monk in the old Irish folk tale was wise he would chose to integrate both paths. The paths are not mutually exclusive.

In fact they represent what C.J. Jung would call “The union of opposites”. That is, Up and Down, In and Out, Dark and Light, Good and Bad as being parts of the Whole and are necessary for an understanding of the nature of things - We wouldn’t fully understand Heat if we hadn’t experienced Cold.

We belong to both the Spiritual path and the Worldly path. Combining the two both amplifies and completes the other. Getting closer to the One who sustains the cosmos allows us to see a fuller World; As It Is; free from our clinging, cloying egos of selfishness.

Spiritual practise, whatever form it takes (Be it meditation or whatever) is not an end in itself, it is only a transformative catalyst that allows us to experience the completed ‘self’ (or whatever the “no self at all” jargon means) and the world in all its fullness and completeness.

The World is the context for the expression of our Spiritual progress. Love, kindness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation are fulfilled in this worldly context as we progress along The Way. Both paths are inextricably interwoven - that, for what it’s worth is how I see it.
Kelvin Wright said…
I think Whyte is saying something a bit different. He's not asking us to choose, but to recognise the choice as false. or at least, as irrelevant. This story functioned as a koan for Whyte in his Zen days and he is well versed in the ideas of being/non being, of codependent arising and of non duality. Whyte doesn't identify as Zen anymore, and leans more to Christian mysticism, especially Meister Eckhart, and the poem reflects that worldview.
The monk is presented with his choice, and in the telling of the story, so is the listener (and I guess the teller). My take on it is that both calls lead to the same place, which is the abandonment of the false sense of self, which is the origin of the monk's dilemma and the consequent discovery of
"that self that
is no self at all,"

And there is the unspoken dimension of where the monk is now, that is, his cell, which is a metaphor for the small enclosed psychic space which either path is inviting us to leave. In fact even following the path is a kind of false dichotomy as the destination and the journey are the same thing.

Popular posts from this blog

Camino, by David Whyte

This poem captures it perfectly Camino. The way forward, the way between things, the way already walked before you, the path disappearing and re-appearing even as the ground gave way beneath you, the grief apparent only in the moment of forgetting, then the river, the mountain, the lifting song of the Sky Lark inviting you over the rain filled pass when your legs had given up, and after, it would be dusk and the half-lit villages in evening light; other people's homes glimpsed through lighted windows and inside, other people's lives; your own home you had left crowding your memory as you looked to see a child playing or a mother moving from one side of a room to another, your eyes wet with the keen cold wind of Navarre. But your loss brought you here to walk under one name and one name only, and to find the guise under which all loss can live; remember you were given that name every day along the way, remember you were greeted as such, and you neede

En Hakkore

In the hills up behind Ranfurly there used to be a town, Hamilton, which at one stage was home to 5,000 people. All that remains of it now is a graveyard, fenced off and baking in the lonely brown hills. Near it, in the 1930s a large Sanitorium was built for the treatment of tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments. It was a substantial complex of buildings with wards, a nurses hostel, impressive houses for the manager and superintendent and all the utility buildings needed for such a large operation. The treatment offered consisted of isolation, views and weather. Patients were exposed to the air, the tons of it which whistled past, often at great speed, the warmth of the sun and the cold. They were housed in small cubicles opening onto huge glassed verandas where they cooked in the summer and froze in the winter and often, what with the wholesome food and the exercise, got better. When advances in antibiotics rendered the Sanitorium obsolete it was turned into a Borstal and the

Return to Middle Earth

 We had a flood, a couple of weeks back, and had to move all the stuff out of the spare bedroom, including  the contents of two floor to ceiling book cases. Shoving the long unopened copies of Sartor Resartus and An Introduction to Byron into cartons, I came upon my  copy of The Lord of the Rings . Written in the flyleaf are the dates of its many readings, the last one being when I read it aloud to Catherine, when she was about 10 or 11, well over 20 years ago. The journey across Middle Earth took Catherine and me the best part of a year, except for the evening when we followed Frodo and Sam across the last stretches of Mordor and up Mount Doom, when we simply couldn't stop, and sat up reading until 11.00 pm, on a school night.  My old copy is a paperback, the same edition that every card carrying baby boomer has somewhere on their shelves. The glue has dried and hardened. The cover and many of the pages have come loose. I was overcome with the urge to read it again, but this old

Ko Tangata Tiriti Ahau

    The Christmas before last our kids gave us kits. You know the deal: you spit into a test tube, send it over to Ireland, and in a month or so you get a wadge of paper in the mail telling you who you are. I've never, previously, been interested in all that stuff. I knew my forbears came to Aotearoa in the 1850's from Britain but I didn't know from where, exactly. Clemency's results, as it turns out, were pretty interesting. She was born in England, but has ancestors from various European places, and some who are Ngāti Raukawa, so she can whakapapa back to a little marae called Kikopiri, near Ōtaki. And me? It turns out I'm more British than most British people. Apart from a smattering of Norse  - probably the result of some Viking raid in the dim distant past - all my tūpuna seem to have come from a little group of villages in Nottinghamshire.  Now I've been to the UK a few times, and I quite like it, but it's not home: my heart and soul belon


 Living as I do in a place where most books have to come a long way in an aeroplane, reading is an expensive addiction, and of course there is always the problem of shelf space. I have about 50 metres of shelving in my new study, but it is already full and there is not a lot of wall space left; and although it is great insulation, what is eventually going to happen to all that paper? I doubt my kids will want to fill their homes with old theological works, so most of my library is eventually going to end up as egg cartons. Ebooks are one solution to book cost and storage issues so I have been  using them for a while now, but their big problem has been finding suitable hardware to read them on.  I first read them on the tiny screens of Ipaqs and they were quite satisfactory but the wretchedness of Microsoft Reader and its somewhat arbitrary copyright protection system killed the experience entirely. On Palm devices they were OK except the plethora of competing and incompatible formats