When Angels are Born, A Review

Where Angels Are BornWhen Angels Are Born
by Ron Starbuck
Saint Julian Press

I awake most mornings at 5 a.m., shuffle around the house in half sleep, make coffee, and then I sit quietly to watch the arrival of another new day through the window. On most of these mornings, just as the sun reaches up to the sky, I turn on my laptop computer and my attention is immediately taken by the white hot flash of an LCD screen.

This morning was different. After a few moments sitting quietly looking out the window at the light changing outside over the silhouetted black buildings as the coffee machine gurgled away in the kitchen, I went over to the bookshelf and pulled down Ron Starbuck’s latest volume of poetry, When Angels Are Born. I don’t know why I did that instead of turning on my computer, but I am grateful. It is as though a part of me needed a different kind of nourishment. Something softer and more contemplative, a kind of wish to make a connection to something that speaks to a deeper part of myself–a “secret self that we all have,” as the writer Katherine Mansfield once said.

It surprises me now to realize how little an effort is required to make one’s morning seem holy and significant. We just need to be attentive and to listen much like Ron Starbuck says in the introduction: “to open ourselves to the mystery of life.” Reading his poetry is to accept a gentle invitation from a friend to go walking in the fields of the spirit. You enter his words like a song, deeper and deeper still into “the mystery of life” and all of its “infinite possibilities,” much like the lightning bugs he describes in the poem “Youth & Rebellion:”

who guide us home
and guide us still.

When Angels Are Born is an honest and heartfelt invocation, a calling out to the sacred that is so desperately needed today “in a world that undervalues such an intimacy of spirit.” It is also a spiritual journey where we are continually aroused from our sleep and brought to think and to feel our common human situation. We are encouraged gently to “pay attention” and to “welcome the embrace | of heaven found in a single moment, between breathing in and out.” Ron Starbuck’s psalms, or sacred songs and prose easily guides us onto the path of many contemplative traditions and mystics like Meister Eckhart and Thomas Merton. And in the light of those traditions, we are asked to travel further than the known, to “empty out our small separate selves and to recognize the truth of who we really are–”to become a sacrament of seeing.”

There are no clear cut answers offered to the great metaphysical questions but rather a deepening of those questions. He speaks directly into the heart of each of us, as though drawing from an ancient source, giving us voice to our deepest and most powerful intuitions and longings. The question of what does it really mean to be alive is echoed throughout the book and his penetrating verse assures us that the world is filled with the Absolute and that we need only to listen and discover for ourselves that we are not separate–that we are all part of something much larger. Even difficult spiritual concepts like compassion, emptiness, and rebirth are distilled down to their essence and made accessible in a language easily understood by the heart. In the poem “Death,” for example, Ron Starbuck says:

Look at someone you love today
For one minute,
As if you saw them
for the first time.

When Angels Are Born is a gift. It is a wonderful book that can be read again and again. It serves to remind us to ask what is being given to us in each moment. Ron Starbuck’s poetry encourages us to try to see the world through fresh eyes, and to open ourselves up to gratitude for this life, or as he so eloquently puts it: “to give birth to our own angels in the world every day.”

Spiritual Diplomacy

Here is an illuminating interview with James George, former high commissioner to India and former ambassador to Iran. The Dalai Lama calls him “my old friend.” Chogyam Trungpa referred to him as “a wise and benevolent man, an ideal statesman.”

He has been a gentle teacher and a friend who has inspired many to engage in a spiritual practice in the midst of life–one that can bridge the external world with the inner world.

Uneasy Street

“Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.”

So taught the Gautama Buddha, some 2500 years ago, with his hands delicately poised in front of his heart. This morning, I am sitting in front of a computer, watching the incessant demand of a blinking cursor within a blank Word document.

I notice that I am particularly tense this morning, hunched over, my head supported in a sleepy left hand, my jaw clenched and that I am even holding my breath unnecessarily at moments. I watch my thoughts negotiating with the yes and the no, the before and the after. I realize that I am singing the old songs again, and find myself walking up Uneasy Street.

I accept the fact I’m on Uneasy Street. Inevitably, I will do a little window shopping – find myself in a few stores. But for now, I try to stay away from this seductive long strip of stores with their myriad distractions by turning my attention inward. I will sacrifice all my under-the-breath commentary and judgment about what I am experiencing and to mobilize my attention in order to experience a direct sensation of myself sitting here. Specifically, I try to watch what is taking place without interfering with anything. The more I practice this, the more intriguing it becomes: “So that’s how I am right now?” I notice that all these forces of thought and emotions that pull me here and there are pretty damn interesting. It’s like watching an Easter parade–a marching band of habitual attitudes and tensions.  I give myself wholeheartedly to this activity of watchfulness by accepting everything without reservations. It’s how it is. I receive what I am.

It takes time, but if I simply wait and listen, an inner space can appear. A subtle relaxation begins to inhabit this body. I realize that this subtle relaxation is a gift, and that by letting go of my preoccupations and concerns of the day, it announces itself naturally. By the giving-over of myself, I am brought under its influence. I think it’s always there, this mysterious gift, it’s just that I am often too busy to hear it. Even though it’s really noisy just before the intersection of the here and now, I realize how necessary Uneasy Street street is.  It is an important aspect of the spiritual life because it serves as a reminder of the Other.

Photograph: Ernst Haas, “Route 66,” Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1969.

India Photo Journal

If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most deeply pondered over the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions to some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant – I should point to India.

And if I were to ask myself from what literature we who have been nurtured almost exclusively on the thoughts of Greeks and Romans, and of one Semitic race, the Jewish, may draw the corrective which is most wanted in order to make our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in face more truly human a life, again I should point to India.

–Max Muller (19th century orientalist)

My wife, Alex, and I have just returned from a month-long journey through India. It was our second time there. In 2005, we visited northern India. The trip began with an 18 hour flight to Delhi, where we spent a couple of days settling in and attending an extravagant Hindu wedding. Next, we took a 20 hour train to the Hindu holy city of Varanasi. Since it was nearby, we also took a day trip to Sarnath, where The Buddha preached his first sermon. Next, we rented a car and driver and headed to Bodh-Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment. After a few days there, mostly hanging around the peaceful ambiance of The Mahabodhi Temple, we left for Delhi on New Years Eve embarking on a train to Delhi. Later that day, after arriving in Delhi we caught a plain south east to Chennai from where we visited a crocodile sanctuary, and the amazing rock cut temples of Mamallapuram. Next, we flew south west to the laid back port town of Kochi in Kerala. A few days later, we began to make our way north, flying to the sun drunk beaches of Goa for a few days. Next, we took a plane to Aurangabad to spend the last week of our trip exploring the magnificent paintings and caves at Ajanta, and also the breath-taking stone cut caves at Ellora. Finally, we flew back to Delhi and spent the last few remaining days of our journey wandering around on foot and taking a remarkable early morning bicycle ride through the old city before we flew back home.

Here are some photo highlights from the trip in chronological order: