The Strangeness of Flames

Since I shamelessly borrowed Anne Lamott’s quote about drinking gin from the cat dish for my last post, I thought it entirely appropriate to turn to her again for inspiration in this, my next foray into the Bhagavad Gita. And, brilliant writer as Lamott is, it did not take me long to find words of hers that can easily be applied to the Divine Quality of Steadfastness.

Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.

ANNE LAMOTT

You see, there’s something quite paradoxical about steadfastness: it brings to mind words like immovable, unwavering, unchangeable; yet it requires persistence, tenacity and constant striving. How is it that staying the same requires such effort? And even though steadfastness suggests remaining fixed, doesn’t sustained effort end up producing a necessarily different result or state of being?

Steadfastness is sort of like a flame.

Flames, like hope, begin in the darkness.

Flames stay the same, in that they keep burning for as long as they have fuel. If a flame is given more fuel, it burns with greater heat, light and intensity. And yet – and this, for me, is where the strangeness of flames comes in – flames are always, sometimes imperceptibly, changing. They also seem to defy gravity: you can hold a flaming candle or branch any way you care to, tilting it this way or that, but the flame always burns upwards. It’s almost as though flames are here to tell us in their quiet, beautiful, mesmerising way, that if we persist and put effort into to whatever we’re striving for, we will not only remain alight, but we will also always rise.

I’m reminded, when considering steadfastness, of Filippo Brunelleschi, the Renaissance era architect and engineer who managed to build the dome at the top of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence. Construction of the Cathedral began in 1296 but building work paused for fifty years when the original architect, Arnolfo di Cambio, died. Giotto added the campanile around 1330. The Black Death interrupted construction again in 1348. Finally, in 1418, Brunelleschi, backed by the influential Medici family, won a competition to build the Cathedral’s dome.

The challenges facing Brunelleschi were considerable. With a diameter of 48 metres, the octagonal dome was higher, wider and larger than any constructed since ancient times. Its sheer size prevented Brunelleschi from using rafters or scaffolding, it was not known how the dome could be built without collapsing under its own weight, and the Florentine city fathers had forbidden the use of butresses. Despite these obstacles, Brunelleschi held steadfastly to his aim: he revived old building techniques and invented new engineering technologies, he used his intellect and intuition to solve complex structural problems, and he employed hundreds of workers to transform 37,000 tonnes of material (including 4 million bricks) into a dome that rose steadily skyward from 1420 to 1436. Construction of the lantern at the dome’s apex, also designed by Brunelleschi, began shortly before his death in 1446 and was completed in 1461, before being topped with a copper ball and cross in 1469. To this day, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore dominates the skyline of Florence.

You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.

There are many kinds of steadfastness.

Steadfastness in Brunelleschi produced an architectural marvel. Steadfastness in a parent ensures a baby grows into childhood, and beyond. Steadfastness in a friend or life partner allows a relationship to weather the storms of life. Steadfastness in a gardener enables flowers to bloom.

Steadfastness can be found anywhere you need to show up, over and over again, even when you can’t immediately – or perhaps ever – see the results.

Steadfastness knows the dawn will come.

The dome will rise skyward.

The flame will always burn upwards.

In Praise of Perseverance

Tunnel 5

These woods are lovely, dark and deep…

Perseverance is a word which makes me rather uncomfortable.

Not excruciatingly, wrigglingly uncomfortable, but ever so slightly ill at ease.

I’m not sure whether it is the fact that when you say the word aloud it includes the sound of the word “severe” — which, in my experience, is frequently followed by other unpleasant words like pain or punishment, or at the very least implies the possibility of (dire) consequences — but all the same it’s a word which makes me…squirm.

And yet, weirdly enough, I still chose Perseverance as my Word of the Month for October.

Why?

Tunnel 4

…but I have promises to keep…

Well, simply put, I chose it because I know how much perseverance counts.

Coming from the Latin word perseverantia, meaning “abiding by strictly”, perserverance is defined as steady persistence in a course of action, particularly in spite of difficulty, delay, or discouragement.

Perseverance requires rigour. It demands discipline. It shuns shortcuts, and makes a motto of Robert Frost’s oft-quoted phrase “the best way out is always through”. It is found in long evenings that stretch into the night, and also in the small hours, before the dawn and the next day’s deadline. It is not an easy bedfellow — perhaps because when you need perseverance, sleep is one of the things you’re most likely to have to sacrifice.

And yet, perseverance gets the job done.

Tunnel 2

…and miles to go before I sleep…

Because perseverance is all about endurance, and seeing something through until the very end, regarless of the obstacles and setbacks encountered along the way. It is more than practice. More than patience. It is simply more — because there is always something more to do, even after the longest day.

So even thought it is not something that makes me comfortable, I am grateful for perseverance. Because steady persistence is something I can do — and even strict abiding when it’s called for.  And, along the way — though further along, much further sometimes, than I’d like to admit — I can see that when I persevere, I progress. I improve. Perseverance may involve sustained effort, but in the process I, too, am sustained.

This October, therefore, I wish you the perseverance to persist as you continue on your journey, whatever it may entail and wherever it will lead you. Because the best way out is always through — and sometimes along the way, often when the path is most difficult, we discover things within ourselves that enable us to endure, and which sustain us for many miles more than we can even begin to imagine.

Tunnel 3

…and miles to go before I sleep.