by Robert C. Sibley Novalis, $19.95
By David Warren —The Ottawa Citizen
Robert Sibley is the sort of writer to whom I ought to be sympathetic. After all, he's a lot like me: a philosophical spirit with religious tendencies who landed in journalism — arguably through no fault of his own — and has thus been occupied for decades "filling the spaces between the advertisements." Moreover, he's been to some of the same places I've been, looked over the same intellectual fields, and thus chewed on some of the same cud. He is more skeptical than most of fashionable thinking, or more precisely, of not thinking. He is most at home when writing about ideas, and has for some time now (like me) been supplying the Citizen with vistas a little broader than daily newspaper readers are accustomed to expect.
He is from the Yukon: perhaps the only part of the cosmos more earnest than Ottawa. This has made him special as a writer — few since Pierre Berton seem to have come from there — and he has kept himself special by refusing to be fully assimilated into urban life down here in the banana belt. The Yukon has more square kilometres than people — about 15 of them for each — and most people live in Whitehorse.
One could easily be reminded of Thoreau and Walden; or of the pioneering era when all Canada was a bit like the Yukon remains today: vast, empty, fearful. (Indeed, Thoreau was a suburbanite by comparison, his Walden Pond only a brief jog from Concord.)
The men and women Canada then produced were of the sort Sibley echoes still: haunted, in a sense, by Nature herself, and unable to take anything for granted.
The most vivid scene in Sibley's new book A Rumour of God is set on a remote Yukon plateau, where, in his youth, Sibley was left by an employer to mind an unoccupied surveying camp for a couple of weeks and keep the bears off the food cache with his Winchester. No bears visited, but under the circumstances, imaginary bears became a dreadful nuisance.
The anecdote is in a chapter on "Solitude" that is at the gravitational centre of the book, with the other chapters revolving around it. In each of the anecdotes he tells throughout, Sibley reports on being essentially alone, and in a relation with the universe directly.
This is true even when he is visiting scenes of earliest childhood, and family graves with his aging mother, while contemplating the notion of "Home." He finds himself, here as elsewhere, looking at himself through himself, as the American philosopher and author Loren Eiseley once did -- like Hamlet, strangely finding himself in the eye sockets of an ancient skull. Many have had such out-of-body experiences, which easily lead to pantheistic visions.
Sibley's book is a kind of autobiography on two tracks. Each of the seven lengthy chapters begins with an "epiphany" from his personal life: an arresting moment, when a person feels he is lifted out of the normal sequence of time. And each then continues on the other track, with an essay on what could be learned from the experience, full of references to poets, philosophers, shrinks and mystics. It thus takes the form of a spiritual diary.
The purpose of the exercise is, in the author's own words, to help readers seek the re-enchantment of life -- to help "rekindle belief" in an age of disenchantment, when the rumours of God are only the Nietzschean ones of His demise.
The book, at its best as memoir, supplies the scent of places far outside the city, and beyond "the cottage country," too, where the presence of the divine becomes nearly palpable. For atheists are aplenty in our urban trenches, but not where a man stands in the presence of his own soul.
Sibley is trying to persuade us to find said "Place" and to take it home; to invest some spiritual or mystical meaning even in the objects and situations of everyday life and for no better reason than to become more real. He recommends that we make deliberate acts of attention to humble things, by becoming "habituated to attention" just as the professional golfer becomes habituated to golf -- and thus, necessarily, dishabituated to the "divertissements" of modern life; the blinking arcade of technological distractions.
Beyond this, Sibley does not proselytize, and the procession of authorities he quotes throughout the essays are from the range of very modern names that were on our lips back in the '70s: Thomas Merton, Basho, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and Virginia Woolf make multiple appearances, with the odd awkward moment when Martin Heidegger walks in. But here the author is being faithful to his own intellectual roots.
His pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Spanish Galicia is neatly balanced by recollections from a pilgrimage to Zen temples in Japan. This is mysticism without denominational affiliation, that anyone can buy into, and in the end the "rumour of God" remains a very distant rumble.
That, I think, is not only the weakness but the strength of the book. It suggests an immediate discipline for people who feel otherwise lost, having formed no brand loyalty among the various religions in the marketplace.
It offers to "compare notes" on where to begin, and how, as it were, to get out of the valleys where the blackflies are congregated, and up those Yukon hills.
Reviewed by: Graeme Voyer
What does this mean on the day after Christmas when the masses are ready for another Boxing Day shopping frenzy? What are its consequences? Can this condition be overcome?
These are some of the questions addressed by Ottawa journalist Robert Sibley in this erudite yet accessible collection of essays that deals with profound themes -- nothing less than the spiritual predicament of modernity -- but never loses the quality of what the author describes as a "journalistic inquiry."
Sibley contrasts pre-modern and modern conceptions of nature, showing how the modern project has, along with its many benefits, drained the world of meaning and purpose.
He then argues that the world can be re-enchanted through attunement to the mystical that inheres in everyday experience: cultivation of home as an expression of personal identity; a sense of rootedness in a particular place; the experience of solitude, particularly solitary walking; contemplation of nature and art and literature as an incitement to wonderment.
Sibley's elaboration of these means of enchantment constitutes the bulk of his narrative. While not a convinced theist, Sibley suggests that an awareness of the mystical potential of everyday life makes one more receptive to "rumours of God." Sibley's essays are replete with insights, pertinent literary references and lively anecdotes. Particularly cogent is his account of the importance of place. "Deep ties to places," he writes, "possessing a sense of belonging, are necessary for a truly meaningful and purposeful life." He quotes the French philosopher Simone Weil: "To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul." However, the homogenizing culture of globalization militates against distinct places.
As Sibley observes, "Drive across Canada or the United States and you see the same big-box stores, motel franchises and fast-food restaurants... It's all very convenient and comfortable, but when every town looks like every other town, well, you are not really seeing these towns as distinct communities, because they no longer possess a unique sense of place."
Sibley urges a recovery of the sense of place through, among other means, diligent attention to historically meaningful buildings, institutions and monuments -- everything that makes a place unique and reflects its organic social life.Sibley frequently invokes literary figures to reinforce his points. Two of his favourites are 20th-century English novelist Virginia Woolf and 19th-century English poet William Wordsworth. Both of these writers saw and depicted moments of wonder in ordinary experience. While Sibley is a fine writer with a colloquial style, there are a few flaws in his narrative. For example, he uses the verb "foster" an astonishing 28 times. His anecdotes occasionally border on the self-indulgent; in particular, an account of a meal in a Japanese restaurant contains far too much trivial detail.
Finally, it should be said that Sibley's intended audience is not people who already have a spiritual dimension in their lives. Rather, his book is aimed at those who, caught up in the rat race, have an inkling that there must be more to life than career, consumption and entertainment. It is for such people that he has written this "exercise in re-enchantment."
Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 26, 2010 D9
August 3, 2011 by Arlene Somerton Smith". . . it is easy to let moments of possible wonder pass by you if you aren’t prepared to recognize them or learn from them."
So says Robert C. Sibley in A Rumour of God. Sibley would like us to open the doors of our minds just a crack. He would like us to allow that maybe, just maybe, extraordinary coexists with the ordinary. He would like us to once again (because we used to do it quite readily) recognize moments of possible wonder — "glimpses of the underglimmer" — and learn from them.
In A Rumour of God, Sibley balances stories about his personal experiences of spiritual awareness in the everyday with essays on scholarly historical, theological and philosophical insights into the topics. The alternating story/research pattern of his book makes the experience of reading it feel like taking a bike ride in hilly country. The reader begins with an easy coast down a gentle story slope, lured in by the effortless ride. Then the terrain changes to literary references and theological considerations, and the reader needs to work a little harder. These sections are well researched, thoughtful and necessary to the book, but some of the hills are long and steep, and the reader must coax himself to keep climbing. But just when he thinks he can’t pedal anymore, the crest of the hill appears, the promise of more enchantment beckons, and the reader keeps climbing knowing that soon he will glide down, head thrown back, into the reward of another compelling personal story.
Sibley is at his best when painting word picture stories. The reader can see, feel and smell the sacred places, the homes, and the pilgrim pathways. We hear waves smash on the coastline of Vancouver Island, taste the dust of a prairie graveyard, and ache for the solitude of a Yukon peak. Sibley writes dialogue naturally and captures the characters of the people he meets.
A Rumour of God is both a soul drink for those thirsty for affirmation of their own "glimpses of the underglimmer," and a mind drink for those who need the facts along with the fun. It is a manual for seeking and accepting the presence of deeper meaning in a modern world.
Published Saturday March 5th, 2011
A Rumour of God, by Ottawa Citizen journalist and political scientist Robert Sibley, is a gallimaufry of sources, citations, impressions, ruminations and allusions. It is, in part, political commentary, philosophical essay, theological reflection and personal memoir. But mostly, it is a sustained meditation, the outpourings of a peripatetic savant (and Sibley does love his walks).
The book is framed by his pilgrimages - and there are many, including most prominently the Camino de Santiago in Spain and the Shikoku no Michi in Japan. It is also peppered with numerous recollections of wilderness trips into the Canadian north and along the coasts of Vancouver Island.
But Sibley's perambulations are not just in the rugged regions of the Canadian landscape; he walks reflectively and with acute antennae feels the pulse and "thisness" of the parks and streets of Ottawa and London, England.
Sibley walks his thoughts and thinks his walks. A creative conjunction.
The essays on topics that would thrill a social anthropologist such as Margaret Visser or a novelist like Jane Urquhart - topics like home, place, solitude, wonder, pilgrimage and "everyday mysticism" - are replete with learned references and personal experiences. It's all nicely packaged in a narrative that eschews professional jargon in favour of an enlightened colloquy with the reader.
Sibley is appalled by the narrow definition of reason that reigns supreme and unquestioned in our society. Disconcerted by our collective poverty of imagination that forecloses spiritual experience, Sibley advances a cogent argument for the recovery of the numinous in the quotidian - "We do not have to surrender to the debilitating boredom of consumerism and the ersatz spectacles of entertainment."
In other words, Sibley is resolved to help us heed the urgings of awe, to attend to the "glimpses of the underglimmer" that open us to the divine embedded in the mundane, and to rebuild a culture that delights in enchantment, the mystical, the ineffable: "Television series such as The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Touched by an Angel, Six Feet Under, Angels in America and True Blood; movies like Star Wars, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings series (based on J.R.R. Tolkien's books) and, more recently, Avatar; books such as the Harry Potter novels and C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia - these all speak to a longing for re-enchantment, a desire to counterbalance the rationalization of the world and escape the iron cage of reason."
A Rumour of God is, in goodly measure, a distillation of the research and seminal ideas of a legion of thinkers - some eminent, some obscure, some central and some marginal - and, as a consequence, the "meditation" is frequently encumbered by a displaced gravitas.
But it is never more exuberant nor more compelling than when it is autobiographical. When Sibley draws on his own direct experience his artistic side allows for an expansiveness of vision and richness of prose that combined make for a deeply pleasurable read.
Michael W. Higgins is vice-president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. He is a former president of St. Thomas University.