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Making a Whole of Shivering Fragments: A Florilegium

by Tara Deonauth, 2022 Seminary Fellow

Medieval monks made books called florilegia (singular: florilegium), from the Latin meaning “to gather flowers.” This practice culls passages and sayings read or heard into a collection, creating from these fragments a new whole. An early and notable example of the form was written by Defensor, a late-seventh or early-eighth century monk, entitled the Liber Scintillarum (Latin: “Book of Sparks”).1 In this work, Defensor explains that “just as fire emits sparks,” the sentences from the Bible and Church Fathers that he anthologizes can be seen as glowing reflections of wise minds. Gathering flowers (or sparks) from what I have read and heard has long offered me a foothold in times when I had no adequate words to describe life, when an experience demanded to remain ineffable. My time as a FASPE fellow exposed me to the unspeakable suffering of others in a way that more deeply entrenched me in this practice. What began, perhaps, as an escape, a turning away from the self to turn toward another, has become a sustained practice of attention to both the self and the other—and ultimately the unity that binds them together.

In her strivings toward sensemaking, Virginia Woolf considered the creation of a “whole made of shivering fragments” thus “[achieving] a symmetry by means of infinite discords.”2 These fragments of soul dislodge when she confronts our human capacity for evil, her inability to “deal with the pain that people hurt each other.” Such encounters are akin to “the sledge-hammer force of [a] blow.” Her discovery of wholeness through the stitching together of these broken pieces offers Woolf the “strongest pleasure known to [her].” This paradox, it seems to me, reflects the soul-balming nature of the florilegium. The symmetry that results from piecing together these fragments expands our locus of possibility, giving shape to the indescribable and finding some harmony amidst the discord.

Thus, I offer a florilegium, inspired in process by the monks and in spirit by Woolf. This collection of fragments engages the unintelligible yet human nature of evil, the painful but necessary encounter with our capacity to commit and witness horrors, and the tender and cruel awakening that results from the intentional and consistent practice of attention. In my reflections following the collection, I consider the possibility of a radical form of compassion within structures—be they interpersonal or societal—that refuse to respond compassionately.

A Florilegium of Our Oneness

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

—Thich Nhat Hanh3

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

—Naomi Shihab Nye4

All sin was of my sinning, all
Atoning mine, and mine the gall
Of all regret. Mine was the weight
Of every brooded wrong, the hate
That stood behind each envious thrust,
Mine every greed, mine every lust.

—Edna St. Vincent Millay5

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field; I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.

—Jalal al-Din Rumi6

The tragic freedom implied by love is this: that we all have an indefinitely extended capacity to imagine the being of others. Tragic, because there is no prefabricated harmony, and others are, to an extent we never cease discovering, different from ourselves […] Freedom is exercised in the confrontation by each other, in the context of an infinitely extensible work of imaginative understanding, of two irreducibly dissimilar individuals. Love is the imaginative recognition of, that is respect for, this otherness.

— Iris Murdoch7

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?

—Henry David Thoreau8

The capacity to pay attention to an afflicted person is something very rare, very difficult; it is nearly a miracle. It is a miracle. Nearly all those who believe they have this capacity do not. Warmth, movements of the heart, and pity are not sufficient

—Simone Weil9

Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other?

—Thich Nhat Hanh10

Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. … What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

—Viktor E. Frankl11

Reserving judgements is a matter of infinite hope.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald12

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

—Rainer Maria Rilke13

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

—Thich Nhat Hanh14

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

—Naomi Shihab Nye15

There are spaces of sorrow only God can touch.

—Sr. Helen Prejean16

The notion of “oneness” in this florilegium strives to dissolve the boundary between the self and the other, even between the self from one moment in time to another. This unity binds us. It insists that we recognize our capacity to live in the world as might any other. Yet as Thoreau ponders, what a miracle it would be for this to actually happen. Hanh poses this unity as a question, allowing for a failure of recognition or rejection of it. While these fragments help me to see oneness as an essential and unalterable part of our humanity, its recognition remains a choice.

I encounter this decision through a handful of guiding principles from my profession as a chaplain: ministry of presence,17 unconditional positive regard,18 and empathic attention.19 I seek to consider the practical implication of this recognition through compassion and kindness. Hospital chaplains practice their profession in settings of crisis and serious illness, often at times when old truths undergirding faith and meaning are disrupted or questioned—that is, in times of deep suffering. In the cultivation of a ministry of presence, the chaplain attends to the presence of the sacred in whatever form it takes for the care-seeker—sometimes in overtly spiritual or religion terms, at other times in their inherent dignity, and at others still in the quiet of the encounter between chaplain and care-seeker. Setting is also essential to presence. Whereas other mental health professionals are often sought out for support, chaplains show up in the midst or aftermath of a crisis. The chaplain’s attitude is one of unconditional positive regard, a therapeutic approach at the foundation of both psychological and spiritual care developed in the 1950s by Carl Rogers. This modality communicates a profound acceptance of another’s value and worth and withholds judgment no matter how cruel or repulsive one’s behavior may seem. This acceptance may be born out of empathic attention: attuning to and feeling alongside another. The chaplain bears witness to the experience of the care-seeker and conveys empathy by noticing and reflecting back their feelings. Taken together and practiced in earnest, these chaplaincy principles allow one to recognize our collective oneness.

I see a palpable rendering of this possibility in the death-row abolitionist activism of Sister Helen Prejean. In a New York Times Op-Ed, she writes of her visit to an inmate inside his death chamber: “With my hand firmly on his shoulder […] I asked God to affirm Joe’s worth as a beloved son possessing a sacred dignity that even the ones killing him could not take from him.”20 Within a system that does not look with kindness and compassion upon Joe, Sister Prejean practices a ministry of presence (showing up in the death chamber), unconditional positive regard (addressing him as a beloved son), and empathic attention (she later describes “viscerally [feeling] something of the agony and terror” alongside another inmate). Within a system that sees these inmates as incapable of remorse or transformation, and undeserving of redemption, Sister Prejean recognizes their common humanity.

As a hospital chaplain, my work also brings me into communion with people at the end of their lives, though lives affected by illness, not the US justice system. In many of these encounters, I facilitate a life review: reflecting on significant moments, exploring related emotions, and supporting meaning-making. Some of these life reviews uncover confessions of wrongdoings or hurtful actions, expressions of guilt, shame, or regret, and utter confusion about the meaning of these realities. Only through the practice of a ministry of presence, unconditional positive regard, and empathic attention, do I find that these conversations can deepen into spaces that allow such revisitation of past suffering (“past” insofar as it has happened, but by all other accounts, viscerally present in their emotional and spiritual toll). My patients—in ways not unlike death-row inmates—have difficulty accepting the possibility of compassion, often on account of a system that disallows expiation and forecloses forgiveness. As a result, I wonder what it might mean to encounter and treat them as capable and worthy of full redemption, or even as already fully redeemed—to witness attentively the being of another and experience the oneness that binds us.

Sister Prejean works with death-row inmates. I spend my days with patients passing away in a hospital. Unusual as these settings and these care-seeking relationships might be to most others, we have the choice in each encounter with another’s humanity to recognize the oneness that holds us together, to look at another and recognize ourselves in them. May we gather the flowers from our own sources of inspiration to imaginatively recognize another’s otherness (Murdoch), transcend the self through immersion into another (Frankl), and open the doors of our hearts (Hanh) to the infinite hope (Fitzgerald) surrounding everything that may happen, beautiful or terrifying (Rilke).

Tara Deonauth was a 2022 FASPE Seminary Fellow. She oversees Spiritual Care Services at Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital.


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