Book of the Month
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This month we have much pleasure in including a book by Terry Monagle
the usual writer for this column.
Terry’s new book Claws of Fire: Seeking the Whispering Friend will be released in September. The book is available for pre-ordering from John Garratt.
Rather than a review, we have included an interview Terry did recently with Cathy Oliver as well as commendations on the book and if you click here you can read Terry’s preface to his book.
Here’s Cathy’s interview with Terry.
Harking to the Whispering Friend.
CO: Terry you obviously like writing?
Writing is deeply in my genes. I wake up composing. It is an attempt to hold in harmony aspects of this multilayered world.
It is exhilarating, waiting, in a state which is akin to meditation, poised, waiting for the ideas, the metaphor, to come. Even the process has a holiness about it.
I go to a café most mornings, with the lap top, I am made very much at home and I find cafes a good place to write.
To write, to write books, was a dream so attractive I could never dare hope that it would happen.
CO: Why have you written this book?
The title is Claws of Fire. This is an attempt to depict how God intrudes into my life. I took the title from a poem by R. S. Thomas. He loved birds, and out on a piece of moorland one day he saw a raptor, a harrier descend, claws readied to seize a prey. But he also notices that the claws are snowsoft. For me the presence of God, which is my home, feels like snowsoft claws. This experience is evasive, elusive, oh so gentle and loving, but sharp and penetrating. I feel like a victim in this grasp.
I didn’t expect my life to turn out like this. If I had ambitions as a writer it was to win the most prestigious prizes for Australian fiction. But God is so insistent, so constant, so alluring, I tend to write to come to terms with this conquest, this occupation.
CO: In Claws of Fire you cover a lot of territory, from paddocks in Australia, to Markets in Bangkok and Melbourne, to Galleries in New York, to hospital theatres in Baltimore and Melbourne?
I guess God is so elusive and attractive that I hopelessly end up searching for glimpses of the face, or whispers of God, wherever I am. It is an appetite, demanding. It is a quest.
CO: But why this book at this time?
The spiritual life is an extreme sport. Like rockclimbing, hang gliding, falconry, there is danger. This book is a story of ambush, of a time when my climber’s rope dislodged and this complacent climber plummeted and was left beaten and rattled.
What jerked away the rope, in this case, was a promise of proximate and inevitable death. The treatment is debilitating and humiliating. Then came news that my children, siblings and their children and grandchildren might also be in danger.
With the proximity of death, relationships, faith, hopefulness become subject to enormous strain. How do you say goodbye in ways which increase love? Can a fragile, half-formed, ignorant faith withstand so much loss and grief? Can we hear the whispering friend amidst the war cries of grief? When life is loved so intensely, how can we cope when all these love things are taken away, and so many things will be left unfinished?
CO: Did you find the whispering friend in all this?
The experience has taught me that to live well and to die well are much the same thing. My death sentence is not much different to the reality we all, as human creatures, face every day.
I am a recalcitrant and slow learner. I have still not learnt anything like the lessons I need. I know that it is my lack of development which slows down the relationship I crave.
During this time God did intervene with very intense experiences. I call these my transfiguration moments. They helped me with the crucifixion moments. I became very interested in the narrative of resurrection and the attempts to capture them in art.
I think the foundation of the spiritual life is humility, that is the sense that we are physically, psychically, and spiritually, fragile and insignificant. I think that we need to become an empty container into which God can enter.
CO: Do you have another project in mind?
Well I have a little farm, a hermitage, and I hope to produce something about the many layers of meaning in the Australian landscape. I’m doing a lot of research. In my area, we can no longer water anything outside the house under, any condition. I am exploring the watershed, how it works, and how we have diverted the water, despoiled the land, thinking about this cosmos. I think the great works on spirituality in this land are yet to be written.
CO: What do you hope for this book?
I think the essential thing is to convey the delicious sense, the gift of presence. I have come to say that this presence is my home, and my task is to stay in it all day and night.
Grief, loss, love, illness, hope, are universal experiences. I can’t count the number of my friends and people in the parish who have a cancer, a serious illness. Perhaps they might find some comfort, some useful story in this my narrative of 1000 sleeps.
CO: Why do you refer to 1000 sleeps?
A young nephew said to a brother of mine, ‘How long is it till Christmas?’. My brother said ‘three’. I had just received a prognosis of ‘three years, give or take one or two’. I translated that into 1000 sleeps. The book is being published just as these days expire. It looks like the high end of the prognosis will be mine. I am celebrating the mysteries of these 1000 sleeps and what I have yet to do.
Terry Monagle interviewed by Cathy Oliver, freelance editor.
Claws of Fire: Seeking the Whispering Friend
Available October 2006
‘Haunting, brave, lyrical, a song of grace under duress, a roar of prayer against pain, a last letter to his fellow holy beings from a piercing poet as he walks into the Light; here is a man with every reason to surrender and disparage belief that love defeats death; but the sinew of his faith, and the grace of his prose, are extraordinary.’
Brian Doyle, Editor, The Best Catholic Writing 2006
This is a brave, intimate, searching and passionate book. Terry Monagle looks things right in the eye which most of us would choose not to see. He brings tenderness and a generous spirit to both life’s confusions and its wonders.
Michael McGirr, author of Bypass