In his new book, award-winning writer Tim Lilburn begins the process of “personal decolonization.”
HOW WOULD YOU ANSWER THE SEEMINGLY SIMPLE QUESTION: Where are you? Not the political construct of municipal boundaries or overlaid names from colonial mapmakers, but the land under your feet—where are you? How do you meet it, belong to it, and why does that matter?
Tim Lilburn has been wrestling with such questions in his writing, his classrooms, and his heart for decades. In his new book of essays, The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place (University of Alberta Press, October 2017), he continues his search by zoning in on the issue as it particularly confronts descendants of European settlers: How to be here and, as he writes, “What does justice ask of us?”
An award-winning poet, philosopher, creative writing teacher, editor, and former Jesuit and CUSO worker, Lilburn is an existential and intellectual explorer who keeps coming back to ideas of home. Born in Regina and attached to the landscapes of Saskatchewan—evident in poetry collections like Moosewood Sandhills and To the River—his transplantation to Victoria was difficult. He felt like he was bouncing off of things in unfamiliar territory. But no matter where he’s been in his life, his sense of being “unmoored” has rooted his research and thought as he walks the long interior path of trying to understand, and seeking nourishment to appease, a deep hunger and sense of loneliness for place.
The Larger Conversation picks up threads from his two previous books of essays—Going Home (2008) and Living in the World as if It Were Home (1999). But this new volume adds Lilburn’s relatively recent insight into how his malaise, his feeling unsure of how to be at home where he is, is related to colonialism and the worldview that drives it. Therefore, as he writes in the introduction, “This book represents a ragged beginning at a personal attempt at decolonization” which aims to dig underneath the foundations of imperialist thinking. It’s a process he calls “psychic archaeology.” This personal renovation, he says, is necessary work.
In a series of essays, lectures, confessions, and interviews, all based on years of reading and research, Lilburn shares not new but old, reclaimed ways of thinking—long-ignored riches from the Christian, Judaic and Islamic contemplative wisdom traditions in thinkers like Plato, Ibn ’Arabi, Julian of Norwich, Marguerite Porete, Suhrawardi, 14th-century Flemish mystic John Ruusbroec, and more. Their phenomenologies are based on the kind of interior practice that results in what Lilburn calls “a feasting attention.” Values of courtesy, humility, and permeability can help him, and us, lay groundwork for a meaningful relationship to place that is the wellspring of ethics—ethics reaching beyond the individual self.
It is fitting that on October 10, Lilburn was awarded The European Medal of Poetry and Art, also known as the Homer Medal, whose jury considers artists whose works offer “a universal message to the world, close to the ancient patterns.”
Over coffee on a sunny Friday afternoon, Lilburn soft-spokenly yet passionately explains that for him, philosophy, which grounds politics, is interior practice. “I have a deep personal—as opposed to professional—interest in this. I feel that these folks can help me. It’s not like a hobby. It’s a fighting for air, fighting for intellectual and interior air.”
As a result, this book is more personal than his previous essay collections, and he opens up about his own difficulties and despairs, as well as transformative non-rational experiences of beauty that cast doubt on an ultimately deficient Cartesian system which he calls “the starvation rations of a brutally literal single-ply empiricism.”
He’s seen that other people are desperate, too, and has recognized a similar hunger in seekers also “floating above land,” as he says, in late-capitalist modernity. “I’ve been long convinced that there is not enough in the culture, as it’s narrowly and usually construed today, to support a deep interior life,” he tells me. “There’s no grounding in wisdom that our culture provides. We live in the midst of this lack. It’s become normalized for us. We tolerate it to the point that we forget that it actually exists.”
The book is one not just of renovation but retrieval. In order to undo the Western extractive, colonial approach to land—one that uses, warehouses, and dominates—we have to return to our former strengths, what Lilburn calls “cognitive rebar.” “Primarily,” he says, “what we lost was a valuing of, and our capacity to practice within, a contemplative discipline. It’s as simple as that, really. There are stories, belief systems and spiritual exercises all around it, but that’s the core. It doesn’t matter what your background is.”
I’m not going to lie: Lilburn’s book is a hard read. Sometimes I felt lost. Often I felt dumb when hitting phrases like “tesseraic understanding,” “sacerdotal ascesis,” or flipping to the glossary or reaching for my dictionary for terms like apokatastasis, haecceity, phronesis, anachoresis. “But then,” Lilburn laughs with delight, “you realize a word isn’t even in the dictionary!”
Lilburn has a quiet but impish sense of humour, and he’s keenly aware that some readers will see the book as too scholarly or too dense, despite his protestation “I’m not a scholar. I’m just a panic-stricken individual who has a library card.” My own master’s thesis focused on poetry in the eremitic tradition, meaning I could hear the faint ring of a few bells as I went. Yet, I confess I almost gave up several times. But I’m glad I didn’t. Abrasive as the process could be, it peels you. And this is precisely what’s needed. The more I persevered, the more I realized how little I’d critically examined my own inherited Eurocentric culture. I can tell many of the myths surrounding our names for planets and constellations, but how many native species can I identify in my Fairfield backyard? Where exactly am I?
“This kind of disorientation that you experienced is not wasted time,” Lilburn affirms after my confessions of difficulty. “This is an important contemplative moment, this kind of rearranging of the intellectual molecules.” I’m glad I ultimately gave up only on the dictionary, and started trusting the text to give me what I needed, trusting myself to rise up to meet it. I became attentive, humble, permeable. And it became a conversation.
The book brings a sense of urgency, set against the backdrop of climate change and of this past strangely-twinned “Year of Reconciliation” and “Canada 150” celebrations. What Lilburn shows us is that the settler side has a long way to go to get its philosophical (interior practice) house in order if we want to come to the table meaningfully in terms of the land and those we share it with.
“This retrieval will be helpful,” he says. “It will give us a set of interior skills, capacities. This book is interested in the possibility of a new start, a new epistemological start for Europeans here that includes the possibility of spiritually deep conversations with First Nations.” What justice asks of us is that we do the work to prepare for conversation.
Writer and editor Amy Reiswig is grateful for every moment of being able to call this place home and will approach it and its people with deeper attention and listening every day.