Monday, August 21, 2017


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“Blessedness is no superficial joy or indolent repose,
but the opening vision of the Divine glory, the growing
insight into the mysteries of the fulfillment
of the Divine counsels.”

~ Origen, On First Principles ii:10.

paths and definitions

In this recent narrative exploration of the interior way, I’ve acknowledged the contemplative path as the avenue in my midst that is not barricaded from my reach. The first essay addresses the sustenance of the spirit, beginning with the contemplative path, as taught and lived by monastic communities. The second essay celebrates reading and the study of the written word as inspiring strength. Now we come to the most essential of ingredients...

Setting words to subjects as elusive and dauntingly personal as contemplation and prayer has challenged thinkers and practitioners through untold centuries. In my own ways, I suppose I have also been contributing to the ocean of words. As words go, I’ve long appreciated the French expression l’oraison, which covers the essential ground for those responding with their lives to a spiritual vocation. The Latin root, oratio, meaning “prayer,” does not suffice to define what l’oraison encompasses. In the simplest terms, this means a life-perspective that is immersed in reverent conscientiousness.

The Carmelite tradition, often looking to its own historic contemplatives St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, frequently uses the term l’oraison. Soeur Marie-Laetitia refers to the personal call to live with one’s whole heart, “giving way to the Presence of the One who lives and prays within you.” To speak of mystery in what might appear to be arcane terms is surely not the intention; monastic teachers tend toward an assuring, plain-spoken style. In her book, Découvrir l’Oraison, Sr. Marie-Laetitia uses terms such as vivre pleinement, vraiment, intensément (living fully, truly, intensely), and that (translated) “too often we are living at the superficial surface of our being,” and “contemplation is an attentiveness to the Spirit, which is a matter of willingness and determination.” That seems pedestrian enough. But then she says contemplative life is “essentially situated in the domain of the unseen... in the face of the incomprehensible, we want to understand.” Contemplation is “not an intellectual work,” wrote another contemporary Carmelite, Pierre-Marie Salingardes; in the same essay he referred to l’orasion as a “schooling of affection and compassion.”

As every discipline has a practice, the applied life of l’oraison begins and lives in the current of silent reflection. In uninterrupted quiet times, thoughts can be reigned in, and the mind cleared. Being a clean (or clean enough) slate, it becomes possible to listen beneath and within the “surface” referred to by Sr. Marie-Laetitia. Quakers describe this regathering as “centering down.” Contemplation is more than something one “does” when an occasion arises. An anonymous monastic once wrote, “we make the time to be there for God.” In that recollective quiet, a soul can “enter” the interior environment of l’oraison. We express our longings and ask, perhaps, for greater understanding, or a more forgiving attitude. Another aspect is to slowly absorb a few words- or a text- and taste its meaning. The spirit of this practice is really that of dialogue. Not a desolate experience, but one of union.


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My own oraison comprises journal writing- even if the entries are fragments of sentences. The journal provides a place, as well, for reflections about readings. Lengths of time for quiet meditations vary with my scattered work schedule- but I manage to devote parts of early-mornings and lunch hours to contemplate and commune. This is merely a portion within the general context of l’oraison and journeying through life. Interior prayer is astonishingly accessible. Contemplation is transcendent of place, and does not require special words or intermediaries. It is as direct and proximate as a person’s own thoughts. Thinking and writing curve and dovetail easily into intentions and gratitude. The contemplative spirit does not separate prayer as an “activity” differentiated from ordinary thought processes. Prayer is an appeal, as much as a recognition (of things, of my limitations, of God’s magnitude). It isn’t even really an isolated “action,” as though I were to say, “at 2:30, I am going make sure to breathe, so that I’ll have a dose of oxygen.” All means of inspiration are integrated. After some time, distance, and experience, contemplation becomes quite involuntary and extemporaneous.

Once embarked upon the interior way, the commitment must be whole-hearted. Without a sustained, all-in attitude, contemplation too easily becomes extraneous and stagnant, instead of being as life-giving as its definition. It would be like cutting off the water supply from its wellspring. As the gospel passage declares, we would be unfit for the realm of the Divine if we continue looking backwards while setting our shoulders to plow forward. Simplest ways seem to demand the most discipline. Being committed to contemplation is much like my commitment to learning. The latter requires study, as faith requires the lifeline of prayer. Despite much of the cultural formalism that tends to moor prayer down, it’s really not a “religious” matter. The less fettered, the better, and the more dynamic. Having a sense of direction is far more consequential. Religiosity may be viewed as a scaffold, but it is not the building- neither are formulae. All if this is transcended by longing and perseverance. But in the context of l’oraison, this is not a one-way communication. Reaching up for a rope turns out to be the rope lowered within reach. A person’s seeking is not possible without help. Life in the Spirit invites a direct rapport with the forces of creation. In God: Creator, Word, and Spirit of New Life- the Logos is Christ who speaks directly to the human condition, and is the compelling Mentor to all that would be disciples. The frisson of taking up the yoke and beginning the pursuit invariably leads through wilderness temptations of unknown depths and durations. Along the trial roads are places of respite and validation. But it’s all very unpredictable, and thus l’oraison throughout these paces becomes even more vital. We cannot perceive vastness from inside hiding places.

experience and the invisible

Describing the boundless with the limitations of written language has challenged practitioners since the advent of narrative writing. But we do continue, somehow undaunted, knowing we are not alone. The important thing is to know the topic by first-hand experience. Dirt roads, sidewalks, and expressways dissolve into mystery, considering the Searcher of hearts. “Contemplation is essentially situated in the domain of the invisible,” wrote Sr. Marie-Laetitia, adding “l’oraison is the ground beyond our senses, and we more easily sense that which we can see. We face the incomprehensible, and we desire to understand.” Paradoxically, the unknowing can be less discouraging than the seen, and the absence of answers must not derail the prayers. Contemplation is surely not entirely of the individual’s will. We experience, as the Carmelite sister observed, “the Presence of the One living in us and praying in us.” For my very humble part, I’ve come to notice more recently, alongside how reflexively I’ll take notes while reading, how I also need no provocation to pray. Of course, in times of duress, prayer is at the front of my thoughts. It’s the first thing in my consciousness when I wake, bringing to mind the Mosaic meditate upon these words at home, on the road, wearing them in your thinking and doing.

Abstract as it may sound, the going forth into spiritual realms is much more solid than it sounds. All those petitioning words and emotions go somewhere. That is indeed blind faith, and a surrendering of holding on to the known and seen as the sum of all that is. It is a major stride to ascent to the acceptance that what we see is not all that is. In the context of contemplation, it means a loosened grip, giving over the struggles and even what appear to be their solutions. A wise friend made the daring suggestion of “offering one’s oppression” as a gift to God. This brings to mind the words of Marthe Robin, foundress of the Foyers de Charité, who was known to say, “Your life will be worth the sum of your prayer [ton oraison].”

the visible and the active

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Lived experience may blend into contemplative reflection, turning toward the invisible. Conversely, the formless unseen may prompt the visibly tangible. The written word represents this, as we compose our insights and observations. From the long history of autobiographical writing is St. Augustine’s Confessions, written at the end of the 4th century. He even wrote about the action of writing poetry, within which he observed: “These things I then knew not, nor did I mark them; and they on every side beat about mine eyes, yet I did not see them.” Confessions is a large and kaleidoscopic work, by a complex and brilliant author. His philosophical analysis of life manifests as a work of prayer and thanksgiving.

Some sixteen-hundred twenty years after St. Augustine’s words, I inadvertently overheard an extraordinary conversation. I was in a crowded bookstore in Boston, and from the next aisle came the voice of an older man teaching a younger man to read. They were in the Judaica aisle; the younger man was learning to pronounce the words of the Kaddish prayer in Hebrew. The prayer is one of remembrance and praise, and it is also said when remembering the departed. Kaddish (which means holiness) is the ancient basis for the Lord’s Prayer taught to the disciples in the gospel. Since these two men were not speaking in hushed tones, it was easy to listen from where I was. Evidently, they had been complete strangers to each other. The younger man introduced himself as a military veteran to the older man, and called himself “damaged goods,” and that he was mourning someone who had been close to him. The older man helped the young veteran pronounce some more words. They repeated each other. By this time, I could see them both- the elder finally handing the book to the younger, wishing him “health and healing.” This was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed in a shop. Such lived experiences are part of l’oraison.

As the interior way is unconfined, contemplation physically manifests in the exterior. L’oraison is not removed from practical living; indeed, the one needs the other. In his book, Contemplation in a World of Action, Thomas Merton wrote, “the contemplative experience is in touch with what is most basic in human existence.” We become able to “join things together in such a way that they throw new light on each other and on everything around them.” From my vantage point, still very much in the weeds of the temporal, there remains the effort to direct myself to encouragement and being creative. Along the way, I’m able to encourage others toward creativity and inspiration. While there are hardly any successes to claim, and so many unfulfilled projects, perhaps in the context of contemplation these are not things to dwell upon. Perhaps the greater strides are in the unseen and hopeful motions exemplified as l’oraison. In his journal, Struggle and Contemplation, Brother Roger of Taizé remarked about the day he submitted his manuscript for his book Festival to be published. “Have I managed to say what I intended? No. Then why write? Because a boundary always remains, beyond which we are left alone with ourselves, whether we be writing or speaking.” A truly hopeful motion, whether visible or not, is what can transcend that boundary.

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* Note: The black & white images in this essay were made and printed by me, when I was 19 years old.

Friday, June 9, 2017

tolle lege

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“When I discovered your words, I devoured them;
they became my joy and the happiness of my heart,
because I belong to you.”

~ Jeremiah 15:16.

on the interior way

In a time of closed doors and barricades, the road rising up- albeit through darkness- is the interior way. Now this may seem rather abstract, perhaps otherworldly, and in some significant ways it is. But contemplation is natural for the human mind. That which we may think as being far above us can be immediately and overtly at hand. In various degrees, we are thinking, dreaming, and observing all the time. As disruptive noise gets shut down, the life of thought has a chance to breathe. Many refer to the need to hear oneself think. That expression might be considered abstract, though we all know what it means to consider a point or a matter. It is expressed as mulling it over, or weighing possibilities, giving physical volume to our thoughts.

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For a life of insight to flourish, it is necessary to find ways to turn off the distracting racket- or remove ourselves from the dissonance. That’s not easy to do, in a culture that makes all the world an amplified phone booth. A defensive knack is also necessary: I’ve had to approach restaurant proprietors, train conductors, and librarians to discipline those who aim their big voices into their little devices. There are others in the world, too, has become a tag line. Part of that protective defense is also to do things like avoid businesses that throw media screens and sound systems at their customers, even at gas pumps- and even in churches! Indeed, many of us really don’t mind, and actually cherish, quiet space; silence is healthy, it’s not to be feared, and it mustn’t be “monetized” to our spiritual detriment. Interrupt the interruptions. A good offense is the best defense. Contemplation is more easily ignited than it is extinguished.

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The interior way is actually quite an accessible lifeline. I like to tell students not to doubt they are philosophers, particularly as they dispute a referee’s or an umpire’s call at a sports event. You are a burgeoning contemplative, if you are sent into reveries of recollection at the sounds of familiar songs. Perhaps on your way home from work, your thoughts return to something you heard or saw; your mind is making sense of things, by perception and assessment. Imagination projects into the future. To aspire is to be something of a contemplative. Aspiration compels me to reverence that which is greater and vaster than myself- and especially to recognize where there are forward possibilities in this wilderness of hindrances and deterrents.

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To aspire is to ambitiously and actively hope, praying into clouds of unknowing. During dark times, it is best not to look too far ahead. I’m reminded of when I’d notice myself intensely working in photo labs with eyes closed, back during my years as a commercial photographer. Production with light-sensitive material caused technicians like me to have to “see” by touch. Producing bright, full-color imagery, converting between negative and positive, in complete darkness gave me paradoxes to ponder. I could not see what time it was, though I could see the wall-mounted, faintly-glowing Gra-Lab timer with its clock hands counting backwards to zero. When my studio became a darkroom, even amidst razor-edge deadlines, it was often a place of prayer. My community experiences have surely influenced solitary times- whether at the wheel, in the woods, or aperch at the ocean- when the invocation, “come to my assistance; make haste to help me” surfaces effortlessly. Along the interior way, my sources of inspiration come to me in words and ideas. The Holy Spirit, unmanufactured, penetrates and beckons the individual soul to step forward and discover.

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take up and read

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Paracelsus, one of the great philosophers of the Renaissance, said that in our lives, “the striving for wisdom is the second paradise.” The admirable truth to his words is something I’ve grown to realize. It took finishing graduate school and getting away from enforced curricula to arrive at my profoundest education. As a child, I wasn’t much better than an adequate student, and in high school my high grades in arts and humanities served to compensate my average from abysmal scores in science and math. Successes began as I advanced to levels in which I could choose my own courses. Immediately after completing my masters thesis, I joined the Boston Athenaeum library, unwittingly beginning an overt pursuit of studies covertly embarked upon while having to study other subjects for school. During my seminars in Late-Antiquity, I managed to interpolate some Neoplatonist and Christian underpinnings. But once released from the constraints and biases tied to grading, I could dive headlong into medieval philosophy and theology. These greatly-faceted subjects are as practical as they are theoretical, even after many years, books, and travels. I grow and strengthen with these studies, intertwining with the contemplative life, and providing balm for employment duress. My abiding thirst for wisdom and learning causes me to seek with greater tenacity. As well, daunting physical dead-ends force the inward drive.

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“Tolle lege,” (“take up and read”) was the message Saint Augustine heard, in the form of a child’s singing voice. A good friend likes to use the expression, “resource yourself,” which means to keep oneself close to sources of strength. Thinking of my mother tongue, the expression is something of a pun for me, in French: to say se ressourcer, is to say to recharge oneself. Turning to my interior richness really is equivalent to being recharged. Having professional research as part of my jobs for the recent 18 years has cultivated an adeptness and comfort level to all formats of information. I find texts for reading through complex databases and online catalogues, as well as by reading bibliographies in books, periodicals, and documents. Many of my best leads have come from annotations in margins of patiently-researched books. Age does not devalue an authority; great work is great work. From these, I seek out more reading which invariably brings me to more recommendations. Using the Athenaeum’s collections as a basis, I’ve never run out of reading sources. If a particular author’s style intrigues me enough, I’ll read more of their works, and learn about their lives. Every writer has influences, and their endnotes provide more potential leads for a reader.

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Throughout my self-directed studies, I’ve been keeping notes. In handwritten journals, of course, which are enjoyable for me to reread. My notes always specify their sources, and thus I have been creating my own free-standing provisions. On many serendipitous occasions, I’ve been able to share these with other researchers and kindred spirits, including students I teach.

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Finding a book that interests me enough to invest the attention, I proceed with a slow, notetaking read. So that I don’t lose the continuity of absorbing the text, I parallel my reading with fast jottings on index cards and page-markers. If a book’s theme leads to a second or third simultaneous read, I’ll balance all of them with the same method of notation. Not having deadlines, I’m free to broaden my sources and stop for additional research, if a statement especially speaks to me enough to savour. At the completion of a study, I compile my quotes and references into electronic databases, so that I can retrieve my steps by keyword searching. Studying is indeed an exploration of understanding.

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Twice a year, I spend a week of dedicated study at the Athenaeum, residing at Beacon Hill Friends House, so that I can delve deeply into manuscripts for extended spans of time. Transcribing my subsequent notes can take days. These experiences are always gratifying and inspiring. On a regular day’s visit to the Athenaeum, I find my favorite reading in the Basement Drum, which is the very bottom-most stacks area. The cramped space has a brick floor, and is in the viscera of the Athenaeum. I always think of that space as equivalent to a cathedral crypt. This is where grand and ancient tomes of philosophy and theology rest on their cast-iron shelves. The library wisely classes various languages of a given work all together; for example, Pascal can be read in French, Latin, and English from the same shelf. From the depths of the Drum, I pull the sages of antiquity up to the rooftop terrace, and the tanned pages see the light of today. Scottus Eriugena speaks to me in Old French, from across the centuries and the ocean, as the Periphyseon sees the light of a New England day in my careful hands.

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pilgrimage of scholarship

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Occasionally along the way, people ask me whether there is a book in the making. “Maybe someday,” I’ll reply, though I’m not really thinking along those lines as I study. The joy is in the learning and the stretching of my intellectual forces. By studying under my own terms, I prefer not to upstage the treasures in front of me with future motives. Maybe someday, and what might be really interesting is to relate what I’ve been learning to this life of mine that is still formulating. As with the interior way of contemplative prayer, study is open-ended; it is an effort over which I have full influence. Enduring a workaday existence of constricting oppression, it is well worth extending all the energy I can toward healthy pursuits like education. To cease learning- even modest increments of learning- is to fall backwards; stagnation is the same as shrinking away from growth. The same holds true with faith and spiritual understanding. All of these facets are intertwined in one life. At the point of embarkation, the pilgrimage has been engaged. Paracelsus concisely wrote:

“Once reason is in us, the innocence of childhood no longer protects us, we are no longer counted among the simple, but considered as beings endowed with reason, and we must make operative in us the force of baptism, that is to say, we must know of Christ and we must have faith in Him, love Him, and follow Him.”

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With the ancient psalmist, holy writ faces me, and the verse comes to mind, “Sweet are your words to my taste.” If hope is hard to find, wisdom needn’t be. If fate forces me into more wilderness, I take more good reading with me. Perhaps it is a form of the providential to respond to deferred grace by making the best of a bad situation. Make that stone soup taste good. The words are more than devoured; they become part of me. Physically, the books often accompany me, when possible, on commutes and travels. When I look at my Jan van Ruysbroeck notes, I remember how his words consoled me during anguished times in hospital waiting rooms. Beyond the physical, my studies strengthen my reasoning and intentions. More amusingly, during those solid weeks of study, journal entries will take on the archaic tones of the source material du jour. I’ll make note of the moment, in an urban coffeehouse, from observations using centuries-old expressions. To contemplate and synthesize does make for a walking anachronism. But the studies do go with me like whispers of good advice and wise counsel. The voyage of learning is a pilgrimage of scholarship. Each adventure volume leads to another. The words and their essences are as much survival rations as they are seeds to cultivate.

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

le chemin de l’intériorité

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“... for in the power of this gentle, unseen contemplative work,
angels will bring you wisdom.”

~ The Cloud of Unknowing : The Book of Privy Counsel, ch. 5.

en route

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As the pace of my multi-threaded work commitments reached the time I’d set aside long ago, I headed to Vermont for 8 days. Among many things learned from years of travels, retreats are vital for spiritual health, and hiking in the woods is ideal during the early spring. These are indeed personal conclusions- and for the latter aspect, I’ve found bugless forty-degree weather to be perfectly contemplative. Though I savoured a slow meandering route, the destination was my long-beloved Weston Priory. The Benedictine monastery in the Green Mountains, renowned for its music, has been a place of pilgrimage for me since 1994. I owe much of my formation to my life of sojourns with the community, and returning there continues to be a lifeline for me. In all seasons and all circumstances, the brothers’ welcome is always heartfelt, substantial, and inclusive. The wisdom and words of these monks now stand out for me as needed contrast to the empty language and corporate persiflage from which I seek refuge. The place is also remarkably beautiful, amidst mountains, a national forest, and bracing fresh air.

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And there are the roads. Pilgrimages to Weston Priory are as much physical progressions as they are spiritual. I begin the journey on large interstate highways, and interchanges. As my northwesterly direction continues, the roads become narrower, more rural, and steeper. Eventually, the roads into central Vermont parallel winding rivers between woods and mountains, curving and descending, then curving and rising, finally reaching unpaved roads. Arriving, I’ve left behind the sidewalks and streetlights, in exchange for earthen paths and star-filled night skies. Before the trees are fully draped with leaves, waterways and landscape contours are easily visible. The mountains are replete with rivers and streams. Waterfalls are sights of great fascination for me; I think about the sources and depths of these wonders. Rapids and roads are conduits- reminders and signs of interior, contemplative trails.

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inward as forward

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Pilgrimages do not necessarily require an urgency. Most of these travels have been simply for the purposes of immersion into healthful environs, reflection, and to be of better service to others. Retreats have also been subtle opportunities for profound learning and creativity. This time, the search has been for solace amidst persistent, daunting unsuccess. High hopes of spring refuse my best efforts, rewarding me with closed doors and dead ends. Neither solutions nor explanations are in sight. An indefinite impasse.

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Making the pilgrimage sojourn this time represents at least some kind of positive movement, when everything else at hand is in an excruciating standstill. Not all roads have the verdant smoothness of Vermont’s Route 155. My own road is rutted and weatherbeaten, without overpasses or intersecting thoroughfares. Retreats are my earned and occasional waystations. On my way to the Priory, I spent a couple of days hiking and photographing in the woods. It was a way to transition away from work worries and related instabilities, so that I could better absorb the monastic ambience of reflection and community. Among the benefits of journeying with mature souls is to absorb their perspectives illustrating the Divine as the ground of our being. Such frames of reference, that it is a gift of grace that a person merely looks to God, helps to broaden my own context. Expression may not solve problems, but it does help the cause of meaningful endurance.

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As I’ve done on numerous retreats, I brought along The Cloud of Unknowing, a book that continues to be an all-weather friend. The author of this gently austere book about the contemplative life, written in the 14th century, remains anonymous- though it is certain he was a Carthusian monk in England who composed the work as a manual for novices. He wanted to assure his students of the worthiness of their endeavors as Christian disciples, and not to give up, regardless of their hardships. In true monastic fashion, the author considered success to be the loss of oneself into the midst of the Holy Spirit. He guides readers to pare down their complicated, verbose prayers into the simplest and deepest “bare and unseeing awareness.” En route to boiling the words down to none at all, he says that it suffices to say to God, I am, and You are. Inevitably, the contemplative arrives at You are. According to the author, this is a meditation within which to dwell for any longevity. There is no time frame.

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At the Priory, the brothers compose their own liturgical prayers, and because I go there to be nourished, I discreetly take notes. Memorably during a recent eucharist service, the brother who was celebrant poetically said- with eyes closed and hands raised- “You are our Way in the wilderness.” As the brothers compose their own music, even the Divine Hours have an extraordinary uniqueness. On this visit, I heard a newly-written Psalm refrain: “We make Your Word our home; O God of boundless love.”

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Keeping my turmoil away from my sanctified time of retreat was not easy. Participating in community life, listening to the stories of those around me, writing, and reading provided for good diversions. Doing these things keeps the present at front and center. The Cloud of Unknowing uses the illustration of “applying a cloud of forgetting” above subversive distractions to the life of conscientiousness. As to prayer, “the path to heaven is measured by desire and not by miles.” We must guard against limiting ourselves, and surely against limiting how the miraculous may manifest: “For in the realm of the spirit heaven is as near up as it is down, behind as before, to left or right. The access to heaven is through desire. The one who longs to be there really is there in spirit.” Contemplation is itself an indefinite trail; its beginning is as invisibly mysterious as its turns and ends. With dead ends at all hands, especially in my persistent searching for better and sustaining work, there is no future in sight. The remaining open way is the interior road. The constructive way forward is inward. If good and promising things do materialize, there will be a ready foundation.

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the not-knowing

“Fly free in your liminality,” was a bit of advice I’d received before getting on the road to Vermont. Another assuring pointer, this time from a career counselor, came in the form of, “you’re doing all the right things and everything you can. Hang in there.” Motivators are not always solutions, but are meant to help us continue on. The unknowns are uncontrollable; the durations of trying times are by nature undefined. I am keenly aware of the recent years and present as some kind of protracted trial. Strange as it may sound, without the benefits of open doors and extended opportunities, encouragement is discovered by way of mountains, waterfalls, and monasteries. Dionysius the Areopagite wrote that as the individual soul is,

"released from the objects and the powers of sight, and penetrates into the darkness of un-knowledge, which is truly mystic, and lays aside all conceptions of knowledge and is absorbed in the intangible and invisible, wholly given up to that which is beyond all things, belonging no longer to itself nor to any other finite being, but in virtue of some nobler faculty is united with that which is wholly unknowable by the absolute inoperation of all limited knowledge, and knows in a manner beyond mind by knowing nothing."

The author of the ancient Mystic Theology encouraged his readers to rise above the world of sense and thought defined by the limitations of sense. He may not have been struggling with job markets, but he wanted to be sure his audience was aware that temporal conditions are transitory. The challenge for me is to do more than hold course, but to productively thrive in the not-knowing. One rainy afternoon at the Priory, we were reflecting about a passage in the 14th chapter of John. This is one of those discourses between Jesus and a group struggling to comprehend some uncharted ground. Brother Daniel eloquently said, “we do live in the face of mystery.” He continued, ever with his positive tone: “What surprises, opportunities, and adventures are unfolding? How do we engage that mystery? The path of prayer is the adventure of discovery.”

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Intertwined with the words and sounds of the Weston Priory were the sights of the Green Mountain National Forest and the contiguous Appalachian Trail. With each day, I saw more jottings of spring green growth in the trees. With so few obstructions in the woods, I could get very close to waterfalls- sometimes walking into the rivers. Standing in the cold rapids, looking at the renewing branches, I thought about the nourishment in my midst. My broad impression was one of having seen many reminders about drawing from the sources of life. Rather than to dwell upon desolation, notice the Way in the wilderness, as Brother Richard said.

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Stretching out between the proximity of the immediate, and the distant eternal, is the realm of trust and unknowing. A realm is undefined and all at once wilderness, desert, ocean, and the occasional oasis. The pilgrim soul, true to form, knows to conjure up the courage to continue. Proceeding ahead through trials and harsh times happens by inward road. Along the way constructive opportunities are to be made. The interior ways of listening, of prayer, of learning, amount to the navigation through liminality. Rather than to cover distances in record time, what is most important is to keep going. There are no prescribed paces or speeds. Remembering The Cloud of Unknowing, the inward road is gauged by desire, not by mileage. Without the benefit of guardrails, there is plenty of flailing, along with countless missed turns. Well, if I must continue to be a lone voice in the wilderness, I will insist upon progress, and believe by action that good developments are near. How near? There are no mile markers I can use. Doing the next right thing has to coexist with not knowing what is ahead. While at Weston, I spoke with some fellow retreatants there about pilgrimages. By definition, the pilgrim journey does not conclude with reaching a sacred location; it also includes the return travel. As I see it, the pilgrimage is a life’s voyage that envelops all the roundtrips, the rarified distant places, and the grocery store. All of it. This means clouds of unknowing may give way to the miraculous at any time. And my odds improve with every effort.

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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

spring hopes eternal

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“Since nothing is so secret or hidden that it cannot be revealed,
everything depends on the discovery of those things
which manifest the hidden.”

~ Paracelsus, Inner and Outer Worlds.

The spring season has finally taken hold- even among the resistant crags of northern New England. Warmer temperatures and green-tipped ashen branches have emerged, having fought through winter’s last howls. Late-winter coincides with the liminal season of Lent, culminating with Passover and Easter. Suddenly, as though released into light, the days are lengthened. Enduring times of fortifying against the elements are best seen as temporal. If it’s a subzero cold-snap, I’ll say, “we’ll be out of this in a week or so.” An awareness of the movement of time provides something of an assurance, that in a short while, the hardships will pass; oppression will not have the last word. Traversing into milder weather and vivid horizons heightens hopes. Such anticipation is a subtle, nascent act of faith. But awaiting the fruition of hopes sown cannot be passive: the waiting is as faithful as it is impatient. Intensely looking forward can be both hopeful and painful, in a simultaneous tension that motivates. We may await transitions into better times, yet we cannot know the durations of those times. Still, with great anticipation, liminality expects the temporal.

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In northern climes, changes of seasons- and between them- are impossible to overlook. Daylight extends into evenings, and ubiquitous snow mounds dissipate. Things do begin to look different, and we can even exchange those careful, tentative vertical steps in favor of broad, slanted strides. It is quite natural for me to take note of all that can be sensed, between earthen aromas, the ocean, wildlife, and how we continue to adapt. Spring snowstorms have been abundant, but their effects cannot last for long. When a foot of snow comes down in April, even in billows, there is an accompanying sense of assurance in its tentativeness. The advance of spring will resume. This season, when it’s been possible, I’ve been outside photographing as much as I can. As though pushed outdoors, I’ve taken different cameras and lenses out with me, through blizzards and to waterways. Nearby rivers and ocean are especially compelling. There is a consoling sort of solitude, sensing skies, colors, and hearing water currents alive under thick layers of ice. The transfiguring natural elements inspire evolvement.

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Essential as it is, aspirations generally do not make things move. Vision must be put to action. But wishing and working are not assured successful results. Yet, still more, defeats and missed opportunities are fulfilled when followed by continued and refined effort. Spring is designed to succeed winter. Seasons of perseverance must spring forth from deadened dormancy. It is as though spring forces us to hope. We have to, especially at the confluence of lengthened days and determination.

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As instrumental as it is to survive, longing- in itself- does not change a situation. For example, between this recent winter and at least the last three, my income has decreased, while living and working in the same flawed, unsettled places. But the emergence of the spring season manifests a mysterious sense of the slates having been wiped clear. There’s a resurgence of energy to do more than simply survive- more than to simply cope, wince, and bear with all that is far less than life-giving. The season is fluid and fleeting, and there is much to accomplish; the lasting lasts only so long. Renewed, by definition, is not new. Calendars do not compute in reverse; such measuring devices remind us to look forward and anticipate. Though more journeys imply more setbacks and scars, they can be overgrown by new grasses, green leaves, and perennial growth. Recently while out photographing, I looked at the Presumpscot River streaming into the Atlantic. Large rocks standing fast in the surrounding rapids are testaments to solidity and faithfulness. My thoughts mused, what is fair to expect? In response to my own question, I replied, I say it IS fair to expect! Spring hopes eternal. Let the season unfold.

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See also: raw new season.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

my steps

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Stopped in my tracks, I marveled at my steps,
and wondered whether they were ever mine.
Looking down to the ground, my shadowed prints noted light and time.

We say we own;
we claim our paths and swaths and strides,
careers and conquests and empires.
But do we own our steps? Can paces be possessions?
I’ll say, “my footsteps;”
many days, “my weary way,”
and some days, “my strong stand.”
Steps are claimed, after they’ve been made.
But not before; not before some ground has been covered.
My steps are mine, because I tracked them;
they’ve made themselves known, after the fact, after impressions,
after I’ve looked back.

We say we take up space:
occupying, holding, amassing, grasping
that which is merely in motion, yet pulling rank.
Some of us are at will, in livelihood and home.
The provisional lingers, by our thoughts and steps remarked.
It is for journeying souls to note the jots and accents
of distances and times.
My steps are innumerable, in forms of trudges and slides,
tiptoes and leaps, tentative and bold,
minuscule and majuscule;
ever chasing traction, pushoff,
and sentences that run on and on and on.

Back and forth, uphill,
and so many stairs in office buildings,
treading the mills;
shall I consume the time to decide
whether or not my steps are squandered?
Well, I scribbled some words, walked and pondered,
finding that writing is the only retracing of steps
that cease to exist.
Backtracking is retracking, adding layers to buried steps.
What I own are my observations, not the places of their creation.
As with language, my place is to participate and alight,
but my ownership, my imprint
is to arrange and describe.

The ground of this momentary standing is borrowed.
Though my ground is not my own, I do know to remember.
A soul’s eternity endures beyond buildings, streets, and worlds.
I know not to claim the transitory for posterity,
yet I know to hold a thought and walk with it.

Memory enshrines the sweetness of the momentary,
the fondest steps among many,
from the missteps best released,
steps that are mine, so long as they are remembered.

A pilgrim’s steps so wisely know
direction and time:
it is forward, and at this moment.
Our feet as arrows edged to future paths,
are poorly designed for reversals and standing
as unused stanchions.

My road has no divided lanes
between sacred and profane,
as the sanctifying journey
distills all into the holy indirect,
meandering way.
My recollected words and pictures
are those of a voyager,
stopping in my tracks and marveling at my steps:
Looking down
to consecrated ground,
redeeming light and time.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017


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“Lady Luck smiles on the few in this world,
I hope and I pray that she smiles on you.
I ain't gonna preach, no I ain't gonna teach;
I 'm just gonna sing about the things that I need:

A little bit of love, a little bit of hope;
A little bit of strength, some fuel for the fire.”

~ The Alarm, Deeside.

confidence and urgency

When progress is undiscernible, confidence is indispensable. Yet although progress and confidence need one another, these attributes are elusive, and there are no guarantees as to success. At least, confidence does not hinge upon outside approval. Individuals can derive their own courage, though it’s much easier said than done. Experience teaches me that confidence is abundant when it is not overtly needed, and that confidence is most needed when it is difficult to find. Feast or famine, and these are indeed deserted times for this burgeoning professional. By confidence, I refer to an unflappable, self-possessed inner assurance woven through one’s efforts and being. Last year, I wrote about what it means to sense the strength of one’s own forces, and that is surely tied to sustaining confidence. It is urgently needed now, as repeated defeats and rejected applications leave an erosive wake. Surely, I can find enough confidence now to continue trying- and even write about it- but I sense a depleting supply.

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How is confidence restored, especially without success? How is determination maintained, the course kept, and hopes upheld- when no earthly rewards are assured? How to confidently navigate unwelcoming territory, and be simultaneously prosperous? By nature, crossroads and precipices prompt me to consider what has historically helped me to survive and find better circumstances. Not having material or influential privileges, I’ve relied on spiritual consolation, scholarship, writing, and creative imagination to endure hardships. There is no land in sight, and resources are thinning. When possible, over many years, I’ve made time for rejuvenating retreats. It’s important to know oneself, know what is constructive, and also know what to avoid. In addition, there is great advantage with changes of scenery and having friends outside of the daily confines. We are all able to encourage one another; we must all know that we are not alone. Among survival abilities is to find ways to look to an improved future- and to be willing to do so. Confidence is necessary fuel for the fire of meaningful life. St. Theophan wrote the following about the health of a soul’s ignited spirit:

“Cast aside everything that might extinguish this small flame which is beginning to burn within you, and surround yourself with everything which can feed and fan it into a strong fire.”

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observed examples

Along with continually learning from my own lived precedents, there is also the active observer’s role. I try to retain the better things I’ve heard, seen, and read. These are parts of my inner arsenal called upon in times like these, and meant to be applied. In eleven concise sentences, the Forty-Sixth Psalm is an ancient, remarkable expression of calm resilience during unbridled turbulence. Amidst avalanches, ruptures, erosion, and desolation, there is a river whose tranquil streams will bless others and be blessed. Of this river, reads verse five, “she shall not be moved: God shall help her; and that right early.” The waters symbolize renewing life and grace. The waters run in a conduit, as with the human heart in an individual who calls to the Creator of all that lives, “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The petitioner must hold course, be still, and know, confident in the refuge of faith. Rootedness in the unseen demands all of a finite individual’s drive, but the cowering and hydroponic alternative is unappealing. The currents of the Holy Spirit carry the attentive soul to places of bold confidence.

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Recently, I enjoyed a week’s residency at Beacon Hill Friends House, and studying at the Boston Athenaeum. Carving out time for reflection, reading, and writing has been my most effective way to renew. Staving off burnout, while struggling to build a life and career, is itself an occupational effort. And that uphill effort includes artistic expression, kindred souls, and written words. Among the Quaker community, I saw that familiar combination of conscientiousness and activism. Venturing in any distance, out of toxic trenches, helps to remind me that I’m not alone.

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At the Athenaeum, my week allowed for an immersion into some adventurous memoirs from the 17th and 18th centuries, filled with accounts of endurance and inspiring words. These studies remain prominently in my musings through the days of respite. Among my shorter readings was a tract from 1829 by Robert Aspland, on the theme Courage and Confidence. He emphasized that confidence is safeguarded by those who love truth and keep faith with “an undaunted spirit, rising above oppression.” Aspland considered it an encouraging sight to behold others who were “cheered amidst reproach and persecution, by their own consciousness of rectitude and benevolence.” By virtue of our very pursuit of holiness, we can find confidence. Aspland wanted his listeners to take heart:

“Faith built upon knowledge is firm and durable, and not to be shaken by accidents and privations and pains of the present imperfect state of being- that the consciousness of laboring in a good cause imparts satisfaction and comfort to the mind.”

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My studies in sources of old, pulled from the deepest archival recesses of the Athenaeum, provide new ideas, helping to retrain my thoughts to light the way ahead. And indeed they do remain with me, not just in my writing, but also while interpreting my days. Around the city, the concept of confidence continued appearing in front of me. Various friends showed me how they participate in meal preparations, to feed thousands of people in need, from their bases of operation in large church kitchens.

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In surely much lighter and more ephemeral ways, I noticed something about self-confidence appearing in the local sports pages during my morning coffee. As it happens in competitive sports, success breeds success. Hockey is especially a game of momentum. Apparently the struggling Boston Bruins, “were in the midst of a crisis of confidence,” so wrote Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald. The next day’s Herald included this remark by Stephen Harris about rebuilding the team: “That’s a multi-year endeavor that requires faith and patience and can be ruined by short-term, emotional desperation.” The team was losing a lot of close games, and their numerous shots-on-goal were undisciplined. The players talked about “going out there and finding ways to win.”

Suddenly they started winning their games. The morning after an unusual come-from-behind win, Chris Mason of the Herald observed how the Bruins were “emotionally connected to this game.” That hard-won confidence had to be built upon. More victories followed, yet the players seemed too humbled to swagger; but they owned their confidence. David Backes, a forward, observed, “A level of consistency has gone up, a level of execution, a level of belief.” Another forward, Frank Vatrano added, “We’re just playing. We’re not worried about making mistakes.” Their coach, Bruce Cassidy, stressed they must “ err on the side of aggression,” and, “keep up the emotion and confidence level.” These athletes are using language not unfamiliar in philosophy and theology.

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It takes profound discipline to cast aside flame-quenchers like a philosopher, and to keep up the confidence level like a hockey player. Conscientious individuals must decide how, when, or whether to compromise. Our workplaces are too often wildernesses of distrust and uneven ethics. Confidence is difficult to build amidst environments that undermine and undercut. Some have enough wealth and good fortune to walk away from hostile situations; the rest of us are forced to stand straight through indignity- and the rarer souls find ways to achieve along dead-end streets. The insistence upon accomplishment amidst belligerence implies the collateral damage of absorption and erosion. It is a solitary crucible, rarely comprehended- even by the survivor.

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Reading back through recent years’ journals, a phrase caught my attention. Giving myself some advice, I wrote, “Create pockets of stability amidst inhospitable places.” These may take the forms of creative ventures, but they can also be work projects and transactions. Encouraging sparks come by way of the enthusiastic responses from those I serve. Confidence must be cobbled together with ingredients such as gracious words, beautiful scenery, savory tastes, and gratifying tasks. Another learned survival measure is to conjure up confidence by taking long views ahead.

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By looking ahead, even if not at anything specific, I make efforts to see beyond these present trials. The looking becomes quite tangible, as I naturally reach for my lifelong language of photography, going to ocean ledges and city streets. Using different cameras allows me to change the ways I see. I’d like to know that I can transcend the limitations of what has been, and stretch them into what can be. My years since graduate school have been fraught with looking for improved and sustaining employment. Productive endurance while ceaselessly prospecting is as demanding as it is daunting. Perceiving beyond limitations and rejections is nothing less than vital- and I must persevere. While out photographing, I’m reminded of having practiced the craft since childhood. I’m self-taught, and made a living by it for fourteen years, rising to the top of my profession. Economics and a dying field forced a career change, and short of a miracle this may be happening again. The tension of a low-pulse job market, excruciating employment situations, and the passage of time recalls the torrents threaded by the calm river of the 46th Psalm. The wincing, writhing brand of tolerance is not effectively tranquil; that will not do, and it is strangely the opposite of confidence. For me, the object of this trial is to reach that better situation without bitterness or discouragement, emerging the better for having endured.

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