“The intellect is the instrument of wisdom,
the intelligence that of spiritual knowledge.
The natural sense of assurance common to both intellect and intelligence
is the instrument of the faith established in each of them,
while natural compassion is the instrument of the gift of healing.”
~ Saint Maximos the Confessor, from The Philokalia.
Friday, January 13, 2017
“The intellect is the instrument of wisdom,
Sunday, January 1, 2017
“Preserve the watch, make way for the glorious operations of the Spirit.”
~ Richard Phillips (Quaker, 18th c.), On Watchfulness and Silence.
On a recent raw-cold morning, while paying for the day’s newspaper, the cashier said to me, “stay in a while and warm up; it’s a frozen wasteland out there.” Pocketing my change and bunching up my gloves with the folded paper, I repeated, “frozen wasteland? It’s not that bad.” From there, I heard more about how forbidding the way to work had been, and how this is just the beginning of a helplessly interminable winter. In short, I was reminded to brace myself. It’s easy to understand this view of the world, and even easier to be governed by it. Building upon a chassis of apprehension is as tempting as it is stifling. Bad news is abundant and free for the taking; a dish of victuals that never empties. Problems are more visible than solutions. Focus naturally fixes itself on the foreground. Somehow, I’m slow to be swayed by these offerings; still instinctively straining forward. Insistently, somehow, always with ear and eye inclined to listen and read for wisdom.
The pursuing love of wisdom is known as philosophia. Bernard of Chartres (12th c.) described wisdom as “the comprehension of the truth of things as they are.” If any things are to be gained in this pursuit, they may be clarity of thought and perception, along with some degree of peace of mind. This quest is a form of watchfulness. It takes cultivated readiness to be able to discern the true and the good amidst slag heaps. To be watchful is to be studiously prepared while navigating somber obscurity, ever alert for signs of graces.
Several days after traversing the frozen wasteland, as described by the store clerk, I was sauntering along Charles Street in Boston, admiring the shopwindow Christmas decorations. The colorful street was funneling a cold wind. In the middle of tinsel, glitter, red ribbons, and gift displays, I saw a crate of flower bulbs for sale in front of a small hardware store. The sight of these brown, dry, onionlike bulbs caused me to stop and look closer. A couple of pedestrians also stopped, perhaps to look at what drew my attention. “You know what these are,” I said to my fellow browsers; “these are signs of hope. There will be spring again.”
Those dormant, dessicated bulbs were my favorite decorations, perhaps because of the way I encountered them. Wind tunnels and frozen wastelands are valid descriptions for realities of northern winters that might be expressed with different imagery. But harsh conditions are real, and we live amidst increasingly hostile times. How things are perceived doesn’t alter them, and we cannot always, or easily, change situations. If transformation is from within, then an individual can adjust to circumstances, repositioning sight and listening ear, en route to action. As the Lenten season is dedicated to reckoning, so the Advent season is one of expectation and inquiry. Both traditions are expressions of pilgrimage and the succession of a soul’s development. Rather than dwell upon one day, we proceed along strings of unfolding weeks as portions of the year. The Advent is a hungered waiting, the kind that aches to the brink of giving up- like an indefinite winter’s darkness. At its depth is a fine line between the certitude that something good will come to pass, and desolation that the good is but forgotten futility. The comfort ye my people of Isaiah is a declaration of assurance in the desert that verdant heights await.
Not having grown up with Christmas customs, they were quite new to me as a young adult. My way into the narrative, and still most fascinating to me, are the mysterious Magi. They are known as the scholars- or the Wise Men- in the biblical text. Some commentators have called them astronomers, as they made note of the night skies. They also demonstrated knowledge of the Torah. Their place of origin was no more specific than east of the land of Israel- which could have been as far away as India. Evidently, they were extraordinary enough as visiting strangers to be summoned by Herod. Little else was recorded, aside from having reached the stable in Bethlehem, and that came to be commemorated later as the Epiphany. These unusual pilgrim scholars were also clever and perceptive enough not to report back to Herod, and to slip away instead. They had been convinced to do so through warnings they had dreamt about. Where did they go afterward, and did they recount their voyage to anyone? The scholars were integral to the Adventus, which is also to say, proceeding to the arrival.
For those of us postdating the Magi, postdating Easter, Pentecost, and many other events, the Advent season continues to be one of awaiting. The earthly journey is perilous and unstable; it is a tremendous test of faith, and its duration is unknown. The search for guidance and assurance is continuous, often a weary awaiting while persisting ahead. Perhaps those scholars and Israelite peasants were also haggard with hard times, emperors, and the longing to see better days and tangible justice. Looking up at the night skies, whether from the window near my writing table, or from across the lot in front of a neighborhood convenience store, the vigil is upheld with an ache for improvement and peaceful respite. There remain too many unfulfilled aspirations; too many squandered efforts. Yet, even now, keeping faith means collecting my wits over and again, at times with fumes for fuel, and tell myself to hold course and look forward. It also means a determination of heading in the right direction. On overcast starless winter nights, it’s blind faith. But senses are ever inclined with expectation.
Monday, December 5, 2016
“I slept, and dreamed that Life was Beauty; 1
I woke, and found that life was Duty.
Was my dream, then, a shadowy lie?
Toil on, sad heart, courageously,-
And thou shalt find thy dream shall be
A noon-day light and truth to thee.”
~ James Freeman Clarke, Self Culture.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about regathering, and the term implies that of spirit, strength, and wit. And there is more to this necessity than constructively responding to societal currents. The need to personally recalibrate reaches to and through the core of being. Deep in the protracted trenches of seeking and weighing opportunities, I’ve arrived at yet another costly pause. The proximate past has been spent on mere sustenance far more than on creative productivity. Solvency tamps down sentimentality, and suddenly taste buds become dulled. When old, long-bolstered sentiments and ambitions lose their fortifications, they enter the crosshairs of questioning. I’d worked through graduate school to begin a second career, while watching my first one dissolve. I can identify the symptoms, and have been seeing them again. The labyrinth has so many barricades and blind alleys. Are there too many to be realistically hopeful? The days descend into winter darkness, and it’s time to find new dreams. New dreams and aspirations, to replace what now look like outdated notions, are not materializing fast enough.
Alas, as with all too many matters of personal urgency, needs are delayed, time is passing, and grace looks deferred once again. There are too many rehearsals and not enough performances. It is as though invisible root networks below ground exponentially outpace humble shoots that may see light of day. “What’s the new dream?”- has become something of an obsession. The sentence appears daily in my journal entries. The idea visits conversations I have with close friends- especially those I trust for advice. This gives me a chance to listen to how others navigate their own scrapyards. Nobody really has an answer for me, but I don’t expect more than good exchanges of ideas and stories. Indeed, I’d love a crisp and unambiguous directive. It would surely save time.
And taking time into account intensifies the unrest. The passage of time tells us there really is no sitting still: treading water is like falling backwards, and both are inferior to progressing ahead. During a recent lunch hour, an elder friend of many years told me, “I know it’s painful to stay put, but you’re wise in doing so.” Of course, the next step must be an upward step, but will that happen, and how much longer the wait? Patience is an honorable trait, yet by definition it means unhurried. The line dividing patience and impatience is wavering and not always defined. Imaginably, one could impatiently want to know the limits of patience. The popular idea of “buying time” smacks of something more like a costly rental. My thoughts turn to recalling times when patience has benefitted, and times when rashness piled on to existing setbacks. Lengthened journeys provide troves of anecdotes.
As with writing and reading, mulling and musing can only happen between obligations. Daily slices of time- early mornings, late nights, and lunch breaks- provide chances to reflect and make notes for me to subsequently stitch together. Quite like cooking a rich soup, thoughts are as spices and morsels added and changed over a span of time- not all at once. Soups and stews are best when they simmer, rather than rapidly boil. With time, the tastes of the different ingredients affect each other, and the whole mixture develops a texture. The depths of contemplation simmer, rather than flash in pans. While intensely impatient to see improvement and achievement, it is taking additional effort to stir and simmer all the ingredients. They have been seasoning for a very long time. Perhaps it is that new dreams cannot instantly manifest by just adding hot water. Watching for pots to boil is the opposite of simmering.
With any dilemma, great or small, the light of experience is among the first navigational tools to reach for. At my intersection with How Shall I Do This, there’s a tattered road atlas called What Worked Before. A creased, stained artifact, but still somewhat useful. My sense of direction becomes more vital, and I can effectively improvise. But I know not to stand still and wait for boiling water; it serves me better to keep going. Observations are simmering and there are opportunities for helpful distractions. Long walks and road trips allow for some reflective solitude, and certainly writing outdoors as well. As with listening to friends, I’m able to see more of the breadth of this world. Travelling provides some freedom both to confront and deflect the unknown.
Recently, within the space of two weeks, I made two road trips- the first for a professional conference at which I lectured, and the second was a 2200-mile Thanksgiving round-trip to and from the Midwest. The shorter trip had the melancholia of closed ends, but when I drove a stretch of 1100 miles only five days later, I did so with the eagerness of seeing loved ones. Although being en route to a specific location demands exact turns at crossroads and certain lanes at interchanges, there are tastes and views that rise above the quotidian labyrinth. The open road provides thought-provoking adventures. Changes of scenery, weather, and sound to add spice to that simmering soup. This may also be true for others. While refueling my vehicle in a faraway state, a man asked me, “Are you really from Maine? I used to know someone from there.” At a diner, a waitress asked me where my accent is from. Evidently, I am part of that change of scenery and sound, too. The road is also an interior adventure, and while reconciling with detours and delays, reminders surface about past dreams that fell by the wayside. Looking across the windshield, What’s the new dream? It simmers yet, and there are immediate urgencies such as keeping an alert eye on the road.
The urgency for a new dream coincides with obsolescence of the outmoded. Old, long-held hopes are not necessarily “bad.” Ambitions can be time-honored; they can be sculpted out of otherwise useless heaps. But, on the other hand, releasing expired aspirations is an unburdening action. Even after many years of hard work and investment, the way forward implies cutting losses. It makes for a raw liminality: the process of shedding invalid notions is one that runs parallel to testing spirits and discerning new dreams. Paring down, building up, and simmering something fresh amounts to a reformation. For me, it must take shape in midstream- without the luxury of stopping. Prayer on the go. Highways with a commuter mug and finger food. Beneath the rapid paces is that imposed simmer. It can’t be microwaved. How infuriating. Still more mystifying are my ungranted, relentless petitionary prayers. I’m reminded how the transit of letters to me have nothing to do with how often I look in my mailbox. Such things, alas, have their own simmered timing. I’m left simply to hold course and redeem the time.
Awareness of my unsuccess is counteracted by taking stock of the good that is in my midst and that which I create. Fortune may yet tilt in my favor, and the response will be that of the immense gratitude of a lifetime’s worth of honest effort. There still seems to be time. Well, there will have to be, and while held off by simmering, my end of the bargain is constructive productivity. An admirable mind, named Charles Henry Brent, once expounded upon the words of Zechariah the Prophet who said, “Turn ye to the strongholds, ye prisoners of hope.” To this, Brent observed, “You can win your humanity only by finding your highest opportunity in your more evil days. We are prisoners of hope.” With faith comes strength, and from there follows longing. In this context, longing refers to a fuelled aspiration that drives and strives and pushes ahead for a better life. Longings have goals, as well as sources; discerning new dreams implies evaluating both. Indeed, there are expectations, and that’s a risk in itself. Perhaps this is a test of undefined extremity. But even now, rather than grouse about dashed dreams and enumerating the graphic details, my thoughts must point toward new ambitions. The simmer of the dark ages has got to boil over into renaissance. For the moment, the taste of the new has yet to manifest. It’s still simmering.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
“There’s a time to throw stones and a time to regather
There’s a time to embrace and for distances
There’s a time to seek and a time to lose
A time to keep and to cast away.”
~ John Michael Talbot, There’s a Time [from Ecclesiastes 3].
A great many souls in this world recognize these as especially difficult times. The present-day strife is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. In the briefest terms, the overt anguish and anger manifest as social, as cultural, as political, as relational. The impression of collective distress is as widespread as the weariness of media overexposure. In profound ways, intensified darkness is ushered toward the crepuscule of winter.
What is a creative, well-intending, productive soul to do? If the general din of struggle and water-treading wasn’t more than enough to manage, dark waves lash and threaten still more hardship. Over the years, I’ve learned that hardships are inevitable, but misery is optional. Pendula will swing, and that is out of my power. What is within my ability is to maintain a healthful level of inspiration. I’ve also learned to do that, over the years, through some considerable desolation. Amidst my formative and extensive experiences in Benedictine monasticism is the concept of recollection. In this context, the word recollection refers to a contemplative practice. It requires a measure of solitude, within which there must be silence to settle straying thoughts- and in that quiet a bare contemplation of the Divine presence. In recollection comes a remembrance of God’s presence, a simple awareness of providence and consolation. As the ancient Psalmist wrote, look and be lightened.
Recollection is surely easier said than done, particularly for those who want this to occur to them as a natural matter of course. Even after years of discipline, this does not always come to mind right away for me. What does somehow, and quite effortlessly, is to write journal entries. Journaling seems to connect busyness with contemplation. Another is to talk with friends and to help encourage them. A few days ago, I spoke to a church congregation about Malakhi the Prophet, and how his name means “divine messenger.” His message included warnings and consequences about dangerous times, but also strong reminders to take stock of the good and the eternal. Taking stock is another thoughtful way to look forward. Subconsciously I found myself doing this in the past week, as I transcribed my two recent chapbooks into a searchable, digital file. Re-reading pages and pages of handwritten study notes I made at Oxford permitted me to relive portions of the inspiring sources I had pored over during my term there. Doing this turns out to be a regathering of personal forces. Rereading concepts that had left my more recent thoughts helped me to remember having gotten through- even surmounting- hard times in years past. The immediate tends to make us forgetful. Recollection helps to recall what is good.
At my first opportunity to take a day off, I made for the Boston Athenaeum, an oasis of many years. The library provides inspiring writing spaces, surrounded by vast and deep literary collections. Even there, writing did not come easily to me. But I can find some traction by visiting the levels upon levels of books. My steps instantly went to philosophy and philology, noticing and perusing old reliable- yet challenging- favorites, while looking for new ideas and words. Names and titles on spine backings on the shelves are in themselves an assuring presence, even before opening the books. Then I remembered the brilliant Boston educator and abolitionist James Freeman Clarke, whose words I discovered at the Athenaeum. In the turmoil of the mid-19th century, he wrote about learning to see beauty within a chaotic world. In his heartening book about how we can teach ourselves, called Self Culture (which is how I relate to the Athenaeum), I had transcribed this into one of my chapbooks:
“We educate the imagination by creating good things and beautiful things. Every man is an artist who tries to do his work perfectly, for its own sake, and not merely because of what he can get by it. He gets a great deal more this way than he will in any other. Every man can turn his life into poetry, romance, art, by living according to an ideal standard. He may be a day-laborer, a mechanic, a sweeper of street-crossings; but if he puts his soul into his work, his work becomes a fine art. No one may notice it, but he notices it himself, and I think that God and the angels notice it also.”
In the same book, Clarke wrote that by not living according to an ideal standard, we endanger becoming “automatons and drudges.” I completely agree, and am amazed to consider how current this sounds.
Appreciating the necessity of “getting out of my self,” I balanced the recollective solitude with teaching and the company of friends. Within the recent week, I’ve enjoyed the diverting occasions of leading a philosophy forum, teaching a creative writing class, providing music for a church service, and presenting at a statewide professional conference. In these situations, my thoughts are turned outward, to make sure all in attendance are encouraged. The only self-considerations have to do with being prepared to instruct and provide. Among friends, I’m able to benefit from exchanges of insights and stories, reminding me that I’m not entirely alone.
While driving to and from the conference, which was in a location two hours from my home, the road trip provided for some thinking time. I saw leafless late-autumn forests under somber skies. Western Maine has a strange combination of both ramshackle and luxurious homes, small riverside towns and strip malls. Not fitting into any of this, peering from my steering wheel, I’d shake my head with “I don’t know.” I honestly don’t know. Pondering this culture of distrust and this violent world: I don’t know. Just about everything generates a lingering I don’t know. On the drive home, as I saw nightfall at a startlingly early 4:30pm, I remembered Thomas Merton’s assertion: “I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.” That passage, from his Thoughts in Solitude unfolded into a petitionary prayer, ending with a statement of undaunted trust despite his wavering sense of direction. As for me, I can merely continue along darkened, barren roads, despite refrains of I don’t know. Indeed, I do know to recollect, and not to stop in the middle of a highway. Perhaps by trust, I will know by continuing to move ahead.
Saturday, October 29, 2016
“There is no creativity in fear.”
~ Raymond Reitze (“Old Turtle”), during a conversation, 23 Sept. 2016.
For a public speaker, I have never heard such an unforced, subdued voice. Mr. Raymond Reitze speaks definitively and with authority- but if you don’t sit close, you’ll miss most of his subtle words, even with a microphone. Recently, I heard him lecture and respond to audience questions, for the 3rd time in 3 years, at Maine’s annual Common Ground Fair. As usual, the audience of attendees at his talk filled from the front rows. The general listening posture was that of a collective forward leaning, to catch Reitze’s observations. The fair itself is an extraordinary event, now 40 years running, sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. The fair has surely seen these pages before. All agricultural and crafts exhibitors emphasize respect for the natural environment and sustainable living. Among the livestock and land-cultivation demonstrations are traditional crafts workshops, folk music, and lectures. And amidst the speakers in fairgrounds areas such as the social action tent, and the whole life section, Ray Reitze has come to be a beloved fixture at the fair.
Ray is best known in his roles as Registered Master Maine Guide, and as teacher of philosophy. He is originally from a farming region west of Portland, in southern Maine- and lives in central Maine, operating a lodge since 1988 called the Earthways School of Wilderness Living. His vast experiences as an outdoorsman, thinker, Vietnam War veteran, instructor, and admirer of creation undergird his softly measured words. The training process for a Maine Guide is considered the most rigorous and difficult in the U.S. The Maine wilderness and inland waterways are heavily-forested and difficult to navigate. Maine Guides are qualified to lead others through the Maine woods. Ray is an expert canoeist, and received his name Old Turtle from a Micmac elder and mentor. The Micmac and Maliseet are among the first nations of much of Maine’s land. Years ago, I was told by Micmac in neighboring New Brunswick, Canada that they are popularly considered the inventors of the canoe.
Having met and listened to Old Turtle three times, I’ve glanced back at the notes I’ve taken in my journals. Of course I take notes! In the stream of writing experiences and insights, there is always room to add the words and ideas in my midst. Journals may begin as real-time recorded observations, but they may serve well as personal historic archives.
In 2014, when I first met Old Turtle, his topic was the inward journey to growth that bears fruit in the decisions we make and the good we can provide. He drew a picture of a tree, and repeatedly referred to it as a symbol of life. Pointing to the roots, he said that a life of compassionate love must rise up from the root. Too often, he said, the “top tier,” the outer branches of physical life become our directing influences, taking the place of the human heart. He emphasized that each person needs to know themselves: “Realize who you are, what you are, and where you are. Ask yourself about what motivates you. Use the realization, and then dream.” Speaking about hopefulness from his vernacular, he encouraged all of us to, “see your way through the necessary hardships. If you sense fear, stop and set up camp; then proceed freely without worrying about success.” From this context, he quoted a biblical verse from John 14 about living a Christlike life, “I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these,” reminding us that we are not alone, and that we must “expand our energies like a big, spreading tree.”
In 2015, upon entry at the fair, I made sure to direct my steps early to Old Turtle’s tent. His themes centered around living conscientiously. By using care in our thoughts, we can guard against destructive attitudes. “The mind doesn’t know how to rest,” he offered, “we draw to us what we think, and become what we do.” By focusing upon generosity and its ramifications, we can be present to those around us. “We are souls,” said Old Turtle, “and our life is our earthly expression.” Sounding as an environmentalist, he emphasized that we do not fully live life by ourselves, but with community and in community. By removing a sense of resistance from our perspectives, we become better able to propagate kindness, and to “say ‘no’ to what is against your conscience.” Old Turtle laces his talks with stories about his wilderness experiences- and his homsepun adventures. Setbacks are explained through a colorful story about baking burnt cakes, one after another, until he got everything correct. But he loved the burnt cakes best. From there, he told an amusing story about helping a neighbor fix a flat tire, and what a good time they had. “Celebrate the burnt cake,” said Old Turtle, “because those errors move us toward perfection.” I began to recognize an Old Turtleness in his comment: “Don’t grieve mistakes, just give it another whirl.” But he is quite serious, adding that fear creates reaction, but love creates action.
This time (2016), about 5 weeks ago, with Old Turtle at the top of my list of Common Ground Fair musts, I squeezed into the crowded tent to hear him speak about “the universe within.” He began with “all that lives in the universe is inside a soul.” Of course, this brought to mind the Gospel passage from Luke 17, “They can't say, 'Here it is!' or 'There it is!' You see, the kingdom of God is within you." Old Turtle admirably juggles his abstract metaphors with his earthly stories. In the same breath, he said, “Get out of your head and into your heart; quiet the mind,” and “what have you got going? What do you want to do- who and what do you want to be?” After saying, “much of our world works on the principle of resistance,” he used electronics and internal combustion engines as examples. He returned several times to the vital balance between head and heart. “The heart directs, and the mind facilitates.” Admirably positive, he continues to say that “experiences of setbacks can become opportunities.” I needed to hear that. After his talk, I asked Old Turtle for some advice about setbacks of my own. Talking about job-market rejections and my struggles to stay positive, he recognized how little is actually in the power of a job-hunter. His suggestions included creating some constructive habits, and having confidence in my abilities. “Ego is what feels rejected,” said Old Turtle, “You have to believe you are the best person for the job.” From there, he said, “there is no creativity in fear.” After recounting a memory about the Micmac elder he called Grandfather, he remarked that life is filled with stories. Using imagery from his decades of long-distance canoeing adventures, Old Turtle said, “We stretch each other’s strength, and we make progress together.” Instead of focusing on problems, focus on wellness and wellness will take over. These are among the many and understated gems from listening to Old Turtle.
As Mr. Reitze, also known as Old Turtle, speaks of those he has learned from, it is easy to see that many learn from him and still more consider him a mentor. In these times, a wise, gentle, respectful voice is all the more welcome. Old Turtle likes to remind us to slow down, take stock, and “get comfortable with what you know.” Listen to the eloquence of the woods. Souls like Old Turtle invite us to think, to see ordinary as extraordinary. Philosophical insights are to be found in stories about loons, the northern lights, fishing, and digging farm trenches. That pleasant, humorous, gentle presence compels. I’m reminded that a life of eclectic influences and experiences can dovetail into one integrated journey.
Now traversing the heart of autumn, with noticeably shorter days and colder air, the colors and balmy sweetgrass air of the Common Ground Fair go with me on the winterbound trail. Into the hunkered dormancy of cold months, during which I must continue working as diligently as usual, I’ll have words like Old Turtle’s with me. That elderly and soft voice that describes his memories of his grandfather surfacing when he laces up his snowshoes, reminds me of how I think of my father when I hold doors open for strangers. Like me, Old Turtle likes watching a good snowstorm and how the trees react. His steps connect snowbound shelters, mine connect city streets, and we navigate our respective regions of Maine. Old Turtle teaches us to be relentlessly grateful. When you think you’re too busy, he said, stop and smell the roses. “Stop and look at something beautiful. Just admire the beauty in what you’re seeing. Then go on your way. Stop again and admire... just simple admiration.”
Above: Poetry Grove, Common Ground Fair- Unity, Maine.
Below: A visitor during my writing.