Monday, May 28, 2007

libera nos, Domine

“Crash me, wash me up on your shore,
Drifted way too far from my moorings and more.
Overboard the oars went,
Relentless was the roll.
Of the restless sea set me free
from its treacherous shoals.
Don’t let me go.”

~ Mike Roe, The Boat Ashore

The desire to move forward, and not look back, is vital to the energy of persevering in this voyage of hope. Longing can be for what irretrievably was, or for what we hindsightedly wish had been, but indeed also a palpable yearning for what can be. The language of physical movement, of navigating between the known and terra incognita, is entirely applicable to the interior life- the life from within that aspires to manifest in the open air. For me it is a determination toward continuous renewal, as the very antithesis of how past discouragements become insidious snares on the paths of trust. Along the way, I have witnessed the hopeless consequences of how the present can be darkened and dictated by past setbacks. To acknowledge the outward gifts encompassing the life given to me, the inner life must be ever cultivated- even to the extent that when presented with the option to look back, I will choose the vision of the future enlightening this day. Such vision yearns to be applied, in every situation.

Living in a world of opposites, part of the vigilance for renewal is an abhorrence for what fetters the soul. While we remind one another to look up and look ahead, we are attesting to the fact that regrets constitute a drain to the best potential of our energies. Now to really internalize perseverance! And certainly our history is for us to inform, but not to burden. The old consolation in sports of “wait ‘til next year,” exemplifies ameliorating what didn’t work (wishing not to repeat errors) and transforming past defeats into confidence. Red Sox fans will consume New England winters with such discussions, effectively tapping into the stuff that makes for great philosophers and historians. We become skilled at nurturing cynicism, but do we dare to embrace our hopes fulfilled? Will we give ourselves to a knowing hope that we will see realized? It means audaciously looking at reality in the light of mercy that comes from beyond ourselves.

Comprehending what is past and trusting there really is a promising future, represents the balance of contrasts we embody. A wise friend, who has given me invaluable advice, offered the metaphor of returning to the ruins of the burned-down building and exhuming the treasures worth saving. Wishing to be unfettered by discouragement and old baggage is balanced by the desire to hold on to what is hopeful. While I am training myself not to capitulate to self-defeat and old condemning judgments, alongside that is the balm of recollection reminding me of what liberates and encourages. For Saint Paul it was a struggle he described as warring factions within, between delight in his discoveries against the captivities of what weighed him down*. The past is gone. I want to release and to hold on, as I embrace and begin to believe in the embrace that is given to me. It is the paradox of unbinding one side of life, while espousing inestimable promise.

These steps and strides are willful. In the midst of this society’s distracting noise, such paces can be silences. The counter-balance of proving grounds in this overtly competitive world, is to recall that assuring spirit which frees us from fear, from imagining there is some need for us to pretend we are more than our intrinsic selves. If hope is essential to trust, then surely our reminders to one another of the freedom from fear is integral to being unburdened from defeatism. Within that acceptance is the release of an expectation that my pace won’t still comprise fits and starts. Participating can be actively at the center of life, and at other times our actions become listening and observing. For me to actively participate, it has been vital to occasionally retreat to lonely places- even briefly- and listen to the heart’s depths which can so easily be overwhelmed. Yesterday while speaking to a group and alluding to this vital balance, I offered that we need times for reading, so as to provide for times of writing.

*Romans 7:22, 23.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


"What is longing made from?
What cloth is put into it
That is does not wear out with use?

Gold wears out, and silver wears out,
Velvet wears out, and silk wears out,
Yet longing does not wear out.

The moon rises and the sun rises,
The sea rises in vast waves,
But longing never rises from the heart."

~ Welsh poem, 17th century

The ancient language of Wales has given the world its poetic language, including the word hiraeth* which roughly translates as an abiding sense of longing. Not simply a momentary yearning, but to the strength of a sort of homesick longing. Something that is intrinsic to the human spirit. Martin Lloyd-Jones used the word to refer to a consciousness of one being out of their home place and that which is dear to them; he equated this hiraeth to a soul’s yearning for the Divine. And in that context, Saint Augustine’s legendarily penitent restless heart looks more to me like a heart longing for a home place of recognition and acceptance. Home can tangibly manifest as a knowing and unconditional embrace, even more profoundly than as an edifice of bricks and mortar. We long for signs that we belong.

Light sources and shadows live noticeably side by side. When I have endured crises of traumatic loss, the longing followed later, after the stabilization of survival with a quieter yearning to regain my sense of self. But indeed, when what we imagine as our selves has broken to its foundations, the yearning desire is to rebuild- but indeed the new structure will not be the same. It takes time to believe the new will be better. Of course, there need not be crises to set off a profound sense of longing. There can be simple reminders, and such insights are well worth our attention. Longing for the familiarity of home, especially when far away from those reassurances for extended periods of time. One afternoon, during a sojourn in Paris, my customary long walk along the Seine caused me to notice the absence of the salt aroma of the Maine coast. My adventures along the Great Lakes were wanting for the deep dark blue of Casco Bay. More overtly, I recall being aboard an eastbound, cross-country Amtrak train reaching the Berkshire Mountains. A man stood up and began regaling nearby passengers about his home town, with a hiraeth worthy of the Welsh definition, but with an eastern Massachusetts accent thick enough to place him in Dorchester or Southie. He was pronouncedly homesick. It was all really entertaining (especially the anecdotes about his favorite bar), and it seemed to syphon off some of my own sense of displacement. All it seemed to take was for the Lake Shore Limited to transition from the flat Midwest by barreling across the Housatonic River.

Finding ourselves far from home, and far from those who recognize us, will set off longings we may had forgotten about. Distances may be geographic, and they may be metaphorical. Reminders can be subtle, but what they reveal comes with a tenacity that can span many years, even to childhood. A profound sense of disenfranchisement and disregard that I knew as an adolescent brought its tiresome residue into adulthood. Having endured harshness so many years ago- surely enough years for anything to lose its strength and worth- challenges us to choose to treat ourselves with the gentle compassion by which our hearts and souls were created, in order to retrain the mind away from cataloguing and maintaining regrets. Loss and absence can provide the crossroads of our vision. One evening, a few years ago, I had been awarded an extraordinary honor at a special reception. Many of my friends and students were there, but during the drive home I glanced at the inscribed plaque on the passenger seat, and powerfully felt the absence of my parents- not just then and there, but for nearly all of my years. Along the road that night after eating and enjoying, in my good clothes and hearing my gold watch chain whenever I turned with the contours of Route 302, it became vital to enjoin myself to remember who was there, and my own profound gratitude. We must recollect what confirms to us that we belong- especially that which transcends our titles and trappings. Our friendships, our soul’s kindredships, have the potential to be the witnesses our lives long to have; and I am certainly part of the reciprocal. By caring, we instantly become earthly signs of grace, drawing from sources that far precede and exceed us. A very wise friend once reminded me to “treat yourself the way you treat your friends,” and I have never forgotten that gentle admonition.

How we long for a communion that will reinforce and confirm us! Reassurance comes to us in the forms we are best able to comprehend, and can be thankfully unpredictable (unconfined by our finite notions). And then our longings are reciprocated. “The assiduous heart is an open door,” wrote Saint Mark the Ascetic, in The Philokalia. Our souls’ yearnings, the prayers of the heart, can be catalysts that turn our embrace toward the present, giving a renewed sense of what is yet ahead of us. Such thirst for authenticity of spirit keeps us from standing still, quite like Augustine’s aggrieved and restless heart motivated him to reach for a place of peaceful abiding. But our hearts’ desires are surely meant to be answered, and when that happens we can surely rejoice and be strengthened in our hopes and the hope we are for others. Truly we temporarily can only know in part, but it is well worth looking ahead to the time we will know even as we have always been known. Such longings founded upon our faith bring us to risk everything in order to gain everything. Thomas Merton called it “gambling on the invisible.” Merton wrote, “we have to risk all we can see and taste and feel, but we know the risk is worth it, because there is nothing secure in the transient world.” Steadfast love is the good investment, the treasure compounded in heaven, and a worthy risk. I have seen the forward steps of trusting faith as embodying the very opposite of cowardice. Hesitation represents a fearful clinging to what anchors us to the temporal trappings of this world, and such hesitating will cloud what dynamic hope- even our heart’s deepest longings- can clarify.

* rhymes with "clear scythe"

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

keep watch, take heart

"Be watchful as you travel each day the narrow but joyous and exhilarating road of the mind, keeping your attentiveness humbly in your heart."

~ St. Hesychios, On Watchfulness, in The Philokalia

The past few days of traveling to my teaching assignments have provided opportunities for me to take to some rural roads and have more views of this new season. The new growth on awakened trees is catching up with the now well-established lengthened days of bright light. A turn in the road can reveal sudden sweeping views of great distances, and such realizations bring to mind a consolation similar to that which I’ve experienced on mountain hiking travels. Consoling, because it is possible to see the vastness of this world, thus contrasting how anxious thoughts can close in upon an individual. References to the splendor within which I participate- be it among friends, or the wider society of community, or even the seeming anonymity of being one among a great many- brings comfort to my heart. It is part of the mystery of belonging. And from that sense of solace comes the idea of watchfulness as essential to maintaining a sense of the present.

When left in the abstract, descriptive words are left lifeless; they must be animated by a spirit of application and specificity. To be watchful is for me to turn and return to that vital perspective of being the observing presence behind my thoughts and emotions. It is to keep vigil, from my depths, and find, as Hesychios wrote in the ancient compendium, The Philokalia, "the stillness in which the heart can breathe and invoke." Stillness refers to the discipline of freeing the heart from excessive thought, especially that of the past. As the outdated is superceded, all things do become new. I am finding that to be watchful is to sustain an alertness- not a grasping, anxious wariness- but simple remembrances of being aware and conscious of life within and around me. Not as it may have been, or should have been, but as it is now. And from that watchful perspective, ways to possibilities open up and out.

Having experienced measures of how the mind can be retrained and the spirit renewed, it is ostensibly confirmed to me that a new nature coincides with putting off what clouds the pursuit of authenticity. Part of this learning causes me to accept the essence of patience in the process. At first, the brilliance of something new engenders an impatience for all processes to accelerate! But I’ll have to accept that any forward motion is good movement, whether it is on an open highway or in dense traffic. Putting on the new nature is requiring a balance of determination and adaptation, and thus a watchfulness without unusual effort ensues. Far from passive, for consciousness to become "second nature" it is both observance and application, both keeping vigil and participating. Thomas Merton expressed a contemplation within a world of action, describing the renunciation of our limited ego-selves, and "entering into a whole new kind of existence, discovering an inner center of motivation and love which makes us see ourselves and everything else in an entirely new light." Such balance is possible, and I have already known this when all that each moment simply comprises starts with everything that is before me. I’ve especially lived this perspective when I’ve realized my context as one person aware of being among many others. A humble component in an eternity’s expanse. I live not only for my self. With such vision, self-transcendence opens up to new capacities.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

graphite height

"I hope you are on your rooftop now,
in the sun, in the middle of five hundred flowers,
and the warm wind blows your scarf around,
flying like a flag.
I hope you are on your rooftop now."

~ The Innocence Mission, Rooftop.

For me to believe this new perspective is not a passing fancy, I have found it necessary for to test the new vision over these recent months. Rather like a rigorous road-test, I’ve needed to cover the range of weather conditions and countless miles of terrain, continually inspecting and tuning. Having but a mustard seed’s worth of faith can be exhausting, and some healthy diversions have been helpful counterbalances. Such as landscape-varying travels, retreats- and- visits to the Boston Athenaeum. Indeed, on a fine day off, I’ll make for a philologist’s Eden filled with ancient books, prints, archives, and sculptures. There is always something to learn, some 19th century French book that hasn’t been borrowed since 1930, and hidden mazes of shelves still to be explored. On the first of May, they open out their rooftop area, and it becomes the finest of reflective perches. This had been a thinking place for the likes of Emerson and Thoreau. Good enough for me. A change of scenery is useful as a departure from a changing perspective. Departing in the sense of moving away from emphasizing transition, as it seemed to be necessary for some time.

With new eyes there is still transition, but of a less abrupt, reflective kind I cannot yet articulate. After identifying so closely with losses and struggles over a period of years, my identity then became enwrapped in a recovering quest. From there, in the past year I have worked at a sincere renewal, and for a time such intense focus has been necessary. Now it’s a bit ironic to notice how I seem to require a lot of convincing evidence to believe things really are changing, and changing for the better. Indeed, the wish for change takes a great deal less time than enacting the new ways and living with them! And further still, a new vision requires vigilant mindfulness with a commitment to adventurous processes of moving from the stagnancy of dead ends to discovering a capacity for joy and wonder. Have you ever had a substantial conversation with a friend, perhaps with a good long walk, during which you’ve lost track of your abiding miseries? Somehow the here-and-now of the visit with your friend throws enough light on your path that you wind up reminding yourself about what was wrong, because the sorrow begins to look as temporal as the sudden consolation. If faith is the opposite of fear, then surely wonder must be the antidote for despair; and my gratitude only intensifies for such compassionate friends whose words and gestures point out the choices that manifest at the crossroads of despair and wonder. Such experiences allow me to do this for others.

Living a mutual availability does risk burning-out, and that adds great importance to identifying the sources in our lives. In my experience, an oasis is a place or situation with reminders of hopeful direction to propel us on our way. Oases are also transcendent of the limits of place, though there can be an attachment to place, as well as the consolation of a familiar embrace or a gentle voice. Realizing I can’t always be out on the roof of the Boston Athenaeum, or in its hallowed reading rooms, there is certainly the neighborly café near my employment, and other such consoling perches along the ocean. Years ago, a colleague referred to my love of Kettle Cove with the observation, "there’s nothing like having a reference point on the globe." Those kindred souls who witness our lives (and we recognize theirs) are vital sources of encouragement and belonging. Inevitably, knowing the vivacity of encouragement, the wellspring of spiritual life beckons me to seek to be an oasis in its endlessly creative forms.

Ambitions are meant to evolve alongside our development. The provisional has a dynamism all its own, and this is a time "between" dreams. New hopes send our lives into new directions, and they are cultivated and refined as our life situations change. Trepidation has run its weary course, and the open-endedness of my days carries an abiding excitement along with it.

Friday, May 4, 2007


"et ascendet sicut virgultum coram eo et sicut radix de terra sitienti non est species ei neque decor et vidimus eum et non erat aspectus et desideravimus eum."

~ Isaiah 53 : 2

It’s easy to accept the concept that we cannot predict the details of future events. We can make our plans, and our places of employment will prudently assemble five-year strategic timetables- most of which will be eventually implemented. But, indeed, our best may be set forth up against numerous variables. Inevitably, it is mutual and wholehearted vigilance that is assured a future, however not all the details can possibly be known by mortals like us. Wrapped up in faithful forward-motion is the essence of confident trust. It’s a looking ahead, even without knowing each length of road.

Almost similarly, we cannot always see our spiritual beginnings. Effects emerge above the surfaces of our complex lives, but causes require a closer look- and the search for how things manifest in our lives may take demanding and expeditionary searching. "How late I came to love you," exclaimed Augustine, in the 4th century. "O beauty so ancient and fresh, how late I came to love you! You were within me, while I had gone outside to seek you... Always you were with me, and I was not with you," he continued in his memoir The Confessions. And so the beginnings, the antecedents of our realized thoughts are the roots which are as captivatingly perplexing to me as they were for the ancient Augustine. Isaiah, from the 8th century B.C., used the marvelous metaphor (in the above quote) of the root sending a tender plant up through the dry and thirsty ground. Of course, Isaiah is pointing to something majestic and eternal, but yet from a most un-spectacular and common beginning, adding there was nothing about an emerging seedling that would cause us to pay special notice.

But truly, how fascinating- especially at this season of life- to notice the ordinary eloquence of those tender green shoots manifesting out of the dormant ground and from embrittled trees. These are resounding signs of hope, of the spark of life whose renewal does not grow weary. The literary character, The Little Prince made the astute remark that "what makes the desert beautiful is that it hides a well." For me it is a wonder, a marvel, to watch the renewal of life- not only from a dormancy, but from brokenness. The desert indeed hides a wellspring, and it is a bottomless fount of creative love, and reveals itself as a delicate seedling that is both barely noticeable and also undergirded by far-reaching networks of perennial roots.

Recent years have been the ground upon which I have learned much about the way our crises can be the ferments that fall to thirsty soil below. Even the word crisis is itself a fascination, implying turning-points that demand regathering and confrontation in order to recover. Of course these analyses are only admissible after the recovery. The nature of crisis is an unknowing beyond the precarious point of immediacy. Similarly, traces of the origins of our ideas become more evident when we begin to bring abstract concepts to solid results like works of art or work projects. Then we can look back- just enough. How well I recall anguished times through which my closest friends would assure me of the future fruits of all my tears. Looking back, the sure but unbeknownst signs of hope came in the forms of listening friends. When my own home was too much to tolerate, there were other welcoming kitchens and sitting-rooms. One friend forced me to sit outdoors and look straight up to the sky, instead of down at the ground. Others would ask me what I ate that day, and still others would share their stories with me, enabling me to recognize the complexities of their lives. But over and again I learn the moment we dwell in at this very instant is what we truly possess, and it is the place of action and change.

Whether or not I saw, but failed to realize, or caught sounds and hadn’t completely listened, indeed when the grain of wheat falls to the ground and does not surrender its life, it remains solitary. But in the cessation of seeking its own advantage, the grain germinates and bears fruit from a place of profound rootedness. The evidence of spring’s reality comes so late in northern New England, and that makes for an abrupt, celebrated arrival. Something new, let alone something both new and good, can take time to embrace into our days. And perhaps along with the tangible signs of encouragement that we all need for the journey, our wonderment itself may be the most assuring of signs.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

lumière intérieure

"No limit can be set on our progress towards God: first because no limitation can be put upon the beautiful, and secondly because the increase in our desire for the beautiful cannot be stopped by any sense of satisfaction."

~ Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses

When my journeying steps began to comprise movements within, I first thought my own heart to be a small, closed-in chamber of limitations. But then, in the monastic silence in Taizé, my experiences of physical travels were paralleled by descent to inner depths of which I had not been completely aware. The human heart and its longings need not have any limits, and boundaries dissolve with an attachment to the Divine. Strength seems best unforeseen, and I find this both when old rugged assumptions get thwarted, as well as when I am joyfully surprised by what I did not dare to expect. Even looking back at outdated unfortunate experiences of betrayal and incomprehensible misunderstandings, it is pleasing to consider the newer, stronger desire not to view any person as an enemy. Better still, to challenge myself to refrain from the very idea of labeling. I receive others' graciousness with immense gratitude of my own. The disproving moments are a wonder to me.

By discovering how the life of pilgrimage thrives beneath the visible surface, deep into the heart, from within I venture out. From those hidden inner spaces within which my soul can hear the Spirit, there is an emergence outward to the expanse of living. But surely the naïvété that presumes one simple solution for all problems is long past. We all know how trust is earned and then frequently tried even after proven. We need to grow to trusting faith, and through the winter I found how gradual my own sense of trust can be- whether to others or to my own self. Perhaps overly gradual. With strength those hesitations will be transformed, but indeed a sincere and bold transcendence is not a sugar-coated fantasy. More enduring than unreality, the new course steers into a sea of reconciliation, and it is now for me to emerge from the pettiness of self-burial in my self-centered perceived setbacks. Further to rise up from those existential anxieties that fictionally portray what is temporally set before me as all there ever will be in life. Still further, to leave behind such deceiving notions that draw me to believe my value as a human is determined by the flawed judgments of inexperienced people. Finally, to quit the defeatism implying that life's journey intrinsically deteriorates with the passage of time.

Being lit from within, a realistic courage stokes an enduring ember. The challenge to be vigilant is well worthwhile, and is becoming increasingly effortless. But truly the nature of vigilance is that of awareness, of conscious recollection and a necessary remembrance of what I left behind. All the while the journey turns in the direction of renewed hopes. If I found out how discouragement drains out strength, right at the juncture between defeat and hopefulness, indeed it is peaceful abiding that nurtures confident vision. The tomb is empty, and the ethos of defeatism must be deemed unacceptable. To be realistically resolute is to comprehend the verity that although obstacles are inevitable that is still not enough reason to give up to encroaching currents of cynicism. Such opposites dwelling side-by-side strike an astounding contrast, yet the soul can thrive by reaching right through the encrusted barricades of apathy, and toward the limitless.