Saturday, June 30, 2007

another country

"I'm taking these dumb paper lanterns down.
Yards, no, miles they strung along.
And me with them.
And how was I supposed to know?
That was another country;
That was another country."

~ The Innocence Mission, Another Country

Familiar paths are leading to new places, and there are just enough recognizable markers to remind me of my context- and indeed above and beyond the surface is the wonder of advancing in very new steps. Regathering and then choosing to strive toward new places and ways of being led to distant travels and an inner voyage into new lands. Thirsting for renewal neutralizes what is past from unrealistic sentimentality. Distant shores become more prominent as they near, and an unnoticed momentum reveals more than a superficial arrival. All at once, terra cognita is immersed in the mystery of renewal. As one might imagine for any physical journey, once discovering a new place, we navigate and inhabit the territory. Gradually, the departed place disappears from sight, and remains to exist only to the extent that our memories will allow. And even now it amazes me to consider that I have reached across time and terrain, but truly I have been brought, even escorted, to this day.

To consider renewal is to embrace the prospect of a lasting continuum of development and deepening. It must continue, with a spirit that mustn’t stagnate. Gifts which have stood prominently in my midst balance the known and the unforeseen. It is taking time and thought to comprehend what has been transpiring before me in these rapid months. And indeed, transformation is not clearly evident at first, much in the same way we outgrow clothes during our childhood. My close friends are my life’s witnesses, and thankfully they notice changes before I can articulate them myself. For many years I feigned a self-sufficiency, having had profound experiences of being forsaken, much of it at a very young age. Part of this revival is in the acceptance of others’ care, and it has taken years to cease shrugging off genuine concern. Perhaps many of us have been profusely giving out what we long for ourselves: love, reassurance, forgiveness. Being able to start afresh is in itself a humble cause for immense gratitude. I begin to see renewal as an unburdening, and it becomes possible to separate my identity from the dimension that relies on the impressions I might make, and how I have wanted to be known- and even how I think my identity should be. But what happens when we accept an identity that has been given to us? Granted, there are ills that get handed down or perpetuated, traits we may regret and wish to change. And then there is the quiet identity of sacred inheritance. In these recent days of sundrenched roads, vast skies, and genial company I’ve returned to St. Augustine’s encouragement: "Blot out what you have done, so that what is Divine may restore what has been created within you."(from his Commentary on John). All with every good reason to reach forth with hope.

Spiritual renewal inevitably brings me to a healthful detachment. Specifically, old preoccupations must be rescinded, and outmoded perceived desires discarded. Then again, a more appropriate choice of imagery than to discard or dispose, is to release. Such liberating surrender is effectively the opposite of resistance, and an absence of barring creation from being just what it is. The ancient Evagrios’ words in The Philokalia offer that we challenge ourselves to "leave our cells, if we become overly attached to that which buries us in our habitations," pulling us away from humanity and what is sacred. Detachment brings us to stillness of heart. Detachment from façades, false securities, and all that can divert from clarity of mind and openness of spirit. It is a full-scale challenge, and in this society it is no passive gesture to still oneself, but is as much a physical as a spiritual action. The heart’s stillness is an enduring attentiveness, by which it becomes possible not only to welcome renewal but to assuredly continue in the voyage of this new life.

Friday, June 15, 2007

la voie vivante

"...walk, in a newness of life."

~ Saint Paul, Epistle to the Romans (ch. 6)

The road turns, and yet we cannot quite see how, or why, or what specific thing we may have done to cause the change. And even in our bewilderment and wonder, there is a danger in losing consciousness of the very moments in time that simply show us our own transformation. Our culture and society craves root causes and pushes us to seek out weaknesses to be exploited. Those learned habits can infiltrate and limit our comprehension of the eternal, in our lives and those introduced to us. Indeed, we may actually piece together assorted causes to rationally explain our present, but such grasping exerts significantly more effort than to accept and move directly from this moment. Do moments all have the same duration? Seconds, hours, or days? Perhaps there is no universal scale when we examine our unique lives and their transitions, whether through evolving seasons or in the twinkling of an eye. When a new way of seeing comes to me in an instant, old perspectives pass away and are effectively replaced by what becomes new. Some years back, a major new bridge was built here in town- right next to a very old one; and as soon as the modern bridge was in operation the outdated structure was completely torn down. For a very short period of time, the two bridges stood contrastingly side-by-side. Two ways of crossing may run parallel, but for a fleeting parcel of time. We can traverse bridges of our own, and definable transformations can manifest at the instant we recognize the crossing. Leaving the shore that was left behind gives way to a transfigured vision, and thus a view that transfigures the road ahead.

Renewed perspective allows us to see possibilities, even in what appear to be painfully static situations. For about three years, I had to work for an abusive supervisor; it was an extremely trying adventure of running up against anger personified. In retrospect, it’s difficult to pinpoint how I got through that time, but I did- and even saw that manager get fired as a consequence of his cruelty to the employees. During the worst of it, I kept a journal and that helped me maintain some kind of dynamism of vision while the stress seemed to have no end. It was an incorrigible episode of endurance with the sole recourse being that of conscience. The day of that man’s dismissal was something unforgettable, as the corporate body of my colleagues partook in the same powerful unburdening experience. In an amazing instant, darkness was replaced by lightness. In a broader sense, fear in our lives is replaced by hopefulness. They cannot exist side-by-side for long. And, indeed, pretentiousness must be replaced by humility.

Without a genuine sense of constructive humility, how can one be open to others and to what this life unfolds before us? Letting go of built up layers of self-proclaimed credentials and outmoded structures permits us to advance from one renewing beginning to another, and then to yet another beginning. This type of humility has a vitality that balances self-respect with openness, and thus desires for each day to be built anew upon a refreshed foundation throughout a life that is a pilgrimage of trust. It is essential to trust, as moving forward implies knowing without necessarily seeing in order to set forth. Reaching forward with all our heart is a tangible act attesting to a certitude of the Invisible. Thomas Merton, in Seeds of Contemplation, referred to a "certitude without any shred of discursive evidence." Our assurance is connected to our trust. Now, my challenge is to be continually renewed. Reaching the new land has been the part of the journey which has brought me to travel new roads with new vision and new observations. Known and unknowing, alike. The ocean-tinged air of home, and conversations, are nuanced anew and afresh. As Merton pointed out, "The first taste of contemplation strikes us at once as utterly new and yet strangely familiar."

Thursday, June 7, 2007

far away on the other side

"The trees that whisper in the evening
Carried away by a moonlight shadow
Sing a song of sorrow and grieving
Carried away by a moonlight shadow

Stars move slowly on a silvery night
Far away on the other side"

~ Mike Oldfield, Moonlight Shadow.

Noting contrasts that accompany the sands of time, has become more of an understanding and less of a conflict. Navigating dark nights of the soul produces an acumen with which we can savour our days and broaden our vision. And then, on further reflection it occurs to me the contrasts are rarely quite so hard-edged and extreme as they superficially appear. We photographers are surely aware of the range of fine gradations between what we call "paper white," and a rich black that is the absorption of all colors. At times either brightness or shadows become clear to us, and knowing both sides of the spectrum there comes an appreciation of tones and colors that span and reflect. Experiences of healing, as well as those of grieving, occur to me as fragmented and unpredictable courses which cannot be hurried. Thankfully, transition has varied durations, and that allows for opportunities to acknowledge our lives. Perhaps it’s a bit like looking over travel photos that attest to experiences and context. Re-reading journals often has that effect. Occasionally, as a point of reference, I’ll look at written reflections from a year previous (or even more), to the exact calendar day- even if just to see the time and place of the entry. As it can be on a drive through the old neighborhood, or past the tired old workplace, such landmarks are indeed and fortunately on a very large map. Vivid memories can detrimentally embitter, but instead they can be recollected to draw our gratitude.

In striving and so forcefully desiring to transcend duress, reaching for brighter and calmer paths, something of the darkness does travel alongside. Once more, there is a fine edge between identifying with what was endured, and referring gratefully to the sources of gems and metals brought out of the dark times. Certainly there is more than enough that is best forgotten, giving plenty of space for the moment and confident looking forward, but remembrances of how the dark nights can reshape a soul become worthy souvenirs. Nicholas of Cusa, in the 15th century, wrote that, "to understand the darkness, you need the night-eyes of an owl." Concurrent with our emergence is a sharp awareness of our own luminosity, quite like the frisson of the Emmaus sojourners at the very precise instant they recognized the Stranger at their dining table. It is as though the darkness passes just as we identify the divine spark, and such recollections will reconcile darkness with light. The voyage is replete with visual symbols that serve as signs of what is not readily visible. Emerging from dark nights of grief, and even momentary discouragement, whether protracted or fragmented over time, it becomes possible to refer to our own lunar light. Paradoxically, both leaving behind and reaching ahead are forward movements. The ancient Psalmist had been brought to remember his source of strength as he looked up to the moonlit and sunlit skies alike, as they delineated the mountainous landscape around him.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

chemin de férrule

"Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first vow intent
To be a Pilgrim."

~ John Bunyan, Pilgrim Song, from The Pilgrim’s Progress

If the Journey is integral to human experience, our voyages combine strenuous stretches along with those occasional days of unlimited visibility. Between navigating soul-trying storms on few reserves, with the view ahead only measurable in feet, I am surely grateful for pauses that permit time to take stock and respite. Such notable calms are opportunities to crystallize the soul. There need not be seat-of-the-pants crises for us to awaken. Indeed, it is preferable to maintain enough conscious balance so that each day’s adventures are embraced with a consistent perception of the present. Change needn’t be crisis. Setting-forth is a forward motion. The personal pilgrimage may be a movement away from the anguish of the past, and in the direction of open roads of promise. It would be unwise to stare into rear-view mirrors; these exist solely for fleeting references to what trails behind our movements.

Enduring many nautical miles of wear-and-tear, battering storms, and uninterrupted conveyance, ships will steer into port. We commute between demands upon our hours and our energies, and discover the way-stations to answer our souls’ yearnings. Since my life is a pilgrimage of trust, each place and situation comprise way-stations on this route. The way itself, though encompassing both the unknown and the well-familiar, is an unfolding mystery. As it turns out, we need measures of both, traveling and coming home, and carrying reminders of what is most important to us. Stories individuals tell, about how they discovered an important treasure of theirs, animates the inanimate. Keepsakes become personal icons, with experiential significance ascribed to them. Years ago, I knew someone who wore several religious medals on a necklace chain; each came from a different place with a story of its acquisition and the pictured saint. Of course, the uniqueness lay in this person’s juxtaposition of imagery, lives, and attributes: past and present, ancient and future. It’s a bit like visiting homes and noticing eclectic assemblages of books and music on their shelves. Material, too, can attest to a life’s pilgrimage. Our movements can be physical as well as spiritual and intellectual.

The places and circumstances in which we trade our stories decorate our paths. Chaucer’s legendary Canterbury pilgrims met one ordinary night at the Tabard Inn, "all sorts of people who had met by chance," ("sondry folk, by adventure y-falle in felawshipe," reads the Old English). Randomly and marvelously thrown together by chance, in a shared sense of journeying, each could freely disclose something of their lives. Traveling has a way of inspiring that. Timelessly, Chaucer used the setting of a tavern, though it might be a café, a common room at work, or an airport. Hostelries and shared spaces, long and short-term, manifest in numerous forms. For each, our wanderings call us in to port, bedecked much like the sojourners from the Middle Ages- with satchels and rucksacks, sandals and hats, chalices and rations of nourishment, books and reminders. We adorn ourselves like wayfarers and adventurers. On our way somewhere, but stopping en route. The landmarks may be transitory, or places in which we are recognized. At one coffeehouse, the staff already knows what I’ll order, and they simply fill a mug for me. At another which I’ve patronized for a dozen years, there is always a welcome; it’s where I used to do my homework. That particular café is written into my journals as The Familiar Perch. It’s good for me to walk there and write, especially when I sense a loss of direction. But the journey is sweeter when shared among travelers, the stories being colorful biographies spoken forth by their respective authors. In so doing, we discover our context, and it matters less if such settings are fleeting and not to be seen again, or in our own neighborhoods.