Sunday, July 29, 2007

sur la terre comme au ciel

"When the little prince arrived on the Earth, he was very much surprised not to see any people.
He was beginning to be afraid he had come to the wrong planet, when a coil of gold, the color of the moonlight, flashed across the sand. ‘Good evening,’ said the little prince courteously. ‘Good evening,’ said the snake. ‘What planet is this on which I have come down?’ asked the little prince. ‘This is the Earth; this is Africa,’ the snake answered. ‘Ah! Then there are no people on the Earth?’ ‘This is the desert. There are no people in the desert. The Earth is large,’ said the snake.

The little prince sat down on a stone, and raised his eyes toward the sky. ‘I wonder,’ he said, ‘whether the stars are set alight in heaven so that one day each one of us may find his own again... Look at my planet. It is right there above us. But how far away it is!’"

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince (ch XVII)

Writing a one-sided commentary on the topic of paradox is itself an ironic contradiction. But it’s surely worth a try (or two), especially as the unconscious becomes conscious and as life’s complexities that purport to run in opposites actually manifest in an unspoken unity. So, here is at least a first attempt. Surely, part of what happily liberates those of us who write alongside our days is the simple criterion that some matter must occupy our thoughts enough to warrant writing about it. Thus far, I have found that articulating the unspoken gives way to new awareness, rather than spoil any gained momentum of thought. The beginning of a change is sparked at the moment we notice something.

Rich Mullins, whose songs had a startling sense of raw poetry, had a song called, "We Are Not As Strong as We Think We Are," in which he observed, "we are frail, we are fearfully and wonderfully made." These lyrics come to mind, when considering such entwined paradoxical ideas as weakness and strength, provisional and eternal, with proximity and distance. Mullins’ refrain concludes with,

"Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage
And with these our hells and our heavens
So few inches apart
We must be awfully small
And not as strong as we think we are."

It’s been pointed out to me, over the years, that I live between worlds. In art school, I heard numerous comments about my work and the ways I see the world, straddling ideas and ages. Being repulsed by all that "artspeak" all of us who endured art college had to put up with, I just ignored all the clichés alike. My classmates who fell for such trends as the oversized fields of empty space, the grainy hip-shots, or the shaky strobe look, would offer their insults at my sun-printed kallitypes and quiet reportages. There is, indeed, a fine line between perseverance and stubbornness. Later on, gladly leaving college behind, I had the experience of producing high-tech color composites to pay the bills, then turn around and continue exhibiting my monochromatic meditations. And there was some respect! However, beyond the morass of triteness, following years of experience and changed life circumstances there emerged some truth in this notion of drawing worlds and paradoxical ideas together in one modest life. Many have pointed this out and now I realize some validity, especially as I make note of life’s complexities. And in this terra nova to which my journey finds myself, this time is one of taking stock.

Living between worlds causes me to think of how I’ve never quite fit squarely into any one camp. And perhaps I don’t wish to any more. Those of us who have lived with having been branded as "odd," eluding typecasts, and thus frequently left out of the mainstream (and how that can torture a defenseless child’s soul!), might prefer instead to exult in the kind of eclecticism that frees an individual to weave a range of influences and connections. There is a fulfilling enjoyment in applying the knowledge and background of one side of life and work into another; it becomes possible to relate the unrelated. Why not bring an artist’s intuition to academia, or poetic sense to technology- or reciprocally a logician’s sense to creative processes? If someone notices my use of one lexicon (say, musical lyrics, or sports, or philosophy) interpolated into the verbiage or methodology of another (say, computers, or cooking, or classification), the opportunities for creative kindredship are really quite endless. In fact, you really know you are ever "between worlds," when it happens as a matter of course and your friends are the ones who notice it.

Eclecticism may be noticed when our vision manifests by our actions, but when life between worlds is profoundly at our core, we can see how many facets have shaped who we have become. For my part, I ponder how I inherited stories and traits from various forbears, but have lived an immigrant’s experience of my own. How I moved from ancestral religion to a personal faith, and what enormous cost I endured. Never squarely in one camp or another. European and American; old world and new world. Between community life and solitude, sorrow and hilarity, material culture and spirituality, the temporal and the eternal. What is engraved in granite, and what is sketched in graphite. To connect and to watchfully stand fast; to strive and then to surrender. My comprehension of hopefulness is to seek "third ways," away from intolerant extremes. Having to reluctantly participate in this culture of competition, my compromise is to not be overrun by it, trying to keep a view of what is sacred and timeless amidst such harsh materialism. Articulated so well by the apostle Paul, it’s not "a struggle against flesh and blood,*" which is to say material limitations, but essentially the challenge is to contend with what darkens our paths (les ténèbres de ce siècle).

And being a true eclectic, my paths have been those of pilgrimage voyaging, and searching for the stability of home. There are very few things in life I have consistently cherished more than a heartfelt sense of belonging. It is one of those threads that for me has neither beginning nor end. Little tastes, here and there, of the rarified solace of belonging brought my hungered search to the fore. Place can be both physical and spiritual. Suddenly, during a protracted spell of grieving and desolation, I surprisingly found myself strongly rooted to the place I live. The beginning of coming back to life came in to the form of investing heavily in my city. During that time on a long stay of several weeks in Chicago, when I looked at moving there, I hurried back to Maine homesick, and finding my car at the Portland airport instead of driving home I went directly to the ocean and climbed out on a big seaweed-covered rock. The salty, swirling waves welcomed me at my perch like a big savory soup. In a profoundly definitive way I knew where I was meant to live. Far from where my family had gone, but home where I belong; what a strange and deeply intuitive feeling.

Then there is the kind of belonging which is that of the heart. Certainly, reflections and essays can be devoted to this one concept. Once again, for those who have intimately known exclusion or neglect- benign as that may be- the yearning to belong has a fire that flares in both the presence and the absence of belonging. It is a desire to be embraced by the heart of another, to be recognized among peers, and to tangibly see divine promises we hold dear. Yes, there is the strength of faith, but yes indeed I want to see, too. Rich Mullins said it best, indeed "we are not as strong as we think we are." Fine enough, and so to ponder the value of articulating the paradoxes illustrated in this continuum between worlds? For the moment it suffices to try to understand my own self, and be an understanding presence to others. The savour of the home I seek is the compassion I wish to embody.

* Ephesians 6:12

Friday, July 20, 2007


"Along the road
Your path may wander
A pilgrim’s faith may fail
Absence makes the heart grow stronger
Darkness obscures the trail.

Cursing the quest
Courting disaster
Measureless nights forebode
Moments of rest
Glimpses of laughter
Are treasured along the road.

Along the road
Your steps may tumble
Your thoughts may start to stray
But through it all a heart held humble
Levels and lights your way."

~ Dan Fogelberg, Along the Road

It is consoling to know that pilgrimage as a practical way of spiritual life is not always relegated to the margins of asceticism. Indeed, just as a mystic’s viewpoint creatively interprets symbols and meanings, a similar poetic extension applies when we consider the unending sacred voyage of a pilgrim soul. And there need not be a specific time period for this to find relevance. Sojourning by air and ground transit, or in the newest hiking boots, need not lessen the intentions and substance of our heart-driven travels from the epoch of those who rowed the Irish Sea or braved dark lengths of crime-infested pre-medieval roads, on the way to places of significance peregrinatio pro Dei amore. If the destination cannot be easily reached today, surely by tonight’s rest we shall have arrived at a new stage on the pilgrimage of trust.

Saint Columba, a Celt of the 6th century, asserted that pilgrimage is of the essence for those who will advance their lives as response to the gifts of grace. Some of these journeying Celtic monks would discard their oars, and allow their canoe-like coracles to be simply carried by the tides to whither destiny would carry them. The ocean was the place of desert-wandering, for such island dwellers, and "the land would be reached," wrote Columba’s chronicler Saint Adamnan, "only by those who desire God." The 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing regards the concept of distance at a number of levels, encouraging the hearty young disciple that, "journeying ahead to our future with God is measured by desire, rather than by miles." Obviously the metaphors emanating from spiritual pilgrimage abound, and when the journey is regarded as both interior and exterior, I can easily see how essential is this perspective that makes it possible to view our lives in forms that recognize our very steps. Between the occasional mountaintop experience is the walk home from work, during which the person who stops to talk says something I needed to hear. And I notice the sunset as I turn to my street. The pilgrim’s way-station has been among the vineyards of Burgundy, as well as my simple dining table supporting a steaming bowl of coffee. Our landmarks develop as we proceed. And by this very nature, that of an unfolding, the life of moving forward in trust takes on a liminal aspect that inspires our spirits against stagnation. A threshold is something to be appreciated, particularly when its significance becomes clear. Thresholds are places, indeed, however they are typically antechambers transitioning from an exited space to a new environment.

The first time I’d ever driven halfway across the country, I covered about eight hundred miles on the first stage of the trip. The adventure took me through some unfamiliar roads traversing place names that were equally unknown to me. In the process, a rainstorm tore off my back window wiper blade. My stopping place was surely equal to the mileage, as I was joyously welcomed by complete strangers who were friends of friends of mine. They didn’t know what I’d look like, either, but for the rare sight of Maine license plates. And truly, with all matters being those of the moment, people want to hear a voyager’s stories: not just the weather and road conditions, but “what kind of work do you do?” and “where are you headed?” and “how do you like this part of the country?” Conversely, I want to hear stories, too.

Journeying calls to mind how we attach to places and yet how we detach from our beginnings and stopping-points, even as memories accompany our collected steps. The anonymous writer of the Cloud of Unknowing used the expression “nothing and nowhere,” in a fascinating description of the life of interior devotion. During several days of mountain hiking, I thought and wrote much about this esoteric idea. Suffice it to say for this writing, my musings turned to wonder as it became clear to me that when the medieval writer sought to detach from material justification (or what Thomas Merton called “the false self”) and choose to journey from his inner self, his “nothing and nowhere” was indeed an everything and an everywhere. The grandeur of creation transcends property and place. Sojourning in the spirit of trust can attest to this. If there is truth to the adage that we become the stories we tell about ourselves, might we become our journeys? Perhaps a beginning to a response to this question is to consider what is sought on this voyage of incremental sojourns. And surely, though a destination captivates our hearts- even that which we have neither seen nor heard nor dared to imagine- there is movement to be embraced and cherished.

Sunday, July 8, 2007


"We need not destroy any minor good in ourselves for the sake of a better,
but we should strive to grasp every truth in its highest meaning,
for no one good contradicts another."

~ Meister Eckhart, from his Counsels on Discernment

Aspiration meets a stifling challenge when our hopes shout into the winds of what try to convince us of the impossible. Certainly there is an appeal in a self-portrayal as hopeful, even superficially wearing the "positive" clichés. Indeed there is much to derive by directing ourselves in constructive directions, and clear skies provide plenty of visibility and sunlight for cultivating potential. And what of these beliefs when night falls, when daylight is obscured, and our senses become unusually cognizant of news stories that coincidentally feed the momentum of our fears? What happens when our sense of daring becomes elusive? Yesterday, during a high-speed highway drive a sudden torrential rainstorm struck. In spite of my careful navigation at a more moderate rate of travel, there were enough others hurtling their hydroplaning vehicles into left lanes, rushing to I-don’t-know-where (inevitably ending up a mere car-length ahead of me at the toll gate), slamming tidal waves of rain into neighboring pathways. On several occasions, I experienced that startling phenomenon of moving with a barraged windshield such that it was absolutely impossible to see more that a seamless wall of water. It would be like driving blindfolded among others having to do the same. Seconds as slow as hours. It’s still with me, and causes me to imagine how momentarily obscured vision can intensely differ from an utter loss of spiritual horizons.

Blaise Pascal had once warned that "if the small annoyances can discourage, just imagine what something major could do to you." Pascal was offering some perspective, perhaps speaking from his experience of maintaining determination while suffering incessant physical pain. Equally disciplined, yet coming from another vantage point, Meister Eckhart offered "it is harder at times for one to endure one little word of contempt, which is really insignificant, while it would be easier for that person to suffer a heavy blow against which we can steel ourselves." Further, Eckhart added, "it is much harder to be alone in a crowd than in the desert, and it is much harder to abandon some little thing than a big one." What might appear to be a quantitatively small matter could be qualitatively decisive. Have you ever lost those little pieces of metal called house keys? Ever have a bicycle encounter with a negotiably visible fragment of glass? Well then, what is insignificance, anyway? For those who have endured both scenarios of abrupt brutality and of gradual neglect, the traumatic effects can be quite similar. And so Pascal’s and Eckhart’s angles are reconciled in the wise resolve to choose attentive vigilance.

Our collected years can bring us to either barricade our hearts into fortified resistance, or to a strength of recollection that sensitizes our hearts into open compassion. The latter way incorporates the challenge to vigilantly patrol the heart, to keep focused upon what causes our hopes to surge up above the surface of what we deem as our limits. It is buoyancy in the drudgery, the type of hope that locks horns with the insurmountable. Staying confident while we easily find what appears to be enough evidence to abandon faith. Vigilance of vision can exhaust the human spirit, and invariably, with weary steps, we find the limits to our mortal striving. But thankfully, if vision becomes clouded and soreness derails, we can remind one another that discouragement is the "almost-worthy" opponent, because truly it cannot overpower the brilliance of our passionate yearning.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

earth moving

"Looking back at the road so far
The journey's left its share of scars
Mostly from leaving the narrow and straight.

All that I was
So afraid of
Though I questioned the sky
Now I see why.

Had to walk the rocks
to see the mountain view.
Looking back
I see the lead of love."

~ Caedmon's Call, Lead of Love

The ancient trove of monastic thought The Philokalia, comprises the words of desert-voyaging contemplatives who made a tenacious practice of "guarding the heart," or what we might consider a conscious watchfulness, as they lived their common lives. St. Symeon wrote of his community’s meditations as "investigating thoughts and guarding of the intellect," and how his brethren "worked the earth of their own hearts, and in this way they were fed on divine manna." Another of the writers, Nikiphorus the Monk used the expression, "the custody of the heart," and that brings me to consider how we may be conscientious stewards of our innermost depths through which we commune with the divine.

When it’s possible to enjoy some stillness- even simply an intermission from layers of activity and time constraints- I’ve been able to appreciate the panoramic view and "take stock." The first time I’d ever heard of the term "stock-taking," was in English Comp. as an undergrad. It was in the context of assembling knowledge en route to writing term papers. So why not put a spiritual spin on pedagogical directives about putting intellectual material together into something potentially coherent? Here is Taking Stock, according to Kate Turabian’s Student's Guide for Writing College Papers. (ch.4):

"To get anywhere, one first has to start.
And a good way to start the outline is to jot down quickly and at random all the ideas you have about the topic, asking what there is of interest that you want to pass along."

Not that we want to frame our hearts’ yearnings in M.L.A. Format! There is, however, something poetically wonderful about jotting the quick and the random, but rather than as some sort of obligatory task to be graded, it is for the sake of descending silently into the profundity of the heart and then to rise and transcend with the Holy Spirit.

The silent spaces may present themselves by traveling, and I’m grateful for all the pilgrimage opportunities I’ve made in various places and communities. Looking at years of adventurous journal entries written at the Weston Priory, I see my references to the place as "the soul clinic." Among numerous travels there, some of the retreats have occurred in the context of seeking shelter from duress. And very simply, in participating in the common life, my center moves away from self, and thus my baggage dissolves. It brings to mind how Thomas Merton would ask himself, "who is the ‘I’ that you imagine yourself to be?" What is illusory, and what is reality? So, I learn to take stock. The mountain retreats and transatlantic voyages require rather extraordinary resources and time, but with the ancient desert wisdom which bids us to "take our silences with us, wherever we go," it is possible for me to bring that moveable feast of contemplation to simple outdoor errands, and journal-writing in cafés. The important thing, regardless of place, is to listen with the ear of the heart.

Times that allow us to "take stock" provide vantage points to see where we are along the journey. Where have we been, and where are we going? Such can be articulated with the simple luxury of regathering. It seems a luxuriating thing to do, these days, because there needs to be a deliberate effort to quiet one’s environment and clear away distractions. The human soul can "multi-task" only so much, and then purported "efficiency" becomes very costly. What are our points of reference? During a shattering crisis, when my perception was too clouded to see clearly, my sister provided the "stock-taking" for me, simply but assertively reminding me of my options and gifts when all I saw was a personal dead end. Sometimes we are in the role of seeing for one another. Taking stock is also considering what I take for granted, and consciously asking myself "so, what’s good?" while this culture has a slant that emphasizes what’s wrong or what we are supposed to have in order to be "worthy" and "successful." Taking stock is also "taking heart," remembering things that have worked out well, and useful things learned. Once in a while, I’ll read journal entries of exactly a year ago- or two, or three, or four years ago- previous to whatever today’s date might be. Re-reading thoughts can be a startling reminder, even a cryptic guide, mementos from another time. Serendipitous moments, such as when friends stop on the street to chat, remind me of how we can profoundly reassure one another.

Reminders of promise often come from unexpected sources.