"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.
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.