Saturday, February 16, 2008

advance and aspire

"Comment tout voir à la lumière du Ressuscité et de l’avenir qu’il inaugure? Et l’on discerne soudain ici le rapport intime qui articule l’espérance et l’éverveillement. Car c’est le propre de l’espérance que de vouloir tout considérer à partir de cet avenir de Dieu. C’est elle qui voit le monde et notre vie de manière symbolique."

~ frère Pierre-Yves de Taizé, Le Souffle de l’Espérance, p.127.

Much as I would delight in the immersion of my musings in uninterrupted pensive reverie, alas that has been the exception to the rule. Being constantly about the work of my employment and the oftentimes relentless web of peripheral logistics, my settled thoughts have been fragments at best. Those occasional exceptions, the retreats and pilgrimages, are all the more appreciated as they contrast the chaos and permit me to take my mind off the "next order of business." Here and there, a spell of time to write, that exceeds an hour, allows for a little taste of quiet recollection- rather as a single savory chocolate truffle amidst the perfunctory quotidian comestibles. In that light, I like to think of monastic writings as coming from working hands whose stopping to write has been as occasional as mine. The pauses to recollect being incidental and en route to various portions of the day, airy counterforms between rigid tasks- all of which offer their own sense of the sacred. Surely the day’s obligations, interactions, and surprises add color to the moments during which we can reflect. Ensconced in the ancient volumes of The Philokalia, the gently scribed words of St. Diadochos of Photiki encourage meditative remembrance. His writing, in short paragraphs, may have been pieced together throughout a life of work, instruction, and thought. There’s a lot about conscientiousness and entering into the love of God, and wholeness of heart. From there, and with consistent application, one "never loses an intense longing for the illumination of spiritual knowledge, until he senses its strength in his bones and no longer knows himself, but is completely transformed by the love of God." Time is never specified, fortunately, neither the duration of the "untroubled silence" he wrote about, which is to say reflection that is not centered on self. For Diadochos, lowliness unites us with God, and his expression of the spiritual voyage is both modest and profound, describing the seeker as one who "ceaselessly journeys towards God in his soul."

My own journeys have taken many forms- the inward descent to the heart, purposeful physical travels, and even the workday steps which may seem, outwardly, to be mundane and unextraordinary. Again and just as fortunate- time, place, and duration of journey is gratefully undetermined, and one’s heart need only to be open as circumstances constantly unfold. Just this week, while traveling home from a pilgrimage, my thoughts turned to this curious rotation of advancing and aspiring in the spiritual life; and indeed the learning and doing often occur simultaneously. This culture and these times do challenge our aspirations, yet we must remind ourselves that our fields-of-vision cannot reveal all that is. And the unseen can point us to an amazement we can only occasionally and acutely sense. Like Diadochos, though present in this life, we are not solely entrenched in it; though dwelling in what we readily see, yet we depart from it.

From the unseen, we draw references to the eternal- and we can recognize those signs in the beauty we see in our midst. Often, as I continue on, I find the powerful intuitive impressions to be more compelling than what I immediately see. The lines, so to say, and what is read between the lines. What we see, and what we clearly know without seeing. Becoming so accustomed to sound-bites that we even begin speaking in that fashion, and can easily neglect to explore beyond what appears on the surface. It seems there is a societal fear of silence, and that becomes evident in the ways we fill spaces with "white noise," including muzak in elevators and even tiny televisions above gas pumps. I’ve visited churches within which bland recorded music is piped in through sound systems, lest anyone be made uneasy by disarming quiet. What frightful thing could happen, when the controls are shut off, and we can hear our own thoughts? What can emerge from our silences, the quiet contrasting the chaos, that we can carry with us through our days? Need everything be overt and ostentatious, without room for subtlety? The vigilant can develop their own sensibilities, and not passively acquiesce to what gets piped into our environments. Kempis, whose own life was both contemplative and public, said "no one speaks with certainty except the one who would gladly keep silent," adding that it is laudable for spiritual people to be seldom seen. Perhaps that conviction flew in the face of what he saw around him in his time. Pascal, as well, spoke of the hiddenness of the Divine. Concealed at times, but not such that a seeker cannot find. He wrote that "God wishes to move the will rather than the mind," and what may appear to help the mind can harm the will. The glimpses of God’s presence that we experience provide a clarity that dramatically contrasts our obscurities.

While in transit, whether traveling a long way or walking to work, our steps envelop an assortment of paradoxes: seen and unseen, commotion and quiet, surface and hiddenness, spectacular and solace. The other day, I noticed how the late skies reveal this now changing season, and considered what points me toward perceiving the future with hope. I might take the point of view that looks to what I try to keep away from my life, or rather what I prefer to embrace. Indeed, we may concertedly reject indifference and negligence, as a kind of subtractive approach- and we may reach for influences that inspire compassion, as a kind of additive process. Surely, both do occur, and we witness this in our own progress. More often than not, I’ve been pursuing my own forms of purgation and absorption. Though, at times, parts of my life seemed to purge me from them- and after assiduous rebuilding efforts I’ve reached many gratitudes, not only for what I came to live well without- but also for knowing what to keep away from myself. And recently, while making my way home, my thoughts turned to the everlasting pilgrimage- the one that goes on regardless of time, place, or momentary destination- whether the scenery involves a shrine or my place of work. Knowing the source of inner joy and a compassion that benefits others, how is it possible to continue returning to that rejuvenating source? As well, a knowledge of ones spiritual center is one thing, but it would be of little avail without cultivating an inherent nature that knows to consistently orient oneself to that Source.

On an occasion last week, I sought the quiet space of a large cathedral. Its greyness matched the monochromatic pallor of neighboring office buildings. I might’ve expected it, but was still quite surprised at the glowing ambience of brilliant colors and warm woodtones within. Cerulean hues and stained glass reflected and transmitted what the overcast skies and grey streets could not. The overall contrast was amazing to me, and it brought to mind the vitality of a quiet sense of wonder. I am finding that a contemplative sense of amazement in the ordinary is a way of conscious perception that prompts me to continue seeing things in new ways. Wonder is a stillness that remains in motion, allowing me to find the good in what I experience, and a way to continually renew my view of life. For the intuitive soul, when seeing and realizing have no words, quiet wonder is a calm that has no need. It is in itself a discipline, yet also a gift of the Spirit- and many times it requires an effort not to let my years and setbacks cause a jadedness to cloud my view of the present. And so that vital glowing ember known as wonder must be carefully and vigilantly tended. Wonderment and hope are interconnected, the two practical concepts inspire one another. In my experiences, when I have not been able to find either of these perspectives, there have been people in my life to bring light to what is astonishing and what is hopeful. As with vivid colors setting forth from ashen greys, from deserted places the soul takes flight.

Lest contemplative practice appear to be an end in itself, and it can, it most surely mustn’t be anything less than a movement from self-conscious, to conscientiousness, to a consciousness of others and, indeed, of God. The learning itself continues to be an immensely satisfying journey, expanding and focusing further as I go. Our perspectives are transformed as we advance, and perhaps we find our vision becomes transformative, as we interact and engage our lives with those around us. Last week, I listened to a monk of Taizé speak about the fire of reconciliation, distinguishing between the choice of faith compared to fear, and that in so doing we begin notice how much of our culture is based upon reactions to fear. Listening to this monk, while pencilling notes and propping my small notebook against my guitar and music-stand, his French translates to this effect: "Rather than to base our lives on fears, and upon what we deem to be impossible, consider how God gives us something else upon which to build our lives- in the Holy Spirit. That’s where we find freedom. Not in fear. To dwell in fear is to refuse life. The Holy Spirit is life, and that means we can and must take the risks to pursue lives of communion with one another." In the happy irony of celebrating risen life, I needed to stop writing and resume playing music. At the next interlude, I wrote further in my little notebook that our hearts bid us to advance further on, and we must have the courage to say yes to that with our lives.

(I am at the lower right corner of this photo.)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

en route

"I loved to choose and see my path;
but now lead thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
pride ruled my will: remember not past years!

So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still
will lead me on.
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent,
till the night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
which I have loved long since, and lost awhile! "

~ John Henry Newman, Lead, Kindly Light

Saturday, February 2, 2008

the time being

and gentle be present
to all you’ve ever
close kept in your loving heart.
Try to remember the moments
when you felt clearly
the gift to be truly alive.
Often look up
and see the splendor
of life suspended
in your heart and mind"

~ The Monks of Weston Priory, Listen

In the swirling sea of workday scurrying, the quietly written word is a ready refuge. Much as it is when savoring a hot cup of coffee, seated in a café or at my desk at home. Ironically, a beverage reputed to give one the jitters turns out to be a sane and soothing intermission. So it is just the same, once notebook and pencil are produced in just about any given environment. Recollection, it seems, is never out of season- and this occasion is as many: neither one of hardship nor extraordinary wonder. Not an extreme condition today, but one of calm waters- which is in itself an unusual experience for me. But gathering thoughts and making notes do not subsist on crises. Neither does an active life. Indeed, intertwined in the spiritual life, thought-gathering and prayer are for all days, and the passage of time simply draws connections among successive beginnings.

Contemplative disciplines are put to a challenging test, when quiet reflection must be pried out from between the day’s structures; and perhaps the extra layer of living a monastic temperament in a culture that insists upon filling each moment with noise, is to creatively find ways to nurture the spirit. Even stopping to read a few sacred words, and make some notes during my "union-made" coffee breaks, makes the day more of a puddle-jump than a desert- rather like "praying the hours," en route to a lengthier devotion. But, truly, those short recitations that punctuate the daytime do allow for just enough time to pause, sustaining just to notice all that is in motion. Indeed, being intuitive, there is no set length for a meditative silence; I’ve found that even through varying my walk to work there is a chance to sense the moment’s light and air, and learning to perceive my steps as a sequence of beginnings I am rethinking my views about the routines that can constrain. I’d rather look at what parts of the thought process, and ways of being and working, can be varied with a more appropriate attention to what is immediately present. Stillness and silence are not really necessary, although arriving at places of calm waters present images much more clearly- even as looking in a glass.

Today, a rare day off, is one of relief and simplicity. Sunny, mild, and uneventful, that is itself an event. This is the time being: a taste of Ordinary Time. In the context of Lectio Divina, Ordinary Time appears at first to be a demeaning term for those spans of days between the ancient liturgical feast days. If we carry the metaphor out a bit, we could say the unspectacular helps define the grand- even enabling us to blend the two. One can feast only so much, those simpler meals can be gratifyingly uncomplicated, and the cleanup is surely easier. Perhaps our own Ordinary Time constitutes the spaces of varying durations during which life really transpires. My own personal journey can attest to defining events, but that time being, those innumerable liminal spaces such as today, can teach us much about our approaches to the lives presented to us. Each and every time I travel on my pilgrimages, no matter their distance or duration, my heart always reaches a point at which I become so eager to return to the life-routine I had set aside, that it even becomes difficult to meditate on the Divine Hours. Is it unusual to long for Ordinary Time, for the lessons and exams that connect the recesses? Heights of mountaintops are best noticed from the familiarities of valleys and plains. Each time I conclude sojourns at the Weston Priory, or Taizé, I find some quiet space to write, collecting some thoughts, and each time I find myself impatient to apply new learning and to return to the turbulence of "the world." But at the instant I begin to separate the spheres of my life, I find they are really all enmeshed- and all essential for the long journey. "Prayer is the laying-aside of thoughts," observed Evagrios, in the ancient Philokalia, very, very simply reminding us of the portability and versatility of the contemplative life.

To be sure, Ordinary Time need not imply dullness or emptiness. Far from that. Moving through our days, with time’s passage as something of a separate pilgrimage parallel to our own, the ordinary need not be construed as some kind of frozen stagnation. We continue to breathe, move, and find our being. Using the lexicon of his days, the late-19th century Scotsman Oswald Chambers colorfully addressed the exercise of gleaning from the ordinary as "discipleship in the drudgery." One might superimpose the word "commonplace" upon "drudgery" of the 1890s, or just enjoy his austere language. "If we will arise and shine," observed Chambers, "drudgery becomes divinely transfigured." Essentially, the touchstone of character is revealed in how we live the commonplace. Chambers even added, "The great hindrance in spiritual life is that we will look for big things to do." The sublime is not found in the ostentatious, but in the proverbial still small voice. And even within Chambers’ puritanical teaching, a wondrously subtle appeal comes forth: "we have to take the first step as though there were no God." Ennobling what we might call the unnoticed, he offered, "take the next step when there is no vision and no spectator." The time being has a dynamism all its own, not to be wished away, and when our time is less replete with our own concerns, more room can be made for people and more in our midst to appreciate. Prayers fulfilled do not give way to emptiness, but indeed inspire more new aspirations.

Now these notes have seen my steps migrate from the staff room at work, to my neighborhood laundromat, to my desk at midnight, to this particular waterfront café as I assume the Familiar Perch at a round-topped table in the window. This morning February second pretends to be late-March, as the sun heats up this keyboard. We are months away from any tourist season, and so the street outside is animated with us locals, ambling the cobblestones and bricks, browsing and breathing with the mobility of not needing layers of scarves, gloves, and heavy coats. Not exactly ordinary. Indoors the din of chatter, music, and the grinding of coffee, provides the basis for the moment. This is the place where I’d escape to write term papers, with just enough "din" and just enough solitude- with a great view to the strolling street of shifting light. My steaming coffee turbidly vies for my attention, lest it cool too much for both scent and taste. Fear not the future, for the refill is free. Now, my hope is to cease perceiving the day-to-day as some sort of treadmill existence (as I used to do). This may be what we might call Ordinary Time, but the hours’ movement, by nature, informs me this moment is as provisional and fleeting as the more "outstanding" events. The familiar is now remarkable and noteworthy, and this very day is the journey’s destination. This precise moment, whether it be this one upon my writing- or another upon your reading- or ours upon our contemplating- is surely the precise place for a beginning.