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.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Abraham, this is lovely! Great picture, nice effect. Great quote-"fear not the future for the refills are free!" and great thoughts about contemplation. Makes me feel a bit guilty. I'm such a slacker. I know I rightly have every excuse in the world-work, family on and on but still, how much I long to find a little quiet for God alone in my busy days. For so long I've been wanting to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, at least Lauds and Vespers. Truth is I'm just lazy, lazy at prayer, at work, at exercise. I am in dire need of a spiritual and physical boost! I used to be a runner and it was a great time to pray and contemplate. Time to get back to it I think!