"The water is wide
I cannot get o’er
Neither have I
Wings to fly"
~Water is Wide, 17th century Scottish folk song
Perhaps this has happened to you as well as to me, just recently and as I type these words. Exerting forces and resources all waking hours, while pausing to realize the distances traveled and the arduous work done, a sudden sense of what has transpired and the unknown journeys ahead- has brought my steps to a physical intermission. An extremely rare halt, amidst a life of perpetual motion. It had occurred to me that I had been plodding through barrages of overbooked, restless, and multitasked days- and it was clearly displayed to me in an ordinary moment the other day. My workplace has a top-floor hallway whose length and breadth is encased in glass. Now, with the new novelty of lengthened light, the view outside has come to sharply differentiate from institutionally monochromatic interiors. With the usual returning strides to my work details, those wraparound northwest windows revealed a disruptively long view of bright beckoning blue skies beyond Back Cove. Living on an ocean-oriented peninsula, it’s easy to forget the higher elevations that are west of this place, always present. Racing along the hallway, I couldn’t really stop, but could surely hear my thoughts reflect, "how long away, so near and so far."
The soul longs for the world outside, paradoxically either to retreat or to be immersed. These exhausting days remind me of what a persistent and dizzying haul this voyage can seem. At times the road appears as a gauntlet; with some healed perspective, paths and horizons become invited vistas. Finally, noticing some symptoms of physical illness, I claimed the day off. Of course, it will take more than a fleeting day to completely recharge, but necessity dictates that I regroup just enough to return to the stream of striving. For the moment, I’ve been enjoying a day without a schedule. I get to see how sunlight fills my apartment in the midafternoon. In between intervals of repose, as I suppose it must be for most everyone, thoughts of what tasks need to be done, what ought to have been done, and what may potentially be demanded- introduces another unpleasant cycle. Imagine there are those who are brought to perceive the spiritual life as such! Part of sidelining oneself is the need to not do, to stop, and to recognize that overburdening can harm our souls. How easily we can be conditioned by this culture that ties progress together with over-achievement. On a day like today, I daresay substantial forward movement can manifest without doing- when perception can be cultivated in reflection.
Indeed, there are the myriads of practical necessities that send us all out into the often bizarre marketplace of work experiences, qualifications, ambitions, and titles. And for contemplatives who do not live reclusively, the chaos around us must be offset by tranquility within. And, ironically, the contrast can really energize us. At times it is as though inhabiting two worlds which, on occasion, cannot intersect. But the inner life calls, the Spirit tugs at our hearts- whether we are actively interpreting our lives, or simply regarding circumstances from what may appear to be an inactive distance. And I am finding the inner life to be something of an "outer" life, integrated so as to be indistinguishable and unsegregated from what happens in the day’s interactions. Indeed, a way of being in this world. Thomas Merton wrote about an intuition that transcends the senses- and even the intellect itself. Infused contemplation, he wrote in The Inner Experience, "is characterized by a quality of light in darkness, knowing in unknowing. It is beyond feeling, even beyond concepts." Merton continues by discussing "detachment from sensible realities." Surely no simple matter and indeed a challenge for those who must answer to employers, landlords, bill-collectors, and such unpredictable personalities of which we can each cite our own examples. But, truly, looking to the newly-accentuated scenery reminds me that moving further beyond means progressing deeper within. Engaging the great journey is not only to begin, but also to continue where we are right at this instant, in this one life we have in this world.
The long way ahead can overwhelm, when horizons exhaust and do not excite, it becomes vital that I be watchful of what causes my vigilance to waver. With this in mind, I might return to Merton’s corroboration with the ancients to try and transcend feelings and hindering attachments. But again the challenge abides, to move between detachment and affectation, between looking to unseen, eternal horizons and being very much upon the pavement in this world. Over the years, "looking ahead" has represented a mixture of meanings for me. For an extended period, beginning immediately after college, an obsession with charting my future emphasized my displeasure with the present as it had been. Apparently, what I treasured in daily life seemed to be whisked away from reach, along with elusive goals and breaks that appeared to be allotted to many around me that worked much less diligently than I did. Eventually, as the din of exasperation had been joined by unmanageable crises, it became urgently necessary that I change my perspective- beginning by cherishing the blessings at my door. When perfectionism possesses us, it’s easy to step over sturdy thresholds while lunging at shifting mirages. So I try to be watchful and at peace, liberated of those old unreasonable perfectionist leanings.
When I’m back at work tomorrow, that glassed hallway will become an iconic image. The water, skies, and hills represent a big-picture view of solidity transcending fluidity. I am reminded to look through circumstances, gazing toward the immovable without losing the moment. It causes me to consider what is steadfast and substantial. Is my trust consistently founded upon that which endures, the creating force that far out-endures my intuition? It is reassuring to even pose the question, as so many more thoughts and vantage points are prompted. And while looking forward to renewed strength, it is reinforcing to know that a burgeoning life of conscientious work is amounting to something, and yet even more consoling that it has become but a point of reference and no longer as important to me as it is to confidently move forward. Regaining strength, I hope to be equipped for the indefinite haul, and will embrace the signs of renewal as reminders. Perhaps there is even a spiritual discipline in the simplicity of being reminded.