"Reach out to pierce the darkness above.
Yes, beat upon that thick cloud of unknowing
with the dart of your loving desire and do not cease, come what may."
~ The Cloud of Unknowing, ch.7
Swirls of billowing snow glittered over the narrows of Beacon Street outside, as I could see through the upward-reaching windows of the Boston Athenaeum Library. Prolific snowfall visible between the interior’s carefully stocked bookshelves provided the background for a midday Baroque recital. I’d already scavenged a few tomes from the lower stacks, before walking into the impromptu concert hall; and so I sat holding fast to the books lest a five-pound hardcover hit the floor during an adagio. Grateful for my rare, reflective pause, there was a noticeable stillness to find- between the sprightly trills of Couperin and Bach directly in front of me, and the noiselessly feathering snow outdoors. It was one of those consoling moments during which I felt pronouncedly rooted in the very space and time beneath my feet. As it is with a savory meal, occasionally a forceful sense of place can be as prominent as the action one may be occupied with. During a summer of landscape-photographing in Norway, I stopped in the astonishingly beautiful mountainous seaside city of Bergen. As anyone might imagine, the amazement of a new and enchanting place can inspire a visual artist to rather ceaselessly explore- without much thought of rest. Well, on an afternoon of a memorable day’s photographing in an area along a fjord, the combination of exhaustion and wonder had drawn me to an extraordinarily peaceful place. At the summit of a green and sunlit hill, with trees and small medieval houses behind me and the ocean at the fore, I set down my heavy backpack of four-by-five film holders, the large camera, and all the bulky gear, and enjoyed an indelible repose. Part of the memory is wrapped up in the terrain- so steeply inclined that although lying on my back I could see straight out to the glistening water. And, just as that instant in the library, there are moments and places that can assimilate our being. The long journey traces a delicate path, and if our soul’s yearnings are unclear in the flailing, they surely come to our consciousness as we welcome more consoling moments.
As contemplation balances action, reading balances writing, and learning balances application, marathons of striving are offset by a solace that surprises. To arrive at a stride without overt or adversarial struggle is an entirely new predicament. So many of us become conditioned by enough discouraging experiences to expect "another shoe to drop," when our attention gets momentarily diverted from a joyous time in our lives. "Hope for the best; expect the worst," goes the old Mel Brooks song, and perhaps that speaks for a great many of us who call ourselves optimists. Indeed, it’s long about time this shoe-dropping business gets shaken away from its axiomatic pedestal. The cutting edge, as I’ve been recently learning, is not to stand still- surely no less when turning a corner onto level and well-lit roads, but to continue building upon the hard-earned aspirations that have brought me to this day. On this day of frosted exteriors and hushed, white-capped surfaces, this time for listening is not passive, but is a movement of trust. Here is an open door to meditate upon what I’ve learned, and also to challenge that veiled pessimism which has conditioned many of us to negatively anticipate- when we see goodness (and more potential for still more goodness) around us. Indeed this is an uncharacteristic frame of reference, but a welcome one: to explore and inhabit a new reality of evolving awareness and concerns that extend far beyond immediate survival.
Reaching a place of contemplative calm, this time, is without thunderous spectacle. But this is a turning-point, and these are steps I have walked with circumspectly in the past few months. And, as the paradoxes of grasp-and-release come to mind, we may revisit the ancient words that speak to the familiar scenario of pursuing conflicting ends. In Matthew we read the expression as "serving two masters," and we might adapt the concept as "playing on two opposing teams," or as I’d seen in the corporate sphere, "working for two disagreeing bosses." In the discourse following the Sermon on the Mount, the essence revolved around giving the all of oneself to the Eternal versus enslaving oneself to material trappings that intrinsically do not last. "Care not for the morrow, but let the morrow care for itself: for the day present has ever enough of its own troubles." In that bidding is an exercise of faith- of trust that there mustn’t be an apprehension about what may follow. The crossroad of trust and fear is constantly presented before our steps. In that sense, there are numerous turning-points, whether or not amidst personal quiet spells. And somehow, by turning one’s attention away from self, and onto the fullness of this voyage, the range of what we can appreciate attains an expanse. Indeed, within that expanded awareness are innumerable treasures. Thankfully, we loom less largely in an aggrandizing milieu, and with an awakened vision the ordinary is transfigured. Commonplace occurrences, such as conversations, noticing the symmetry of street corners, meals, baths, and streams of inspired written words, draw us to tastes of rarified grace. I am relieved to look away from outdated notions, and to turn to things that are more complete and full. Out of the lengthy and deliberately-paced film Into Great Silence, the portion which has remained with me- more than the mountainous landscape and the ancient stone monastery- is the sequence which shows a monk repairing one of his boots. He aligns the pieces and applies the adhesive with a sacramental attentiveness, and then has the patient wisdom to allow the glue to very slightly begin to dry before finishing the job. Assembling the essentials takes time and devoted care.
If by releasing our imagined hold, we more fully comprehend, then indeed by unknowing we may come to know. For me, this has been a consoling relief, not to require some sort of highly-detailed itinerary of life (if such credible things ever existed). I appreciate that not all things are spelled out- and further how not all concepts are meant to be scripted outside of being lived realities. It seems for us to really set our hearts in a particular direction, we need to know- whether cognitively or intuitively- just enough so that we have the essentials to move forward. I have not minded the mixture of verifiable knowing, with a purposeful obscurity. An integral component in how I made my livelihood for nearly 14 years was to create imagery in a completely dark chamber. From the crepuscular pitch blackness of photographic darkrooms, I would bring forth colorful and silver-engraved imagery on every manner of still film and paper. The only light, when there was any, came from the pinpoint-focused enlarger light sources which blended the mixed colors and densities that I would very carefully calibrate. It was a way of daily life and living, and no matter the weather or current events outside, there was the darkroom: an otherworldly blending of the intense stresses of production, a pervading element of uncertainty in the accomplishments of problem-solving, and the oddly tranquil bandaged darkness that would prompt meditations to offset the output demands. Always in very close quarters, and ever with muted vinegar-like odors. Between occasional consultations, those long stretches in the darkroom tended to exaggerate whatever I would seem to carry in with me from outside. Perhaps it is inherent to solitary darkness, that both solace and anxiety alike would be subject to the effects of confrontational shadows. In that combination of practicality and mystery, and when I’d be absent from the studio, the consciousness of the work of crafting light out of the darkness would remain. Many times, during the height of production, it did not always occur to me that I was working in lightless spaces; imagine doing extremely precise work- more by intuition than by sight.
Workplace adventures join with the lengthening reach of all life experiences- even the humblest and most unspectacular- or those "pictures" our minds might "take," when we find ourselves beholding a veritable collage of image and sound (and weather). Foraging through literal darkness and light alike lends profound metaphor to an evolving contemplative life. All that we go through- discoveries and setbacks- enrich our inner solitude. In his book, The Inner Eye of Love, William Johnston wrote:
"When the eye of love becomes accustomed to the dark,
it perceives that the darkness is light
and the void is plenitude."
By such perspective it is possible to see how the Spirit guides us through every form of life-situation, and the force of creation indeed originates from beyond ourselves. Dionysius the Areopagite wrote of "the ray of Divine darkness," and how a prayerful life journey teaches us to know with our inner eyes. In the fullness of the spiritual journey, he reflected that love- in the entirety of its meaning- is the motivating force. Using the example of Moses’ ascent into the dark and clouded mountain, it was "by great love" that he was drawn forward and on to unprecedented heights. To embrace the darkness and unknowing- not as forbidding obstacles, but as brilliant passages- is to welcome the mystery of calling yet to be finely articulated.