Thursday, April 3, 2008


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"The way to recover the meaning of life and the worthwhileness of life is to recover the power to experience, to have impulse voices from within and to be able to hear those impulse voices from within- and make the point: This can be done."

~ Abraham Maslow, from Memorial Volume

The observation phrased above emphasizes a recovery of a sense of meaning, a cultivation of intuition, as if a fine sensitivity had been lost. So many of us are well familiar with intermittent streams of consciousness and the sort of schedule-juggling, multi-tasking that can numb the senses. At times, we are foraging to recover by recollection, but then we discover anew- as though noticing the first crocus of spring for the first time. The ways we perceive can bring newness to the familiar. As I consider my own voyage today, rather than to focus on recovering, I am much more interested in maintaining and nurturing the power to experience. For beginnings to find their fulfillment, there must be a consistent follow-through of continued discovery. The adventure of learning experiences converts to its culminating dimension with application.

Regarding the spiritual life, too much emphasis is placed upon the starting line. To front-load narratives of spirituality with introductory references, practitioners are left at those initial stages and become understandably discouraged once the primrose path meets inevitable deserts of trials. Much more can be attempted in the direction of developing new ways of trust- though outwardly unspectacular, it is vital. And we need one another, so that our steps may progress away from theoretical beginnings, and into the continuities of real life. My own experience has been challenged by the necessity of seeking out substantial sources, having to explore far beyond exhausted superficialities that are set before too many of us, purported to be sufficient. The ability to experience may be the sustained discipline that will move a soul from recovery to consistent practice.

There is always something to learn, and by holding to that principle, one really can pursue an acumen that savors experience. Within the discipline of learning is an acquired distaste for losing the practice, a wariness of the wages of stagnation. It is a kind of solicitude; a concern that finds its rest in vigilance. If our uneasiness with status quos brings us to re-evaluate our perceptions, then a watchful vigilance is a way to stabilize that sense of impatience which accompanies a thirst for the Spirit while contending with hardships. I like to think of vigilance as devotionally keeping watch- having all senses awakened. Vigil lights are burning candles, and for many these are visible acts of prayer that signify watchfulness. It is a mark of silent dedication that shines outward, especially as contrasted by darkness. Souls that desire the well-being of others, want to give of themselves. What we had brought ourselves to believe as our own will, may have to be sacrificed- yet we go forth gladly, persuaded by the affirming movements of our hearts. But it is not all blind stirrings from within, though much can start that way. For me, it continues as vigilance in learning, perceiving, and applying what beneficial experiences I can find. "Be fervent," said Paul to his protégé, Timothy, "be it in season or out of season." This is to say readiness whether convenient or not- or as the Latin presents it: "insta opportune importune."

To be vigilant, even in the quietest of ways, is indeed opposed to passivity. An obvious parallel is how, at various monitoring intervals, I’ve seen monks silently looking after votive lights in monastery halls and chapels- day and night. And never disruptively. Once in a while, when I’m tending the wick of a candle or an oil lamp in my home, the image of Brother Daniel carefully peering around corners of the night chapel at Weston Priory comes to mind. That watchful tenacity of just-making-sure is silent, save for the scuffing of sandals on the flagstones. The first photo studio job I had, after finishing art college, involved working for an energetic and jovial photographer who had taken his childhood family-business and Navy experiences into our field, which was commercial photography. He was a good sport, and could handle the rest of us making fun of his "time to lean, time to clean" adages during slower production times. He taught us some impressive methods to get to a final print in the fewest steps, and very quickly- and that oddly militaristic streak would emerge when he’d see one of us trying to print, wedged and weighed to countertops on our elbows. "Off your elbows!" he’d coach; "you can’t do anything on your elbows!" Talk about solicitude. Strangely enough, years and many employers later, that little paroxysm has been a motto for my efforts. And its definition reaches a lot farther than photo enlargers and color printing. When I think of the wholehearted effort needed to thoroughly accomplish a task, I remind myself that it cannot be achieved merely on my elbows. My fellow calligraphers will also recognize how we’ve been taught to write from our shoulders; no bold stroke can emanate from a wrist- or for that matter, an elbow.

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The other evening, I was turning my shortwave radio in a variety of directions, twisting a coil of copper wire, all to retain a distant signal. Then, by day, I’m researching through arcane documents and scanning electronic utilities to find information to help other historians. What is really worth our vigilance? To what lengths will we go, and how much will we spend, in order to find what we seek? Have you wondered, much later, at the crazy efforts you’ve made in order to reach a place, or find an object, or complete some venture? Among my photo media of choice is kallityping- a method of solar contact printing that demands very bright sunlight. Before sensitizing paper for a day’s printing, I must be sure of clear weather forecasts the night before. On one occasion, after a satisfyingly productive afternoon, I set up one last landscape print- on a large sheet of paper. The image took longer than the previous ones to print, due to the gradually departing light. Evaluating the darkening details in five-minute intervals, it repeatedly seemed as though I needed just a bit more light. So I began moving my easel further down the street from my front stoop, trying to catch that last light of the day. Eventually, I completed the print while climbing a tree around the corner, two blocks away- just able to gather some light from the setting sun, the 11x14 printing frame held firmly in my extended arms.

The kallitype story made for a great anecdote during its exhibit, but indeed not all vigilant undertakings have the anticipated result for which we’ll stick our necks all the way out. Surely, such things are exceptions- especially in lives that incorporate trying many different ways of expression. Amidst numerous enterprises that fall through, it’s easy to remember endeavors that turn out even better than planned. But somehow, the failed attempts, the elusive outcomes- whether explainable or not- can captivate our imaginations. Wanting to know why many things in our lives do not work out- can possess the best of our energies. Weighing what convincingly appears as wasted efforts, dividing regrets between the avoidable ones and the inevitable ones, becomes a terrible fog bank between where we stand at this pulsating instant and the fresh paths ahead. Indeed, exhumed pasts risk becoming more influential than the present, where we live and breathe and have our being. Oh, how the what-had-been can be such an endless, unanswerable curiosity! Its perplexities engender a solicitude all its own. And in my watchful vigilance, I must see to it that expired anguishes not prevail, that the road grit which had been washed away scatters to the four winds. An incidental vigil has come in the form of recording words such as these. Watching thoughts by written observations, in all circumstances, opens a way to pursue, to progress face-forward. The important thing is to continue.

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