Thursday, May 29, 2008

graphite night

"Sweet night, in whose blessed fold
No human eye beheld me, and mine eye
None could behold.
Only for Guide had I
His face whom I desired so ardently."

~ San Juan de la Cruz, Dark Night of the Soul

When darkness befalls, or when our steps meet paths of unease and obscurity, we must navigate forward, come what may. It is crucial to move straight through, and not fear to confront our nights of the soul. It seems the more active and conscientious one’s life becomes, the more susceptible to exhaustion, and so in this natural course, reflection and retreat become more than medicinal- but maintenance. As with weather patterns, the dark nights happen; they neither pursue nor do we necessarily pursue them. Indeed, along the voyage of the spirit desolate places will dot our unseen maps.

Crossing deep waters and enduring deserts is not necessarily neatly alternated with pastures and respite. At times, an obscurity that begins to lift from the road will abruptly plunge it back into a thick darkness through which we cannot see. But the survivor within us, honoring the adventure so far, sets us toward navigating a dark night of the soul. The only landmarks are those precious assurances we can recollect. Our coordinates, for a time, must be the blessings we can count (and must trust). We travel on, and that movement is the embodiment of our hopes. It is also our refusal to stand still. Our days on earth are of a duration unknown to us, and so we cannot and must not go backwards. A memory comes to mind of an after-midnight crossing of the vast and lengthy Thousand Islands Bridge in torrential rain. It was impossible to see in any direction- or any other vehicles, for that matter. With just a wisp of a guard rail’s punctuation, I just drove straight ahead.

Venturing through darkness with faith means we do not anticipate in vain. Experiences- both those we are assembling and the stories of our friends- attest to the resolve of wholeheartedly engaging the voyage. The ancient Psalmist emphasized that "weeping may endure for a night, but at morn there is rejoicing." Shadows need not always be perceived in a fearful frame of reference. These may be the places out of which we discover our profoundest consolation and creativity. Formless mysteries call to the hearts of those who long to commune with their Creator, and my own journey has brought me to traverse deep waters and ascend through darkness, plumbing the unseen. It’s rather as one who longs to stagger off for a spell, from the scuffed-up playing arena to the sidelines to regather. Or to the darkroom, after recording images upon many rolls of film in the field. The latent impressions must be processed and developed. I have intimately known the texture of the dark as both cradling consolation, and as fearfully foreboding. As a season of the spirit, the Divine darkness is navigated by spiritual means, and for one who writes, the journey is also explored by the written means that have become vital directionals of navigation. And I am now able to keep in mind how critical are the crossroads through which we can guide ourselves away from the lures of dwelling in darkened false securities, choosing the routes that weave through the seamless, edgeless unknowing and out to open horizons. "The light of grace," wrote Johannes Tauler, "raises nature far above itself."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

la nourriture spirituelle

"To the one that overcomes will I give to eat of the hidden bread from heaven,
And I will give to each one a white stone,
and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one understands
except the one who receives it."

~ Revelation 2:17

"For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.
And having food and clothing let us be therewith content."

~ 1 Timothy 6:7,8

Beginning again, as I am brought once more to see the ends of my own self, this has evidently become a time for rebuilding. Recommencements are not quite as rare as they might sound, especially in the espousing of a life that is in essence a succession of beginnings. Indeed, as no two starts are alike, so our reasons for rethinking our realities must be unique to our circumstances. Ideals are not produced by pre-made molds. Thus, personal renewals manifest in various forms and for different reasons. Our explorations and discoveries may bring us to new realizations- or- new reluctant perceptions seem forced upon us by the elements outside of us within which we play a role. Still, new insights, whether through challenge or welcomed gift, are for me to actively engage by perceiving anew and adapting my efforts. It is easy to lose sight of essentials when days become crammed with complicated demands and extraneous distractions that proliferate as weeds, winding around the cultivated vines of vision. As I continue to learn the disciplines of balance, I am not always tenaciously weeding the garden as I ought, and so eventually many of my restarts become something closer to excavation projects. When a renewal must become more of a resuscitation, not only is a rebuilding from one’s foundation needed, but also the alarms of exhaustion are implicit.

A sure way to change how we perceive and move in this continuum is to amend how we nourish ourselves- physically and spiritually. On this blustery and empty-handed day in May, memories come to mind that cause me to recollect how I’ve had to confront my life with fresh starts for the sake of my own constructive survival. One such occasion entailed making a leap of faith, leaving a university without another opportunity in sight for me to continue my work and learning pursuits. Leading up to the breaking point, each strand of my life’s situations had deteriorated to despairing extents. All that was left, it seemed, was my determination that there were better ways for me to invest my heart, soul, resources, and valuable efforts. Within the protracted anguish was a near-fatal accident which, of course, intensified the sum total of the experience. On the afternoon of the sole occasion in my life in which I had quit something, a job unfinished as it were- but more accurately having leapt from a sinking ship, I set every swirling and burdensome obligation down and made it all stop. While speaking to my best friend on the phone, those immense research projects suddenly looked like absurd piles of paper. My friend persisted in asking me about whether I had been eating properly; "brother, you need to rebuild," he added, giving me his version of a dietary prescription. Through the fatigue and anguish, I could just retain the advice, but putting down the phone, all things hushed, I went outside. No longer facing down, I noticed the late-April sun as I set my bicycle on the pavement and pedaled for the oceanside meadows of Gilsland Farm- a place I hadn’t seen in far too long. Setting the bicycle down, I reclined on a hillside and gazed up at the vast and clean-slated sky. The moment was a cathartic and unexpected gift. I had taken my journal and my tattered Thomas à Kempis with me, and before setting forth to find healthy food, I read a few wise words to begin replenishing my empty reserves and opened my journal to write. "I have come back to life," my words began, realizing I hadn’t written in five months.

Comprehending a lived sense of balance is to maintain steady strength and spirit, and not languish to the point of starvation. Revisiting old journals, I would like to think I’ve gained something. Amid currents of anxiety and instability, I am learning to balance my active involvements with a vigilant proximity to wellsprings of life. The call to pursue a contemplative road comprises a commitment to consistently cultivate a spiritual life. But, as I am finding, built into the pursuit is stewardship: care and repose for the earthen vessels that we are, as well as responsibly procuring spiritual food. Both kinds of nutrients not only strengthen and help us in our forward motion, but also build a resistance to the overwhelming threat of cynicism. Very late one night last week, unable to sleep and too distracted to read, I sought the consoling sounds of the radio. It never ceases to amaze me, when I stumble over one of these nightshift national talk programmes that serve only to stoke the fires of conspiratorialism and paranoia. And since we all know how misery loves company, long queues of listeners chime in and figuratively roll that snowball of destructive fatalism enough to prompt casual inquires to despair for their lives. Needless to say, hardly half an hour’s tales of impending doom, terror invasions, and space aliens were enough to produce a very disturbed night’s sleep. The next morning, I thought about the smokescreens of angst that I encounter at so many turns- including the social circles I daily move through- and could only hold fast to the precious confidence I’ve fiercely tended. Running some errands, my thoughts and my car paused long enough at a stop light for me to pencil these words in my notebook: "broaden the horizons and transcend the malaise." I remembered something I’d learned from the witness of monastic spirituality: to keep myself on the quest for supernal realities, or as Carthusian monks would say- the "superiorum appetitio."

With a few hearty meals and an accumulation of good words from wise and caring people, my prayers are accompanied, and I am looking ahead to some upcoming days of silent reflection. In my experience, a life of both active participation and solitude comprise two elements that nourish one another. Both are part of the rebuilding process, but in retreat, as Thomas Merton expressed in The Silent Life, it is possible to "discover the hidden sweetness of the psalms, the value of study and reading, intense fervor in prayer, the delicate sense of spiritual realities in meditation, the ecstasy of contemplation, and the purifying tears of compunction." Part of this stock-taking is to be reminded of my constant learning, and part of that is how I am informed through contrasts: craving solitude when encroached upon, authenticity when confronted with facades, and strength of faith when burdened by promulgators of fear. A great paradox that parallels the path of the spirit is how our ascending brings us to humility, while being brought low we are raised up to greater heights than before. Many of us recall old sayings about how the foods that are best for us are not always the ones that taste best. On the spiritual journey, a deepening sense of conviction and direction will subject a soul to face one’s own solitudes and even much disheartening disregard. Humility and a healthy awareness of context can help soothe the bitter taste of ignominy.

Being connected to this world (and not under the cover of a cloister), an awareness of my natural competitive ambitions cause me to temper the old desires for recognition, as they collide with the spiritual life of compassionate deference. The call to ascend sacred heights is intertwined with barefooted humility. How does a soul that aspires for holiness and the things of God make sense of a culture that is so propelled by such simultaneous conflicts as dismissive disregard and over-achievement? Admittedly, these are generalizations, and indeed there won’t be very detailed general responses. Matters of conscience are reckoned with, as they surface. Aspiring for better days and improved situations attests to our intrinsic properties as thinking beings. We advance to survive; the difference is in the spirit of our choices and how we act upon them (or not), and our considerations of others in the process. Those discretionary decisions bear heavily upon the human conscience and how we develop sensitivities to those around us.

For me, it is to always keep the sense of my life’s purpose in mind. Yet there remains the drive to excel, to do better, to make things work, and to bring goodness to others. To know that all the hard work has been worth something. To be known. Recognition, itself, is a topic intricate enough for many reflective essays. Sure, I’ve received some significant acknowledgments through years of toil- but is it sustenance? Is it nourishment, especially in this society of the five-minute attention span? How much is necessary, and in what forms? One wonders whether survival is the reward, especially with so much emphasis upon people outlasting one another. Perhaps the words and rewards are as precious as we deem them to be, as these represent encouragements for how we ply our resources- much as the biblical parable of the workers entrusted with their talents which were meant to be invested. Indeed, the good and faithful servants received the most meaningful kind of recognition, but that was after the tasks were done- after they had acted upon their motivation. Their principles were simply, yet poignantly reinforced. The treasures dearest to us are intangible, and thus unlimited, however vulnerable. Commenting on the tug-of-war between the extremes of humility and pride, Merton warned of, "the awful impulsion to throw everything overboard for the sake of fame and prosperity." Preparing to journey into some days of silence, I am taking comfort in the cherished hiddenness of consecrated life. Peace of heart is in proportion to our detachment from that which is fleeting in this world. My hope is to regain, again and again, a clear sight of what points to a good and peaceable future. For the time being, I shall endeavor to be content with the morsels on my plate and the raiment on my back- and to be thankful.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

nada te turbe

"Do not think about the world,
nor about your friends, nor about the past, present, or future;
but consider yourself to be outside the world and alone with God,
as if your soul were already separated from the body, and had no longer any interest
in peace or war, or the state of the world.
Leave your body, and fix your gaze on the uncreated light.
Let nothing come between you and God."

~ St-Albert le Grand, De Adhaerendo Deo

Many of us, in the rivers of our days flooded with chaotic rapids, persevere to record words and events. The need to make sense of what we experience forces us to create spaces of time to reflect. So, also, is the need to validate our observations as witnesses of what we see and the realities of our movements in this world. Considering the incessant schedule I have always been able to juggle, I am often asked when I find the time to write. Since words and reflections are part of every day’s living and breathing, I graft the writing in between tasks. Rarely are there spells of consecutive hours to sit and write. For the most part it has been jots in tiny hardcovered books, or sentences typed on a laptop I tote around- just in case. Written words salt my days, actions, and aspirations. Pencil and paper are also there to record and attempt to make sense of difficult events. When such noted words stare back up at me from my notebooks, I become further amazed at the absurdities I have lived through, in this short life. And as these continue, the observations and struggles follow. By documenting faithfully, it is apparent how darkness and light really do coexist.

When the struggle intensifies, and fatigue prevents hurdling more barriers, an unchanged forging-ahead becomes counterproductive. Frustration and analysis can feed one another, giving way to spiraling despair. Realities remain, yet words often fail. That doesn’t mean an end to hope, but more a change of perspective- a regathering of embers to persist through the darkness. When social structures fail us, whether on a national or local scale- or even in our immediate circles, it seems quite natural to leap with so many others into the abyss of cynicism. How inviting to be in such abundant company. The pilgrim road can surely curve into cold and dark forests. Clashing perspectives, as the ancient apostle Paul once observed, fight within the aspiring soul; only the key of grace could liberate him from the despair he described as a captivity of the mind. Even when words and knowledge fail, compassion must not fall away. At times we must quiet our thoughts, in order for our hopes to abide. At other times we find our ambitions silenced by our circumstances. Compassion never falls away, "whether prophecies shall be made void, or languages shall cease, or knowledge shall be destroyed." When an active soul reaches points of saturation, having "seen and heard enough," it is really an "enough" that lays claim on both resiliency and hope. For me, it has often meant finding places of refuge, of civility and tranquility, in order to listen for the spirit and regain my ideals. Retreating is certainly not copping out, but a way for vital embers of hope to be rekindled. Apparently, we do come to times when the high pitch of thinking and doing must stop.

Over five hundred years ago, Thomas à Kempis asked, "What can you see under the sun that will long endure?" He wrote of the wisdom of withdrawal into silence, as a regular part of life. "If you withdraw yourself from superfluous words and from unprofitable business, and from hearing rumors and idle tales, you will find convenient time to be occupied in holy meditation." Within Kempis’ essay, Of Love of Solitude and Silence, he implies how the best we can offer is what emerges from conscientious silence. "No one is secure in high position save he who would gladly be a subject... No one speaks surely save he who would gladly keep silence if he might." Silent recollection is also survival. Consciously repelling the social currents that can poison our hearts, Kempis advocates we exercise ourselves to "shut fast the door of your soul." The sum total is the balance needed for contemplatives to thrive in cultures of carelessness and competitiveness. It is worthwhile to feel stable, and stabilizing to feel worthwhile.

Our intuitions, our "insides," our spirits can testify to us that our times of extremely structured thinking and active struggle cannot be indefinitely sustained. There must be times devoted to simply abiding. This is even something we can provide for those near to us. Endeavor to be quiet, and walk honestly, Paul advised to his friends in Greece. Some translations read "study to be quiet," reminding me of how so simple an aspect of life is a cultivated discipline. In this sense, "quiet" runs far deeper than an absence of verbiage. I have met many people who speak with an impressively peaceful- even a quiet- spirit. It seems the greater discipline is in quieting one’s thoughts. As much as we can choose to commit our experiences to memory, we may also choose not to remember. Shutting fast the door to the soul is also to elect not to exhume detriments that obstruct the embodiment of compassion.

Just now, during a workday meal break, I am enjoying the natural light at the window after having looked to the wide sky outside, amidst aromatic wind gusts. Images of vastness, such as sweeping skies and the immense ocean, are consolations to remind me how temporal and small are my complaints. Looking at the small radio that accompanies me during many of my intermissions, I am also reminded of some attributes these humble and familiar consolers represent. Consider the radio. It has no memory; it does not accumulate its broadcasts. There is no baggage from the past, and only immediate moments are impartially transmitted- pulled from an unseen spectrum of frequencies. It must always be attuned to its source. It reminds me how so often the best I can do is to simply report, in faithful articulation, while receiving and transmitting the most lucid possible signal. The programmes continue, in the harsh and joyful times alike, undeterred by social hardships. From the warmth of familiar and recognizable voices and melodies, there are cadenced gauges for our precarious days. Over whatever is being conversed about at this moment on WBZ, in thickly-accented and animated Boston English, I am asking myself of the true source of my heart’s unrest- even beneath the misery I see daily in many around me. Yes, it is all perilous and we each crave reassurance in our livelihoods. But I turn from the despondence and see how the sun shines, and how even strangers greet me with their welcoming smiles. So little is within our own power. And yet I must bear these fragilities and allow them to be transfigured into something that can light the steps ahead.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

depth of field

"Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape
from conflict, from anguish or from doubt.
On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude
of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions
in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding.
For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial ‘doubt.’
This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith,
but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious ‘faith’ of everyday life,
the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion."

~ Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p.12

These are the quickening days of spring. Those earthy aromas even visit the cities. Yesterday, I found a small mirror, and being well aware of its reflectance I brought it outside as a subject for some images. The glass itself has a surface, yet as many of us know, to be able to clearly see what is being reflected it is necessary to focus to the distance of the subject in the mirror- not the physical mirror as an object in itself. When we look within, the tangible surfaces in our lives barely begin representing an inner life calling from beyond our depths. What we see reflected are hints just definable enough to draw us onward.

The contemplative life is confrontational. A very clear memory comes to mind now, of my first visit with a Quaker congregation at their meeting-house. The large group unpromptedly descended into a deep, palpable silence. Not being certain of the procedure of things, I tried settling the racing thoughts that seemed to bustle in with me from outside. It also astonished me to see all the young children in the group also sitting in complete and patient stillness. Then I, too, entered the unspoken prayer of attendant silence. Between immersions into the quiet waiting upon the Holy Spirit, I sometimes opened my eyes and noticed the beautifully austere and ancient meeting-house church, bright floorboards as wide as my feet are long, and my ungrasping hands. And when I described the morning’s adventure later to some friends, I said "there was nothing to hide behind. It was unobstructed and confrontational." Indeed, a solid hour of unfettered silent contemplation has got to be an acquired taste, but for me it was surprisingly liberating, and both a self-confrontation and an entirely serene Divine encounter- much as I’ve experienced in monastic silence.

Contemplation calls the pilgrim soul; the Spirit that gives us life beckons and persuades us to face our creation and created selves as fully as possible. In responding by embarking upon a life of trust, it has been quite natural for me to be able to find the graces in my midst, wherever I go, but also the more difficult events and setbacks- even many uncertainties- can be stood down. Peaceful times of contemplation can burst forth into a focused and animated life, attuned to be offered for the service of others. If a sincere descent into one’s heart can happen in an austere room, we can surely be reminded of the immateriality of the contemplative life. There are no limits. Often, the language of introspection applies the comparison of the butterfly’s crysalis. Just as contemplative reflection is transcendent of place, so transformation is unlimited by time or circumstance. Transforming changes have come to me, both in the midst of fleeting workplace moments and during lengthy sojourns of withdrawal from the din of commotion. The image of a crysalis reminds us of the necessity to look deep within and focus, in order to heal those lingering anguishes that obstruct our view of all that unfolds before us. Paradoxically, in reclaiming my self and remembering what truly identifies me, it becomes possible to cut loose those past perplexities that can blur a clear view of the present. Revisiting the past runs the risk of entrenchment. When I find myself looking back, I try to think of it as glancing archival documents: they attest now to a time that was, or in the parlance of archivists these are "non-current records, of evidentiary value," based entirely upon their context. Research, like introspection, isn’t meant to be a dwelling place, but a springboard.

We don’t always choose to confront ourselves and challenge our direction. At times, we may innately sense having lost our way- or what radio listeners call "signal drift," requiring some re-tuning. Other times, our circumstances- or events within which we find our context- impose our self-evaluation. And, to be certain, the lure of contemplation cannot be for me to self-engross, but an understanding of my being and purpose actually frees me from centering on self. Contemplatives are often misunderstood, and I am long past trying to legitimize my intrinsic sense of introspection; or at least I should be undaunted. An adolescence of rejection gave me plenty of practice. So I say healthy doses of reflection are not excessive, but actually vital, especially if such exercises are means aimed at holiness. It is essential to know oneself. Our very complexity is itself compelling and demands some resolve. It sure doesn’t mean stopping everything until I can think clearly enough. Indeed, we can keep moving along with our functioning consciences! Strength from within lets us think on our feet and proves to be of great significance when we must stand solitarily upon our own merits. Our own voice must be so familiar to ourselves that our task is simply to connect our well-established convictions with unambiguous narrative, allowing us to listen for the spirit in our midst. Clarity of vision leads to the solidity of thought and direction needed to create and navigate wherever our steps find us.

Pursuing and continuing the inner journey can be undermined by our own doubts, inevitable as they may be, however these tentative impressions can be turned into pivot points against which we can draw confidence. Within our hesitation is questioning, as Brother Roger of Taizé wrote in his journal, Struggle and Contemplation, adding that "our basic doubt does not prevent us from constantly setting out, from doubt towards belief." Uncertainty can become dynamism. How many of our perceived limitations are of our own doing? One such way we self-undermine is by doubting our own voice, our own experiences; that is a hindrance we alone can lift away. Many of us have known that turning-point, when we hear ourselves speak a truth that is uniquely from our own perspective, worthy of a respect we didn’t dare ask for. Those who would not have expected much esteem have known the marooned experience of disregard. We might question the very validity of the truths we bear. Further, we may even wonder at the expectation of being taken seriously. But even through those kinds of doubts, our strength of purpose, modest as it may be, mustn’t be daunted. Recent days have caused me to consider what sorts of expectations I have and how realistic they are. Idealists- as well as those who have tasted some of their aspirations- must especially use care in what can be reasonably expected. Once more, we visit a paradox- genuine hope has no limit, yet being earthbound we cannot dismiss our respective contexts. When I regroup my thoughts, it seems that for realistic expectations to be grounded in reality, there must be some evidence of reliability; there must be a basis of trust. At the same time, it is vital for me to be always mindful of my sources of strength, and not to affix too many expectations in flawed institutions, mechanisms, and even personalities. I have had to beware not to become enslaved by temporal opinions, and weigh them against that which stands the test of time. We are all permitted our struggles, and no honest person is without them in some form. A great part of proceeding forward in the spirit of trust is continuity: having all the concepts spelled out is far less important that to go forth in faith. Remember the words, "seek first...and all will be added..."

In his journal, Dostoyevsky wrote, "I am a child of doubt and unbelief," continuing by offering that his praises, his exclamations of hosanna, "passed through the crucible of doubt." When the spirit of inquiry, or speculation, moves our questioning into an active search for assurance and holiness, those doubts produce emanate worth. But as with explorations of what is past, our uncertainties serve us best as road signs rather than as terminus points. I hope for my recollections to bring a dynamism to my perspective, not to tarnish my ideals but to help provide a sense of grounding. If we find, however, that our doubts sink us into our losses, causing us to deny our significance in this world, that is a sign to reconsider our criteria. My own inward misgivings turn me toward doubting my impact in the world and the worth and relevancy of my ideals. And from there, trying to transfigure doubts into vibrancy, I rethink the meaning and value of recognition.

In this society that combines perfectionism and "dumbing-down," with bewildering grudge-keeping and short attention spans, I am compelled to find light in the darkness. The bewilderment is part of the challenge to cultivate faith and intuition that accompanies confidence to stand- and even continue walking and working- with the doubts. I begin to reflect upon many gifts taken for granted; these are essentially left unquestioned when problems monopolize my focus. While moving forward, we can still be aware of how far we’ve traveled already. Strength and conscience grow from within, and add depth to our abilities to perceive- even becoming a means of verification. In formless times of contemplation, it is possible to verify recollections that tug away at thoughts. With a practical look at the past that was, I am driven immediately away to the steps with which I now proceed. "Test the spirits," wrote John, in the late first century. To me, this means to challenge one’s convictions. Are they encouraging? Are they life-giving? With the doubts and questions, I try to verify the ground upon which I stand. It assures me, as I glance between divine consolations and the floorboards beneath my feet, that my passing thoughts are undergirded by an infinitely greater and more caring eternity.