"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.