Thursday, June 26, 2008


"I can see night in the day time.
Into the woods I quietly go.
It takes all the strength I have in me.
These are the woods;
The night of the soul.

Painful to see,
Love without action;
Painful to see years of neglect.

Creatures we are worth defending
It takes the right word said from the heart.
Given to you without ending;
Given to you, the purpose of art."

~ Michael Been and The Call, Into the Woods

My recent extended time in contemplative solitude, quiet and uneventful as it was, has since been gradually speaking to my recollections- of this pilgrimage of the heart I have been pursuing. The paths and roads, my steps and adventures, since my retreat in the early part of this month have surely not congealed into complacency. Driving away from my wooded hermitage, aside from my gratitude for the repose, all that had been innately clear to me was a reference to a subtle change in my path. It had been a notably uneventful string of days- something extremely rare for me. Retreats can self-defeat, if they are over-planned (and thus become imitations of the work day), or if there are any sorts of expectations. I’ve made those mistakes before, and this time I simply needed a break in my pace and a recovered focus. The peace of that experience, effortless as it had been, is the resulting gift. Indeed, with days steeped in contemplative prayer, I should not be surprised and perplexed to sense a return on what was sown. Yet, a manifestation without striving was what I needed, to be reminded of the source of life originating- and creating- from (thankfully) well beyond my efforts. It’s had me thinking about an unforced, almost implicit spirituality. A proceeding without extraordinary labor; almost a reflexive sense of prayer. The anonymous 14th century author of the Cloud of Unknowing wrote some essays about a kind of "intimate counsel," in which he suggests a soul advance to a point that, after seasons of fascination with the intricacies of learning about God- should be content to let go and contemplate the very present reality that God is. Having had an eloquently unspectacular respite time, I noticed how even the spiritual life can be diverted by expectations. How sublime the simple! But one must be brought to recognize this: hardly emerging from some intense exhaustion, mine was a state between a vulnerable bareness and a plain desire for peaceful communion.

Indeed, the whole point of these thoughts is to not over-emphasize a place or time- no less while considering transcending the transitory. If anything, the silence reminded me that prayer- even a wordless stirring from within- and perseverance can be sown to become a root system which, in time, yields proof that living is a trusting progression. Away from facades and material trappings, our anonymous monastic author bids his reader "abide continually in the deep center of your spirit, offering to God that unarmed and blind awareness of your being which I call your first fruits." He reminds us of the inestimable gift of our profoundest and most unadorned selves. The illustration of first-fruits might be thought of as a "best of the best."

Our truest, most authentic selves. Much is said, these days, about the subject of "authenticity." Perhaps the interest is inspired to contrast this culture’s currents. Recent studies outline our essential psychological needs as being competence, a sense of relatedness, and authenticity. In this context, this means a self-determination defined by acting in accordance with the "core self." I think of it as perceiving and making decisions from the vantage point of my ideals. Carrying our medieval monastic author’s phrase a little further, by living as our authentic selves, we can approach our profoundest potential as created and creative beings. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve found the concept about as elusive to think about as to write about. As with the spiritual quest, I am brought to try to verify my impressions and notions. More than asking if I am true to myself, the second consideration is whether I am faithful to my renewed self. I’ve noticed a problem with writing about "authenticity," is a confusion between what authenticity means and how I want to embody that definition. Granted, part of my aspiration is the desire to live from a personal core that is cultivated increasingly by a conscientious correspondence with the Holy Spirit. When I begin to fathom what is meant by core self- even beneath my identity and history- the next thoughts are to my deepest intentions. A fathom is a depth, but its alternate meaning is to comprehend. Often, I think of my desire for mercy, above all, for self and for others- to see and help realize merciful actions in all spheres of life. I’ve known enough mercilessness to deeply oppose it, without deliberation. Mercy can mean many things, but in my interpretation it’s the offering and renewal of hope that encourages life. It is the noblest of intentions and an ideal worth seeking and practicing.

Seeking, practicing- even an unarticulated aspiring toward more satisfying days- means motion. There is no such pilgrimage as that which does not reach forth. The desire to move forward, with any kind of practical learning, indicates the sort of passion that propels us through our various kinds of inertia toward our dreams. And in that purposeful reaching, we notice how far we’ve already traveled. As the parlance of the spiritual voyaging goes, forward motion can be as tangible within our hearts as upon physical trails and roads. Life in the Spirit is intrinsically transitory. The other day I said my farewells to a friend who, with his family, has embarked upon a cross-country relocation, where he will lead a congregation that awaits him. In our conversations we recognized the different ways the both of us have been in transit.

Even long after dramatically fresh starts, journeying souls are ever in a trusting pursuit. The spirit of God, going before us- preceding our thoughts and movements- exemplifies the trusting steps of faith I so cherish, even without knowing the specifics. Be it a journey of uprooting or one of perspective, we must continue to renew our vision- and with that comes the chance to reflect upon living from one’s "core self." In my own evaluations of conscience, I am the astonished scholar, leafing through memories both near and far, often indexing through the archives of the mind which are categorized by experience type. Noting all the miles I’ve covered, recalling pleasant situations and regrettable pitfalls, it amazes me to consider the sheer diversity of places and circumstances for which the sole common denominator has been me. It is, then, for me to thread the experiences together, make sense of what there is to learn, and try to recognize familiar signs along ways I am yet to see. Thus far, I’ve come to see how ethics and perspective are transcendent of setting and task. These are all collocated by my continuing path.

Finally, in his "intimate counsel," the 14th century monk weaves into his essay a kind of prayer for his reader, that "God be the ground of your being and the focal point of your heart." And thus I return to these subtle new steps calling me to a more permeated, a more implicit, spiritual life. A lesson from the silence was the idea that quiet need not mean nothing is happening. The café table, from which I write these words, is in the shade of a solidly spreading tree. I am looking at the innumerable leathery leaves and thinking, "truly something is happening, as surely as this tree is alive." Like the paces I followed from the woods and depths of my retreat, this new season may be the calmest and most unnoticeable I have experienced. But it makes sense that after such intensity, there must be a simple exhaling, a quiet consistency that moves with the spirit. Elijah’s place of communion was in the solitary presence of the "still, small voice." All he could do, after his desperate searching and physical turmoil, was to cathartically reverence the Divine presence in his midst. I believe part of that catharsis was the assurance of God’s enduring presence- regardless of situation or visibility. With such fears surmounted, it becomes possible to shift the focus away from personal stability and make room for grander things. This is a time to take stock of what these roots are bringing forth, remembering that although contemplation begins on earth, it is eternal.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

hidden yet certain

"For the unseen love of a sincere heart persevering
through that dark cloud of unknowing between you and your God
in a hidden yet certain way includes in itself
genuine humility without the help of particular or clear ideas."

~ The Cloud of Unknowing, ch 14.

Living in a northern and coastal climb as I do, the pronounced seasons of the year are such that all may notice and many of us change the paces of our lives alongside these transitions. As with all life forms, we move with nature’s passages. Following a drawn-out winter, the natural response to dramatically lengthened days in northern New England is to be outdoors with all that is verdant and reaching up to the bright skies. It is as though the elements around us prompt our changed perspectives, and even how we greet each day. But what of the bidding from within, calling a soul to times of contemplative solitude, governed by seasons which know not a calendar? Dispersed through my weeks replete with work, I manage to include very brief silences- almost borrowing the time, even if to simply collect a few thoughts and write down some references. The humblest fragments of respite have been valuable breaths for discernment, and thus I continue weaving recollective moments into the most demanding of work days. The balance is not always consistent. Invariably there are points for which the most constructive and healthiest movements forward in the direction of all that is in my life... is to retreat for some open-ended moments that are not wedged in between demands. I began what became a nourishing personal practice of pilgrimage fourteen years ago, and continue to be astonished at the powerful draw of contemplation and the vitality of stopping that perpetual motion which can burn so many of us right out. It is for the individual soul in communion with God to determine the season. The less structure there is, the better. St. Bernard of Clairvaux worded it beautifully:

"Aided by God
the soul gathers itself
into itself
from all affairs
in order to contemplate God."

I recently returned from a long-awaited retreat, and while in transit my thoughts turned to what gifts these times have always been. On some occasions the retreats have been anguished searches for spiritual shelter. Other times I’ve used liminal spaces between chapters in my continuum to pursue reflective journeys. For the most part, the retreats are about all I can do to regather when my strength seems spent and my soul saturated. Ah, but it is a travel along the grand and eternal pilgrimage! Whether it’s been flights across the Atlantic or drives across New England, preparing for a sojourn to a sanctuary is itself rejuvenating. As I drove the newly-greening country roads a couple of weeks ago, I noticed myself savoring the humblest of travels. Although the routes were very familiar to me, the difference was in the purpose of the trip- already teaching me something about the commonplace for me to bring home after the retreat. Years of experience, both as a pilgrim and in the spiritual life, help me to know the essentials to bring on such journeys. I’ve learned to bring coffee, so to be better able to appreciate those pre-dawn monastic vigils, and indeed there must always be writing materials and a camera. Still, my tendency is to pack too many books.

For me, a retreat is to rediscover stillness, and that includes stilling of thoughts. Through these recent weeks, the idea of maintenance has been prominently in mind. For many lives that value conscientiousness and sincere communion, contemplative retreat is a form of healthy maintenance. In order to continue in a consistent energy and intention, there must be spiritual maintenance. What does this mean? When anything is to be maintained, it’s to be kept in working order. Keeping in being. Upkeep. Safekeeping. The word "keep" is part of the equation. Keep confidence; keep various things in mind and heart. A professor once graded a paper I wrote with "keep the fire." I remember that comment far better than the project.

With requisite traveling, some provisions, and a head full of clutter, the pilgrim arrives at a place of respite. The change of scenery and air, not to mention the welcome, help the spirit renew. The best places of pilgrimage are those which do not make demands upon the retreatant’s time. Those of us who have temporarily fled rigidity and information overload can thrive in those boundless days which, in a monastic environment, are simply punctuated with communal meals and the Divine hours of common prayer. On this occasion just past, I requested solitude- and so the meals and prayers became the parts of the day in which I had company. The situation was perfect, considering the level of exhaustion at which I’d arrived. My hosts gave me a cabin in the woods, providing a contrast to my usual city life. From my sanctuary I could hear the subtle sounds of the outdoor life around me, and the wind currents through the trees. With an unimpaired view of the night skies, it was possible to see the weather develop as the clouds drifted eastward. The day after my arrival was steeped in a torrentially soaking rain. I loved it. God was slowing me down twice over: a little cabin whose distant next-door neighbors were monks, and a soothingly rainy day. The cabin had a front porch, so my reading and writing could continue in the fresh air, while the cleansing rain spattered on the stone steps beyond my canopy.

Unlike the daily routine I interrupted for the cause of respite, the retreat days themselves brought back to mind the subtleties- even the sublimities- of midmornings and midafternoons. For many of us full-time laborers, the day can wind up divided such that we focus on the opposite ends: before and after the chaos. The full spectrum is to be savored, no matter what is (or isn’t) going on. I’ve spent enough of my life wishing time away. After the days of spiritual and physical rest, as I packed my things to take to the road home, I noted in my journal: "The sojourn has brought a quiet refreshment to my soul. Nothing drastic, since I slept quite a lot, and enjoyed the silence I needed. Now, I’m all assembled to return, and the rest and safety I experience at this moment must accompany me- and be reminders for future days."

As a stage along the pilgrim’s way, extending by trust into the mystery of the unknown, temporary retreats have a finite duration. Setting forth takes a natural course, after our intuition tells us we’ve had just enough rest so that we can resume our steps. Similarly to the energy I find when preparing for a sanctified journey, so the re-ignited sense of wonder propels me from retreat forward onto the road home. I press on with assurance, even without knowing exactly what may have been derived from the silence. The ground of my faith is sown anew, but the manifestation of new learning will be subtle and perhaps unnoticed. It is all entrusted to the mystery of a pilgrim’s continuity. "Hidden yet certain," wrote the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, accentuating the beautifully discreet bond of guiding love between Creator and created. The assurance cannot always be articulated. Even the obscurities and hardships tell me to persevere. The heart can listen and respond- even without description, and with St. John of the Cross I can say, "things so interior and spiritual are such that words commonly fail to describe them." From our contemplation, words may emerge with us, as well as silences deeper still. The drive home offered renewed angles toward familiar scenery. It remains an impression of being home yet continually setting forth, pacing myself confidently onto unfolding paths.