Wednesday, July 23, 2008


“I’ve sat and watched the tide go out
But I did not chase- no I did not doubt
The water would return to shore
And meet me once again.

And I’ve known the truth and understood
Or thought I did, or thought I could
Be satisfied with points of view
But I’m tired of the din.

I never want to be satisfied.”

~ Pray for Rain, Satisfied

From a return to some of the wilderness sources of life, I have returned to daily routines. Over recent years, my intermissions have been far too occasional, yet always substantial departures from the ordinary. Extended stretches of hard work do lend well to building up a hearty appetite for retreating. Indeed, I’m one of those people who really enjoys a good travel, including driving very long-distances. Part of the enjoyment is in getting ready for an adventure. As with Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, my journeys are preceded and accompanied by anticipation and aspiration. With concerted preparation and movement, I find varied environments and ideas. Experiences and imagery enrich the trove I am able to draw from, as with a reader adding to their personal library of prized tomes. And in the authentic spirit of pilgrimage, the return voyage is as integral to the adventure as the outward expedition. My gratitude for the witnessing of new places and acquaintances is often matched by thankful homecomings. When I sense some currents of disappointment upon returning, noticing myself let down by differences in contrasting settings, I’ve taken to making note how the pilgrimage of the spirit never really ends. Though pace and terrain fluctuate, the quest proceeds as surely as I breathe. Why not savor the quotidian? Getting away provides opportunities for re-approaching the familiar.

So I am making the effort to revel in the routine. Some of those daily and unspoken habits are actually pleasant and rather stabilizing. Beginning each day early, washed and caffeinated, with a few paragraphs to set forth down the granite stoop and out into the swirl of things. Tasks that make the day complete, whether necessary- such as workplace housekeeping and formalities, or the needed “unnecessaries”- such as lunch hours spent journaling in cafés. Puddle-jumping between blocks of work hours, to be able to regain a good book or a stream of written consciousness, offers modest rewards through the day’s portions. The rhythm can oddly resemble the monastic divine hours interspersed with the chores of employment. Integrated well enough, the two components actually inspire one another. As for what appears from a homecoming distance as drudgery, the best thing for me is to not look at such things in generalizations. If all is viewed as “routine,” the day’s graces are clouded over, and workdays revert to looking up at mountains in the fog. Find the enjoyable details, and even take note of what goes smoothly. Those subtle gems help offset matters that try our patience, that divert our paths. If I’m really awake to what I experience, I can derive something useful from the roadblocks. I once had a job which included some machine repair and a whole lot of maintenance. It was expected that all the intricate mechanisms operated as required. But, indeed, once something occurred as simple as two cogs falling out of alignment, everything would get thrown out of whack. Abrupt sounds of friction attest to opposing components “speaking,” demanding immediate attention. In so doing, there is reckoning to be done and something to be learned.

A re-approach accompanied by even a slight discord, draws my thoughts. Indeed, delineating the specifics from broad-brushed generalities is the same as evaluating a singular situation or method, away from cluttered collages of the past. Without rescinding some healthy idealism, yet refusing cynicism, I wonder about what I’ve come to deem as “acceptable” or sufficient. Perhaps the perspective an adult is supposed to have includes developing a satisfaction with measures of deficiency. Haven’t we all heard our elders invoke the “could be better, could be worse” expression? My reflex that challenges what is presented before me, and the responses are founded upon past situations tolerated too long. Memory is both a deepening wealth of reference points and an incessant force with waves to be tamed by stealthy navigation. Looking for purpose in experiential lessons causes me to question routines that are either unpleasant or resistant to improvement. Spiritual life implies a questioning of status quos, however this endangers generating a judging mode that causes more hurt than help. What is sufficient? What suffices? How much dissatisfaction should we expect to tolerate? Here is where expectations themselves must be specified and evaluated against the givens and the variables. Perhaps some new possibilities can be found. In these considerations, I start to think about standards- a word that’s been overused by this culture as if representing some type of vertically-moving discretionary threshold. However they may need to be adjusted, projected personal standards need to be realistically based. That surely means looking beyond self; the more isolated the person, the more impossible are the standards. Discord demands re-tuning.

Today, I’ve been reminding myself that presently I am not yet what I will become. Observing an undercurrent of discontent may be turned positively toward my desire to do better. The drive to improve can make wise use of past errors, however I must always keep in mind the reality between what was and what’s hoped for- and- what presently is. The idea of satisfying circumstances, in this society, entangles matters like remuneration, convenience, and intellectual rewards. Such thirst drives many to achieve and exceed with every step, but the dark side to motivations like this is the way it plays into egocentrism. Ironically, with each self-defining embellishment we are permitting the culture in our midst to define who we are. There are fine lines and edges for those who navigate between this consumptive, amnesiac world, and life in the Spirit. The latter sends us back into society. Now, there’s nothing to disparage about ambitiousness, and constructive ways to act upon hopes. Almost intangibly, there’s a force than compels any one of us to arise, look ahead, and seek inspiration- with enough motivation to propel a person along a quest into the unknown. Yet, even well-intended ambitions can present pitfalls, among which is that unquenchable desire to prove one’s “worth,” to impress well enough to belong, to be “acceptable” to others. Being in the midst of a culture that relentlessly conditions us- even steering us to posture and to claim titles and identities, it’s easy to get drawn into the ways our egos emphasize how we want to be seen. Thomas Merton often referred to the “false self” as a self-imposed autonomy that rejects all interaction with God, creating upon the bases of social myths and games of superiority. I call this the “performing self,” and I try to keep that inclination in check by challenging myself not to make the whats of life into who I am at my core. The crossroads are marked at places along the voyage when we must choose what we identify with, bringing me to merge contemplation with street smarts.

The silver lining of dissatisfaction is in a willingness to challenge and explore. But we must drive out of ruts, and choose not to park in them. This morning, I asked myself about what I felt to be soul-satisfying. Being in the stream of progress- of learning, of meaningful accomplishment; of partaking in something that brings me to a better place and mindset than what I’d departed from. (With journaling there is surely a way of verification.) Expectations are never far from aspirations. The heart of the struggle, around which these words revolve, is whether I expect in realistic ways. I grew so accustomed to living up to high expectations that my own for myself have rarely been forgiving. Setbacks have been historically more captivating than assurances and acknowledgments, and a little self-compassion remains a major undertaking. The mercy I practice has been resoundingly more outward than inward, and until fairly recently I began to reconsider regrets as practical lessons rather than as condemning mistakes. If each day confronts the decision to take to the sanctified inner road, indeed there must be a consistent renunciation of what fuels that “false self,” which at once judges and alienates. It is a repudiation of disingenuousness. In Contemplation in a World of Action (my favorite of all his books), Merton commented, “we renounce our alienated and false selves in order to choose our own deepest truth in choosing both the world and Christ at the same time.” If there’s an expectation that stokes up the false self, it must be that of perfection. Who among us mortals is perfect? Exacting it of ourselves and others is potentially destructive and surely unrealistic. And what of those purported high standards? Well, rather than to seek some sort of “perfection” in flawed situations, perhaps the more attainable sense of satisfaction is found in concept: in perspective and in philosophical outlook. These are transcendent of place and time limitations.

Thoughtfully reconsidering my expectations is certainly not a lowering of personal standards. Seeing the broad picture makes it possible to weigh situations and objectives in context, and thus I am in much less conflict- if any- with my surroundings. If there are even the simplest hopes, there will be expectations in some form. I expect to continue learning and growing in grace, though it is a combination of consciously reaching and of openly and effortlessly receiving. I might also say that I expect my coffee-maker to operate according to its design. Expecting the courtesies that I enjoy practicing, in all situations, I must not be mortally let down either, if I experience rudeness or if my coffee-maker doesn’t cooperate. It may be naïve and unrealistic, but I’ve never questioned my expectation of fairness- even though over and again I am shown how this world, by and large, does not operate that way. Yet I expect it. Perhaps it’s an expectation blended with hopes that “good must always prevail,” expecting others to be as I try myself to be. Is that absurd? There alas, enter those high self-expectations of flawlessness. Livable expectations seem a whole lot more merciful to me! Letdowns and situational disappointments remind me that there is much more distance to be covered- and happily so. Perceptions are always to be renewed. And I must always remember the vitality of spiritual liberation and the treasure that is not subject to corrosion, and there will my be heart also. On one occasion, during some community volunteering, I described how a new project was dauntingly slow to start, but I believed in its potential. The director responded with, “God simply calls us to be faithful, that’s all.” Within the wealth of wisdom enwrapped in that little phrase is the ease of doing the next good thing. Faithful is surely more tenable than perfection. What a relief.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


“The spirit of prayer is a pressing forth of the soul out of its earthly life,
it is a stretching with all its desire after the life of God, it is a leaving,
as far as it can, all its own spirit, to receive a spirit from above,
to be one life, one love, one spirit with Christ in God.”

~ William Law, The Spirit of Prayer, ch. 2

The season before me is clearly one of reaching forth, of embracing the road ahead. Creation surely attests to this, with trees offering fragrant outgrowth excelling their abundant leaves. Lengthened days invite us outdoors, and in varying measures- due to the daily employs that usually occupy our waking hours- we are able to respond. Northern New England is a part of the world in which one needn’t venture far to rediscover a sense of a human’s context in the sphere of natural forces through which we can know the grandeur of creation. Winter’s contemplative inner spaces demonstrate fruition as all that grows openly rises to summer skies. I have been thoroughly enjoying a week of rejuvenating exploration, departing from routines, and on to something different enough to travel with new thoughts. Looking away from obstructive trappings so often tempting us with convenience, and diverting the sublimity of simplicity, I found means to reflect in beholding the humbling vastness. In contemplation that searches creation, we become able to see far more than self; it is possible to further view what lives above and beyond us. We can gaze toward what is greater, there for our aspirations. Now, as I regather again to return home and to work, with some renewed perspective, my hope is to keep close to heart the vivid images that my eyes have seen

When a soul “reflects” deeply, a crossroad is encountered. Aware that solitude’s fulfillment is found in communion, its underside is the danger of self-absorption. Of course the search for self-comprehension is necessary for those who make the pursuit. The journeys might be shadowed by wariness of a loss of grounding and grasp of self- and with that it is crucial to reach even farther. We can navigate right through the fog of our hesitation. William Law observed how our reflection can be a pressing forth, an extension of our yearnings for the grace and peace of God. Indeed, we are surely called to become more than what we see reflected at the surface, and to become that grace and peace for others in unpredictable ways. Looking through my camera at a mirroring stream, noticing the scene’s natural collage, the intricacies of reflected images caused me to wonder about how self-reflection can become a reaching forth. Still waters make it possible to see more than our silhouettes. My attention was drawn to what was above and behind the familiar. The real intrigue of self-awareness is in finding how vital is to reach beyond oneself. We want to know more, and the difference is in where we direct our energies when we strive. Watching the sky’s intensities in the water’s surface, while also noticing what is beneath the bands of water depths, is a testament to the forces of creation, of our very composition.

Johannes Tauler once observed that we have an inherent tendency to turn to our natural places of origin. He wrote of how we are God’s creation, yet “how could man alone be so self-absorbed as to not rush back to his eternal source, his goal and his light?” To determinedly venture out, we must consciously journey within. With each individual, the travels will vary, but for me the woods and especially the ocean have been steadfast signs of both my source and horizon. Both, in their presences, move with seasons and strengths of light, reminding me of what endures after contrivances fade away. Closing his observations, Tauler urged his listeners to make every possible effort to “behold this true light so that you may be able to return to the source where it shines in all its brightness. Long for it, pray for it, do all you can, with all the strength you can summon.” And so, in returning to physical sources- mountains, woods, waters, shores, even star-filled night skies, and the connecting paths between them, I consider how we can transition from reflections of our own selves and our impressions of ourselves, to personal visions of God who calls us to transcend self. What convinces us of the greatness of the world beyond our own business? What causes our spirits to soar? When I am reminded of good things I can anticipate. When something I have worked at produces new prospects. Yes, we must retrieve our centers of inspiration, over and again- especially as we desire the sacred. In this growth process, we want to move in the direction of being unified in God, and away from isolating ourselves into some sort of self-justifying fabrication.

As I assemble these thoughts at Acadia National Park, away from tired routines and immersed in diverse sources of life, the sense of having been “brought” to this place has been evident to me. The islands comprise the spectrum of fascination between dramatic tides and steep mountains- in close proximity- threaded with curved roads and paths, and occasional green-and-clapboard villages. Throughout this week, those numerous, still, glassy ponds and lakes were of particular interest to me, being more accustomed to the turbulent ocean waters around Portland harbor. The still waters invite closer examination, and reflected skies have been assuring me not to forget to look up. I remember an occasion, about a dozen years ago, being in the throes of personal crisis, when I had no place else to go but the university chaplain’s office. The wise minister stopped her work, and walked me out onto a very brightly sunlit Columbia Point, overlooking Boston harbor. The sunshine was startlingly forceful for a day in March. The minister sat me down and asked me to look at the sky, adding “how long has it been since you’ve looked up?” I honestly didn’t know, and had no answer. In the process, I was both amazed at the boundless blue, and confused at my suddenly diverted despair. Of course, no recovery from deep grief is instant, but the beginning nudge to simply look up has been unforgettable to me. Grandeur such as that of a vast sky or the panoramic ocean is a relieving sight for me, setting my notions and my own obstructive self into sobering context. I have since passed along, with great care, the eloquently simple advice to try to see what splendor surrounds us. We can remind one another to look up and out, in our own ways, thus offering our own small touch of the magnificence entrusted to us. The journey back must also be as a vast sky. Rather than a “return to what was,” before I left, I want to view the road home in the same light as I considered the trip to get here to Mount Desert Island. Each day a new adventure. I must continue to listen for those life sources, and how these are instrumental in creation’s speaking to me.

Saturday, July 5, 2008


“The spiritual life is a long and often arduous search
for what you have already found.
You can only seek God when you have already found God.
The desire for God’s unconditional love is the fruit
of having been touched by that love.

Because finding the treasure is only the beginning of the search,
you have to be careful.”

~ Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love

This evolving voyage is well in progress, and I am still young enough to find it endless. And along this complex network of paths and way-stations, with an increasing array of experiences, places, and remarkable people, a broadening and deepening of perspective begins to form. We may even observe our own sense of self-possession, as it develops. During a pleasant and animated conversation with a group of colleagues, just last evening, I heard myself express a culmination of thoughts in response. Once in a while, I am able to enjoy the observations of others, with the addition of my insights; and in context, this provided some food for thought on the quiet ride home.

Exchanging stories occurs to me as a sharing of road maps, and in so doing it reminds me of the necessity of fine-tuning my learning as I proceed. In my deeply enthusiastic discoveries, I find that I have something to offer- although there are times for which keeping silence becomes equally vital, in a kind of self-preservation. When Henri Nouwen wrote of “finding the treasure,” he was referring to the biblical parable about discovering one’s life force. I think of it as having realized the purpose for the spiritual search. The basis is really an enduring beginning, and even if one’s faith may be sturdy and road-tested, there always abides a paradoxical fragility that reminds me of the vitality of nurture. And the carefulness that is implied here means that to prevent from burning-out, it becomes necessary to know when to attend to one’s spirit in silence. When our experienced insights can be retained enough to learn from, these adventures can become points of constructive reference instead of repeated pitfalls. To be able to retain those vital truths, we must develop ways not to be sidetracked from our sacred course, or be dissuaded from our ideals to the deathly point of cynicism. Is such occasional carefulness a holding-back? Is it fear? Must there even be a drawbridge at all?

To be soundly in this world, yet not owned by it, we find inventive ways to gain the proverbial field within which the treasure lies- even if it means exchanging what property and status we own. That restless journey to the place of rest means never losing track of that pearl of great price. The sacred journey began long before I knew what it was called; before even being aware that my life had significance. Last night, while winding with the curling roads of the Maine coast, between the pine forests and the rock ledges, I thought about my adolescent years on the merciless streets of Corona, in New York City. I had developed a survival instinct that looked to alternative ways to get from one place to another. In order to endure the dangers of gang-infested and crime-filled streets, hallways, basements, subways, and parking lots, I hatched multiple routes- as a kind of human chess piece- to get to places I needed to go. So many junctures had what-ifs and alternate plans through mazes of alleys and thoroughfares. Admittedly, my strategies of avoidance didn’t always work, but I was smart enough not to walk straight into the hands of predators. In the end, I survived with only a handful of muggings and a bunch of beatings.

But the self-conditioning of such impressionable years can really stay in a mature person’s psyche, and to this day I wonder at this childhood casting that combined standing my ground, with self-defense. When we think we are defending ourselves, what is being defended? When you’re a defenseless kid in the asphalt jungle, you’re running a gauntlet and trying to save your own hide. Even children are intelligent enough to see how unhappy such realities are. But then we raise ourselves into professional life, and self-defense often looks a lot less literal and more like an egotistical response. What is being defended, and against whom? What’s at stake? Is avoiding a “hurtful crowd” a wise move, or is it a manifestation of old fears? Those instincts from youth play a role in a developed conscience informing me as to what is permissible and what isn’t. Confrontation is also a conscientious decision, as much as a wise defense would be that attends to a sense of self-respect. Once more, there is a requisite balance between wielding strength and disarming by example. We can cultivate an innate knowledge that informs us when we need to fortify- and when self-fortification becomes obstructive. Indeed, for those who wish to “love your neighbor, as yourself,” with their lives, this implies forgiveness, forbearance, and maintenance. To others and to ourselves. Sharing wholeheartedly in Christ’s risen life is also sharing in his dying- even in the humility and humiliation of his experience. To follow is a call to be completely immersed: not simply to skim across the surface of still water, but to thoroughly sink into the ocean of living and be enveloped in God.

In his essay, “Control Your Own Drawbridge,” Nouwen observed a metaphor in the imagery of drawbridges in medieval castles and walled towns. “You must decide for yourself to whom and when you give access to your interior life,” he reflected, adding how there have been times when he has had to draw the bridge. This was his expression for exercising his commitment to listen for God’s spirit of rejuvenating strength. “Never allow yourself to become public property where anyone can walk in and out at will,” he wrote, “you might think that you are being generous in giving access... but you will soon find yourself losing your soul.” In my own way, I have known this endangerment, and return to the idea of losing track of the “pearl of great price.” Much care is needed when, in this world, we bare our hearts. Of course, there’s a chasm of grey area between living one’s whole life with the castle bridges locked up- and being a doormat. I think of how color transparency film can lose its entire spectrum of hues, when it gets overexposed. All that is left is blanched film with neither color nor outlined forms. Without looking after myself, I’ve often noticed being in a simultaneous state of being at once poured-out and saturated, to a detrimental extent.

Returning to the quest for what has been subtly tasted as enough evidence to devote the whole of life, my thoughts move across and around my own years, pondering how I have perceived my identity. In the context of the occasional “drawbridge” of self-maintenance, I believe the profoundest sense of self-defense is activated with a knowledge of what- and even who- I represent. Perhaps we realize what our core reveals, when we are brought to speak on our own behalf, placing our selves on the line. Surely, such revelation needn’t occur solely at confrontational crossroads; our pared-down selves may be wondrously disclosed when traveling, meeting people, and beginning new ventures. When identity loses much of its baggage, we can learn a great deal about ourselves. We can enjoy our simplified selves. When that happens, I begin to think of my human and spiritual roots. I imagine “representing” my physical ancestors, and how I might resemble them. Having been touched to the core by unconditional love, from almost beyond grasp, my ideas of identity cause me to wish to align with the author of forgiveness and reconciliation. For this communion, there are no fortifications. We discover ourselves as we discover God, and my identity is truly concealed in divine mercy. Thomas Merton once wrote, in New Seeds of Contemplation, “the only way that I can be myself is to become identified with Him in whom is hidden the reason and fulfillment of my existence.” Indeed, it is far more than an elusive impression that moves me onward; the inspiration is in the substance and assurance I continue to encounter along the way.