“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.