Monday, August 25, 2008


“Let the river
Let the river run.
Let the water
Let the water fall.
Flow down off the mountain
and into the sea.
Let the river run its course.”

~ Mike Peters and The Alarm, Let the River Run its Course

Among those who ask for my help with their studies, there are many whose fascination with history is combined with grieving the passage of time. One person that comes to mind exemplifies this sentiment, which draws together a true spirit of inquiry with a kind of desperate regret over the consequences of societal change. “Why was that place torn down?” “Why don’t people do this, or that, anymore?” Looking at old photographs that have advertisement signs on diners, I hear, “why are meals so much more expensive now?” Such inquiries know no age limitations; I’m hearing questions like this from age groups not commonly associated with such sentiments. It’s a nostalgia for a past not even experienced. “Why isn’t that place the same as it was before?” What a wondrous question, indeed. Of course, there are deliverable and practical answers. Economics and inflation. Buildings that weaken, relocations, and misbegotten destruction called “urban renewal.” I hear myself explain why some place or thing is no longer as it was- or where it had been- trying not to sound oddly parental or pessimistic.

Indeed, I myself am not without my own sentimental streak- which I’ve unwittingly had since childhood. And surely the passage of time is the natural course of living and witnessing the years we each have known. Well aware of these things, and capable of conveying the rational answers, there do remain those quiet moments when I wonder at the rapid movement of time- and also notice myself wishing to retrieve it. Oh, and don’t we see this all around us: costly efforts to try to arrest, avert, or reverse the by-products of time. Many want to find what they feel they’ve lost, even with the fervor of a self-imposed desperation. Such pressures are fed by the ways communication technology and research are becoming more instantaneous. But we must beware not to focus on mirages which are superficial representations of what we think we seek. The mythical Dr. Faustus sold off his life’s blessings and burned his eternity in exchange for an unfortunate backward turn of the clock. Though a fable, so stark a tragedy gives us an allegory that directly connects the idea of selling oneself out in pursuit of what can never be possessed. Inevitably the only constructive thing to do is to come to terms, both reluctantly and gratefully, with the flow of years and seasons. The easiest course is to work with the continuum of our selves and the world around us, and not to be consumed in resisting friction.

When we embark upon a retrieval of what is past, our steps navigate a diverted direction from the course of reality. What might resemble a retracing of paths is something more like a reconstruction upon shifting sands. We may have harbored yearnings for what has passed, but the past is not a home that waits for us. I can think of occasions in which I have returned to places that had deep impressions from long ago. After the first understanding of my disorienting comparison between past connotations and a kind of present benignity, there are occasions I’ll return even just to test that spirit of transformation. One might say we are our own context, especially when streets seem suddenly narrower, distances shorter, and our intuitive responses at ease. If things appear different, perhaps indeed they are. And if we recognize our own changes, surely those people and places we have known surely do not remain as they are etched in our impressions. Our natural attempts and our subsequent reconciliations are reminders of the constant transition of our lives themselves, which were created to evolve and be open to advancement. Was it really so good, back then? After all, we do selectively visit our pasts. Still further, does the past miss anyone? In the harmony of accepting, and not resisting, comes the reminder that in the momentary heaviness of letting go of what is already buried by layers of time, there is also a buoyant liberation of unknown prospects that await.

While pondering these questions and ideas over the past week, I’ve wanted to write these thoughts along a river- and here I am perched upon a riverbank. Textured ripples pass across my line of sight in an unending scroll of calligraphic strokes and words. Not as the receding and advancing tides I know along the ocean, but a single-direction flow. Barely a quarter-mile upriver, there are falls which feed this present breadth- with rapids unrelenting and constant as the passage of time. I remember, as a twelve-year-old, looking with wonder at mountain waterfalls, telling myself that “it never shuts down,” city kid that I was. I imagined the voluminous torrents going night and day through every season, “always on and never running out.” This amazed me.

The late-summer brings me to especially recall continuities and returns. This time of the year has always felt more like a new year’s threshold to me. The Hebraic calendar draws together times of reflective reckoning with the observance of a new year of seasons. Part of that introspection includes an actual casting of bread upon moving waters, known as Taschlikh which means “you will cast away.” In a heart’s movement of trust, we can release those symbolic fragments and watch them disappear along the streaming conduits of the earth. This tradition echoes the words of Micah, who expressed how our souls are cleansed with reconciliation as God casts our sins into the farthest irretrievable depths to be remembered no more. For me, it is also a casting away of regrets, a gesture of unburdening, and a choosing away from what obstructs me from what is holy. At this bend in the river, it is for me to jettison what I do not need, so that I can make room for what is life-giving. Those bread morsels are not insignificant, humble as they may be, disappearing past the overhanging willows and reminding me that to truly gain my life I must let it go. My role is more a steward’s than an owner’s. It is for me to navigate the tides of time, and not to be consumed with resisting the currents by deviating or freezing the waters. The river itself is a sign of continuity, as well as a conduit from mountains to sea. It is solidity in fluidity, and as I write it is visible to me that in the faithful consistency of prayer, silts of excess are washed away.

Friday, August 15, 2008

sacred journey

“With the last full-stop comes the question,
‘Have I managed to say what I intended?’
No. Then why write?
A boundary always remains,
beyond which we are left alone with ourselves,
whether we are writing
or speaking spontaneously.”

~ Brother Roger of Taizé, Struggle and Contemplation

Of course, the writing continues. As surely as there is waking and breathing with each day- and there’s news on the radio and in the papers, I write my thoughts. Even on the fifteen-minute coffee breaks, my notebook and pencils go with me. There may be ideas to jot. And it is all to be able to write the pilgrimage, nothing more. Enshrining thoughts and adventures with words takes time, and I am also finding- many attempts and much patience. To express a journey, you need to journey. Wholeheartedly. Along the way, it occurs to me how writing and living not only influence one another, they can give each other validating perspective.

This medium, which casts personal thoughts abroad, brings some of my handwritten journaled thoughts outward- and it has amazed me to receive kindred observations. The journey of faith is often faced alone, but indeed we can discover how very much accompanied we truly are- and have been. For weeks I have been unsure about creating an entry about something which promotes this writing, being content with my intended anonymity. But considering my gratitude for the encouragement to continue this voyage, I’ll direct readers to the journal Sacred Journey, from Princeton, which has asked me for permission to publish sections of La Vie Graphite, featuring an entry in the current issue. For this, on a weary Friday night concluding an arduous work week, I am very thankful- and with hope, I carry on.

Monday, August 11, 2008


“On the corner
where the sun had shone,
The people gathered ‘round,
Then scattered as the raindrops
hit the ground.
The rain is falling.
Will it wash away the lonely tears.”

~ Jeff Lynne, Rain is Falling

Rain has been inordinately part of every day, for nearly a month. So much so, that the ordinary spaces and conditions through which destinations are connected become distinctive environments in themselves. Indeed, it is possible to appreciate relentless torrents when they are not factors in destructive equations, as we see in parts of the world. Observing rainstorms from high ground along the Maine coast reminds me of watching snow billow on Vermont mountaintops; quantitative measure becomes inconsequential. Even with few I can find who share my enjoyment of the pouring, the dampness, and even the refreshing quaffs of bracing air, my contention remains that this intervention of nature itself lends well to introspection. To varying extents, we are compelled to draw inward - even in the subtlest and slightest ways- when we seek temporal sanctuaries on this adventure we must navigate. And surely, ducking into and through intermittent shelters need not weigh down a soul. The light is a diffused and shadowless grey. An extended overcast atmosphere has effected a kind of housepaint white backdrop to all roads and buildings, seamlessly matching the sky overhead. Is this gloom? What’s not to enjoy? Great strides can be made, when there are few shadows and the immediate panorama is one of sweeping movement. Of twirl and tumble- and then startling sound and light effects. On the coast, paroxysms of nature- no matter the season- are interleaved with cool, briny breezes- all at once gritty, earthy, and rejuvenating. Invariably, there are signs to be noticed: reminders and pointers attesting to what is past that remains to inform, and horizons revealed.

To abide in the midst of nature’s voice is to dwell among transitory places of inspiration. When the air around us sounds and gusts and even adds a coating to us, it is an experience of both sense and spirit. These rains are reminiscent of what is above, beneath, and around me. Indirect light creates a context of muted reflectant colors, and with such palettes are many accompanying recollections. If you are among those who appreciate the rain, the grey light, and that washed-sky aroma, try drawing in a breath of that cathartic air which comes to us between storms. And reminders follow. As a child in the city, I hated rainy weather; it was- as many things in huge cities- an annoying obstruction. Darkness and cancellations. Humid busses and subways, squeaking slicker coats that stick to skin, and damp summer camp bunks. Though I may be projecting the helplessness of my adolescence, the impressions are surely accurate. But somehow, so many connotations began changing as I left home at seventeen, arrived in this place, and embarked upon the life of faith. And reaching forth for the new has an underpinning in a foundation of remembered experience. Scent can produce powerful memories and internal references. Rainswept air is our breathing after a purging lamentation. Memory is a realm at our very margin, that we may only visit as we recollect and contemplate. The brick and earthen streets of Portland return me to the cobbled and saturated streets of Paris. A good rainstorm can even be heard from the interiors we inhabit, be it swishing traffic, dappled windowpanes, or tympanic thunder. The landscape changes, and as we notice our own transformation, our sense of the scenery around us evolves, too.

Some of my colleagues and closest friends are aware of my penchant for what most consider to be “awful” weather- and a few understand it. Heading out to this café to write these words, a friend recommended, “take your umbrella, if you’re going out there,” pointing at the windows. It looked as if the whole building had been driven into a car wash. Adventures have their necessities: ponchos, boots, rain-gear, umbrellas, rain-proof containers. The great pilgrimage, we are told, requires but a pair of sandals and a walking-stick; unextravagant enough not to exclude anyone. Grateful for my associate’s presence of mind, I took the advice- and my umbrella. This modest perch of little tables, hot coffee, and bantering voices is shelter- certainly not the silence of Elijah’s cave, but similarly in the way one can sense the consolation and purpose of Divine presence. This exploration traverses unknown desolate places, separations, and also winds through unpredicted oases. The nature of a way-station is in its very provisional aspect, as a rainstorm blows out to sea. The way forward is antithetical to stagnation. In the unknowing, I must maintain a practical sense of remembrance, to be capable and equipped for the voyage. As the pilgrim soul is ever in motion, so are the skies in transition. Adapting to the forces of nature- to storms, terrain, and visibility- we reconcile with creation. Being reminded of vast heights and depths, we can be diverted from making our troubles larger than these sources of life themselves.

Noticing striding sidewalk adventurers outside, under their varieties of umbrellas, there is a fine symbol of pilgrimage. We must equip ourselves, as we move through this world- even under cover of portable shelters. Weather is indiscriminate, varying according to geography rather than by personality sharing proximity (however the better-healed are often better equipped). The sun rises upon all of us, however deserving we may think each other to be, and “the rains are sent upon those who do right and those who do wrong.” Heavy rains represent nourishment- and at times devastation. It is for us to find or create our sanctuaries from the storms, where we can fold up those umbrellas for the time being. If the skies present signs to us, among them is the certainty of transition. And as I weather these seasons, gazing back while looking for tomorrow’s light, through the rain there emerges a precursor of assurance.

Friday, August 1, 2008

pilgrim in progress

“‘Can you remember by what means you find your annoyances to seem
as if they were vanquished?’
‘Yes,’ he answered,
‘it is when I think of what I saw at the cross- that will do it;
and when I look upon my broidered coat, that will do it;
also when I look into the scroll that I carry in my bosom , that will do it;
and when my thoughts wax warm about whither I am going, that will do it.’”

~ John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

It would be a forbidding limitation, to impose timetables and quantitative expectations upon spiritual matters. But many of us want to, or wish we could, but then again wish that wasn’t our first impulse. As it appears, ratings and rankings are this culture’s necessary evils for assessment. This comes to mind while listening to “places rated” surveys, polled prospective voters’ results (who’ve not yet voted), reading abstracted sports predictions, and remembering academic “measurements” and “outcomes.” These are accepted ways of discernment, often someone else’s partialities made to look impartial to us. I once had an employer who was particularly fond of the “numbers don’t lie” mantra, and often invoked it when we would all discuss ideas and ways to surmount business hardships. Sure there’s rationale, but such pat lines were roadblocks to progress. I’ve contended that situations are not what fail us, but the difficult ones sure can feed our handily available fatalism. It seems we are flanked by a society that obsesses over results, numbers, and outcomes- and it even extends into market-driven “spirituality.” Participants in this culture then become vulnerable to trying to assess personal faith by relying on tangibles, which of course cannot be accurately done. Indeed, we may present varieties of works inspired by faith, but the finest and subtlest forms of immersion into spiritual life are not to be displayed. When it’s come to unique steps of faith, beyond the harbors of rote ritual and tradition, the oceanic panorama demands risks that we navigate by our own cultivated criteria. Will we risk launching forth, daring to test the spirits- and even to trust in the unseen Holy Spirit that holds us buoyant?

When the seamless swirl of multi-tasked pursuits pushes silent reflection out of reach, I find ways to regroup. Enough learning experience with monastic orders has taught me about interspersing industriousness with contemplation. Indeed, this insight is as yet unrefined, and a work in progress. I do wonder about my own spiritual development, and noticing how healthy disciplines lapse, it seems as though I must “restart” from where I imagine having left off. From there, I am reminded of that conditioning which ever pressures for results, causing me to ponder how much I might have really changed at all. Does one- or can one- really “make up for lost time,” as we commonly say for many things, when it comes to spiritual life? Surely, this defies how we perceive through old compensatory methods like exam-cramming or highway back-tracking. In many ways, restarting is a greater challenge than beginning from scratch, having to distinguish between recovering momentum while also desiring to cover new ground. I find a state of unsettle accompanies an odd obstacle course of remorseful feelings, colliding with a more rational understanding of Divine forgiveness. The sense of perplexity to forge through is strong enough to require some reckoning. What ignites the quagmire, and what are its sources? What assurances can be drawn, so as not to remain frustrated? “It is not in vain,” Thomas Aquinas wrote, “that the fires of this divine discontent have been kindled within us.” Comprehending the inner voyage very well, Aquinas added in his Summa Theologica how “it is our heart, not our feet, that rushes to God’s embrace or flees judgment.” Yet, he asserts, “God is rapturous beyond our most extravagant desires.” As much a learning about myself as about God, I see the limits of my cognition and how that which is eternal can hardly be described. Thinking about this throughout the week, the unsettle is really an impatience with my own journey, with its fleeting situations, and actually a thirst for new discoveries. For progress and purpose.

Returning to the unquantifiable nature of spiritual progress, I ought to revel in its defiance of descriptive calibration or limitation. Spiritual life has no measure, no means as ostensive as the wordless prayer of the heart. Articulating the unsettle began as a vague notice of disconnect, revealed in a simple yearning for respite amidst an excess of scattered material concerns. Then it became a list of feelings and impressions, though still not providing a launch in a positive direction. From there, I thought about sources of such restlessness- points that any of us can encounter when our worlds disappoint while also sharply sensing a divergence from sacred calling. How temptingly simplistic it can be, to focus on comparative progress, on closed doors, on uncertainty, and on regrets. Conversely, I started to enumerate sources of contentment instead, some of which I have known, such as fulfilled efforts, a confirmed sense of purpose, an awareness of completion- that nothing essential is lacking, and an ability to see a general humor in life. Again, I saw how these come off as descriptions of feelings and deep impressions, as in “the sense of...,” reminding me to stand away from thoughts as objects to be observed. Surely there are other, less self-conscious, interesting things to consider instead of musing over my own progress. If one must self-evaluate, here is a rare example for which looking back has great value, making it possible to see what has happened to bring us to this moment.

Having lived a number of years in the same vicinity, I am able to visit geographic life-crossroads of my own- for better or worse. Various landmarks and streets have what I call, a “sense of visitation,” with my present day footsteps meeting those of my unique history, my memory calls forth residences, places of work, classrooms, and events. The difference is signified by the years that have passed, discernable only by my mind’s eye. Surely this is occasional, and these are not incessant thoughts. And I am selective with my landmarks, preferring the places that have been pivotal on my pilgrimage. But when I encounter crossroads, and look to new horizons, I can also look to a physical geography of intersections. Indeed, we are immersed in the currents of time. In my impatient grasp for signs of transformation, while also wary of society’s presuming calculations, I remind myself that we do not remain unchanged. Our paces on the pilgrimage of trust are not known by increments in city blocks or miles, but by our hearts’ deepest desires. Pascal once wrote about how our unity with God is by humbling graces that surpass our nature, adding “you are not in the state of your creation.” He concluded with the recommendation that we observe our impulse to be able to distinguish how we are being reshaped by the Spirit (Pensées 182).

We are each uniquely able to see how our thoughts and perspectives have changed. When I consider this prospect, and then try imagining that God knows me better than I do myself, there follows an unusually intensified personal vision of God. On an unfolding journey, perhaps the soul need not be concerned with “back-tracking.” Whether or not I can know if I am making the best of my time and resources, I must take heart in the very desire to know, remembering the words, “take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am gentle and lowly of heart; and you will find rest for your soul.” The important thing is to proceed, unpredictable results notwithstanding.