“‘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.