Friday, September 19, 2008

surge inluminare

“Look up and see
the vast and endless sky;
Who knows how far and wide
the stars intensely shine...”

~ The Monks of Weston Priory, Peace to You

So often, calm and chaos seem to alternate in rotation. Hardly able to breathe in the catharsis of a traveling teaching project, it became necessary to spend a long weekend producing an exhaustive report on a sudden deadline. Midway through the process, I became annoyingly conscious of the observation that too many elements in my days had become matters and projects of very compressed proximity. The computer screen seemed to symbolize how a task that is here this week and forgotten tomorrow can take up so much space as to obscure my field of vision. It occurred to me that many sides of my daily life had lent themselves to the defaulted confines of a closed-in space or some sundry chore. Too constraining for a soul, ever invited to soar heavenward, the sentiment resembling that of term-paper writing in April. Production was as challenging as conjuring up the level of focus needed to get it done. Then, during the process of the report’s completion, I took to walking to the windows and looking out, realizing the need to regain the knack of enthrallment over reluctantly obligatory topics. But on I wrote, researched, and wrote some more- until the whole thing accumulated something of a passion. Perhaps whether we’re making the case for some institutional matter, or offering words to the silent stirrings of the Holy Spirit, it still is written expression after all.

It is both immediate and easy to take what is superficially right in front of us, and consider it to be everything we have. Too often, all we set before ourselves is focused up to ten feet away, and thus resembling an uncalibrated lens we miss our depth-of-field. Indeed, renewal of vision can be literal and figurative. Varying angles of view can be a daily practice, manifesting in many forms. While I was in art school, I worked a third-shift night job in with a couple of guys- father and son- both named Tony. Anthony T. and Anthony A., referring to themselves as “Trouble and Aggravation.” They even dressed alike. The two Tonys preferred to work at night, so they could hike and explore on their afternoons. The elder Tony used to mutter profound nuggets of advice to me, in his endearingly laconic staccato. “Try to walk to work and back home as many different ways as you can,” he’d say, along with asides like, “I come to work every day to burn the meanness outta me.” His phrasing may have belied something about the value of strenuous work to his spirit. Variety in life surely adds to one’s collections of anecdotes, and that’s just one ephemeral source.

At last, I have reached the threshold of a very well-anticipated pilgrimage, and have achieved all the requisite clearances to freely take to the road. In that cycle of chaos and calm is catharsis, and somehow the energy to travel is with me- in just the right amount. Retreats do combine mysterious and new, with familiar and assuring. My route from coastal roads, to mountain passes, and to unpaved narrows, is always a journey that progresses from the tide-tossed surface and into the deepest heart of the soul’s forest. Along the way, there is always the notice of what is new and changed, driving through towns and alongside landmarks. Even the monastery, being a living community, will present some new additions of landscaping or the sorts of maintenance that can only be carried out in the mild weather months. Many familiar faces, and countless still to meet; the known and the new. But inevitably, no matter the time, it’s still the Priory, it’s still God, and it’s still me. Like the psalmist who used the illustration of nesting sparrows, my heart, too, has leapt ahead of my pilgrimage steps and is already in the highlands.

When I gradually transcend through an exhaustion with enough force to travel, it causes me to consider the true source of my strength. From whence comes our strength? And I mean the source, beyond temporal fixes like adrenaline and caffeine. How much of our forces of mind, heart, and muscle originate from us? Obviously there are ways to build physical strength and mental capacity, through what we ingest, how we exert, and through concepts we commit to memory and practice. But there is also the very real aspect of what we look toward, where we direct our focus. In the midst of a journey which hadn’t the slightest connotation of leisure, a multitude discovered their saving strength- far exceeding their most energetic protests- by simply looking at a symbol raised high that signified death vanquished*. “Looking at” a mystery so barely explicable may have been something more like a cross between a stupefying gaze and looking to the response to their profoundest fears and actual pains. In the nuanced ancient language, it was a looking up, as well, and in that certain radiance an innate awareness of the forces of creation and the very source of compassion. Further, in looking beyond ourselves, to the vastness that is also near, comes the reminder of the reliable strength working through us, which will get us there.

* Numbers 21:4-9

Saturday, September 6, 2008


“Therefore, be attentive to time and the way you spend it. Nothing is more precious.
This is evident when you recall that in one tiny moment heaven may be gained or lost.
God, the master of time, never gives the future. God only gives the present, moment by moment, for this is the law of the created order, and cannot be contradicted in creation.
Time is for humanity, not humanity for time.
God, the Lord of nature, will never anticipate our choices which follow one after another in time. We can never be able to excuse ourselves at the last judgement, saying to God, ‘You overwhelmed me with the future when I was only capable of living in the present.’”

~ The Cloud of Unknowing (14th century)

Anonymously, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote his observations and counsels, intending the words for novices in his monastic community. The unnamed author essentially mentored people for whom the consecrated life must have been quite new. One can just imagine the stories he must have heard from postulants, struggling to distinguish between frustrations of the past and doubts they naturally confronted. The quote surely attests to the spiritual teacher’s addressing the serious matter of discouragement. Regret and remorse are powerful emotions, and enough to deter anyone’s growth and renewal. The author knew the ageless anguish of those who, in futility, wished to repair their pasts while also trying to comprehend the roads before them. In the monastic life, as with this uncertain society, one’s haunting misgivings manifest as desert temptations that threaten to isolate. One needn’t even be a novice to be swerved off course by a sense of being just too far behind the metaphorical eight-ball to not only regain one’s steps, but also to know progress of new terrain. Kempis once pointed out how our spiritual visitations are either in the form of challenge or consolation. If this is so, then both circumstances inevitably present the need for a cultivated discipline of remaining encouraged. A practice so attentive, and yet not centered on self, means keeping close at hand that which inspires, as well as determining what must be kept out of one’s midst. The protagonist of Pilgrim’s Progress follows the admonishing to “fly to God by prayer,” echoing the ancient wisdom of unburdening oneself and casting our cares upon God who ever invites us.

When I think of the reference points that restore courage to my heart, I wonder how all that is good can be so easily forgotten. In the practice of strengthening a sense of assurance, it now occurs to me how simply one can recollect and take stock of the present in order to rejoin the continuum. Here, a reaching back for a past impression becomes a practice of great value- delicate yet powerful. Memory is itself a bottomless mystery of abstraction and objectivity, of idea and actuality. Indeed a two-edged sword to deftly wield, with enough anecdotes to incriminate, but indeed with a potentially forceful trove of grounding knowledge to reassure one’s being. Given a quiet moment, be it a stoplight or a long walk, any one of us can recall comforting or encouraging words, reinforcing events, even their accompanying faces and voices. Perhaps your recollections include the light and air, the colors and musical sounds encapsulated in the occasions in which you felt profound purpose and a sense of being alive to the very instant. But in the distillation of what we remember, there is a refining intuition that informs our choices to keep and to release. Keep and maintain what inspires and can be shared. Relinquish and release what ceases to help and that which clouds the pursuit of what is holy.

Speaking as a professional archivist, I can attest to the wise practice of keeping only the documentation that is of enduring value. Assessing manuscripts requires a learned instinct for recognizing records with evidential value, but indeed to be able to discern documents of research value. This is to say, we cannot keep everything and the careful and costly work of conservation is reserved to the documents deemed worthwhile to preserve. What is worth preserving? Generally, the best way for me to know is to read through all the materials, understand their context, and use a subtractive process. For practical reasons, we must always consider how much space the by-products of material culture occupy. Indeed, there are instances when our best practical and axiological assessment causes us to make room for something extraordinary. This also holds true for all of life’s dimensions. Just the other day, for the first time in my life- and I have always lived by the ocean- a hat flew right off my head in a wind gust. All I could do was watch the cap tumble across the tilting deck and into the choppy wake of sea forever lost. After a momentary sulk, I rationalized that I can just find another if I really miss the hat after all. The best part was that it got me writing- and on a windy starboard-side I held the notebook with a good grip. My thoughts turned to how we change what we consider to be “indispensable,” with time and our own evolving priorities. Imagine the ideas and things held highest at different intervals of your life’s journey. For years I would assiduously file my negatives and slides in a set of fireproof strongboxes. In recent years they have been joined- and at times replaced- by my journals, family pictures, and all the letters I saved from my grandmother. Ideas and perceptions have strongboxes of their own, albeit unseen. Concepts can take up a lot of space. There’s a far-reaching expression in the gospel about binding and setting loose; what we cannot release will bog us down later, and what is conscientiously sown now will manifest at a time we cannot know. When we are anchored down by obsolete burdens, we cannot be borne up on the winds that fill our sails with affirmative direction.

Considering the exercise of making room for what ceases to be of constructive use, I begin to imagine the soul’s capaciousness in the way the trunk of my car efficiently holds only so much material. Capacity has a connotation when it comes to items we can undamagingly pack, as well as it concerns the images, thoughts, and sentiments we hold. A person’s capacity indicates more than a passive ability to receive or contain. Strength of mind brings us to capably absorb impressions and make sense of them. At the same time, the pace of living and the desire for learning and formation makes it necessary to pare down the excesses and release what ceases to encourage.

Outdated notions resemble broken mechanisms that we often find with “out of order” signs on them, or vehicles with “out of service” marquées that will not take us anywhere. Such blunt mottos can work both ways: there are “no admittance” signs to represent closed avenues, and surely I can say “out of service” right back- to ways of thinking, as well as to directions. It “does not serve” to help my own forward motion, or to support anyone else’s. Becoming a vessel with more spacious capacity, it is possible for me to notice and to maintain those open windows needed for the Eternal to move through me. Releasing my grip on sharply-focused remembrances of wrongs does not eliminate what I’ve learned from their significance, it just releases me from them, from things that serve no purpose. “These things of humanity,” wrote Aquinas, “prayers, merits, sufferings, and all the rest are by no means futile; they are the coins by which heaven is bought, not because they change the will of God but because they fulfill it.” Making room for newness of vision and thought, in the spirit of trust, is revealing an expanse of capacity, even an unbinding that allows for an absorption with God. If “capaciousness” could be called a process, indeed the abilities involved in releasing and making space will be vital for the length and breadth of the journey.