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.

1 comment:

Anne said...

This is fabulous! You seem to be a genius! Your words just draw me in and captivate me! If it were me, I would have an awfully hard time letting go of the things you write, I would hold them in those strongboxes of yours! Have you written any books? If not, I hope you are considering it! And, I'm curious as to why you suggested that I read this particular post. Have I mentioned my difficulty with detachment to you? I don't remember whether I did or not, but this certainly does address that issue. I have read the Cloud of Unknowing. It is a marvelously mysterious book. I'm so glad to be getting to know you. Keep sending suggestions along, I'll be eager to see what else you think I might be interested in!