“A right intention demands that we work with enough detachment to keep ourselves above the work to be done. But it does not altogether prevent us from gradually sinking into it over our ears. When this happens, we have to pull ourselves up, leave the work aside, and try to recover our balance and our right intention in an interval of prayer.”
~ Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, p.73
The northeast journey back from Vermont, from rutted roads and through highways, went quietly and without incident. Calmly dreamlike, I traversed some familiar scenery, though beneath changing skies- some darkening into downpours. During the drive, transiting mountains and rivers, my thoughts continued bearing the impressions of nine days’ absence from routines that had encroached upon my abilities to think more clearly and to listen deeply. Such opportunities are all too rare, and it is well worth seeking ways of interpolating reflection into the everyday. A chance to savor moments at my doorstep, reminded me to try applying that better in less rarified circumstances. I chose to make the trip home into a gentle transition, remembering past experiences of various rough landings and disappointments. Subtle things, like packing food for the journey, taking a scenic route- even through rainstorms, and approaching the city via side streets, made for an enjoyable re-entry. Indeed this continuum matched the welcome I received. Sure, the sullen ambiance of hard economic times was immediately felt as I returned to work. But that’s everywhere, I told myself. At least it’s still possible to take stock of all the good projects in progress, and recall the positive aspects that I can effect. Indeed, as with my successive and incalculable steps, I cannot know the beginning of the momentum that carries me even through this day, however it is for me to continue forward.
Moving through the week as something of a clean slate- yet already back to stealing moments for gathering thoughts- I tried to reflect upon what I’d learned after some extended contemplative silence. Realizing how the mountaintop experiences may be places of profound respite, they mustn’t be the sole places of spiritual growth. For the learning and perceiving to go on, no matter the time and place, I must keep listening. And it is a listening for an almost wordless presence that speaks from within. Keep listening. A conscientious practice that makes it possible to really attend to others, as well. Pondering the idea of “keeping,” brought to mind such connotations as maintaining or cultivating, rather than a stagnant holding-back. If our nature is pliable to our ideals, then keeping on with a constructive discipline is not a constraint, but truly a boundless practice. Balancing ideals with realistic expectations is a constant evaluative process. When they conflict, I must make every effort not to indulge in embitterments that expect- and even demand- responses that are out of my control. This is a way to extend the same spirit of reconciliation that I have received in the silence of retreat. Continuity is within my reach, and as I keep attuning myself to listening for a sacred purpose, I find there is more of the Holy Spirit’s voice to be understood. Now it is a learning that involves removing undermining and outdated traits, and allowing a dynamism to what is newly cultivated. It seems, when a structural block is removed, it must be replaced with another that substantially exceeds it, otherwise there will not have been any progress. It’s the difference between learning and applied follow-through.
How shall I continue walking steps that connect me with the wooded paths around my hermitage to this morning’s paved avenues? And conversely, should I wish to entertain an exhausting thought, I might try imagining back to the diverse and innumerable trails and stops which have preceded the place in which my feet are planted right at this moment. But rear-views and side-views are not meant for us to stare into; rather, these are instruments for our occasional and darting references, while moving ahead. The idea is to maintain a worthwhile direction that tells me I’ve derived something useful out of the old errors. To proceed with a sense of clarity is to keep above the din of daily demands and distractions. Now re-acclimated to the routines, but not yet fully entrenched by them, I am making sure to seek out quiet spaces in the days’ intervals. In the rhythm of spiritual exchange, it is both necessary to listen for God’s voice speaking to me from within, and also for me to be able to respond.
During the Wednesday coffee break that occasions this writing, I am imagining what I can do, in order to be faithful to the travels I’ve just made- as well as to the grand pilgrimage long since embarked upon. As contexts and environments evolve, my intentions must be consistent. If I can resist being an obstruction to my own progress, light can shine through my darkness in such a way that makes the two extremes undifferentiated to my seeing. It is to continue the desire that corresponds to God’s desire toward us, and to keep in mind the potential vitality that always accompanies our steps.