on this journey
is simple and pure.”
~ The Monks of Weston Priory, Pilgrimage of the Heart
“The sheer bulk of modern records
makes their destruction inescapable.
The difficulty is to decide wisely and well
what shall be destroyed
and what shall be retained.”
~ William Kaye Lamb, The Fine Art of Destruction
One of those things only I would be able to recognize and laugh at, is noticing that whenever I tenaciously clean my desk area at home, I’ll do the same sort of cleaning at work- or vice-versa. It seems that if I want to clarify my thinking, the effort manifests across the boards. Years ago, when my office-studio included a darkroom, one evening while at home it occurred to me how my kitchen resembled the photo lab. Right down to the little bulletin board above the light switch. Organizing baking utensils seamlessly mirrored how I kept printing and developing tools at the ready. One of the downsides to having many avocations mixed with vocations is how each involve accumulations.
And I’ve had to focus my pursuits, prioritize how I can try dividing the time I have, and then make space by giving away what is no longer useful. In the progress of living, we invariably learn that we can’t keep everything. I’ve found that I can do many things- but surely not everything. And would I want to, anyway? More than proving multi-tasking prowess, there is greater sublimity in selectivity and simplicity. Accumulations and collecting manifest in many forms, including the tools and results of our crafts, mementos, and assemblages of our thoughts. And equally, we can bury ourselves with both material and mental agglomerations, especially without some boundaries. Aspirations are not to be bound, not as we might exercise the confines of schedule and space. Limiting personal aggregations are separate from the detriment of limiting one’s perspective and aspirations. But how else to know one’s figurative limits, aside from lived realities? Being always younger than the majority of my colleagues, over the years, I’ve seen how many establish their limits. I’m also aware not to resign myself to limiting my sense of exploration and anticipation- choosing not to be sunk by cynicism. Doing this seems to require a vigilance similar to that of cultivating a body of work, or a craft. Looking at the work I do so intently, it has been occurring to me how there are theoretical connections between the different skills I practice and the spiritual vocation I’m called to express and pursue with my life.
Theory and practice: what we say and what we do; one can evaluate the other- and surely this is inevitably how we are evaluated. Momentarily speaking from the standpoint of a fulltime working archivist, it seems that archival theory has some application to this double-theme of managing excess. It seemed ironic to me, that while I’ve been organizing major historic collections, having the charge of one such department, and even traveling the region instructing the curatorship of archives, that my life apart from work should occasionally find itself in disarrays of paper heaps and jumbled thoughts! Why keep what neither serves nor informs? If simplicity helps me think more clearly, than it’s worth the effort to assiduously keep things simple and purposeful. For a curator of the soul, there are “collections management” issues that are really the same as those affecting document archives.
In graduate school, we studied texts by Sir Hilary Jenkinson, one of modern archival theory’s innovative minds. Jenkinson entered the field in the aftermath of World War I, when the antiquated profession found itself unprepared to deal with a massive proliferation of manufactured documents. A bit like today. Suddenly, the profession had to engage in the unprecedented obligations of selecting materials for preservation- and for disposal. Jenkinson posed the question, “What is the criterion for destruction?” “There,” he added, “is the starting-point of criticism.” The crossroads, in any matter, are what get us thinking. From there, we join a continuum of advocacy for the historic record, while also evaluating documentation against context. At the prospect of reaching his archival terra incognita, Jenkinson suggested keeping “destruction diaries,” that would inventory and thus represent what had been deemed documentary chaff. Decades later, with tested records-management policies long in place, W. Kaye Lamb added that while controlling quantity, archivists needed to keep open minds regarding future potential uses of the documents in our spheres of stewardship and carefully focus preservation energies on unique and informative collections. We all have only so much space and time- for an institution it may be shelves and laborers, and for a human soul there are limits on what we “give place” to, in our hearts and thoughts*.
Now consider what archival methodology has to teach about managing the extraneous. How to minimize and dispose of things and thoughts that obstruct my vision of sources that have actually strengthened me through struggles and false starts in this life. When I’m in the role of archival consultant, seemingly “parachuted” into incorrigible messes of heaped volumes, deteriorated ledgers, and rolled up embrittled maps, documents, and pictures... I begin with a survey. Resisting the impulse to stand still in overwhelm, surrounded by dusty and unlabeled piles in acidic boxes and bags (paper and plastic), I simply list what types of materials I can find- by format- getting a sense of what I’m dealing with. On such a cursory pass, I only move the stuff so I can see what there is, and to do some quick measuring. Each area and wall gets a name, like “3rd floor, north wall,” for example, so I can at least retrace my steps. All the complex strategies, labor-intensive processes, and researching follows. During those surveys, I make myself able to visualize the whole mess as a trim, finished, and indexed collection. Subsequently there are all the procedures for developing, presenting, and maintaining these collections, always looking for what may need additional conservation.
Likewise, for the archives of the soul, there will always be collections to manage, to groom, to verify, so they can be referenced well. A constant method, if you will, is that of maintenance: the tending of the soul. We are ever collecting information and impressions, and discarding them. Being our own curators implies an assessment of the vitality and value of our own inner archives of anecdotal thoughts, attitudes, and perspectives. After the type of triage I’ve described, which is needed when organizing a neglected corpus of unfocused accumulation, the follow-through comes in the forms of careful upkeep and watchful acquisition. Subsequent accessions are to be considered in light of the integrity of existing collections, their context, and pertinence. To appropriate again from Jenkinson, what you uphold must warrant your “physical and moral defence.” It may be an influence, an affiliation, a demand, an accumulation held too long after its records life-cycle, or some other burdensome digression. Here is where it becomes easier to shard away what can’t be used, by comparing whatever that is, to what is needed in order to progress to a wholeness that is a benefit to others, self, and true to a sacred vocation.
In this context, it makes a world of sense to dispose of these types of space-consuming inner archives, or even to make the effort to remove a pervading destructive consciousness of collected thoughts. But that is far easier said than done, and if what remains for a while is a Jenkinsonian “destruction diary,” then so be it- but let it be inconveniently shelved. In a spirit of trust, the obsolete and useless collections will ultimately be vanquished. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing observed how daunting distractions can get for those who “take up the contemplative work of love.” He advocated a healthy detachment from things material and even spiritual, from situations and projects both good and ill. “To put it briefly, during this work you must abandon them all beneath a cloud of forgetting.” In so bold an effort, repressive hindrances are effectively neutralized. A mindset of hopelessness leads nowhere and the antidote is trust in the Immutable, realizing how the Divine indeed manifests in our lives. This kind of mindfulness keeps us aware of the strength needed to artfully de-accession the records we don’t need. And in the yield there will be space for newer and more relevant archives.
* Ephesians 4 : 25-27
“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.