Saturday, February 21, 2009


“Cease not in thine intent, but strike evermore
upon this cloud of unknowing that is betwixt you and your God
with a sharp dart of longing love,
and loathe for to think upon ought under God,
and go not thence for anything that befalleth.”

~ The Cloud of Unknowing, ch. 12

The dawn-to-dusk workday offered scarce light and no rest. What impelled me through the hours was the prospect of relaxation and fresh air that evening. By mid-afternoon, I had decided upon a hot bath as a clarified and appropriate reward. My chilled walk through the dark streets going home began the process of exhaling thick dust and grime out of my lungs. A good bubbly hot water immersion needed some efficacious thoughts, so I coincidentally brought Baxter’s The Saint’s Everlasting Rest with me. Sinking into the suds, the 17th century orator’s words wafted to me from my weary arm’s reach: “A heart seldom thinking of heaven can fetch but little comfort here.” The hardworking chaplain of Kidderminster held to the ancient contention that “there remaineth a rest” in the eternal future. We are unsettled in our earth-bound lives, Baxter claimed, because we neglect to meditate upon heaven. Impressed by these poetic reminders, while draining away the day’s travails, it occurred to me how I don’t think much at all about what we refer to as “heaven.”

Admittedly, I do get bogged down, if not diverted, with immediate concerns and the weight of keeping as many jumps ahead of deadlines as possible. Indeed, this culture refers to the stuff of heaven as the “afterlife.” When I stop to ponder, I realize how far one can perpetuate distorted perspectives. Rather defensively, my response is there’s so much “down here” in the “real world,” occupying my energies and all personal resources. Perhaps projecting some ingrained ideas from my uninterrupted working life of grinding and burning-out, looking ahead to some yonder break. The intermissions are never enough, and I tend to spend half of those times trying to stabilize myself with rest so that I can actually enjoy wherever I am and whatever I’m doing. Unfortunately that taints my view of heaven: that I’ll work on numerous well-intended projects and self-improvements until I simply can no longer. Then my life will be followed by some sort of ‘perpetual paid vacation,’ entailing a lot of harp-playing inside the fabled pearly gates. Merciful heavens, this can’t be it.

The problem is that I interpret references to heavenly eternity with terribly distorted and uninviting imagery. Quite the opposite of goodness and peace. No wonder these pictures of a hazily simplistic heaven are never in my thoughts or dreams. I begin to regret the notion that it may not look like Paris. Or eastern Maine. Surely there must be gentle people, books, good coffee, and bicycles. I, too, apply my own humble human projections. A bit more Robert Doisneau and a whole lot less Fra Angelico; I’d like that. Indeed, Richard Baxter himself- and the biblical sources- cannot spell out what we will see and do not bend to the limits of the scale of human perception. Baxter calls heaven “our own happiness,” and that a life of praise and inclination toward the infinite Divine, draws us away from being devoured by our convenient miseries. Whatever it is, or can resemble, will be our very utmost good. At this point it’s more than enough to get me to visualize a 4-day weekend, let alone heaven. Still, meditating upon these things helps me re-learn how a heavenward focus causes a more balanced earthly view. This evening it’s easy to imagine a perfect rest. That everlasting rest for all who have labored and knew heavy burdens. “On earth as it is in heaven,” begins to look to me like “in application as it is in ideal.” The place is for later.

Piercing those clouds of unknowing is a concerted effort and a constant need. Each day begins with a former perception to shard away. Perhaps darts that transcend cloud-coverings are not about the world to come, but really about an undaunted pursuit. These are aspirations. An unseeing intent that reaches forth to the Divine attains to the absolute. Yes, going forward even when unable to see through the void of a fog bank; even without sonar. The anonymous writer of Cloud of Unknowing wrote of the blind intent stretching to God, which, if wholeheartedly directed toward God, will surely meet its goal. The sharp dart of longing love is essentially an unfettered desire through which the soul attains the absolute, which really cannot be apprehended by any particular contrivance or method. Hidden between the rigidity of contraries- such as speaking and silence, eating and fasting, company and aloneness- is the sublime spirit discovered. “Up there,” as so commonly gestured, becomes “close at hand,” with distances delineated not by miles but by the will of the heart. Perhaps a better view I might have of what life manifests beyond might be to contemplate the passing away of the unknowing. Knowing even as we are known.

It seems I am reaching forth by faith toward something for which my understanding is evolving. But knowing enough to reach, and even to strike upon the clouds, envelops the pursuit in this very assuring mystery. A vivid recollection involves hiking to a favorite place of solitude, close to home and along the ocean. One of those countless ledges of crags and pines. This time, I encountered a dense and palpable fog, so dense that it was impossible to see the edge of terrain. My steps became vignetted by the same blanched smoky void that was straight ahead of me. The sound of crashing waves informed my advances. Of course while knowing what was on the other side of the fog, I couldn’t tell how near. Standing on a jutting rock, I simply marveled at the upward view being undifferentiated from the views ahead, left or right. What vistas await, surpassing the unknowing? Details are less important, but the goal must not be forgotten. Sowing must not hesitate with fears about quantitative results. “Contemplatives,” wrote Thomas Merton, “must empty themselves of all created love in order to be filled with the love of God alone.” With this in mind, my imaginings of what follows might remain at the edges of peripheral sight, yet the heavens are surely present.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


“Some winters are harder than others.
We are going to take our cameras
and look through at black trees with empty arms,
and sled tracks wandering as we are.
To see him, to see him happy.”

~ The Innocence Mission, Snow

Thursday, February 5, 2009

un avenir de paix

“Some are bearers of peace and trust
in situations of crisis and conflict.
They keep going even when trials or failures
weigh heavily on their shoulders.”

~ Brother Roger of Taizé, A Future of Peace

Ever since my youngest childhood years, I’ve befriended my most elderly neighbors. Perhaps beginning with the patience of my grandmother, and on through my school years I could recognize how my eldest teachers could listen best, and also tell the most captivating stories. And this was common between playgrounds, neighborhood stores, and- when I began working- the customers I served. One of my grocery delivery stops, when I worked for a market in New York City, was the home of a retired teacher. In my gratitude for the wise anecdotes and gentle encouragements, I would give her drawings I made, which she cherished. As I advanced into art school, one of my very rare fortunes in those days was to have landed in an elderly illustrator’s final class before he retired. He had apprenticed with Edward Hopper, and I would divert him from critiquing my work with requests for more stories about camping in the woods of Brooklyn in the 1920s, watching Zack Wheat play for the Dodgers, and the horse-drawn brewery vans in Bay Ridge. This man must’ve been in his 80s, and he taught us plenty about rendering and gesture-drawing. To this day, I remain fascinated with eras that long preceded my birth.

Getting through an enormous hardship, about 14 years ago, and deciding to rebuild my life by focusing all my forces into graduate school, it was an octogenarian neighbor who gave me words of faith. I went to visit him with the good news about beginning graduate school in Boston (to study medieval history and archival sciences). “You’ve been through a lot, for your age,” he declared, adding “but you have a brilliant future,” with his hands gripping both my shoulders. This gentleman passed away shortly afterwards, and so these were his last words to me. At that time, I had so many doubts about my abilities and needed those words. Too much uncertainty to presume far ahead.

These times are replete with indefinitely grim forecasts, all following litanies of harsh news to which we have grown accustomed. And with reason. Added to a general societal apathy are swelling tides of discouragement. Decreases in employment, commerce, and economic opportunities are well entrenched in this culture. In recent months, I have seen friends and neighbors numbered among the disenfranchised. In our conversations, we wonder where the road turns. Have we yet seen the depths of this current duress? Having surpassed the winter’s epicenter, it seems easier to imagine the harshest of generally difficult times is past. But numerous commentators broadcast the worst is still to come. Downsizes, cuts, outsourcing, the “elimination of redundancies,” and references to “the pauperization of the middle class.”What to believe, and where to place that proverbial grain of salt? Beyond that, to be as hopeful as one is realistic- perhaps even more so. Confidently going forward, even as we walk through streets of “closed,” “for rent,” and “foreclosure” signs affixed to empty spaces.

When I first met Brother Roger, in Taizé, he was 88 years old; two years before he published the words quoted above in an essay. He addressed present-day society with references to the ancient Jeremiah, “God has plans for a future of peace for you, not of misfortune.” We must not let ourselves “be caught up in a spiral of gloom,” as some of us have been called to encourage others and be “bearers of trust.” With courageous hearts “we must keep on going,” in spite of the heavy burdens of trials and losses. Brother Roger’s words speak to that antithetical resolve- that determination to persevere when one’s conviction is the only persuasive evidence. Then we really do become creative bearers of stability in the midst of despairing souls. And it is a confrontation of the challenge of that easily spiraling gloom, bearing a shared burden of trust.

We cannot predict where, or when, or if this somber road will turn a corner. Listening to so many grim personal stories and being immersed in this society, my perspectives are put to the test. And listening, saturating as it can be sometimes, is often my wisest response. We all wish to be heard. My recollections only comprise one severe time of recession- that of the early 1990s. The current economic decline brings to mind those years of closings, job losses, and an exodus out of this region. I had been only a few years out of college, and saw most of my friends leave, while I worked two jobs to survive- and be able to stay here. It meant living alongside a lot of misery, investing in what many told me were lost causes. One of the most infuriating things I’d be told, mostly by evacuating acquaintances- and it happened countless times- was “you’re still here?” I developed some good responses, such as “and you’re visiting here?” Brother Roger reminded me that Jeremiah invested in a field that was located in a disaster area, a place from which his friends had fled, as he became certain of his purpose where he lived. But it’s always easier said than done. The necessary ingredient is to trust that assurance of a hopeful future, of bright days ahead, of consistently seeing spring though the winter.

This is an era of hesitancy. Yet we are ever enjoined to go forth, as our days advance in linear succession, even when details and timetables are elusive. Even when what we believe conflicts with what we see. I've lost jobs through layoffs twice, and during one of those ugly processes a coworker of mine blacked out faces on a corporate group photo- respectively with the dismissed employees. He wrote across the top, "who's next" with his marker, in a pained show of gallows humor. When his turn came, after he packed his effects, he returned to the common room, and blacked out his own face in the picture. For those who must bear witness to these things, there must be a reckoning of our own approach to life when there are so many justifiable reasons to be pessimistic. Evidently there will always be trials for us to contend with. And just as fears can be dispelled and stood down, so can ideals be put to the test, and constructive reinforcement can be founded upon reality.

When our tangible sources run thin, our precarious fulcrum points upon which our lives turn become apparent. How to stay inspired, and how to proceed with a realistic positivism, instead of gravitating into that ubiquitous spiral of gloom? Drawing nearer, and depending more upon the wellspring of life, my thoughts can dwell on the hopeful things I can count. Health, abilities, and prospects are stock-taking ingredients. The inadvertent and invaluable investments of rich friendship. Reflect upon the life-giving. Recall the finest words we have received; these things remembered have no expiration date, and are worth committing to memory. Save the good words for the gold coins they truly are. Good-tasting nutrients help too, I have learned from an elderly friend. And it's all needed, since getting through these times requires a lot of energy.