“You walk into the room with a pencil in your hand...”
~ Bob Dylan, Ballad of a Thin Man
A reprieve of stillness mercifully interrupted the day’s chaos. With notebook and pencil in hand, I sought the quiet sanctuary of an empty office. After having started writing, it became obvious to me that nothing cohesive was materializing. But I kept noting words- even if some of them were about feeling devoid of anything to say. I wanted some new thoughts, but that hour offered no written developments. So that’s exactly what I wrote. After returning home from work that night, those bedraggled words re-appeared as I opened my journal again. It seemed I’d been foraging for glowing embers using a pencil. It happens, ungratifying as that can be. The aspect for which I do express gratitude is for knowing to reach. Even a few scribbled sentences reveals forward motion.
Throughout this recent season of Advent and Epiphany, I’ve travelled to parishes throughout the region, providing music and creating contemplative spaces. Last Sunday night, during the long meditative silence, I glanced up from my sheet music to the front of the sanctuary. Lit only by scattered flickering candles, warm-toned icons met my gaze. These are the same icons that I’ve hefted across thousands of miles, beginning in Taizé, France. Occasionally, I am surprised by the austere mystery on the painted figures and faces. The Spirit invites. Such images are not sources, but brilliant reflections of light that confounds the dark. If darkness is prelude to light, then I must consider my failings and frustrations as prefatory to discovering.
Consider how a physical space appears transformed in our eyes, as our perceptions evolve. The same venue that witnessed anguished desperation can be the setting for elated recognition. Contrasting connotations can be noted anywhere: a café, a busy street, a schoolyard, a workplace, a room in a house. My apartment has been something of a stage for human drama. A downtown diner has been a repeating backdrop for scribing trepidations and for calligraphic catharses alike. Noting how a space is transfigured is to recognize changed realities perceived.
Amidst this reach for understanding is the unfathomable mystery of the origin of light. From there follows the wonder of how a spirit can be re-ignited. If to discover is epiphany, then to arrive is to be present: to alight. The act of alighting is to descend from one place and come to rest in another. Perhaps there is something to note, in my journey, about coming to terms with the Source of life without having seen the Eternal. In Tauler’s exhortation to endure in good cheer, we are to abound in good works for God’s sake. “And then,” he wrote, “shall you be made partakers of overflowing measure that runneth over on all sides.” This alighting touch of grace reaches the brimming human vessel, which “pours itself back again into its Divine source, from whence it has proceeded." In Tauler's description of this mystery, "all knowledge, love, perception are all swallowed up and lost in God, and become one with God." This grandeur challenges my own belief, in that it is more than I think I should ever expect. But perhaps that wouldn't be reaching as I ought. While trying to comprehend these things, why not keep working and keep the pencil moving on the page?
A good friend of mine is a historian of tool-makers and their utilitarian creations. His enthusiasm and expertise has breathed new life into our local Charitable Mechanics' Association- which dates back to Colonial times. Our friendship inspires in both directions. I am becoming attuned to the old ways of production, and he now uses antique typewriters. One day, as I spoke of the "tools of the spiritual life," he quipped, "you've said it all right there. Tools are spiritual." Indeed, we speak in two different senses of the word: implementation of a practice and the physical implements themselves. Surely, the actual tools of the writer (along with the builder and the mechanic) deserve their due. With these writing instruments at our ready, we experience the miraculous- and can create documentation.
As with light, our documenting tools help us liberate our thoughts, our stories, and our voyages. I have seen the worth of keeping the pencil moving- even while reaching and straining for description. And the tools do accommodate, no matter how cold; graphite cannot freeze. These exterior sub-zeroes teach us the value of continual movement. In time, the frozen granite steps will be bathed in spring rains and adorned with ivy.