Wednesday, April 21, 2010


“Often look up
and see the splendor
of life suspended
in your heart and mind.”

~ The Monks of Weston Priory, Listen

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

theophany : progress, part 3

“As for the Future,
your task is not to forecast,
but to enable it.
And surely you have enough work on your hands
when you are given the Present
as your raw material.”

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Citadelle, ch. 50

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

soundings : progress, part 2

“Deep calleth unto deep
at the noise of thy waterspouts;
all thy waves and thy billows
are gone over me.”

~ Psalm 42 : 7

Longing guides my steps to the waterfront. Watching gusts of rain, whether at the open shore or along harbor piers, aquatic textures blend. Seeing skies mirrored by the water surface brings a fascination with distance and volume. Altitude from sea level is readily seen, and can be noted with every terrain or air-travel ascent. When it comes to water depths, ocean charts inform and provide a sense of distance below surface. Simply watching the stirs of blue-green waves is insufficient for a realistic impression of how far- or near- edges of crags may be. Both knowledge and sharpened sense are needed. Trying to synthesize these two aspects, my thoughts return to the idea of progress. I consider whether deepening of trust, of learning, and of direction can be known, as hypnotic hatching tidal lines group and disperse around me. Depth-of-field, a very familiar concept to me, concerns broadening areas of sharpened focus by using only the center of a camera lens. Through slower shutter speeds and finer apertures, more area can be sharply seen. It is the more patient view. But thirst urgently desires heights above and depths below surfaces.

Pelting rain adds layers of circles to the weave of ocean. When it becomes snow, the falling flakes shuffle with whispers into the water. Such unparalleled sounds are audible once away from city or ship-engine noises. Recently, I thought to call the Maine Geological Survey to ask about how ocean depths are measured. The scientist I spoke with helpfully explained depth soundings- also known as echosoundings, which is much the same as sonar. Acoustic signals are sent from an instrument towards the bottom, and depth is calculated based on the time it takes for the signal to come back to a transducer mounted on a vessel. Higher topography in the water will have reflected signals that come back sooner than areas that are deeper. Calculations are based on the speed of sound through water, which varies with salinity and temperature. It is fascinating to know how precise these depths- and even the shapes of bathymetric forms (underwater topography) are determined.

After this intriguing conversation, my usual waterfront walks brought these depth soundings to mind. Rather than to imagine any pinging rates of my own, a preferable quest is to plumb the depths and sail the heights of the Divine. Just the other day, out on a briny pier and breathing in the salt-washed air, I called unto the deeps. A simple supplication for refuge, from the depths preceding me- toward the Creator of all life whose understanding is unfathomable. And the words returning to me from beneath the tides are to continue onward. Greater things are up ahead than those yet seen. The unseen and trust- a tandem to accompany the cloud of unknowing and unceasing prayer. Once beyond my own perimeters, God’s expanse is limitless. Of course, it is quite human to ponder any progress I may have made; to marvel is something beautifully mortal. I wonder about what’s really changed, whether the changes have been for the better, and if this year’s product is one I would’ve bought last year- or even 10 years ago. It is all terribly humbling, and brings me to modest contentment with the small increments of distance effected.

Between digitally-plotted soundings and the heart’s sonar is the crossroad of ostensible and intrinsic. Indeed this is not meant to set one against the other, as both aspects are necessary. And somehow, no matter how much can be verified, the greater interest is in the elusive and unknown. In his tractate Signs of the True Ground, Meister Eckhart (13th c.) wrote “there are few who get beyond the science and the theory,” being well aware of the vitality of balance. “By being free from notions,” he continued, we can “be carried up beyond all rational concepts,” borne by the Spirit “to this truth and to this blessed life which no one can attain except in abstract knowledge and pure understanding.”

Discovery, alas, is often subtle and indirect. Straining at a conundrum doesn’t guarantee a solution. It’s as though endurance is tied to creativity. If answers are not immediately apparent- even with persistence- the subtler, overcoming discipline is to focus away from the matter. Irrational as that may seem, the emphasis becomes a more general context. Motion, and a panoramic view, will help overcome the paralysis of analysis. Notice how waters in channels, inlets, and around islands steer around obstructions. These directions are diverted by encountered resistance, though not prevented. Thirst for wisdom and the pilgrimage of trust come at one’s own risk, but it is well worthwhile- as St. Diadochos wrote in the 5th century, quoted in the Philokalia:

“For in much wisdom is much knowledge; and he that increases knowledge increases sorrow... the soul is tested by divine rebuke as in a furnace, and through fervent remembrance of God it actively experiences joy exempt from unreality”.

Discoveries and changes follow humbling episodes and experiences. Similar to steering away from fixating upon a question or a problem, listening for answers begins with embarkation. Standing straight, proverbial mat rolled up, and going forth with a perspective unburdened by old grudges. Pursuit inevitably teaches perseverance. But it requires getting going first; drawing a bold black charcoal mark on the large blank paper. By creatively engaging the voyage, we write off the detours that divert the road of communion. Or as St. Diadochos wrote, “ceaselessly journey toward God within the soul.” Somehow, in unexpected ways, endurance enhances understanding as hyper-focus in isolation cannot. Having already navigated some depths, echosoundings will reveal their worth as guiding coordinates.

Friday, April 2, 2010

so far : progress, part 1

So far, so good,
so close, yet still so far.

Step in, step out of the rain
I’m goin’ to walk on up to the Waterfront

~ Simple Minds, Waterfront

With this advancing and burgeoning spring, my thoughts turn to crossroads as signs of reflection. During evening walks, my paces across converging roads are especially noted. Nightfall happens later, with each passing day and with more temperate air. Lengthened days invite more musings. An intersection such as a nascent spring revives recollections of transitions and graduations. And expectations. Now progress is a loaded term, often blending unrealism into reality, yet remaining a necessary aim. Which ideals are worth this obstacle course? Are measures of progress based upon comparisons of what, or where, or whom we think we should be?

In the realm of sports, exaggerated fortunes are tied up in games, teams, and empire-maintenance. The nature of assembling a dominating “dynasty” strikes a curious contrast with the humane aspect of mercy. Or loyalty. A person endures an unproductive spell and is branded as “washed up.” Such judgments are batted back and forth between athletics and the workaday world. Identity is determined by the progress one makes- or fails to generate. Indeed, this mentality also infects religious circles. Acceptability too often tied to material expectations, constantly raising bars of demand, confuses places of worship with pressured places of work. Surely there must be limits to the meaning of “enough,” and the humble spaces we offer and influence may be done so as peaceful oases.

Driving my various errands and obligations today, I turned off the radio news- and thought about trends that define these times. Much is determined by what scares or angers us; many affirm what they are not, rather than who they are. Some careful listening reveals this, and it brings my thoughts to imagine the role fear plays in the motivation of people. As much as fear can drive some to evasion, it can also motivate overcompensation. Worrying about interaction or the challenge of something different frightens us into isolation. I remember working for a place in which the smallest, most mundane memoranda were copied to a universe of additional personnel. Issued words to be witnessed, along with all responses, as proofs of some sort of activity (or lack of inactivity) in this litigious society. It seems exaggerated expectations, mixed with fear-based interpretations of accountability, cause the subjected fearful soul to overstate what they do. Part of the noise that deafens this culture is the defense mechanism of overstating practically every personal action.

Another strange way to express “progress” is to connect it to self-justification. “Redemption” happens by vindication. So many of us have known the cornered-animal state of mind that taps into primal adrenaline as we’ve met deadlines and performed “to save our lives.” And more than once. “Hero today, goat tomorrow,” as sports and real life imitate each other- both by experience and semantics. Still, amidst being pulled along by the need to competitively survive, it is difficult not to notice how living souls are appraised and assessed. Inhabiting this culture needn’t imply succumbing to spreading spells of cynicism. Trying to keep things workable and healthful has meant an operating knowledge of “the system” while attending to my own ideals. Parallel to being multilingual, the language of commerce permits for a livelihood, and the heart-language is the one through which understanding and prayer happens. That inner language- an inner citizenship- must be continuously cultivated on my own time and on my own dime. But this worthwhile endeavor, with an inner life, is both vital and the way out of conforming with societal images of success and progress- of how to look and talk, and of what one is supposed to have accomplished and purchased so to appear respectable.

As for qualitative progress, how shall this be determined? If the soul’s advance is a discernment of conscience, inspiration should be free of competitiveness. Yet, in the spirit of exploration, I do hear myself ask, “against whom- or what- do I compete?” There must be continuity of inquiry. Progress that transcends finite situations is the career undefined by fixed measures. Though unquantifiable, the Spirit is undiminished. Depths and breadths untold, yet with a certainty of presence. Transitions, which I can only hope to be steps of progress, register as points of recognition. Short-term goals are frequently moving targets; they’ll be something else tomorrow. Taking walks around familiar and personal landmarks invites occasions to ask myself about perceiving things differently. Corners, crosswalks, and structures resolutely rest as solid signs. And my circulating traversals salute these humble sentries, while new paces overlap previous paths. Houses and schoolyards retrieve words and moments, as familiar slants of light remind me of distances covered to now. The day soon a memory, giving way to the present’s fluidity, and destinations unfolding as gradually opening hands.