Tuesday, December 25, 2012

nadolig llawen

"At His Word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean
in their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
evermore and evermore!"

~ Aurelius Prudentius, 5th Cen­tu­ry : Of the Father's Love Begotten (Corde na­tus ex pa­ren­tis)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

ora et labora

“It is simply impossible that people should remain
unaffected by what they pass through.
Joys and sorrows, failures and successes,
pains and pleasures, disappointments and gratifications,
meetings and partings, experiences great and small,
insensibly do their part in making us interiorly what we are.”

~ Octavius Frothingham, The Hidden Life

collected wisdom of work life

A memory remaining with me from a teaching job past came to mind today. I had spent many hours of my own time helping the college chaplain complete his doctoral dissertation. He was a great friend, and that particular experience was intensely pressured, yet I was glad to have been able to give of my expertise. I had opened the library during a holiday just for us to print out his final four hundred page document. The chaplain looked exhausted and uncharacteristically unsure of himself. In the midst of those final editorial steps, I looked up and asked, “John, what makes us work so hard?” Without stopping to think, he bluntly replied, “Fear.” His response was entirely comprehensible to me, as it made sense to much of my own general experience. Admitting to being motivated by fear of failure exposes a side of life beneath standard office veneers.

Our lives at our various jobs reveal personal histories replete with scenarios, casts of characters, and moments of discovery. And stories. One of the factory jobs I’ve had was in a poultry processing plant. On the conveyor line, I heard the ex-cons’ adventures, the crazy guy that clucked like a chicken, and the lifers who had spent years and years slicing and packaging ad infinitum. I found the latter unimaginable. I once had a graveyard shift job, from 8pm to 8am, in a newspaper pressroom. My benchmates and I called 3am “the hour of delirium,” indicating the point at which our fatigue would take us through a dizziness before the human afterburners could take hold. During those times, we would laugh at our absurd hilarity. I had a bench-mate who would growl: “You know why I work here? I come here to burn off all my meanness!” His daytime hobby was to hike along railroad tracks and birdwatch.

During my years in commercial photography and industrial darkrooms, I worked with some eccentric and compelling souls, but unanimously and unfortunately under crude and exploitive management. Among the former were many artists, a hard-travelled rock band photographer, a dachshund breeder, an antiquarian auctioneer, and an Irish singer. The latter was a scourging succession comprising a relentlessly boorish ex-drill sergeant, a pilferer, and a rotation of aloof and abusive hard-drinkers. Adult schoolyard bullies. The one notable compliment, following years of consistent face-saving and time-defying achievement, was when I was referred to as “a vital cog in this machine.” Simply by proximity and some common goals, we learn about our co-workers’ lives, and care about them, too. Life is a very strange business that puts us shoulder to shoulder with individuals and settings we could not have imagined.

arenas and stages

I worked for more than 12 high-pressured years
in and around this tiny underground space.
The walls and ceilings were painted black,
to prevent any stray light reflections.

Work environments can be as enigmatic and fascinating as the cast of characters. Recalling the odors of loading docks, truck-fumed warehouses, store cellars, damp film-developing chambers, library attics, a cement storage area called “the dungeon,” a textile processing area called “the pit,” and the dry cold of a subterranean archive vault, my thoughts return to glimpse the words, pictures, and persistent forlorn aspirations of a songbird in a thornbush. Surely, from countless narrow hotplated coffeebreak rooms and cinderblocked crevasses, there dwell souls athirst for worlds of vast skies and lifegiving music. No less a personality than Saint Augustine, in the early 5th century, articulated creation’s basic desire to thrive. In his brilliant City of God, he observed how the simplest creatures such as worms and plants “show in every movement that they can make that they long to live and escape destruction.” Indeed, the hunger for more of life transcends temporal hardships:

“Merely to exist is, by the very nature of things, so pleasant that in itself it is enough to make even the wretched unwilling to die; for, even when they are conscious of the their misery, what they want to put an end to is not themselves but the misery.”

Remembering the family saying, le travail est de l’or (“work is as precious as gold”), I consciously cherish employment. Though a many-edged sword, I’m especially grateful for work as I dispatch my recurrent bills. But work is truly a treasured life element. Somehow, it is oddly natural and normal for all of us to grouse and grumble about our obligations. In the peculiar scheme of creation, humans are the ones that complain, satirize, and then set about to build the better mousetrap. Through history there are centuries of work songs, such as sea chanties, cloth-making chants, railroad and mine workers’ blues. As our days are spent at our jobs, under pressure to solve and produce, we are generally in our most lucid moments while at work. Alas, there are enough reminders to inform us to take those hours on duty with enhanced seriousness. The postmodern job demands gravitas, candor, and multitasking prowess with precision. All the while, as I’ve learned, all the workplace is a stage- and a thinking writer’s trove.

aspirations and perfectionism

The employment context is an arena through which we must make sense of our own times and the ways our work is valued. Though we develop marketable skills directed at leverage into sustaining income, there abides soul and conscience. Creative drive parallels paths of personal growth. While satisfying employers and fulfilling required tasks, the source of life from within hungers to transcend repetitive duties. Doing a good job is to excel in the present. Aspiring beyond cellars and conveyors is to aim at the future. Inherent in the progress of the soul is to aspire for better while living an ambition in the present. As the Holy Spirit’s action within effects the practice of faith, the hidden life of understated work is at the foundation of outward interaction with the whole of life.

An individual’s voyage through places of work navigates corporations, small businesses, varied definitions of profit, training sessions, and high-wire acts to prevent from being unemployed. Altruism is always hard to find, and it is for each of us to decide whether to make that an expectation. “Good business,” so we’re told, is when the worker’s productive worth exceeds how much they are paid. Yet, we take notice when there are news stories about “the best places to work,” marveling at morale-building perks and overtly informal atmospheres. Should work environments match life hopes, or is it sufficient to leave the job at work when signing out for the day?

My lengthening pilgrimage as a laborer began at 14, working in a grocery store in New York City. The store owner wore sunglasses all the time, and made me pay for an egg I had accidentally dropped. From there, I went on to a much larger store, delivering groceries to neighborhood customers. Since those high school years, surviving layoffs twice, each transition has been a reach for something better- and in Maine these have been very small steps. Embedded within the hidden life of an individual in a workplace are the often inexplicable dynamics of endurance and transition. My father always tells me that “you have to job-hunt throughout your career.” He reminds me to never expect sympathetic sentiments from an employer, while he always speaks of his own working experience with much sentimentality. “You will find,” he says, “that the higher up you advance, the less hard you’ll have to work.” I’m not so sure this is true for a postmodern. Or perhaps I’m not far “up” enough from hauling eggs and produce out of sidewalk bulkheads, or hauling cibachrome prints out of clenched darkrooms, and so on.

Considering the life pursuits of work and betterment causes me to revisit an old obstacle known as perfectionism. With a personal history tied to exclusion, and without privilege, a learned habit of trying to fit into situations by virtue of excelling had long ago ground a groove of perfectionism. Getting the job done rarely suffices, neither does getting more of the job done. Requirements broaden to increasing coverage, and getting it done continues to be insufficient. Such comprehension takes some getting used-to, as does some self-preserving degree of desensitizing. Yet simultaneously, the Spirit within prevents the soul afire from resorting to cynicism. Divine consolation and humility surely help to supply what is missing from thankless environs.

The old adage that “the pursuit of better is the enemy of good” meets its match in workplaces. Perfection in the fulfillment of all details, either outlined or assumed, leads to survival. Perfection, especially in a market replete with the unemployed and the underemployed, is requisite in order to be offered a position. Certainly, I am merely one among a great many of all of us, perplexed into the night hours by denials of opportunities for which experience squarely meets the need. Not perfect enough, evidently; or too young, too old, too local, too ethnic, too eclectic, too unknown, or just plain too plain. Whatever the reasons may be that keep each hopeful Moses out of the Canaans of their wishes, the ways of a surreal side of real life remind us of our coexistence with irony. Living in the minus side of perfect finds tremendous challenge amidst the ethos of unconditional love, justification by faith, and Christ’s acceptance of every embrace-returning soul into present and eternal belonging.

The first page of my first journal, writing about the instant the light is removed from the workspace,
and how I often worked with closed eyes.

During a lunch break, I decided to walk a wide circle around my general vicinity. From my musings, my attention turned to notice delivery, transportation, construction, and retail workers. Many of these dutiful souls struggle, too. Many of them also determine how to reckon with their days, and each of them have hopes- all with lives far too grand for the confining pages of curricula vitae.

redeeming the trials

In the fluidity of our times, we must by necessity maintain clear visibility. It is indeed as a lesson in spirituality to practice scrupulous diligence in the present, while preparing to ascend awaiting prospects. Arguably, there may not be a greater challenge than to bloom where one is planted. Even further, to thrive ungrudgingly. In such situations, history may assist. Remember how peace can be found in hostile circumstances, and how each of us have accomplished that in the past. When the Divine hand of providence cannot be felt, think of times of deliverance past from what seemed helplessly unendurable. When anxiously wondering when the road will turn, I must recall when it actually has done so before. At the same time, my memories invoke the names and words of admirable individuals from jobs past, lives witnessed that continue strengthening mine.

Inevitably, there remains a reckoning with the temporal aspects of our journeying. This is not to say there isn’t profound meaning in the strata of our hidden lives in the service of our work. Meaning is enhanced by learning, and more writing needs to be done from the context of work trenches; it can’t all be about corporate management. Consider how our words often come from our work, as do our existential conflicts. Our patchworked experiences are treasure-troves of situations and interactions from which to glean stories and perspectives. Enduring truths are surely found between clock punches. Anxiousness, alas, does not hasten prospects; each day has cares of its own, and that causes me to maintain the moment of the day. There’s work to be done; look at the time. From this hidden life come unifying and far reaching tests of faith and trust. In all settings and ages, patience must be continually learned, and forgiveness must be continually applied. Living is not confined to the marginal edges that trim the work day; the soul is alive throughout, wherever we have our being. As well, our efforts permit for us to live in solidarity with those around us: those we work for, work with, or work to serve. It is the hidden life of a grain of leaven, a mustard seed, a latent silver halide.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

pilgrimage of the heart

“Deep and ancient is the challenge
to be faithful each new day,
stirring mind and heart to live with hope.

So loved by God are we
and called to be a presence
of gentleness and compassion,
lifting burdens.
Yes, may our hearts be free to bear with others,
forgiving, reaching out to understand with love.”

~ Monks of Weston Priory, So Loved by God.

retreat to repose

In the previous essay I looked at purposes for personal retreats through my experience of combining contemplative environments in an urban neighborhood. Serendipitous connections of places and interests are as available to us as our souls and lives are unique. Essentially, sanctified time away from routine demands can take place practically anywhere. We each know what is necessary to “make things stop,” to be able to really sense our thoughts, our times, and the air around us. Often it can take real and conscious effort to slow physical and mental paces. It may even be intimidating to consider what might happen after ceasing that requisite self-propelled perpetual motion that tends to possess too much of life.

For tireless workers, respite presents a challenge- despite how so many of us crave rest. A retreat provides an occasion to withdraw to circumstances that provide sanctuary from demands. When a retreat experience takes root, I find myself unconcerned about what time it is. As well, I begin to notice the burdens I’d been ignoring which had long been subsumed in the quotidian din. But such impressions are inherent in the settling-in; from there, the adventure improves.

Whether the retreat takes place on an island, in a city, in a state park, a monastery, or in a secluded hermitage, the common bond is one of inner attentiveness. Like pulling off the road during a lengthy travel, stopping motion provides a chance to glimpse previous stages of the journey. More importantly, the present, this very day’s light and air, and this moment’s thoughts, all receive their due. Without interruption, perspective is free to run its natural course. And then it properly dissolves. Unwelcome words that rode along are picked off as burrs caught on my coat. For these sojourns my favorite book, The Cloud of Unknowing, provides reminders to guide my musings. I’ve learned how micro-focus must be diverted by a grander view. More importantly, an abiding sense of the sacred must be at front and center. Lacking a supernatural outlook leaves life empty and aimless. Hence, I seek out contemplative places and spans of time.

weston priory

In recent years, I’ve found a few venues nearby for short-term retreats such as the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, and the Beacon Hill Friends House in Boston. Even a tiny cabin on Penobscot Bay served as a fine hermitage. With lengthier parcels of time, my longtime favorite retreat is the Weston Priory, which is a Benedictine monastery in the mountains of Vermont. I’ve just returned from two weeks at Weston, marking 18 years of pilgrimage there. Long a place of familiarity and wonder alike, my sojourns begin with a meandering drive along rivers, through valleys, and finally following unpaved roads to the Priory. With my progress toward my destination, the scenery becomes less structured and more peaceful. My senses are greeted by a mountain landscape immersion, wilderness, bracing air, and lucid skies. Then I notice the quiet; such that I can hear the trees creaking in the wind. Amidst this environment are the welcomes I receive from the brothers- each as unique as their individual selves. The greeting embraces always resemble a homecoming.

Although Weston Priory is less about material place than it is about community, the monastery’s physical environment is very carefully maintained and kept as plain as possible. The general ambience is one of eloquent simplicity. Rather than possessing ornate structures or shrines, the rustic monastery blends into its natural environment with few, low-profile farm buildings that serve as oratories, workshops, and residences. Throughout the Priory, the quiet beauty of creation is evident in all seasons. My numerous pilgrimages to Weston through the years have witnessed every variety of Vermont weather from blizzards and mountain monsoons to summer swelter; I’ve grown to favor the region’s russet and breezy autumns.

My monastic accommodation is hospitably simple, with a writing table, a dresser, and bed in a small room with a large window that faces the forested panorama. Between the living-space, the refectory- where the brothers, pilgrims and guests dine together- and places of community prayers, the seasonal colors, sounds, aromas, and textures permeate.

in silence, and in community

For the past four years, following a long stay in Taizé, France, I’ve prefaced my Priory retreats with a week of solitude in a small nearby hermitage. The solitary silence provides a way to settle my thoughts and sleep long hours. As well, there’s nobody around to be disrupted by my typewriting. In those first few days of complete solitude, before moving into the community’s guest house, the woods and the quiet allow for the departure of my cluttered thoughts and irrelevant notions. The noise must make its exit without force; a combination of silence and trust make this possible. I’ve had to learn to not be frustrated by the first days of retreat, but rather to ride them out with hiking, reading, and simple creative projects.

Retreats can reveal vulnerabilities, albeit in safe and stable circumstances. Experience has taught me to draw strength from the ambience of belonging fostered by the Priory. Along with reassurance, I’ve learned the detriment of dwelling upon old misfortunes. A retreat provides place and time to retrain my priorities. Worldly preoccupations lead to excessive analyses of what’s wrong with this or that. Entanglement with the what-ifs is a waste of time. Such matters are very much out of my control. Inevitably, as the Priory and its environs are holy ground to me, a beautifully palpable peace takes shape. And it doesn’t even require my efforts. Just as my stay in the hermitage begins to feel a bit lonesome, I reach the time to move into the community house. In an organic progress, the monastic day’s rhythm begins to carry me along, away and above outdated thoughts. For years, I’ve referred to my synchronous settling and momentum as “gravy time.” This means the Holy Spirit has taken root through the retreat and my remaining days amount to savoury, gossamer gravy.

my continuum with the weston priory

From my extended monastic experience in 1999; I'm in the back row, fourth from the left.

During this recent visit, while reminiscing about some of my numerous Priory sojourns, some of the brothers commented about our shared histories. I cherish this profoundly. They welcome countless visitors from everywhere, and yet they remember details I’d thought only I could recall. My impressions of wonder and respect have been with me throughout each and every Weston pilgrimage from my first journey, to the present day- including my six weeks’ stay in 1999. Over the years I’ve learned about Christian discipleship and consensus from these wise and witty monks whose daily faith is lived reality. They like to describe how we all walk together on a shared pilgrimage. Recently I heard myself say to Brother Robert and Brother John that “I am God’s student. I ask questions, and the Teacher has the answers- which often are questions asked of me.” Gesturing to his listeners, Christ asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Not that it’s any great accomplishment to be a student, but it’s certainly the ground upon which my learning finds its dynamism. I’ve said to the brothers that I’ve long considered them as mentors for whom I’m immensely grateful.

message in the music

Another enduring impression of mine is how the brothers’ music and lyrics, which encompass all their liturgical services, are modern-day psalms. When I’ve been unable to call forth a passage of holy writ, a Weston Priory song will immediately emerge from within. As I see it, the Weston music reflects the monastery’s theology. Their songs are striking in their poetically relational aspects. Like the ancient Psalms, these are songs that balance praise and the human relationship with God and one another. And God is consistently portrayed as almighty Creator, yet proximate and caring. If I were to thread lyrics together for a “gospel according to the Weston Priory,” it would emphasize how God indwells and enfolds mortal life. In response we “long to be spirit alive,” while “wandering in the wilderness, learning how to dance,” certain that “those who hope in the Lord find their strength renewed,” and each day “we commit ourselves to birth anew,” while gratefully aspiring “to be as good as God for others.” The message is very much an emphasis on Jesus’ words, “do not let your hearts be troubled; trust in God.” Around these biblical assurances are all their emphases upon inclusiveness, and that no person is either more or less worthy than anyone else. “So loved by God are we,” is one of their many sung refrains. Over the past 18 years, I've heard them refer to “challenges,” rather than “problems.” To these gentlemen whose spiritual lives are tested and mature, there is always reason to hope. In other words, they are relentlessly optimistic and contagiously positive. I’ve consistently noticed this, since my first visit.

As each sojourn forms into a unifying message for me to comprehend, this one also gave me some food for thought. I am keenly aware of how the passage of time and the accumulation of experiences can desensitize the soul. Retreats help me to resist becoming jaded and wrapped up in criticism or apathy. Oddly enough while spending energy and time trying to sensitize others, I risk becoming calloused and unable to notice gifts at my doorstep. Journal writing caused me to pay attention to the tones of my thoughts and tame the easy impulse to identify flaws only. Unchecked, my failings entangle with my career foibles, which taint my comprehension of theology. I want to know what I’m supposed to know- right now- so that I won’t kick myself later. I want to know when to aggressively intervene and when to be passively permissive. Indeed and alas, there is no formula. There does remain patience and perseverance to be learned and practiced. At the Priory, I simply listened to the brothers’ insights. They’ve always been wonderfully subtle teachers, and my gleanings of their applied wisdom surely adds to all I’ve brought home from the Priory. It takes longer to practice a discipline than to learn procedures.

descending from the mountaintops

One of my Weston retreat traditions is to write a “send-off” journal entry sometime during the day before I must head back home. Just as there can be an adjustment when arriving from the chaotic fray to the ora et labora of monastic life, there is a “re-entry” to consider. Retreatants may have stepped aside their respective treadmills, as few of us have the luxury of completely kicking them away. I’ve grown well aware of the “hard landings” that can follow a retreat, and have figured out ways to help make the transition more a willingness to re-engage and realign the old routines. Why negate cultivated healing and enriching experiences? Writing about discoveries has actually helped generate an eagerness to descend the mountain and carry the light to my various workplaces and commitments. Choosing in favor of a spiritual practice or an ethos is, in effect, a choosing-away from something less constructive. As autumn advances to winter, the seasons rotate their invitations to broaden and then to draw within. What we see before us is surely not all there is. In my notebook and heart, I have stored some words from Brother Peter: “Will we dare to seek the common good of our sisters and brothers?” This exhortation implies a going forth.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

friendly confines

“Wisdom dwells in Nothing, and yet possesses All things,
and the humble resigned Soul is its play-fellow :
this is the Divine alloquy,
the Inspiration of the Almighty, the Breath of God, the holy Unction,
which sanctifies the Soul to be the Temple of the Holy Spirit,
which instructs it aright in all things:
and searches the depths of God”

~ Jakob Böhme, from The Signature of All Things (1651)

Above: the Library; Below: the House.

Beacon Hill Friends House interiors

Above: Morning vigil at the Church of the Advent;
Below: Coffee at Café Vanille, Charles Street.

The sweetness of conviviality at Beacon Hill Friends House.