Sunday, July 21, 2013

drawing the sources

“In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts
as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are.
The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandise himself.
The secondary impulse is to go out of the self,
to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness.”

~ C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism


With the passing of time, my attention is increasingly drawn to the roots of my experiences. Lived experience refers to present, as well as past; sensed as well as seen, remembered as well as immediate. Sources never cease to compel. A passing glance that causes me to look again and consider will invariably bring my attention to the source of the idea, the provenance of a scenario. It is a thirst to know meaning beneath the visible. And then there is the draw of sources themselves: the books that ignite the imagination, the individuals that inspire, the places that hold intrinsic and deeply personal references to the sacred. My lifelong fascinations with waterfalls and the vast ocean find parallels when listening to eloquent elders describe their stories, or when reading manuscripts from distant times. Sources speak from places and ages I could not have witnessed.

Enduring sources are timeless and cannot be exhausted. These represent tastes of the Wellspring of life, which can neither be measured nor extinguished. Peering through the glass aboard a surfaced Boston subway train, hurtling across the Longfellow Bridge, the contrast between dark tunnel and bright sky was impossible not to notice. This same sensation occurs to me, just about every time I reach the outdoor portion of the inbound subway trip. From darkened mirrors facing in, to sudden and clear outward views. The Charles River, distant buildings, and the broad sky overhead, extend my focus and remind me of the sources of all that is before me. Indeed, the very Source, the Divine, the ground of being, is solidly present such that my fleeting attention is caught away by small components. Henry David Thoreau astutely warned how easily our lives are frittered away in detail. Whether or not he succeeded in his living experiment at Walden Pond, his brilliant writing left us a document of his motivation to live deliberately, and to confront the essentials in life. It becomes vital to unburden and approach the sources of life and inspiration.

Walden Pond


My experience shows me how sources take many forms and manifestations. I’ve already mentioned such tangibles as physical sites, individuals, literary sources, and even the heart’s direct experience of God. In addition, there are repositories cultivated within, made of one’s collected source material. We may list our diplomas, their granting institutions, and a selection of jobs in our résumés, but these inventories do not describe our formation. There are sources which have made us the working, thinking, interacting persons that we are. Consider how and where you were raised, from infancy and right up until you could choose your own mentors. On the occasions in which some of my teachers and professors would tell me about those under whom they had studied (“under” as though beneath a tree!), I’d reflect that I somehow joined a kind of lineage- a genealogy of learning. Naming off where and what we studied in our formal schooling is merely at the surface. Where and what was the learning- not just then, but now?

Consider the people, cultures, and trends that comprise your influences. My oratory style is an amalgam of my father, my favorite graduate school history professors, and one of my Benedictine monk friends. My culinary and penmanship methods bear my mother’s stamp, as does my taste for irony. Many of my manners and organizing sensibilities are owed to my years of lived experience in monastic communities. A long list could follow, but instead and for this purpose, it will suffice to say the sources dearest to me have been the ones that have guided me to sources. The particular subway ride I described was en route to the Boston Athenaeum library, a place introduced to me by school friends. Learning, perceiving, and creativity continue long and far beyond the old lecture halls. Sources produce beginnings, and further sources provide sustenance.


Drawing from wellsprings does not have hoarding as its goal. It is quite the opposite, for me. Collected knowledge and impressions add rungs to our ladders. Ascents progressively heighten and descents deepen, as thoughts of self occupy less space at the center. Learning, at its most redeemable, is best applied when offered as a compassionate extension. My notebooks record history while providing future references. These incidental uses have proven to be as gratifying as informative. Indeed the enjoyment of writing, in itself, remains primary. What motivates discovery are hopes for the extending of hard-earned knowledge and comprehension. Thirst for wisdom is matched by desire to diffract and share the Light within.

Above: Restoring a treasured source for an elderly friend.
Below: His hands with the restored book

In some critical ways, those who assiduously pursue the Divine for the purpose of lived application are the uncommon torchbearers. The light must be carried through undetermined crepuscule, to be potential light for others. Through waystations and on the road, learning must continue with care, so that it can be spun into reinforcing fibers. There remain great and unknown distances to cover. But I do not venture without provision. Not only are my teachers’ and parents’ lessons and stories accompanying me, but also the imprints of their mannerisms and voices. What is expressed is as important as how it’s said. A disciple is taught more than skills and methodologies; through personal mentoring, style is transmitted. Thus, facts are accompanied by techniques. Conversely, committed and witnessed errors of the past can inform discernment, and prevent repetition. We extend and manifest our received learning.

development and vocation

Pausing at this precipice of time, it is as necessary to pose the questions of cultivation as it is to ask the purposes of desire. Over the years, I’ve been making every effort within my economic and time limitations to choose how I add to my learning. Often, such decisions affect my travels, and the pursuit of wise words and artworks joins my pilgrimage. Now I recall William Armstrong’s admiring commentary about the self-taught Abraham Lincoln, who “gave back as rain what he received as mist.”

“He received his knowledge as mist, because he had so little time to learn. No one provided him with books and classes and study halls. He snatched his study periods between hours of hewing away the wilderness and fighting hunger.”*

By noting thoughts, quotations, and moments in a journal, maintaining a spirit of research, the average day can yield a manuscript collection. With a balanced sense of enquiry, a corresponding sense of expression can be developed. Feeling, thinking, and willing have been called the three primary functions of the human mind. Each are needed, along with an ability to visualize the “big picture.” Returning to Thoreau’s ideas, as I know to maintain a broad view amidst life’s transactions and demands, then I would succeed at carrying my own portable shore of Walden Pond with me. His use of deliberate is what this century might call conscientious. A clear sense of intention, of vocation, provides a guideline for life emphases and study.

Above: Taizé, France.
Below: Walden Pond, Massachusetts.

A vocation is often referred to as a calling, and this is misconstrued when viewed in a passive light. Vocation is not simply a subtle impression of God to a human. It is the reaching for a person by the very Spirit of Creation, and the initiation of an eternity of relational discourse. Going to the sources of trust and strength is a response, and the purpose is at once to draw out and to be infused by the holiness that transcends corruption. Having drawn from life-giving sources, the succeeding purpose is extension. Hence, calling is a great deal more than to merely believe, but to relate and to act. Our very physical design implies receptivity and reaching out, comprehension and active response. And collected knowledge and insights must find their means for extension to benefit others, and thus, the universe of knowledge itself. Be assured, consoled, and strengthened: even in this culture of mirages, learning and a proximity to the sources of trust and wisdom cannot diminish either in value or in urgency.

  * Study is Hard Work, by William H. Armstrong


  1. Very well said.

    As I get older I like to reflect back on my past and how I enjoyed the things of old I learned from those many decades older than be whether I read it from a book like hand written notes and journals in our fire department to that of my mentors.

    How often I think of how I should have expressed my gratitude or expressed it better if ever I did show real appreciation for any certain person.

    Walden Pond. One place I often wanted to visit and still I have never visited.