"Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight."
~ Phillips Brooks (Boston, 19th C.), O Little Town of Bethlehem.
Friday, December 25, 2015
Monday, November 16, 2015
“Leave behind sensible perceptions and intellectual efforts,
and all objects of sense and of intelligence, and all things
being and not being, and be raised aloft above knowledge to union,
as far as is attainable, with God who is above every attribute
and knowledge. For by an ecstatic restlessness from yourself
and everything, you will be carried up
to the superessential ray of the Divine Dark.”
~ Dionysius the Areopagite, The Mystical Theology
spanning the darkness
At this time of year, darkness arrives earlier, absorbing horizons seamlessly, over longer spans of time. After enough years of turns around the calendric cycle, I shouldn’t be so shocked at the sudden loss of light. But this year I am taking note. Normally, I’d dismiss the change, much as I’d shrug off a routine decrease of a benefit or some rate increase to a monthly bill. Our adaptive nature may compensate for a continuum of absorption, but it does not regulate reluctance.
Regularly, my workplace phone greeting identifies my department, followed by the respective portion of the day, such as good morning. Often, as I pick up the phone, I look at my watch, to verify whether the moment precedes or has come after transiting the meridian. Late in the day, I check the window. My tendency is to judge between afternoon and evening by sensing the strength of light. The other day, I heard myself say, “good evening,” while answering the phone and looking to the window; my watch read 4:30 in the afternoon.
Lengthened darkness is surely noticeable while on the road. With earlier sunsets, an evening’s navigation resembles a midnight drive. Beyond my headlights’ reach, the surface ahead, left and right, as well as the sky, have identical textures. Medians and guardrails dissolve into the same crepuscule. Shrouds of darkness can be as forbidding as they are compelling. Philosophers of old referred ambiguously to the symbols of the abyss and the labyrinth. The abyss represents groundless unknowing, a gulf without comprehensible perimeters. It also represents limitless expanse, uncharted potential. The labyrinth symbolizes constraint, rigidity which cannot be transcended, yet still uncertain of the destination. Conversely, guidelines symbolize the certainty of terra cognita and the safety of conformity. Borderless darkness identifies with experiences of both the abyss and the labyrinth. Expanse and narrowness accompany the night voyager, testing whether being rests upon belief.
Being a torchbearer amidst reduced visibility demands strength of vigilance. Strength is easily taken for granted, and we use it without much thought or notice. Waking from sleep is simultaneous with physical reaching. But strength is indeed cultivated coordination; it doesn’t happen by itself. Vigilantly, we can be more than our impulses. Describing his philosophy of being, in the context of historiography, Ortega y Gasset observed in his poetic plainness:
“Life is given to us; we don’t give it to ourselves, rather we find ourselves in it, suddenly and without knowing how. But the life which is given us is not given us ready-made; we must make it for ourselves, each one their own.”
Carrying the light across the trackless dark requires a supply of healthful provisions of the spirit. Creativity combats monotony. Keeping a constructive course is a balance of exploration and expression. For me, this means continuing to learn and to reflect. Reading and writing have been tandem nutrients, and I’ve found the one needs the other, or both skills will suffer. To pursue studies and the writer’s adventure means persevering as an inquiring observer. I’ll also say, as an observing inquirer. Writing in this spirit is as one keeping watch, making note of the light- especially as it may turn to increase, ever so slowly.
Expectation is a vital provision, and it is strengthened by an available sense of remembrance. Remembering lights and blessings past has helped me through arduous traversals. Alongside remembering events and gestures is knowing to call upon learned survival skills. I’ve seen sharply-focused routes benefited by healthful diversions that lift the spirit and remind me of the larger context within which my life is actually a small part. Having many artistic and intellectual interests provides various points of reference to distract the natural tendency that dwells upon one perspective. As the popular adage goes, at the occasion of seasonal time change, we “fall back to spring ahead.” Through standard time, a daylight’s savings might help during spells of depletion. The long-range hope must continue to be faith in emergence from obscurity.
Light sources needn’t be limited to short days and lamps. As in any embarkation, knowledge of resources is essential. That means discerning the present and knowing what is needed. A cultivated sense of direction helps me to stay on course. But navigating is no passive thing. When protracted darkness remains unilluminated, the aspiring soul must know to be lit by the night. Saints and sages of old teach us to unrelentingly reach for the Divine, come what may. Dionysius wrote of God as the Hidden Dark, above all things manifest, and above thought. Our thoughts are, after all, limited to dealing with what is differentiated and related. Yet although God cannot be fully known, continued Dionysius, we can nevertheless reach and experience the attributes of God.
Truly a torchbearer in the darkness of the 9th century, Johannes Scottus Eriugena was known to say, “there are as many theophanies as there are saintly souls.” Eriugena was the remarkable scholar brought from Ireland to the royal court of France, to translate classical philosophical works from Greek into Latin. Among the manuscripts he translated were those of Dionysius. His crowning work was the astonishingly innovative Periphyseon, a complex work that was widely appreciated centuries later. Eriugena built brightly in the shadows of his times, explaining how Divine manifestations are understandable to us as processions. He wrote that God may be comprehended as darkness, due to God’s transcendence. This darkness is actually lux excellentiam, the ineffable light which simply appears dark because of its transcendent intensity. Creation, observed Eriugena, is a paradox, as the original darkness of God, which is no-thing, becomes light; it becomes something. Eriugena inspires readers to sense the similarities between source and destination, between creation and regathering. He preserved sources, while producing sources based upon his experience and learning.
One wonders if thinkers such as Eriugena considered their own times as “dark ages.” Apparently, their greater efforts were invested in pedagogy and preserving knowledge; they may not have thought to editorialize in writing. Perhaps the greater work was to persevere, to keep on going. Carrying light through darkness, even discovering luminous mysteries by darkness itself, is incidental. Perhaps it happens as we persist, as we endure without losing sight of transcendent holiness, holding fast to what is good. But “holding fast” mustn’t be mistaken with inactivity, or clutching as we might hold on to objects. Endurance manifests as something productive, as forward progress. A life’s pilgrimage is a human’s longterm project. What is needed, in order to find light amidst undefined darkness? What is the proper equipage? That is itself a mystery, wrapped in mystery. More concretely is the vitality of encouraging and comforting others, aware to receive encouragement and comfort from others. Maintaining essentials in clear view needn’t depend upon available light, considering its unpredictability. Deep within the crucible, as I see it, is to be consistent and close to the Source of life and goodness through the unknowing.
Friday, October 30, 2015
“I see my way as birds their trackless way.
I shall arrive! What time, what circuit first,
I ask not: but unless God sends His hail
Or blinding fireballs, sleet or stifling snow,
In some time, His good time, I shall arrive;
He guides me and the bird. In His good time!”
~ Robert Browning, Paracelsus.
For personal causes of self-education, health, and post-work-week sanity, I made one of my usual monthly drives to Boston. There, I visit with friends, and enjoy a full day of study and writing at the Athenaeum. The drive from Portland divides in half: an hour to the Portsmouth area, followed by another hour which is mostly taken up with northeastern Massachusetts. As Interstate 95 merges with an infamous expressway known as 128, thoughtful drivers- including me- are brought to heighten all senses. I must defend against unpredictable right-side passers, tailgaters, and nonsignalers. At the Peabody split, I reflexively disengage cruise control. Committed to making the most of extremely valuable time off, I tune in to AM radio stations with road and traffic reports, ready to divert as needed so that I can get to Boston as efficiently as possible.
At the lower end of the kilohertz scale, my radio picked up one of those abundant money programmes on the airwaves. Another “financial expert,” from the syndicated world sounded very far away from New England, telling me about what I don’t have, and what I should do with that nonexistent pile of loot that I should have by now. Thanks a lot. After a short listen, I moved on to a station with a traffic update. My thoughts lingered a bit longer with the financial broadcaster’s words and yet another reason to acknowledge what has been unattainable. Surely, I know enough to look and listen askance at these market-driven programmes, aimed at a broad spectrum of potential buyers. Not all of us can buy. Notwithstanding, my thoughts accompanied me, beyond the Reading-Wakefield merge, onto I-93, and off through Medford Square. Dashes of autumn foliage helped to lighten my thoughts, diverting them away from my case of the almosts. I refer to my chronic recounting of how I nearly made better choices, and was almost hired for this-and-that job: Almost, but not quite catching the brass rings of my wishes. During a traffic light breather, I looked over at my typewriter on the back seat. Saturday, sunshine, library books, and Beacon Hill awaiting, surpassed my sighs.
Almosts have persistent ways of infiltrating streams of thought. Though I’m grateful for the gift of lucid, long-range memory, I’m also aware of the burden attached to razor-sharp recall. Remembering things I’ve almost accomplished, almost said, and ideas almost developed stirs my perspective into self-casting as a perennial underachiever. In a general sense, perhaps it is a human ache to desire to live up to one’s potential. In The Luminous Trail, Rufus Jones strikes a chord in his discourse about roads that evolve as we live:
“There is in most of us a vast acreage of our inner estate which has never been touched by the plow. It remains uncultivated. We are this; we have been this, but how much more we might be! Coming to ourself, our true self, and reaching out with divine help and the gift of Grace to win the whole of ourself is to be ‘spiritual-minded.’”
In that Grace is the ability to be unfettered by defeatism. In defeatism, I refer much more easily to unaccomplished ventures, than to vanquished waters long under the bridge. Navigating the turbidity of almost has the added afflication of the indefinite. This kind of wilderness has undefined limits; the traveller cannot see the end. The pilgrimage is accompanied by thirst, by longing for a satisfying stability and permanence. Living a long succession of almosts is wearying, as is the vigilance of keeping watch for an arrival into fulfillment. But even our most established days are temporal at best. Many of us know about fleeting moments in a theoretical sense, but very few apply that awareness as practical knowledge. How much sensible theory has become lived practice? Perhaps the core of each almost reveals the temporariness of what seems solid to our mortal senses.
An unending chain of almosts, combined with short-range visibility, makes for a provisional view of life in all its dimensions. Athletes experiencing their version of almosts are prone to exclaim “wait ‘til next year,” having the advantage of an off-season during which they can recondition before re-entering their respective arenas. That is surely not how most of us live. If “offseasons” are preparatory spans of time, the average working person must intertwine active, vigilant forays with short and intermittent respites. I’ve learned to do this with occasional retreats. Tirelessly working, while waiting for my fortunes to improve, seems like a life spent in preparation for tailwinds that do not manifest. With undetectable boundaries, the provisional is undefined.
Pursuing a preparatory path is safely familiar, and not altogether without achievement. My student days, primarily dedicated to postgraduate life and employment has continued on with scholarship as intense as my job adventures and related searches. Scholarly life is inherently preparatory. Studies and research anticipate application. Critical reads, note taking, and indexing bridge discovery with future reference. Looking forward through the temporal can lose the present, relegating life to a perpetual holding pattern.
Living in a constant state of preparation is its own form of almost. In a continuity of those turbulent and tentative student years, renting my home and keeping my living simple, makes it easier to uproot as opportunities arise. Parallel to that, I have not ceased in my quest for better and more stable work. Living portably awaits the fulfillment of the almosts. Putting away money for the future reflects thirst to bring the temporal into port.
The provisional should be just as it says, and not a permanent condition of unease. Over time, there develops a sense of the overdue, and at worst, the too-late. The latter becomes something to avoid and to be feared. Another pitfall to beware of is the notion of rehearsing for the real thing. Perceiving the present and continuing to do so, as treading water, devalues the voyage. Banking up energy, resources, and knowledge may be wise and prudent, but if it’s in anticipation of the real thing, there comes the question of whether there is a real and an almost real. Is the unsatisfactory ephemeral as real as any other circumstance? Perhaps it is more real, existing in the amenable present, and compared to the anticipated which does not exist yet. As unsuitable as it may be, present and temporal conditions are as real as foreshadows of hoped-for reality.
From this lookout, straining ahead for improved reality to materialize, and struggling with the ill-fitting aspects of the present, there remains a reckoning with the past. As in archival processing, there are arrangements and descriptions of life’s chapters, based upon their points of origin and provenance. Are the organized documents through time’s continuum informative artifacts, or evidentiary references for condemnation? Commenting on our developing understanding of history, the philosopher Ortega y Gasset observed that our changes in thinking do not negate timeless truths, but rather that we change as we see truths anew that we hadn’t previously seen. He wrote about a progress in modern historiography that departed from the 18th century penchant for “cataloguing failures.” Like Gasset, I’m less interested in a sense of exoneration, and more drawn to redeeming my remaining time. Assurance of heading in a worthy direction would inform me that I am not obstructing my own progress. As surely as I write these words, the story continues to be composed.
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”
~ Matthew 5:7.
In the spiritual life, there is excessive emphasis on two extremes: the discovery of the start, and the finish line. But the indefinite crucible is equivalent to what chess players call the middle game. This is where drudgery and alienation happen, not at the opposite ends of the voyage. Deserted stretches of the middle game are the places of trial, and often the places of abandonment of faith. For some, however, the long stretches of practical life provide the stages for acquisition and success. For most of us, those unglamorous highways, with their innumerable offramps and detours, navigate the territory routed between the bulleted items on our résumés. Ungrudging contentment with ignominy is itself a gallant act of forgiveness.
I remember the heart-wrenching defeat of having been eliminated from the candidacy search for the job I wanted most, out of any job I’ve ever applied for. It was the position I desired all through the sacrifices of graduate school life, with all pertaining compromises and debts. Anticipating the opening, I volunteered two full-term practica at that university, hoping to impress them and show them what a good fit I’d be. Well, after the door closed between my steps and that land of Canaan, I eventually reached out to the out-of-stater they hired, and collegially treated them to lunch- saying nothing about the process, but instead took the role of introducer to this area and the local professional community. I’ve also continued supporting the university, as a professional and as a neighbor. I care very much about the success of the school. Are these such grand gestures? Perhaps, though I’m not sure. But they are decent gestures. I’m not certain about how forgiving I’ve been, but I do know that is the sentiment I most prefer.
Back when I worked in a small college, I befriended the chaplain, and immensely enjoyed helping his ministry as a volunteer. One day, I went to him for a few good words, after having experienced a crippling heartbreak. He could see how demoralized I’d been, and how aimless the road ahead looked. He said, “you feel cursed, don’t you?” I was so choked, I could merely nod. “Well, don’t be cursed. Be blessed.” He told me to consider myself spared, and that he knew a few things I didn’t know. “Really,” he said. “Be blessed. And if you don’t know what to do, just do the next right thing you know to do.”
What does it mean to be blessed, and how do we know when we are? How do we know when we are agents of blessing? In essence, it may not be for us to know. Doing the right, or decent, thing might be the more important matter. Holy writ offers us the Beattitudes, and these help balance human perspective as it concerns defeat and humility. We are told that the honorable approach to others and to life, whether or not we are appreciated, is to respond peaceably and with genuine civility. The “blessed are you” sayings of the Gospel are the basics which inform our specifics. For the many of us that must rely upon intangibles, we must find our luxuries in the unseen. We must find our recognition in assurances without plaques, titles, or lucrative portfolios.
We deliver provisions and furniture into swanky addresses, and then go home to gritty flats at night. The extent of our summer breezes and sunshine happens during commutes and snippets of weekends. Our oceanfront property is the city pier. We help others celebrate, and do so with honest cheer. We wish success to others. We conscientiously welcome and include the hirees that have bested us. Blessed are we!
If you wished you were blessed, well then, blessed are you. Blessed are you that consciously remember where you came from; you will be remembered. Blessed are those who look forward, along with those who strive to improve themselves. Blessed are those who are concerned with the well-being of those around them; there will surely be pleasant surprises from unexpected directions.
Blessed are those who yield to the right-of-way, and refuse to tailgate. Blessed are those who patiently wait their turn, and those who drive and walk gently upon this earth. You know you’re doing the right thing, following the high road that is worthy of community life. Blessed are those who recognize the unacknowledged and applaud the overlooked. Friendships are cultivated unawares every day, with each kind gesture. Blessed are those who leave disproportionately large tips at eateries. Servers bring food and drink right to your seat, and you are paying yourself with the goodness you show to your neighbors that serve you.
When you contemplate the beauty of creation, blessed are you. When you choose to see what is good, even when it is not obvious, blessed are you. When you boldly hope against the apparent and the predictable, blessed are you. Welcoming the ungrateful; deferring in respect; listening at meetings; playing fair; defending the bullied; voting your conscience; extending understanding; concealing your generosity.
Blessed are you. Blessed are you. Blessed are you.
Sixty floors rise above the sidewalks of Boston’s Downtown Crossing, and the developers are calling it “The Neighborhood in the Clouds.”
Still, the meek have a kingdom in heaven. Be blessed.
Saturday, August 29, 2015
“Let us not neglect that great Means of obtaining God’s Grace,
our frequent Prayers for it.”
~ Richard Eyre, The Necessity of Grace (1714), p.15 .
As last winter cycled into spring, I foraged in pursuit, seeking respite. It came to mind that once the tribulating seas calmed enough, a retreat could be possible. Ironic as it sounds, preparing the way for rest and reflection requires a lot of work. From negotiating the time from my job, to planning, and then right up to the usual week-before workplace feverish pitch, my nonchalant backpack toss into the car trunk followed extraordinary effort. But my ensuing merge onto the highway became no ordinary passage: that expressway across town transformed into my pilgrimage road. The destination is not to chores, or an employment demand, but rather to a place of healthful community and rarified solitude. As I drive closer to the Weston Priory, the roads become narrower and less paved.
My first sojourn here was in 1994, and I’ve been back yearly since then- sometimes several times in a year. When I think of taking time out from my demanding life, Weston Priory always comes to mind. The monastic community’s ethos is never far from my thoughts, from my sense of purpose to the ways I perceive life in its many aspects. But these ideals and disciplines are too easily drowned out, in the stream of crises, deadlines, and frustrations. At least I know to come back here, as one knows to reach for nutrients. The Spirit is the wellspring of life.
Retreats, as I’ve learned, must last more than a couple of days. Upon arrival, my racing and cluttered thoughts are so abundant and invasive, that I need time to shed the detritus that followed me here. Rather than to try suppressing thoughts, I ride them out, and let them go. Absorbing the immediate environment, and walks in the forest, are helpful. It’s an exercise of preferring the present, instead of tired old replays. This week, as usual, I find myself surprised at things I’ve long known, yet simply not thought of in a long time. A retreat is a chance to re-calibrate and prefer things that inspire.
Just two days ago, during vespers with the Brothers, I found myself simultaneously astonished and reassured, noticing anew the heart-rending beauty of their understated sung prayers. Recognition can be discovery as well as reminder. My continuing experiences here blend the two, as I notice aspects of the Vermont landscape I hadn’t seen before, and also recognize the familiar aromatic mountain air (which is unlike the briny Atlantic of my hometown). This week, I’ve also been reminded of the colors of late-summer forests and sunlight that shifts by the minute. The Priory is the one place in which I drink fruit tea and eat tempeh and raisin bread. Taste is among my reminders. Sound is, too. The Brothers’ soft harmonies carry across their large semi-outdoor spaces. Listening to their voices, while also noticing their backdrop of green meadows, amounts to a subtle beauty that is entirely humbling. The other day, I had the opportunity and leisure to enjoy a mountain rainstorm. From my room in the monastery house, I watched the clouds intensify and the downpour. In this silent place, I could really hear the rain striking the thick trees at my window.
Being away from my usual tightly-scheduled days, my perception of time becomes one of contrasts.
I took to the road seven days ago; it seems like a long time ago, but also the week has been passing quickly. Indeed, there is the rhythm of the monastic day, with the Divine Hours, services, community meals, and great conversations. The spaces in between are both slow-moving and rapid. Waking at 5am makes it easy to retire just after compline at 8pm. This is something of a time zone that requires adjustment at entry, as well as upon my return home.
Though time is portioned out differently in a place like this, the days and years do advance. The forest reminds us that time does not stand still. Even in its patience and consistency, the landscape evolves. Part of the experience of spending time here is noticing how the community manages the forested areas within their stewardship. The community itself suffers losses of lives, and also adds new members as many families do. Time is not static, yet continuity provides the stage for renewal. Amidst these contrasts is memory.
We have amazing capacity for remembrance. Speaking for myself, I remember countless details, events, and specific words, dating far back to early childhood. I recall things that nobody else can remember, as well as many things that very likely have not mattered in a long time. Atop the mix of recollections, with the event of a retreat, I began enumerating all the annoyances from which I was getting away. Later, after a day at the Priory, being struck with appreciation for the hospitality I received, my thoughts of what I regretted, changed to recognition of the goodness I find here and now. And moving still further away from the negative, I decided not to ponder how I can be re-grounded into the principles cultivated through these experiences. The rootedness I seek has already been happening. Renewal cannot be coaxed. Being here is all that is necessary.
Monday, August 17, 2015
“And each time I leave, Chicago is
Tuggin' my sleeve, Chicago is
The Wrigley Building, Chicago is
The Union Stockyard, Chicago is
One town that won't let you down
It's my kind of town!”
~ Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, My Kind of Town.
Harold Washington Library (Chicago Public Library)
Yes, those are owls up there.
A memorable Fathers Day weekend game.
The Cubs pitcher went 2 for 3, and batted in a run;
so there, "DH rule."
Above: On the Mag Mile. Below: Chicago Public Library Archives.
Above: My favorite Chicago building, the Carbide and Carbon, Michigan Avenue.
Below: Century Pens, on South LaSalle.
Below: Evening's writing, at the Artists Café,
412 South Michigan Avenue.
The Artists Café
View from the ferris wheel, Navy Pier.
Above: The view from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Below: Interstate 90, northern Indiana.
p o s t s c r i p t u m
Art Institute of Chicago
Nicholas de Largilliere: Self Portrait, 1725.
Notice the "porte-crayon" he's holding.
Above: Detail of painting by Henry Fuseli, from 1794.
Below: Exhibit about writing instruments.
Image above, and two below:
Chicago Cultural Center typography exhibit.
Gifts for sale, Daley Plaza, State Street
My Olympia Splendid holds forth, in the Windy City.