“There’s a time to throw stones and a time to regather
There’s a time to embrace and for distances
There’s a time to seek and a time to lose
A time to keep and to cast away.”
~ John Michael Talbot, There’s a Time [from Ecclesiastes 3].
A great many souls in this world recognize these as especially difficult times. The present-day strife is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. In the briefest terms, the overt anguish and anger manifest as social, as cultural, as political, as relational. The impression of collective distress is as widespread as the weariness of media overexposure. In profound ways, intensified darkness is ushered toward the crepuscule of winter.
What is a creative, well-intending, productive soul to do? If the general din of struggle and water-treading wasn’t more than enough to manage, dark waves lash and threaten still more hardship. Over the years, I’ve learned that hardships are inevitable, but misery is optional. Pendula will swing, and that is out of my power. What is within my ability is to maintain a healthful level of inspiration. I’ve also learned to do that, over the years, through some considerable desolation. Amidst my formative and extensive experiences in Benedictine monasticism is the concept of recollection. In this context, the word recollection refers to a contemplative practice. It requires a measure of solitude, within which there must be silence to settle straying thoughts- and in that quiet a bare contemplation of the Divine presence. In recollection comes a remembrance of God’s presence, a simple awareness of providence and consolation. As the ancient Psalmist wrote, look and be lightened.
Recollection is surely easier said than done, particularly for those who want this to occur to them as a natural matter of course. Even after years of discipline, this does not always come to mind right away for me. What does somehow, and quite effortlessly, is to write journal entries. Journaling seems to connect busyness with contemplation. Another is to talk with friends and to help encourage them. A few days ago, I spoke to a church congregation about Malakhi the Prophet, and how his name means “divine messenger.” His message included warnings and consequences about dangerous times, but also strong reminders to take stock of the good and the eternal. Taking stock is another thoughtful way to look forward. Subconsciously I found myself doing this in the past week, as I transcribed my two recent chapbooks into a searchable, digital file. Re-reading pages and pages of handwritten study notes I made at Oxford permitted me to relive portions of the inspiring sources I had pored over during my term there. Doing this turns out to be a regathering of personal forces. Rereading concepts that had left my more recent thoughts helped me to remember having gotten through- even surmounting- hard times in years past. The immediate tends to make us forgetful. Recollection helps to recall what is good.
At my first opportunity to take a day off, I made for the Boston Athenaeum, an oasis of many years. The library provides inspiring writing spaces, surrounded by vast and deep literary collections. Even there, writing did not come easily to me. But I can find some traction by visiting the levels upon levels of books. My steps instantly went to philosophy and philology, noticing and perusing old reliable- yet challenging- favorites, while looking for new ideas and words. Names and titles on spine backings on the shelves are in themselves an assuring presence, even before opening the books. Then I remembered the brilliant Boston educator and abolitionist James Freeman Clarke, whose words I discovered at the Athenaeum. In the turmoil of the mid-19th century, he wrote about learning to see beauty within a chaotic world. In his heartening book about how we can teach ourselves, called Self Culture (which is how I relate to the Athenaeum), I had transcribed this into one of my chapbooks:
“We educate the imagination by creating good things and beautiful things. Every man is an artist who tries to do his work perfectly, for its own sake, and not merely because of what he can get by it. He gets a great deal more this way than he will in any other. Every man can turn his life into poetry, romance, art, by living according to an ideal standard. He may be a day-laborer, a mechanic, a sweeper of street-crossings; but if he puts his soul into his work, his work becomes a fine art. No one may notice it, but he notices it himself, and I think that God and the angels notice it also.”
In the same book, Clarke wrote that by not living according to an ideal standard, we endanger becoming “automatons and drudges.” I completely agree, and am amazed to consider how current this sounds.
Appreciating the necessity of “getting out of my self,” I balanced the recollective solitude with teaching and the company of friends. Within the recent week, I’ve enjoyed the diverting occasions of leading a philosophy forum, teaching a creative writing class, providing music for a church service, and presenting at a statewide professional conference. In these situations, my thoughts are turned outward, to make sure all in attendance are encouraged. The only self-considerations have to do with being prepared to instruct and provide. Among friends, I’m able to benefit from exchanges of insights and stories, reminding me that I’m not entirely alone.
While driving to and from the conference, which was in a location two hours from my home, the road trip provided for some thinking time. I saw leafless late-autumn forests under somber skies. Western Maine has a strange combination of both ramshackle and luxurious homes, small riverside towns and strip malls. Not fitting into any of this, peering from my steering wheel, I’d shake my head with “I don’t know.” I honestly don’t know. Pondering this culture of distrust and this violent world: I don’t know. Just about everything generates a lingering I don’t know. On the drive home, as I saw nightfall at a startlingly early 4:30pm, I remembered Thomas Merton’s assertion: “I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.” That passage, from his Thoughts in Solitude unfolded into a petitionary prayer, ending with a statement of undaunted trust despite his wavering sense of direction. As for me, I can merely continue along darkened, barren roads, despite refrains of I don’t know. Indeed, I do know to recollect, and not to stop in the middle of a highway. Perhaps by trust, I will know by continuing to move ahead.