“When I discovered your words, I devoured them;
they became my joy and the happiness of my heart,
because I belong to you.”
~ Jeremiah 15:16.
on the interior way
In a time of closed doors and barricades, the road rising up- albeit through darkness- is the interior way. Now this may seem rather abstract, perhaps otherworldly, and in some significant ways it is. But contemplation is natural for the human mind. That which we may think as being far above us can be immediately and overtly at hand. In various degrees, we are thinking, dreaming, and observing all the time. As disruptive noise gets shut down, the life of thought has a chance to breathe. Many refer to the need to hear oneself think. That expression might be considered abstract, though we all know what it means to consider a point or a matter. It is expressed as mulling it over, or weighing possibilities, giving physical volume to our thoughts.
For a life of insight to flourish, it is necessary to find ways to turn off the distracting racket- or remove ourselves from the dissonance. That’s not easy to do, in a culture that makes all the world an amplified phone booth. A defensive knack is also necessary: I’ve had to approach restaurant proprietors, train conductors, and librarians to discipline those who aim their big voices into their little devices. There are others in the world, too, has become a tag line. Part of that protective defense is also to do things like avoid businesses that throw media screens and sound systems at their customers, even at gas pumps- and even in churches! Indeed, many of us really don’t mind, and actually cherish, quiet space; silence is healthy, it’s not to be feared, and it mustn’t be “monetized” to our spiritual detriment. Interrupt the interruptions. A good offense is the best defense. Contemplation is more easily ignited than it is extinguished.
The interior way is actually quite an accessible lifeline. I like to tell students not to doubt they are philosophers, particularly as they dispute a referee’s or an umpire’s call at a sports event. You are a burgeoning contemplative, if you are sent into reveries of recollection at the sounds of familiar songs. Perhaps on your way home from work, your thoughts return to something you heard or saw; your mind is making sense of things, by perception and assessment. Imagination projects into the future. To aspire is to be something of a contemplative. Aspiration compels me to reverence that which is greater and vaster than myself- and especially to recognize where there are forward possibilities in this wilderness of hindrances and deterrents.
To aspire is to ambitiously and actively hope, praying into clouds of unknowing. During dark times, it is best not to look too far ahead. I’m reminded of when I’d notice myself intensely working in photo labs with eyes closed, back during my years as a commercial photographer. Production with light-sensitive material caused technicians like me to have to “see” by touch. Producing bright, full-color imagery, converting between negative and positive, in complete darkness gave me paradoxes to ponder. I could not see what time it was, though I could see the wall-mounted, faintly-glowing Gra-Lab timer with its clock hands counting backwards to zero. When my studio became a darkroom, even amidst razor-edge deadlines, it was often a place of prayer. My community experiences have surely influenced solitary times- whether at the wheel, in the woods, or aperch at the ocean- when the invocation, “come to my assistance; make haste to help me” surfaces effortlessly. Along the interior way, my sources of inspiration come to me in words and ideas. The Holy Spirit, unmanufactured, penetrates and beckons the individual soul to step forward and discover.
take up and read
Paracelsus, one of the great philosophers of the Renaissance, said that in our lives, “the striving for wisdom is the second paradise.” The admirable truth to his words is something I’ve grown to realize. It took finishing graduate school and getting away from enforced curricula to arrive at my profoundest education. As a child, I wasn’t much better than an adequate student, and in high school my high grades in arts and humanities served to compensate my average from abysmal scores in science and math. Successes began as I advanced to levels in which I could choose my own courses. Immediately after completing my masters thesis, I joined the Boston Athenaeum library, unwittingly beginning an overt pursuit of studies covertly embarked upon while having to study other subjects for school. During my seminars in Late-Antiquity, I managed to interpolate some Neoplatonist and Christian underpinnings. But once released from the constraints and biases tied to grading, I could dive headlong into medieval philosophy and theology. These greatly-faceted subjects are as practical as they are theoretical, even after many years, books, and travels. I grow and strengthen with these studies, intertwining with the contemplative life, and providing balm for employment duress. My abiding thirst for wisdom and learning causes me to seek with greater tenacity. As well, daunting physical dead-ends force the inward drive.
“Tolle lege,” (“take up and read”) was the message Saint Augustine heard, in the form of a child’s singing voice. A good friend likes to use the expression, “resource yourself,” which means to keep oneself close to sources of strength. Thinking of my mother tongue, the expression is something of a pun for me, in French: to say se ressourcer, is to say to recharge oneself. Turning to my interior richness really is equivalent to being recharged. Having professional research as part of my jobs for the recent 18 years has cultivated an adeptness and comfort level to all formats of information. I find texts for reading through complex databases and online catalogues, as well as by reading bibliographies in books, periodicals, and documents. Many of my best leads have come from annotations in margins of patiently-researched books. Age does not devalue an authority; great work is great work. From these, I seek out more reading which invariably brings me to more recommendations. Using the Athenaeum’s collections as a basis, I’ve never run out of reading sources. If a particular author’s style intrigues me enough, I’ll read more of their works, and learn about their lives. Every writer has influences, and their endnotes provide more potential leads for a reader.
Throughout my self-directed studies, I’ve been keeping notes. In handwritten journals, of course, which are enjoyable for me to reread. My notes always specify their sources, and thus I have been creating my own free-standing provisions. On many serendipitous occasions, I’ve been able to share these with other researchers and kindred spirits, including students I teach.
Finding a book that interests me enough to invest the attention, I proceed with a slow, notetaking read. So that I don’t lose the continuity of absorbing the text, I parallel my reading with fast jottings on index cards and page-markers. If a book’s theme leads to a second or third simultaneous read, I’ll balance all of them with the same method of notation. Not having deadlines, I’m free to broaden my sources and stop for additional research, if a statement especially speaks to me enough to savour. At the completion of a study, I compile my quotes and references into electronic databases, so that I can retrieve my steps by keyword searching. Studying is indeed an exploration of understanding.
Twice a year, I spend a week of dedicated study at the Athenaeum, residing at Beacon Hill Friends House, so that I can delve deeply into manuscripts for extended spans of time. Transcribing my subsequent notes can take days. These experiences are always gratifying and inspiring. On a regular day’s visit to the Athenaeum, I find my favorite reading in the Basement Drum, which is the very bottom-most stacks area. The cramped space has a brick floor, and is in the viscera of the Athenaeum. I always think of that space as equivalent to a cathedral crypt. This is where grand and ancient tomes of philosophy and theology rest on their cast-iron shelves. The library wisely classes various languages of a given work all together; for example, Pascal can be read in French, Latin, and English from the same shelf. From the depths of the Drum, I pull the sages of antiquity up to the rooftop terrace, and the tanned pages see the light of today. Scottus Eriugena speaks to me in Old French, from across the centuries and the ocean, as the Periphyseon sees the light of a New England day in my careful hands.
pilgrimage of scholarship
Occasionally along the way, people ask me whether there is a book in the making. “Maybe someday,” I’ll reply, though I’m not really thinking along those lines as I study. The joy is in the learning and the stretching of my intellectual forces. By studying under my own terms, I prefer not to upstage the treasures in front of me with future motives. Maybe someday, and what might be really interesting is to relate what I’ve been learning to this life of mine that is still formulating. As with the interior way of contemplative prayer, study is open-ended; it is an effort over which I have full influence. Enduring a workaday existence of constricting oppression, it is well worth extending all the energy I can toward healthy pursuits like education. To cease learning- even modest increments of learning- is to fall backwards; stagnation is the same as shrinking away from growth. The same holds true with faith and spiritual understanding. All of these facets are intertwined in one life. At the point of embarkation, the pilgrimage has been engaged. Paracelsus concisely wrote:
“Once reason is in us, the innocence of childhood no longer protects us, we are no longer counted among the simple, but considered as beings endowed with reason, and we must make operative in us the force of baptism, that is to say, we must know of Christ and we must have faith in Him, love Him, and follow Him.”
With the ancient psalmist, holy writ faces me, and the verse comes to mind, “Sweet are your words to my taste.” If hope is hard to find, wisdom needn’t be. If fate forces me into more wilderness, I take more good reading with me. Perhaps it is a form of the providential to respond to deferred grace by making the best of a bad situation. Make that stone soup taste good. The words are more than devoured; they become part of me. Physically, the books often accompany me, when possible, on commutes and travels. When I look at my Jan van Ruysbroeck notes, I remember how his words consoled me during anguished times in hospital waiting rooms. Beyond the physical, my studies strengthen my reasoning and intentions. More amusingly, during those solid weeks of study, journal entries will take on the archaic tones of the source material du jour. I’ll make note of the moment, in an urban coffeehouse, from observations using centuries-old expressions. To contemplate and synthesize does make for a walking anachronism. But the studies do go with me like whispers of good advice and wise counsel. The voyage of learning is a pilgrimage of scholarship. Each adventure volume leads to another. The words and their essences are as much survival rations as they are seeds to cultivate.