Friday, June 9, 2017

tolle lege


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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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take up and read


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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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pilgrimage of scholarship

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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.”


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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.

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

le chemin de l’intériorité


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“... for in the power of this gentle, unseen contemplative work,
angels will bring you wisdom.”


~ The Cloud of Unknowing : The Book of Privy Counsel, ch. 5.

en route

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As the pace of my multi-threaded work commitments reached the time I’d set aside long ago, I headed to Vermont for 8 days. Among many things learned from years of travels, retreats are vital for spiritual health, and hiking in the woods is ideal during the early spring. These are indeed personal conclusions- and for the latter aspect, I’ve found bugless forty-degree weather to be perfectly contemplative. Though I savoured a slow meandering route, the destination was my long-beloved Weston Priory. The Benedictine monastery in the Green Mountains, renowned for its music, has been a place of pilgrimage for me since 1994. I owe much of my formation to my life of sojourns with the community, and returning there continues to be a lifeline for me. In all seasons and all circumstances, the brothers’ welcome is always heartfelt, substantial, and inclusive. The wisdom and words of these monks now stand out for me as needed contrast to the empty language and corporate persiflage from which I seek refuge. The place is also remarkably beautiful, amidst mountains, a national forest, and bracing fresh air.

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And there are the roads. Pilgrimages to Weston Priory are as much physical progressions as they are spiritual. I begin the journey on large interstate highways, and interchanges. As my northwesterly direction continues, the roads become narrower, more rural, and steeper. Eventually, the roads into central Vermont parallel winding rivers between woods and mountains, curving and descending, then curving and rising, finally reaching unpaved roads. Arriving, I’ve left behind the sidewalks and streetlights, in exchange for earthen paths and star-filled night skies. Before the trees are fully draped with leaves, waterways and landscape contours are easily visible. The mountains are replete with rivers and streams. Waterfalls are sights of great fascination for me; I think about the sources and depths of these wonders. Rapids and roads are conduits- reminders and signs of interior, contemplative trails.

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inward as forward

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Pilgrimages do not necessarily require an urgency. Most of these travels have been simply for the purposes of immersion into healthful environs, reflection, and to be of better service to others. Retreats have also been subtle opportunities for profound learning and creativity. This time, the search has been for solace amidst persistent, daunting unsuccess. High hopes of spring refuse my best efforts, rewarding me with closed doors and dead ends. Neither solutions nor explanations are in sight. An indefinite impasse.

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Making the pilgrimage sojourn this time represents at least some kind of positive movement, when everything else at hand is in an excruciating standstill. Not all roads have the verdant smoothness of Vermont’s Route 155. My own road is rutted and weatherbeaten, without overpasses or intersecting thoroughfares. Retreats are my earned and occasional waystations. On my way to the Priory, I spent a couple of days hiking and photographing in the woods. It was a way to transition away from work worries and related instabilities, so that I could better absorb the monastic ambience of reflection and community. Among the benefits of journeying with mature souls is to absorb their perspectives illustrating the Divine as the ground of our being. Such frames of reference, that it is a gift of grace that a person merely looks to God, helps to broaden my own context. Expression may not solve problems, but it does help the cause of meaningful endurance.

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As I’ve done on numerous retreats, I brought along The Cloud of Unknowing, a book that continues to be an all-weather friend. The author of this gently austere book about the contemplative life, written in the 14th century, remains anonymous- though it is certain he was a Carthusian monk in England who composed the work as a manual for novices. He wanted to assure his students of the worthiness of their endeavors as Christian disciples, and not to give up, regardless of their hardships. In true monastic fashion, the author considered success to be the loss of oneself into the midst of the Holy Spirit. He guides readers to pare down their complicated, verbose prayers into the simplest and deepest “bare and unseeing awareness.” En route to boiling the words down to none at all, he says that it suffices to say to God, I am, and You are. Inevitably, the contemplative arrives at You are. According to the author, this is a meditation within which to dwell for any longevity. There is no time frame.

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At the Priory, the brothers compose their own liturgical prayers, and because I go there to be nourished, I discreetly take notes. Memorably during a recent eucharist service, the brother who was celebrant poetically said- with eyes closed and hands raised- “You are our Way in the wilderness.” As the brothers compose their own music, even the Divine Hours have an extraordinary uniqueness. On this visit, I heard a newly-written Psalm refrain: “We make Your Word our home; O God of boundless love.”

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Keeping my turmoil away from my sanctified time of retreat was not easy. Participating in community life, listening to the stories of those around me, writing, and reading provided for good diversions. Doing these things keeps the present at front and center. The Cloud of Unknowing uses the illustration of “applying a cloud of forgetting” above subversive distractions to the life of conscientiousness. As to prayer, “the path to heaven is measured by desire and not by miles.” We must guard against limiting ourselves, and surely against limiting how the miraculous may manifest: “For in the realm of the spirit heaven is as near up as it is down, behind as before, to left or right. The access to heaven is through desire. The one who longs to be there really is there in spirit.” Contemplation is itself an indefinite trail; its beginning is as invisibly mysterious as its turns and ends. With dead ends at all hands, especially in my persistent searching for better and sustaining work, there is no future in sight. The remaining open way is the interior road. The constructive way forward is inward. If good and promising things do materialize, there will be a ready foundation.

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the not-knowing

“Fly free in your liminality,” was a bit of advice I’d received before getting on the road to Vermont. Another assuring pointer, this time from a career counselor, came in the form of, “you’re doing all the right things and everything you can. Hang in there.” Motivators are not always solutions, but are meant to help us continue on. The unknowns are uncontrollable; the durations of trying times are by nature undefined. I am keenly aware of the recent years and present as some kind of protracted trial. Strange as it may sound, without the benefits of open doors and extended opportunities, encouragement is discovered by way of mountains, waterfalls, and monasteries. Dionysius the Areopagite wrote that as the individual soul is,

"released from the objects and the powers of sight, and penetrates into the darkness of un-knowledge, which is truly mystic, and lays aside all conceptions of knowledge and is absorbed in the intangible and invisible, wholly given up to that which is beyond all things, belonging no longer to itself nor to any other finite being, but in virtue of some nobler faculty is united with that which is wholly unknowable by the absolute inoperation of all limited knowledge, and knows in a manner beyond mind by knowing nothing."


The author of the ancient Mystic Theology encouraged his readers to rise above the world of sense and thought defined by the limitations of sense. He may not have been struggling with job markets, but he wanted to be sure his audience was aware that temporal conditions are transitory. The challenge for me is to do more than hold course, but to productively thrive in the not-knowing. One rainy afternoon at the Priory, we were reflecting about a passage in the 14th chapter of John. This is one of those discourses between Jesus and a group struggling to comprehend some uncharted ground. Brother Daniel eloquently said, “we do live in the face of mystery.” He continued, ever with his positive tone: “What surprises, opportunities, and adventures are unfolding? How do we engage that mystery? The path of prayer is the adventure of discovery.”

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Intertwined with the words and sounds of the Weston Priory were the sights of the Green Mountain National Forest and the contiguous Appalachian Trail. With each day, I saw more jottings of spring green growth in the trees. With so few obstructions in the woods, I could get very close to waterfalls- sometimes walking into the rivers. Standing in the cold rapids, looking at the renewing branches, I thought about the nourishment in my midst. My broad impression was one of having seen many reminders about drawing from the sources of life. Rather than to dwell upon desolation, notice the Way in the wilderness, as Brother Richard said.

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Stretching out between the proximity of the immediate, and the distant eternal, is the realm of trust and unknowing. A realm is undefined and all at once wilderness, desert, ocean, and the occasional oasis. The pilgrim soul, true to form, knows to conjure up the courage to continue. Proceeding ahead through trials and harsh times happens by inward road. Along the way constructive opportunities are to be made. The interior ways of listening, of prayer, of learning, amount to the navigation through liminality. Rather than to cover distances in record time, what is most important is to keep going. There are no prescribed paces or speeds. Remembering The Cloud of Unknowing, the inward road is gauged by desire, not by mileage. Without the benefit of guardrails, there is plenty of flailing, along with countless missed turns. Well, if I must continue to be a lone voice in the wilderness, I will insist upon progress, and believe by action that good developments are near. How near? There are no mile markers I can use. Doing the next right thing has to coexist with not knowing what is ahead. While at Weston, I spoke with some fellow retreatants there about pilgrimages. By definition, the pilgrim journey does not conclude with reaching a sacred location; it also includes the return travel. As I see it, the pilgrimage is a life’s voyage that envelops all the roundtrips, the rarified distant places, and the grocery store. All of it. This means clouds of unknowing may give way to the miraculous at any time. And my odds improve with every effort.

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