“... 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.
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.
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.
inward as forward
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.