Wednesday, March 14, 2018


“Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world,
answering that of God in every one;
whereby in them ye may be a blessing,
and make the witness of God in them to bless you;
then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour,
and a blessing.”

~ George Fox, letter from Launceston Gaol, 1656.

In my previous essay, I wrote about the assuring properties of a “split-second.” By this, I refer to spontaneous, uncontrived personal resuscitative moments that have reassuring properties. A distant memory returned to me from childhood, of a hockey coach’s quirky two-syllable caring gestures. Then I found that in the face of daily life increasingly hinging on the tentative, on all fronts, I’d occasionally whisper to myself, “just for now.” A reinforcing breath, held to memory, serves as a hurricane’s eye at the center of turmoil. I’ve even taken to reminding myself not to embellish any impressions of duress as endless and inescapable. Sufficient unto the day are the ends of my shoes.

As a recollective moment serves as a rock perch in swirling river rapids, a retreat is an island amidst swarms of indistinguishable months of hard labor. Earning the time and making the plans, I carved out a seven-day sojourn on Beacon Hill. As is customary, the week prior to my time off was replete with the usual barrage of ineptitude and overtime- but I got through my obligations. Cathartically reclining in my train seat, stretching out and enjoying a rolling view of the Saco River, I made note of the railroad journey as a resuscitative moment. While looking forward to my destination, I found the way there pronouncedly reassuring. I heard myself say, savour this. This thought remained with me, across the snowy salt marshes, through the backlots of Dover and Haverhill, and across the Charles River.

Alighting onto Causeway Street and seeing no frozen precipitation descending, I decided to trundle across the West End and up Beacon Hill. I’m no stranger to this traversal. Brisk paces inclining up to Cambridge Street, followed by measured half-strides up the sharply graded Hill- and this with a backpack and 3 heavy bags, one filled with baked goods I’d made for my kind hosts. “I’ll go home lighter,” I always rationalize to myself. As expected, the huffing and puffing began halfway up Hancock Street. But I said to myself, savour this. And it’s up, and up, and up, pulling all that cargo, amusingly turning at Joy Street. “Are you savouring this?”- I asked myself, still ascending, in a purgative froth. “Sure, why not?”- following my own words and looking up at the pale housepaint sky. In my grateful relief at being away from employment tribulations, everything around me looked comforting. Straining and sweating on a winter day, pulling belongings, gifts, and my typewriter up the steepest neighborhood in Boston, I exhaled “savouring this, savouring this,” with my strides.

Indeed, I wanted to be there, through every part of the journey. Inevitably my upward passage crested at Mount Vernon Street, bending left at Walnut Street, finally experiencing the benefits of favorable gravity, looking right to Beacon Hill Friends House nestled along Chestnut Street. In a neighborhood of posted gaslights, the Friends House has a large lamp on an outward arm, as though extended to greet passers-by. It’s a votive of confidence, held out for pilgrims seeking refuge. Finally, I hoisted all trailing freight up the curving stone steps to the front door at Number Eight. The basis of a retreat is essentially a savouring of what is. The idea is to break the routine, borrow some time, and rekindle alertness to savour what is good. The residence manager and I recognized each other with joyful greetings. He spoke the most perfect words I could have imagined hearing: Welcome Home. I immediately savoured this, proceeding to settle in- not a single one of my dozens upon dozens of well-packed home-baked cookies broken- greeting more residents en route to my usual room.

From the very start of my seven-day sojourn, I savoured a profound awareness of being welcome, and this set the tone throughout. There was a snowstorm immediately after my arrival, prompting me to savour my timing. I found myself waiting outside the Church of the Advent during the heaviest snowfall; the rector was late for the morning office. But the ensuing welcome made the wait worthwhile. I didn’t even mind my drafty room, named after the pioneer Quaker George Fox, at the Friends House; it’s always drafty in there. Why not savour the reminder that this was my 12th sojourn with the community? At the heart of each of these retreats are my studies at the Boston Athenaeum, through which I find words and ideas to savour. I always plan a personal study theme for these extended stays, selecting material from the library’s archival collections. This time, it was what I called Assurance and Divine Guidance. Each of my readings had these ideas in common. An example is from Nathaniel Appleton’s Discourse, published in 1742, in Boston:

“Faith is a Grace that inspires a divine life into the Soul; and the good Man may make a comfortable Subsistence on it, even in the worst of Times. Habakkuk: 2.4. 'The just shall live by his Faith.' ‘Tis by this that he fetches constant Supplies from Heaven... By this he looks up to the Recompence of Reward, reserved in Heaven for him, and is animated and quickened in a Life of Piety, by the glad Assurances of it. And by this he maintains a Life of Communion with his dear Redeemer: and let temporal Things go how they will with him, while he can do this he is easy, he is happy, he is joyful. Thus beholding as in a Glass the Glory of the Lord, he is changed into the same Image, from Glory to Glory. Thus for this Life he has a glorious Provision made for him.”

Alongside lifegiving words I heard and studied, were savoury sights, sounds, and tastes. With the occasion of residency on Beacon Hill, I have round-the-clock possibilities for unfettered walks along mazes of intricate streets, as well as through parks and bustling thoroughfares. Urban creature that I’ve always been, a good, large city is as relaxing as it is inspiring. Merchants use their wares as decorative elements. The supply of photo motifs is endless, and the juxtaposition of sidewalk musicians woven among pedestrians provides contrasts with the quiet residential lanes. Yet another contrast is the interior of a cavernous sanctuary, deep in the city, an island of contemplative quiet with soothing and occasional echoes.

Church of the Advent, Boston.

Perhaps the most obvious connotation for savoury is taste. It is a joy to bring baked treats to my hosts at the House, the Athenaeum, the Advent, and to shopkeepers I know as friends. The motivation is not that of any kind of “exchange,” but simply one of gratitude. For me, it is a gift in itself to see others happy. On these retreats, I am surely recipient of savoury abundance- from House dinners, to high tea at the Athenaeum, to convivial evenings out. One fine midday, I accompanied members of the Athenaeum staff to a memorably lavish lunch at the Somerset Club. On this recent sojourn, amidst the week of aromas and cheers of the Friends House dining room, I was treated to a dinner on the house by a colleague who is also a restaurant manager. The latter, a small bistro on a side street, provides an environment as savoury as the meal. My friend sat me near the latticed front windows, which I found to be ideal for writing. From a perch within a perch, my appreciation extended from the seasonings and substance, to the textures and sounds of the busy- yet calmly intimate space, by the subdued warmth of incandescent light. Even the return walk to the House, through icy air, was something to savour.

Returning to words as enduring reminders, in that usual serendipitous way, mixtures of readings I select in advance turn out to perfectly intertwine. Somehow this always happens, even as my selections span centuries and varieties of authors. Perhaps it’s a result of ingenious library cataloguing. Perhaps it also has to do with a reader being an active factor in joining works of literature together in the moment. Among anticipated connecting themes, I repeatedly noticed my savour observation in much of what I studied. Across eight literary works, by as many different writers, a noticeable amount of glimmers emerged about savouring one’s living faith. Don’t take your heartfelt belief for granted. Appleton observed, “we are the possessors of so inestimable a treasure.” Writing about spiritual confidence, Samuel Worcester (19th C) wrote that our faith is the most precious of treasures. In an anonymous work called Path to Happiness (18th C), the writer describes how, “those principles which are really received into our hearts, have an inseparable effect on the actions and conduct of our lives,” and that we must maintain the “safety of that invaluable treasure within us, our immortal souls.” Richard Lucas (17th C), encouraging his readers to persevere, used the exhortation that we “make our progress into assurance.”

Indeed, the reader does play an active role in thematically joining works of literature together. Study is as much analysis as synthesis. The seekers are those who find. And a string of days filled with intense study produces a momentum of perception and awareness. During my leisurely morning coffees, between the Advent and the Athenaeum, words that celebrate the savoury appeared in no less than the sports pages. My muses, once again, were hockey players; this time in gratitude for the Bruins’ unexpected successes. Their specialty is a game that is made of split seconds. “How lucky we are to be here,” offered Brad Marchand to the Boston Herald, “You want it to last forever, but that’s not how it is.” They look as far as the next game. “I appreciate every moment,” philosophized team captain Zdeno Chara, “It goes by fast. It’s very humbling and I’m very grateful I’ve been able to play for this long in the game I love and enjoy so much.” Of course the ideas in my studies and thoughts stayed with me, as I read the morning recaps! Philosophy and competitive sports are not so far from each other. Savour the good words. Store them where you can find them, in the soul’s archives.

Bruins and Brew, at Café Tatte, Boston.

Just as scholarly learning is an ongoing process, so is the ability to savour. The authors and athletes alike knew to treasure their confidence and their participatory moments. Thomas Merton was one to say that spiritual life is as much struggle as it is contemplation. As vigilance is active, savouring is passive. During my studies in the rare books room, I looked up through the tall windows facing Beacon Street, and wrote in the margin of my notes, “we can never know the stability of our times, places, and loved ones.” Intermissions from the struggle provide time to better appreciate what is meaningful. I do as I am able to afford. By very intentionally savouring a situation or an experience, there’s an ingredient of trying to make time stand still- trying to permanently preserve the moment. But like the hockey player said, that’s not how it is. I know this empirically, as I hold moments in writing and photography, while ferociously pointing toward hopes for better days.

At my little windowside table in the bistro, delicately tasting my dessert, I wrote in my journal: “Savour dares me to sense some contentment, even through so much difficulty and instability. 'Savour this' means to really taste all this wonderful food and ale, this place, and commit all of it to memory.” An improved perception must transcend the retreat, and be with me in the work trenches. In ways that are similar to how I connect the words I read, it is vital to be able to find what is worthy to savour. These weeks on Beacon Hill always conclude with the Sunday’s Quaker Meeting for Worship. Indeed, I savoured the company of friends, as well as the wise contemplative silence of the gathering. Settling into the communal silence, I certainly had to ride out distracting thoughts about the frustrations and insufficiencies awaiting me. Then I chased them out of the present, recalling what I had been studying about holding inestimable treasure in an earthen vessel. Glancing around the large room, filled with kindred spirits, I noticed sunlight coming in from the Chestnut Street side. It was as though the authors I sought out were passing messages to me, to trust that my faith is something real- to savour this very simple thought, and to continue to stay able to savour.