Sunday, April 12, 2020

beauty for ashes

“Let us therefore see, o human soul,
whether present time can be long;
for to you it is given to perceive
and to measure periods of time.”

~ St-Augustin, Confessions, book 11, ch. 15.

It would be a dishonesty, as an observing writer, not to make note of the pervasive misery of these times. With general society in shutdown mode, just about every remaining informational outlet is broadcasting more than enough to paralyze the most stalwart of souls. Admittedly, the urgency is quite real. But the jackhammering of repetition is excessive; and it has caused me to limit my exposure to news media down to a few minutes at both ends of the day- radio only. I’m guessing many of you have had to figure something similar into your fortress mentalities. In the midst of a multi-layered morass made of terrors, boredom, despair, and closed doors, I am insistent upon forcing my sights on open horizons. Being irrationally hopeful is a reasonable perspective. So is the persistence of seeing beyond this present tribulation. Through foraging and sifting directives and warnings, I found something positive within the see-you-laters of businesses. Evidently there are others out there who look to better things, without the finality of adieu (farewell), but instead with the temporal au revoir (see you again).

A local pub that features typewriters and writing events
bids customers stay safe and literate, until we meet again.

The human soul wants to aspire. We are naturally driven to find our own ways through labyrinthine confines, much as the involuntary need to breathe. This often manifests as a navigator’s spirit, tirelessly looking for ways out of shadows and death, to light and life. It comes naturally to want to know why and to want to know how. The primal need to trust is pronouncedly showing itself now, even while overshadowed by panic and self-centeredness. Many are still trying to find ways to reach out to one another, and beneath this we can see how trust and hope are drawn from a mysterious presence. It is a thirst- an ache for emergence from unacceptable oppression, toward a cherishing of life, precarious as we surely recognize it to be.

This past week, I’ve been remembering some words of Brother Roger of Taizé, a brilliant person I met with several times and from whom I’d learned some vital perspectives. His essays included memoir-like accounts of the Taizé monastery’s large public events that gathered thousands from every continent for the cause of Christian fellowship, in order for participants to return home energized for service and community involvement. These gatherings are called stages of a pilgrimage of trust, and the experiences are profoundly life-giving and positive. Writing about one such gathering, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Milan (Italy), Brother Roger described how pilgrims impressively made the effort to...

“...cross various human and geographical boundaries. They come to fix their gaze, not on what divides them but on what unites them; not to reinforce their pessimism, but to perceive signs of hope.”
(Meditations in Milan, 1998)

As much as there is an abiding human survival instinct, we are seeing significant transcendent creative energy in this crisis. A few examples include people volunteering to deliver food, sewing safety masks, giving online musical recitals from their apartments, teaching downloadable workshops, raising money for charity, writing letters, and many other respectful acts. Such spirit tells us about more than simply wanting to survive; by and large, this shows how indefatigable we can be. A great many share the desire to redeem the time we have- over and above the wish to work. Meaningful work is a supernal vocation. Keeping a constant sense of resolve and purpose is as vital as it is motivating on a daily basis.

“I am a songbird perched in thorns,” wrote Angelo Roncalli (also known as Pope John 23rd). I discovered that poignant quote, reading his memoir, during one of my all-too-many underemployed positions. Those words remain with me to this day. It is the voice of the burdened yet aspiring soul who hungers to thrive. It is like King David in the 55th Psalm, who wrote, "Oh, that I had wings like a dove to fly away!" The quest to find light in the shadows is identical to that of meaningful work and of fittingly redeeming the time. In these extremely uneasy recent weeks, not knowing what to expect, something I found that I could do was to make note of hopeful signs. Walking to essential services, such as the post office and grocery store, I’ve been carrying my camera with me, looking for hints of spring. Even the simple awareness of signs that indicate new life is a grace in itself.

Doing remote work forces a compromise within a compromise; scrambling to stay productive amidst a lockdown is yet another pressure that has become necessary to absorb and try to thrive against. And all the more, making note of hopeful signs- of oases in this desert- is more critical than ever. Along with singing one’s best tunes while perched in thorns is to give beauty for ashes. The ancient expression, used by Isaiah, has to do with God giving us beauty in exchange for the ashes of our sufferings. Just as the John 23rd quote, I’ve often appropriated the giving out of beauty for the ashes of my lot to talk about various work situations. It’s like the folktale expression, “spinning straw into gold.” It takes a lot of persistent creative energy to do that, in season and out of season. And for survival’s sake.