Thursday, December 30, 2021


“Even so, we also should walk in newness of life.”
~ Romans 6:4

My voyage with journaling began in July 1994. Later on, graduate school caused my written entries to be regrettably intermittent. After 2000 I came to depend upon daily documentation and reflection, and the practice continues to this day. Throughout my years of writing, I’ve used the days leading up to New Year’s Eve to create retrospective “year in review” summaries. At first, I made the lengthy journal entries into Time Magazine- style features, as in “the year that was.” After a few years, these summaries became something I fashioned into several days of shorter journal entries, giving equal treatment both to events and to impressions. Without writing, telling the months and years apart would be even more difficult and surely blurred. The covid era surely represents this. It’s a snowball of largely dissimilar months, whose grip set in by the Ides of March 2020. Since then, living has been amidst minefields and restrictions. Thinking back to the world before that date, I remind myself that “everything was at least two years ago.” In keeping with my own custom, I’ve begun gathering my handwritten thoughts to recap the year which- if anything- feels as though it’s in Month 23. It is indeed a looking back, but always attempts at forward motion- traction or not.

The contrast is appropriate, connecting the establishing of winter and long nights with a season traditionally marked by newness. The Christmas holiday season has also long been relentlessly exploited commercially, with advertising beginning many weeks before Advent. Pandemic life has muted some of the competitive spending drives, forcing diminished budgets and smaller gatherings- if any. Yet the week between the western/Gregorian calendar Christmas and New Year’s Day continues to be a liminal span for various forms of reflection. The plague rages on. Will the coming year be an improvement over the one just past? How to look forward with anticipatory hope, in the bleak midwinter?

My self-determined directive is to continue seeking light in the darkness of these times, while trying to tangibly exemplify that light. For nearly two years, it has been impossible to travel or to even buy some weekdays off to rejuvenate. My semiannual pilgrimage retreats of many, many years have had to be compressed into a few occasional hours during a weekend so that I can continue being gainfully employed. Pushing back for the cause of spiritual health has also stretched nights into times of carved-out silence and study. Not doing this actually worsens the exhaustion. Admittedly, this is a trial that must be endured.

Newness begins with a thirst for promise, even for the haggard and worn. One recent midnight while preparing for the subsequent reveille that would return me to the same darkness, I methodically set up my coffeemaker and what I’d need to make next day’s entry as effortless as possible. Thinking of the combination of obligations and wishes while tidying my writing table, I remembered how an old friend used to call himself “a kid on Christmas morning,” and how that attitude helped him stay inspired. I wouldn’t describe myself as such, but there was something I liked about that sentiment. A soul’s renewal is as much a mystery as is the desire for newness. Do we inherently sense the hope of renewal? It is a fascinating thought how we seem to naturally find our own renewal- or at least the will to seek out our rejuvenation. Is this somehow built into our nature? I think we reflexively salvage the pieces we can find of our existence. The recent devastating natural disasters remind us of this. Victims who escape with their lives are looking for remnants from their households, their histories, and where their continua left off- at the times when their worlds were interrupted so they can recommence. In the less-cataclysmic scenarios, there somehow exists a natural drive to pick up and continue on. I believe this to be more than survival instinct, but the reinforcement of the holy spirit of new life. While more than enough reasons can be enumerated to give up hope, wondering about what is actually improving in our midst, we still tend to resume our searches for better and more meaningful lives.

During this year’s holiday season, I’ve noticed myself bristling more than usual at overused Christmas songs. They brought neither comfort nor joy, even to this believer. I fled to the consolations of Telemann, Bach, and how the occasion is quietly known as the feast of the incarnation. Yes, indeed, there is the commemoration of the Nativity. Not to be lost is the parallel aspect and infusion of the Divine within all whose lives return the embrace. Incarnation manifests to an ordinary human as transformation, and the latter builds an inner strength to be grateful while bearing up against hardship. Enduring the plagues in late 14th century Holland, Gerard Groote wrote, “May it never be that tribulation produce in us a faint heart; a faint heart, confusion; and confusion, the desperation that destroys.” Ancient texts accompanying this season include the name Immanuel, which in Hebrew means God is with us. Over the years, I’ve come to reverently refer to the So Near. As I’ve learned from the monks of Weston Priory whose doxology is to the Creator, Word, and Spirit of New Life, I understand the value of finding meaning beyond overused expressions.

The current provisional journey is embedded within an incalculable pilgrimage. Trying to take stock of the good that is, of the silent graces too easily overlooked, I try to be attuned to available inspiration. What is within my reach? What don’t I know that I need to know? Are we to search for newness, or enable renewal to find us? I wonder to what extent the spirit of rekindling is based upon unseen certitudes of which we could be innately aware. Perhaps there is a balance of proportion between a person’s determination, and a providence over which there is no control. And within that sense of resoluteness, does it begin with one’s desire to give rise to renewal, or are we brought to think about it from beyond ourselves? Do I procure the lamp and illuminate it, or is the already burning light catching my attention first? Unsure of what to make of the broader ailing world, as well as my own daunting setbacks, my thoughts turn to how all of this is about endurance. The transitory present is an impermanent trial. Distances and times between now and turns in my fortunes are impossible to tell. Opportunities remain out of reach, but hope remains available. Hopefulness increases the will to endure. When St. Paul wrote about how “hope maketh not ashamed,” he wanted his readers to confidently animate conscientious faith. Newness must ever be kept in mind. And kept in mind and practice with unwavering insistence.

Friday, December 17, 2021

perilous journeys

“Trusting faith is called a crystal well
because the waters of spiritual goodness flow
from it to the soul, although it is night.”

~ San Juan de la Cruz, The Spritual Canticle

advent wilderness

Generally speaking, we embark upon an adventure with expectations of resolve. We’ll invest in the engagement of a challenge, intending success. For the most part, one takes on a project with the idea of completion in mind. Beginnings are hopes exemplified. Our cultural experiences are replete with stories, novels, and films that travel an arc from launch through hardship and on to cathartic conclusion. Many dramatic biographies work as such. When I take on projects and pursuits, every provision and effort point toward thorough and sturdy completion. Some enterprises require more time than others; duration cannot always be ascertained at the start. But the important thing is to make progress, move in a forward direction, and maintain faith in the vision of fulfillment. Occasionally, courses of action need to be adjusted, informed by instinct and memory. I’ve often heard myself say within, “no- don’t do that again,” or “a version of this has worked well before.” I’ll work out dilemmas in my journal, like puzzles, allowing the written words to reflect back at me for some analysis.

But what happens when the craft is blown off course and both direction and destination become uncertain? Has forward motion been reduced to the plain progression of time? Do there remain chances to safely stop and recalibrate? How critical is the element of time? During this Advent season, amidst the second calendar round of the covid era, the end of the pandemic is out of view. The annual December weeks, commemorating movement through darkness toward light and nativity, historically direct observers to promise and assurance- and this continuum has persevered through millenia of plagues and wars. Upon my own trail of healthful contemplation, following the texts of the divine hours, these times bring me to notice a precariousness revolving around the signs of presence. The ancient readings describe the Advent voyage as being through a desert, even a howling wilderness. One very early pitch-black morning, with breviary and coffee, I noticed the prayer, “Watch over our welfare on this perilous journey, and keep our lives free of evil until the end.” The words “perilous journey” stayed with me throughout the day. Being a seasonal reading, I know I’ve read this before- but I notice it now.

Navigating through a sleet-spattered windshield yesterday, the phrase returned to me, recognizing the indefinite present as a protracted series of perilous journeys. The way forward is my best rendition of forward motion. Logistics have prevented me from taking respite time for two years and counting, confining reflection to the watches of night and an occasional weekend day. But I am holding course to the best of my abilities and resources. As usual for me, though appreciating the context of Advent season, I continue to be ceaselessly fascinated by the mysterious Magi. The written record leads to the Nativity, but the westward-voyaging astronomers disappear from the documentation. I’ve written about these three unusual yet anonymous individuals before, referring to them as the outside consultants, considering how they had been pressed by the court of Herod. The Magi may well have been diverted from their course, yet they knew enough of their senses of direction to keep on going. They most likely consulted with one another, determining not only what they would deliver to the place of the Nativity, but also that they would subsequently and compassionately slip away without reporting to Herod. And back into the unknown they went, keeping all of us wondering through all the centuries since then. They took their shared experiences with them, perhaps recounting the adventures to others in locations unknown to any documentation. Searching for assurance and advocacy is undoubtedly humbling, no matter how much experience one may have. The status of this perilous journey remains uncertain. My way of pushing back against the current of misery is by proceeding straight through the unknowing.


Navigating productively and healthfully requires both a sharp focus and a conscious sense of distraction, as I’ve been finding. This type of discipline balances proactive thinking with an ability to defensively drive away from fear-feeding stimuli. Choosing in favor of one is often a choosing away from the other. My longstanding curiosity about current events news has had to be tempered into much smaller, nontelevised doses; being informed needn’t mean overdosing. Listening to the car radio the other day, I noticed the patchwork of staccato reporting bounce between traffic updates and the worldwide scrambling for cures. The pandemic has surely intensified the already tough juggle for perspective. My long-usual preset bouncing away from news to music is now more frequently a turning-off of the sound system altogether.

For decades, I’ve made my livelihood using all sorts of computer technology and applications. Being a cradle visual artist, I’ve always kept a metaphorical ten-foot pole between myself and what I’ve long called “lit screens.” Nowadays this may look like a demonstration of creative independence and privacy, but actually keeping that safe distance is part of how I can maintain my footing in a reality whose vital means include handwritten media, real books, the outdoors, and personal interactions. As with a great many, the recent couple of years have forced me into living and working through lit screens. During the intensity and constancy of having to do this at the outset of the pandemic, I noticed how the pain of eyestrain would last far into the nights. I had to acclimate to the absorption of numerous consecutive hours online. Another vivid memory from the sudden quarantining of spring 2020 was my struggle with sedentary life and habitually looking out the windows for signs of life.

As tempting as it is to use the lit screens more as ends than means, especially in these alienating times, I’ve learned to be all the more selective and contextual. When browsing becomes a game of caroming between shrill news coverage and the enviably fortunate lives portrayed on social media, that’s when I turn off the lit screen. Imagine pinging and ponging from fearsome news to unattainable careers, back and forth; such joyful scenarios for thoughts to dwell upon! As a remedy, I’ve trained myself to look up from the lit screen, as I tell myself. Look up and around, even if means noticing dusty surfaces on the furniture. Looking up is a way to make note of your context- of where you are. It’s the equivalent of twisting that zoom lens back into a wide-angle, and try to get a bigger picture of the immediate. Looking up from a digital terminal is an indoor and admittedly modest version of being able to get outdoors to see horizons.

Perilous journeys cause us to cherish understated treasures we used to overlook. In this thinking, memory and hope converge. Remembrance helps us to look forward, while contending with present perils. While fine-tuning ways of waving off negatively distracting encroachments, I’m also deliberately creating distractions to send my thoughts into more positive directions. In yet another ancient text used for Advent, Saint Cyprian encouraged readers to “endure and persevere, if we are to be perfected in what we have begun to be, and if we are to receive from God what we hope for and believe.” He added that our acts of compassion must be united with patience and perseverance. “Do not grow weary, or be distracted, or be overwhelmed by the temptation to give up in the midst of the patient pilgrimage of life.” Endurance must be carried through to nothing short of the end.

staying sane

Eclipsed by the obvious urgency of fatalities in the millions, medical and economic crises, the mental toll of the pandemic is yet to be fully known. The latter is profoundly felt by many. I know this, albeit writing from my ledge on this planet, soldiering on in my employment. As with following health news, it has become impossible not to notice articles posted and published daily about the commonly-known Great Resignation. Also referred to at The Big Quit, workers have been leaving their jobs during the pandemic at rate unequaled by any previous U.S. Department of Labor statistics. In August 2021, 3% of the workforce resigned their jobs. 55% said they were job hunting. Adding yet another revealing statistic, 20% of the global workforce say they are “actively engaged” in their employment. This means eight out of ten workers say they are disengaged, for any of many reasons, amounting to a massive reaction to lingering exploitation. All the surveying and tabulating were evidently prompted by trends that are most likely nothing new, but surely accelerated by an overspreading societal malaise due to the pandemic.

Amidst the currents of these times is a popular realization about mortality. Life is short. We can’t be certain of how much time we have left to be able to inspire others, let alone to be able to accomplish our procrastinated wishes. The same employers that have been calling their workers “expendable” have begun to appear rather expendable themselves. Hence the unprecedented numbers of resigning workers who have not lined up subsequent jobs. Income and physical safety are often at odds. How will they pay their bills? It’s bewildering to watch, but entirely understandable. The weary world aches for the plagues and social conflicts to end. Few have the luxury of respite. Apparently, we are to soldier on, collecting our shots as we trek the contagion minefields. Survival always needs a purpose, and in this case I still envision being able to look back upon these present times whenever that critical corner is turned. Seeking signs of improvement runs parallel to the search for better opportunities. Perseverance and vigilance cannot be permitted to be ground down by fatigue. Meanwhile, redeeming the time between obligations, I continue finding consolations while studying philosophical works from the early-Renaissance era. Groote’s motivating words from the 14th century remind me that trials are proving-grounds. His students heard this while they struggled for equilibrium in the howling wilderness of the plague in late-medieval Holland.

Now having to launch again into the murky waters ahead, the need to continue being propelled from within constantly intensifies. Writing materials that include blank books for subsequent thoughts, along with my filled rapiaria volumes of collected wisdom, serve to hold course. The lights of my studies have led to gratitude throughout these recent two years of hardship. In the persisting face of unrelenting futility, my better reaction is to return to the words of Saint Cyprian which I quoted above, about not being tempted into losing hope. Trusting faith asserts that what is immediately visible is neither all there is, nor all there will be. Even the Magi continue to remind us about envisioning beyond the present. But upon the current, the ground of momentary being, San Juan de la Cruz always pointed to the wellspring of Spirit. Somehow he was able to instill and reinforce this awareness within himself during his wrongful incarceration. Before, through, and in his post-captivity life, San Juan poetically emphasized union with God as the purpose for survival through all times and trials. In his jail cell, he scribbled words on a sliver of paper begged from one of the guards; the scrawled notes became his Dark Night of the Soul, which he completed after his escape and remains in print to this day, nearly 450 years later. In the thick of what was supposed to be a death sentence, he discovered what he later called “the delight of contemplation and union with God,” finding “guidance in the night of faith.” The immersion he described demands that the soul must proceed by unknowing to unify with Divine wisdom. Surely speaking from indelibly physical and as well as spiritual experience, San Juan de la Cruz added, in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, that the soul has to...

“...proceed rather by unknowing than by knowing; and all the dominion and liberty of the world, compared with the liberty and dominion of the Spirit of God, is the most abject slavery, affliction and captivity.”