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.”

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