“Your eyes have only to behold”
~ Psalm 91
Having been an incessant and habitual worker through all my years, taking breaks requires an effort. Ironic as it seems, energy is needed to be able to wind down- especially now. And by winding-down, I mean being completely still. Without any background noise. Without cluttering and filling “leisure time” with strategized chores. Weekends can be made more strenuous than weekdays at work. Indeed, vigilance gets things done, but such unrelenting watchfulness feeds insomnia. The fires of the latter are fed all the more in these increasingly anxious times. Bewildered individuals everywhere wonder at “what can one person do?” Isolation only intensifies the sort of inertia that obstructs initiative and engagement. General advice many of us hear, outside of urgent fight-or-flight crises, is to gather at our breathing. Breathe and release the grip. Release the restraints, as much as possible, without deadlines or pressures. As a lifelong visual artist, another natural trait is to observe- noticing what is happening and memorizing the impressions. Bearing witness is not a straining effort. With this in mind, a standstill needn’t mean stagnation. I’ve learned that occasionally the way to stand my ground is to be still and observe.
Thoughtful observation can find lasting impressions in the understated. A recent travel, nearly two years in the waiting, was almost postponed some more due to a severe storm. I set forth anyway, clambering over felled trees with my luggage, en route to a bus terminal. As the Trailways vehicle merged onto the open highway, the torrential freezing rain worsened. Being a seasoned driver, I habitually looked toward the windshield, astonished at the blunt intrepidity of the bus. When I noticed my straining to watch the road ahead through the horizontally pelting storm, imagining the needed navigational maneuvers, I halted those thoughts. Exhaling, I reminded myself that I was not at the wheel this time; the driver was. Indeed, being freshly en route to a retreat, there was plenty of residual tension still stuck to me. As a passive passenger, I could enjoy the freedom to close my eyes- and even to look up at the heavy, ominous skies while anticipating some healthful respite.
We can learn a lot about ourselves by listening to those who know us well. An old friend with whom I used to take lunch breaks noticed my habit of stopping at the last few last bites of my meal, then finishing the repast right before heading back to work. On my part, this was subconscious, but I found the observation amusing. It’s similar to something I noticed myself, when occasionally pausing at highway rest-stops a few miles short of destinations to tidy up my car- then finishing the travel. Perhaps the protagonist can also be the observer. It certainly holds true for those of us who are journal writers. If our actions are insufficient when it comes to accomplishing our goals, our intentions leave room for more tries and ways to support others. Progress can take the form of reinforcing stillness, seemingly receding into the scenery. Writing about Saint Teresa of Ávila, Francisco Carvajal elaborated about how attentive listening and recollecting our thoughts can in themselves be forms of contemplative prayer. In quiet perseverance, the Holy Spirit is subtly discerned, “And when we are docile to those promptings and counsels, we find that our lives become fruitful.” Carvajal also referred to imperceptible graces, quoting another Spanish 16th century saint, San Pedro de Alcántara, who wrote that “our guardian angel is present to us, in our prayer, bearing our intentions and defending us.” I have no doubt that what we see at the surface is not all there is.
During this week, notwithstanding the world’s present hostilities, my thoughts turn to the pandemic’s beginnings two years ago. In 2020, on March 12th I taught classes throughout the day, at the end of which I taught my philosophy class in a pizzeria as planned. The next day, Friday the 13th, turned out to be the final normal business day for this part of the world. A national state of emergency was declared that day. As the proverbial curtain dropped over society, I witnessed a lot of panic hoarding and startling strangeness- avoiding all of this myself, though writing about the surreal experiences in my journal. There was no avoiding the upheaval, particularly involving my employment. I had to cancel all travel plans. Suddenly, it became impossible to simply visit with friends. The shock combined sudden desolation, silent city streets, and the boredom of confinement. There seemed little else but to witness the times, albeit while working remotely, reading, and writing letters to those I could not visit. As early as March 18th, I wrote in my journal about my intention to “adhere to my usual schedule, up early, coffee on the ledge of the tub, with the daily written wit-gathering and steeling for the workday- online or not.” Even now, two years on, isolation is the contemporary and indefinite continuum. It is also the context I’ve had to function against, maintaining what I can of the old familiar normality. Indeed, with increased immunization and reduced casualties, more socialization is possible than in the past two years. But the present lacks the social freedoms of 2019. As throughout the past two years, I continue to find some of the old familiarity when I perch outdoors with writing and reading- especially by the ocean. Outdoors and writing amidst the elements of nature, the moment is complete and unimpaired; now as before. As for the tentative future, “make definite plans,” Josemaría Escrivá once said, “not for the whole week, but just for the day ahead- for this moment and the next.” My eyes have only to observe.