“In the words of the psalm,
‘For with You is the fountain of life;
it is only in Your light that we see light.’
Human beings have no other secure standpoint
for being certain about anything at all.”
~ Douglas Dales, referencing Psalm 36 and Saint Bonaventure,
in Truth and Reality : The Wisdom of Saint Bonaventure.
My ongoing philosophical studies have continued to serve as healthful oases amidst chaos and setbacks. Such pursuits into contemplation also produce learning and constructive thoughts for me, as well as teaching material which I gladly share. With material needs as vital as housing and work in protracted fluidity, survival requires waystations in welcoming forms. As the Word is a lamp to my steps, so it is that in Divine light that I can discern light. Aspirations live in ethereal mists, and thus hopes are not always solid enough for my mortal self. A comfortable place to live and a really good job would do wonders to the morale, with all searches continuing as fibers in the general cord of the pursuit for improvement. This is not to say there aren’t present-moments to savour, because there are- both modest and grand. I’ve surely learned to constructively make do, under pared-down circumstances, throughout my working life. Yet I’ve never stopped hoping large and working ambitiously. It’s equal parts survival, fulfillment, and acknowledgment of the great teachers and mentors I’ve had.
Because my studies are self-directed, I’ll stay with a topic until I’ve covered enough ground to my satisfaction. This practice dates back to my beginnings with philosophy-teaching, in 2015, and intensified during the austerity of pandemic-era quarantining. Lifelines of learning and writing still stand as reliable constants and sources of mental strength. I chose to revisit Saint Bonaventure’s Itinerarium, which I had first studied as the severities of early 2020 set in. Now, following deep dives into the works and lives of Wyclif, Erasmus, Colet, and the Devotio Moderna, the 13th century Bonaventure appears to me as a proto-Renaissance thinker. He was also a university professor and a Franciscan, blending charism and pedagogy with “No one comes to wisdom except through grace... One does not come to contemplation except through perspicacious meditation, holy comportment, and devout prayer.” Bonaventure has some aspects of the scholasticism in his midst, balanced by his mysticism, with metaphysical statements such as, “We are led to re-enter ourselves, that is our mind... one cannot enter within, unless by means of Christ, who says I am the door... but we do not approach this door unless we believe...” Navigating thus far- from Bonaventure’s Itinerary, to some of his commentaries, to the Collations on the Hexaëmeron I continue finding more to nourish me, and will simply keep on reading. It’s as though I’m standing near The Seraphic Doctor himself, with reverent devotion.
Beginning in the middle of last year, I’ve had to function without a comforting home base- or as Dales observed (and quoted above), “a secure standpoint.” Between both work and housing instabilities, the vantage point is at once being between two dead-ends while also admitting that everything is up in the air. Thoughts of this reality at night are threatening. Thoughts of this at noon the next day almost seem exciting. But all thinking and activity take place amidst the din of instability and uncertainty; as much above it, as under it. Missing a physical, welcoming “home base,” that proverbial secure standpoint takes shape as a state of being during which I sense assurance. While frustratingly searching for a comfortable perch, I’ve thus far noticed ephemeral slivers of rest during times of study and writing: reading at bus stops, or sometimes late at night in the crunched hovel after the loud neighbors shut down, and writing during my thirty-minute lunch breaks, or outdoors any chance I get. Not terrible, making room for gratitude, but always too brief and just under the tension radar.
For many years, I’ve called momentary intermissions tagging up which is a baseball expression describing a baserunner’s safely advancing amidst a play. During my 14 years of fulltime work in the pressured commercial photography field, I’d start days and find breathers “tagging up” at the counter of my studio darkroom. It was my base of operations, with two slick, imported Durst enlargers bolted to the surface, and filled with the tools of the custom photographic trade. To help me feel at ease during sickeningly stressful times, I decorated the place and had a small stereo system. Just about everyone I knew in the profession listened to music to keep up the pace of production; for me, it was new wave and opera. And I always had a thermos of coffee with me, as I do now. My memories of closing the darkroom door and gathering my wits for the next project come back to me when I do something similar- albeit in much shorter snippets, resetting during breaks in the archives. The building that housed my studio was torn down in 2016. Indeed, I photographed the demolition.
With the business and all the people who passed through the place as workers (many of whom I photographed), customers, friends, and vendors gone, I saw the large piles of debris frontloaded away in dump trucks. Six years later, I lost my home of nearly four decades, the building being converted into elite condos. These are now simply locations, their respective histories and lives syphoned out. They are past and gone, but here I am now and straining to look forward. Places such as cities or neighborhoods or buildings, I’ve learned, are stages. It’s about souls, more than about streets. Solid places to regroup thoughts and broaden perspectives are essentially replaced by points of reflection. My writing and reading are always with me, providing ready clefts of stability- lulls in the battle. Journaling affords the ability to write through trials and get them out of my system. Movements of conscience take time. In my journals, the term point de repère- which actually means a reference-point or a landmark- parallels how I’ve come to see moments as respite. And such metaphorical landmarks can be anywhere.
A better side of remembrance is to recollect what we’ve learned. An individual as vast and inspired as the Apostle Paul wrote of his occasional rearward glances coinciding with reminders to himself of graces along his arduous path. I call this stocktaking. What’s good? Even between two dead ends, a burgeoning life reaches heavenward. Managing to schedule my first weekday off in three months, I made it a reflective day. “What’s good” included appreciating the outdoors at midday, chatting with friends, putting something away in my savings account, getting a very long-overdue haircut. Simple and understated, yet somehow luxurious. Profoundly missing those twice-yearly retreats I’d make- before 2020- something I can do is to find bits of time on weekends to recollect and accentuate graces learned. Among numerous turns-of-phrases I’ve learned from the monks of Taizé (and I’ve written down many, as well as words from the monks of Weston Priory), is the expression almost nothing. In context, this is to say there is always something one can do, “even with very limited means, with almost nothing,” to progress on the voyage to sanctification, and to help others. “See what you can accomplish with almost nothing,” Brother Emile once said to me. I use this at work, always aware of the spiritual/material ambiguity. "With almost nothing, with very little,” Brother Roger taught, “we can live something beyond all our hopes, something that will never come to an end." A beautifully hopeful thought.
Another savoured expression I learned in Taizé is to “live in the dynamic of the provisional.” Consistent with the positive practicality of seeing what one can do with a lively spirit and almost nothing. Consider the fluidity of the present as the provisional challenges individuals to exercise the dynamism inherent amidst our temporal situations- which can be improved as we find ways to improve our perspectives and abilities. Perhaps our most enduring landmarks are within, away from heavy demolition vehicles and exploitive developers. When our points of reference tend from the physical to the spiritual, their properties do have a dynamic in our provisional reality. Hardly the seclusion of a studio, or the coziness of a Victorian livingroom, I await the daily workbound bus in the East End while looking to the skies. It rains a lot here, and I deal with the uncanopied bus stops by wrapping my books in plastic and using a lined water-resistant satchel. Looking up, I’ve taken to musing about how landmarks live in our spirits. If they’re real and important enough, I’ll write about them. The cutting-edge is whether to be constructive or to eat my heart out; that’s quite a choice. “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound,” Paul observed as he addressed the Philippians. This comes to mind as I’ve watched many colleagues over the years burn out, while I try sensing the boundaries and do all I can to avoid becoming damaged goods. Keeping in good energies is essential in the reach for better days. “Pray without ceasing, and in all things give thanks,” wrote Paul to the Thessalonians. What supports our hopes? Causes can find me unwittingly, even at weatherbeaten bus stops, wielding my umbrella and a book with this grounding paragraph by Francisco Fernandez-Carvajal:
“We mustn’t forget that our greatest happiness and our most authentic good are not always those which we dream of and long for. It is difficult for us to see things in their true perspective: we can only take in a very small part of complete reality. We only see a tiny piece of reality that is here, in front of us. We are inclined to feel that earthly existence is the only real one and often consider our time on earth to be the period in which all our longings for perfect happiness ought to be fulfilled.”
Commenting about the determination of the humbled Zacchaeus (Luke 19), Bonaventure wrote, “it is the nature of genuine eagerness, which draws the soul to Christ, that even if obstacles are thrown in the way, its desire is not broken, but is the more enkindled.” Referring to my current studies as the Bonaventure Adventure, complete with a monthly day at the Boston Athenaeum library for replenishment, I’ve also made various side studies of his fellow Franciscans Saint Anthony and Saint Francis of Assisi. Comparing notes with a correspondent, I now know of the Franciscan Fr. Dolindo Ruotolo, whose extraordinary life gave the world a very simple devotional practice of openness to completely trusting the Holy Spirit within, called the Surrender Novena. The latter word means nine, as in nine consecutive days of focused meditation upon surrendering one’s will to God’s will. For example, in day eight’s reading, Ruotolo wrote in reflection of the Divine voice, “Repose in me, believing in my goodness, and I promise you by my love that if you say, You take care of it, I will take care of it all; I will console you, liberate you, and guide you.” I’ve been journeying through the past month with this compelling discipline. An elder friend of mine says it best: “Surrendering is so inviting; It sounds so easy until you try. Almost immediately after surrendering, you take up the problem and start dragging it around with you.” I couldn’t have expressed it better.
Surrendering one’s personal will and mortal navigational abilities to the very force of Creation is a formidable discipline that requires its own vigilance. In the throes of intense searching and applying, there must be surrender of all the subsequent worries. And there are many. What will happen? Why can’t this or that be so? What wrongs must I correct? To add to my counterbalance exemplified in Ruotolo’s prayer are those of Brother Roger in his essay, From Doubt to Humble Trusting:“Let your anxiety be transformed into the trust of faith.” And there are thick, embedded layers of anxiety. Consciously implementing this spiritual practice is the adjustment of a way of thinking and being, trying to surrender my attempts to control what is out of my influence, and not to fret. That is a major challenge. I can just hold up my end of things, searching and presenting as well as my experiences inform, always looking to improve my pitch. A devotional practice emphasizing humility and surrender causes- even forces- me to entrust my efforts to God. All at once, struggles expose limits, and defeats ignite more rallying to transcend. To cease is to fall backwards. Yet here again, surrender exhorts that I release all the worries that tend to follow my best attempts. Submit those carefully-phrased credentials at uploaded attachments, and then detach. The same trusting confidence in attaching files must go with detaching from the appealing ads. The prayers of surrender are about confiding, entrusting, and releasing fears and worries. Plenty still for me to learn, as I attentively correct my missteps and continue seeking a secure standpoint.