“The Spirit moves the faithful to plead
with sighs too deep for words by inspiring in them
a desire for the great and as yet unknown reality
that we look forward to with patience.
How can words express what we desire when it remains unknown?
If we were entirely ignorant of it we would not desire it;
again, we would not desire it or seek it with sighs,
if we were able to see it.”
~ Saint Augustine, The Spirit Pleads for Us.
Maybe you’re a bit like me, and your morning routines include tuning into the news of current events. If you know better than to do this, you’re much smarter than me. An old habit of mine for many years has been to wake-wash-dress-caffeinate with the radio tuned to the news. Added to the ensemble is online news and checking for messages. In recent years, the “ensemble” is more like a barrage to me. Invariably, I’ll glean just enough to know what’s happening and something about weather prognostication, increasingly choosing to begin the day with writing and reading. Indeed, lit screens are integral to each day- especially at work- and can be very useful, if not essential for connectivity, communication, and construction of resources. After all, I’ve been a blogger for 17 years, gratefully authoring essays, and the results have opened doors to extraordinary writing opportunities and fellowships. Simultaneously, considering the internet’s persistent abundance, controlling even a limited stream is equally essential for clarity of thought. Especially at the start of the demanding day. The pandemic era revealed to the isolated many that it is left to the individual to manage their own mental and spiritual health. And develop an intellectual, artistic life. Without such pursuits, it becomes even easier to be lulled into digital complacency. Days flow into months and years. “We have only so much time,” said a pastor friend of mine, “to gladden the hearts of those who make the journey with us.”
As I try experimenting with apportioning my sparse, unsold slivers of time, I’m minimizing media to make space for unfettered constructive thoughts. Making a few written notes in my journal, the words are re-read and built upon later in the day. Thoughts at daybreak seem as unimpeded as any I’ll have. Extending to my uttermost reaches to improve a desperate situation, I’m repeatedly writing about hope. A soul that hopes is one that aspires to see and inhabit better days. And persistent hope does not cease to seek ways to succeed. A living hope somehow generates its own adrenaline supply: a saturated strength, especially as it’s captivated by the unseen. Ideals may seem abstract, but conceptually striving efforts toward better work and housing are tangible motivations. Hope’s objects may be out of view, but these intentions are solid. Many individuals want to talk about their hopes, sharing them, even assisting others with theirs. Unfulfilled hopes drive many to the extremities of their abilities, becoming pleas for assistance, and further as outpourings of prayers.
A conscientious, focused suppliant turns the mind and thoughts to God. Contemplation essentially entails immersing the mind into the heart. Ancient wisdom as recorded in the Philokalia refers to prayer as “conversing with God, in reverent respect and hope.” Saint Dimitri wrote, “Collect all your thoughts: laying aside all worldly cares, direct your mind towards God.” As worries reflect fears, prayer reflects a driven hope. An aspiration that is anything but passive demands a paradoxical combination of persistence and surrender. And it must be lived, much more than observed. To be thwarted for many years at every turn is exhausting, yet still I counteract the weariness with increased striving. Navigating a careful balance between coasting and full-throttle intensity is a discipline in itself. A mystery, indeed, that is neither vague wishing nor obsessive grasping. Intent upon improvement, what lesson is there to be gleaned? Hope is essential, but perhaps one mustn’t hope too intensely? Wishing and hoarding are sentiments than run in opposite directions. We’re all susceptible to overthinking, particularly when straining to overcome deficiencies en route to goals. I surely know the dangers of the paralysis-of-analysis, yet I fall under them nonetheless. It’s a long, long haul and if improvements are merely incremental, they’re still positive factors.
Outside of such things as archival documentation (speaking from many years as a professional archivist), all that is past has ceased to pulsate: At best, it informs, whether we choose to look back a day or a decade. Trying to steer away from anxious wakefulness, my efforts are to channel thoughts to the immediate. Aware of juggling several unsustainable continua, I warn myself against pondering this. Just pursue and tack toward calmer waters. Endure and trust. I’ve witnessed countless friends burn out, and notwithstanding how much I’ve had in common with most of these fine souls, thus far I’ve avoided such straits and fates. Navigating as such by my wits doesn’t mean I’m better; it means I’m intent upon surviving to see and to live improvement. Competition is at all hands, and the last thing I’d ever want to do is damage my chances. Inevitably, the finest of hopes grow amidst discouraging, fruitless, and inhospitable thickets. And thus, the words hope and must are twinned by necessity.
Admittedly, treacherous shoals are far from limited to those offered by such outlets as those announcing what’s wrong and what’s deficient about us. There are parallel dangers in perfectionism, trend-chasing, and lack of compassion. “We’re human, all likewise God’s children,” wrote Josemaría Escrivá, “and we cannot think that life consists in building up a brilliant curriculum vitæ or an outstanding career. Ties of solidarity should bind us all and, besides, in the order of grace we are united by the supernatural bond of the Communion of Saints.” I read Escrivá’s remark while shivering at a deserted bus stop, admiring his big-picture view that inspires individuals to look beyond themselves. Has my manicured résumé really helped to pave a road for me? That’s the desired result, but so much of this entire odyssey reveals the limited control one person has over the critical complexities of living. Roadblocks attest to what cannot happen, but as with swerving away from dangers, these denials can become prompts toward magnanimity. One recent pared-down early morning, my gratitude came to mind that I’ve arrived at the impulse to ceaselessly look to God, and for the grace of perseverance. Manifestations of this type of grace, wrote Theophan the Recluse, “show itself on a person’s side in a yearning and aspiration towards God, and on God’s side in good intention, help, and protection.” At the very least, I am certain that God is. Perhaps there is more to that conviction than I’m able to comprehend now. In his work, Collations on the Hexaëmeron, Saint Bonaventure beautifully observed:
“The soul has to learn how to be willing and consistent. Grace lifts the soul above its own nature and effort, when grace elevates it to receive direct illuminations from God, which then become the subject of spiritual reflection and theological speculation.”
Considering the sanctity of the soul, and trying to remove as much that is deleterious as possible, mental and spiritual refuge must be carefully and judiciously replenished. Winnowing chaff and pursuing advancement, I’m reminded of the first Johannine epistle. To me, John is the archivist’s apostle, peppering his letters and his evangel with terms such as the record, that which he witnessed, and that which was written, as one connecting historicity, his younger audience, and his personal experience. “Test the spirits, beloved,” he wrote in chapter four, so that we can discern what is authentic and confirming of the gospel. He encouraged his faithful students with, you’ve overcome cruel spirits, because greater is the Holy Spirit within you, than that which circulates through the culture in our midst. A popular American financial institution advertises its credit card by asking, “what’s in your wallet?” Over two millennia ago, John asked his listeners and readers, “what’s within?” What’s enshrined in your sanctuary? Applying some language from the archival profession, “what’s your collection development policy?” and “what are your appraisal criteria?” Like stewarding multifaceted archives, being the curator of one’s soul implies confrontation of deciding what warrants preservation. At the same time, I’m maintaining room for growth on the shelves, leaving space for worthwhile acquisitions.