Monday, January 1, 2024

looking forward

"The kingdom of heaven only costs as much as you have."
~ Saint Gregory

Between the completion of various projects, commitments, and the subsequent holiday weekends, I was able to take a few days away for a quiet retreat in December. Respite time has been extremely rare in the past four years, now generally known as the “covid era” (albeit with the first year being under quarantining orders). Laborers on pared-down staffs often became the surviving hands-on-deck in their respective places of work. I wrote about being among “the working wounded;” yet truly thankfully employed and bill-paying, but holding course while staving off the burnout in my midst. This pandemic era may be tailing off now, but economic and societal conditions have been permanently altered. Suffice it to say, many practical matters are simply too dissimilar to those of four years ago to be as reliable as they were. Try finding an actual hardcopy newspaper now (and when you do, notice how the price is exponentially higher). Notice how social interaction is much more electronic than in-person, how commerce is relegated to impersonal self-checkout, and how a “wallet” is now stored financial data. A “menu option” left the context of restaurant dining, and became a term of robotic telecommunication. As recently as four years ago, taking earned time off meant physically turning to a colleague and comparing calendars; it has since become cajoling and electronic wrangling. Much more than the rigors of earning the time, there are added equations in being able to use the time. The bar having been raised, it is necessary to jump higher with the changed rules of the game. Of course I can do this, and I must.

As the will makes for the way, I recently managed to negotiate for a very modest amount of respite and backup coverage. Eight months in the waiting, the worthwhile carrot at the end of the proverbial stick was a stretch of days for slivers of spiritual health, silence, and writing. Having very little time to plan, as well as to find coverage, I searched for a place that would make space for a pilgrim during this time of the year. An Advent intermission from the beaten track and the routines was what I needed, and a very kind invitation came from a Cistercian community in Massachusetts. Getting through the subsequent complexities related to springing forth for a short time, the more pleasant parts of preparation ensued.

As I’ve known for years, most any sojourn can be a pilgrimage; it needn’t involve great distance. Intention is basically all that is needed. For a pilgrim of trust, the purpose is to sanctify time and place for immersion in the sacred. In anticipation, I began to assemble trip necessities such as writing and reading material, clothing, camera, and some groceries to add to the guesthouse provisions. This was my first time both at Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey, and in southwestern Norfolk County, though I know the general region. My drive to Wrentham took about three hours on roads that traverse familiar New England terrain that comprises cities with repurposed mill buildings, farms, forests, and villages. The winding country road leading to the abbey slices through tall pines, and must be navigated slowly. Arriving to gentle greetings, I proceeded to the guesthouse and found an envelope on a lit end-table which welcomed me in cursive flourishes resembling the tones I’d heard moments before. Setting my satchel and duffel bag in my dormered room, I immediately and gratefully felt the quiet of the place, along with like the country air. Two of the community’s guest sisters and I spoke about the vitality of contemplative silence. We talked about how burnout endangers the souls of this culture’s understaffed overworked. We also made reference to weather alerts pertaining to an approaching storm. From there, we all prepared for vespers. Above all, being in late-December I was among kindred spirits in anticipation of the Advent.

Gradually settling into the old, familiar monastic rhythm, I immediately noticed how tightly-wound I’d been for too long. Equally old and familiar is the sense of reverse-inertia: slowing down to a halt needs quite a long runway. The soothing tones of sung liturgies harmonize with the natural landscape, helping to transit from stressful vigilance to receptivity. Even as the rainstorm arrived, the patter on the abbey church roof pronouncedly audible, the peaceful ambience of the place simply absorbed all sounds. During an evening service, the rain intensified into a backdrop for the readings, chanted psalms, and silent adoration. I later heard the continuum of pelting rain on the skylight immediately overhead in my little room.

The storm amounted to something similar to a hurricane, with torrential rain and 90mph winds persisting throughout the following day. I cannot remember ever seeing such hard rain. Looking from the guesthouse windows reminded me of driving through a carwash, but this went on for more than a day, eventually causing felled trees and a regional power outage. Along with the loss of electricity was the loss of heat, hot water, and backup generators. The abbey had to cancel services. We used plenty of candles in the guesthouse, dining on leftovers, still savouring the spirit of the community. Even considering the cold, dark night ahead, I did not try to make an early trip back to Maine; the storm was moving north, and I would’ve been contending with hazardous conditions all the way up. The best thing to do was to patiently wait out the weather. Inevitably the storm passed, yet the outage was predicted to last another day. Washing with cold water the following morning, and downing day-old tepid coffee from my thermos, I packed my car for the return in daylight. Before taking to the roads, I made sure to thank my hosts and to bask in the healthful silence of the unlit abbey church. While the retreat had to be shortened, there was plenty to cherish, such as an open-ended welcome to come back, some new friends, and the acquaintance with an oasis new to me. Driving between large branches and fallen trees, en route to highways and hot coffee, was that among other things I have hope itself.

the storm past; writing by candlelight

“Still will we trust, though earth seem dark and dreary,” William Burleigh composed more than a century ago; “Though rough and steep our pathway, worn and weary.” Indeed, I returned from a shortened sojourn, back to work and the search for better, holding fast to Advent light as night falls in the afternoons. A new year approaches. Perhaps a suitable excuse, as the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve may not automatically regenerate much more than a calendar. As the Battle for the Better continues, albeit via Advancement by Small Measures, I’m looking to the upcoming year with the usual ache for a good future. Fully aware of being in the thick of significant work, there’s every good reason to keep at it. Looking forward is the best thing I can possibly do. I needed at least a year and a half to write the housing-loss grief out of myself. Now it’s the forward gaze that indicates preparation for the granting of my most vigorous wishes. It isn’t really difficult to insist upon looking forward, with essentially so little left for which to look back. If anything at all, I’m looking forward to returning to the abbey in Wrentham during better weather. Grand things manifest because of humble things. While commenting about Psalms 13 and 14, Saint Augustine remarked that “Interior and unceasing prayer is the desire of the heart.” Essentially, one’s profoundest hopes are distilled into intentions of the spirit. He added, “The desire of your heart is itself your prayer.”

Reminiscent of my original profession and my most fluent language: photography, I find my reminders for the present. Practitioners of the craft like me can recall or point to studios, portfolios (effectively our resumés), projects, exhibitions, and tools of the trade. Far and away, the most important aspect is a cultivated sense of vision. This transcendent ingredient is also known as “the photographer’s eye.” Artistic vision, as I’ve found, can be applied to numerous types of work and facets of life- even the human imagination. As a working archivist and conservator for nearly 26 years, I’ve often envisioned completed results (and their remedies) ahead of time. But that doesn’t mean I can predict the events of the new year, as these involve much greater complexities than those of my sole efforts. Once again, and at the very least, I can put up my end of things, and I know enough to "forget those things which are behind, and reach forward to those things which are ahead, pressing toward the goal for the prize of the upward call*". Everything is in need of improvement; bring on the new year.

views from Saint Mary's Abbey, by ambient light only


*Philippians, chapter 3