Tuesday, October 17, 2017

provisioned


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“...the narrow way which ascends the high mountain of perfection
requires such travellers as are neither weighed down with any burden
as of interior things, nor with higher things
in such a way as should embarrass them, since this is a journey
in which God alone is to be sought and attained.”


~ San Juan de la Cruz, The Ascent of Mount Carmel.

Having been intensely self-driven and self-sufficient, due to necessity for so many years, I’ve also had to be one to seek out experienced advice. I appreciate hearing and reading the insights of others. In the shorthand of my journals, “I want to know what I don’t know.” My survivor instincts insist upon betterment, fulfillment, growth, and participation. Status-quo is as insufficient as it is tenuously fragile. A friend who is a social worker recently observed that my circumstances over the years amount to a “crucible” that defies explanation. Perhaps not the most helpful thing to hear, but worth a thought. Struggle tends to be a humming din beneath the surface, though occasionally the mechanisms rattle and distract. The cumulative effect can paralyze the strongest aspirations, and that is unaffordable.

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These times are more desolate than usual. As the mind continues to work and look to better things, it is only natural to try figuring out the meaning of this crucible. Why the persistent lack of career fortune, why the instability, why the merciless rejections, why the unrequitedness of life in general? Perhaps this is some kind of indefinite, exhausting test. Indeed, I can operate through days and months on “auto-pilot,” yet all the while aware of living the biblical metaphor of a light smothered under a bushel. I would rather not be self-engrossed, but ambition is for the individual to manage. Of course, and as many do, I am looking for significance. Hopes and circumstances stand in opposition.

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In darkness, it is difficult to know whether there is something close at hand. Discerning substance and its details is impaired by obscurity. Turning to the experienced works of San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross, 16th c), there are some directives. He poetically and thoroughly wrote about the soul’s Night of the Senses, and the Dark Night of the Soul, reminding the reader to cease excessive intellectual operation and reasoning. He goes further and says not to ask why, but to simply detach from the injurious aspects of sense, question, and memory. The intellect was created to see the Divine, but it is incapable of that sight, said San Juan, unless God grant it the gift of infused contemplation. The metaphor of night was also quite physical for San Juan, as these concepts came to him during his unjust and protracted incarceration in a dark Castilian dungeon. He did not know if he would survive, though he managed a night-time escape from the cell. His description of the Night of Sense begins with detachment. It is a night, because San Juan said the soul travels in darkness on its way to union with God. In very brief, he wrote that the soul experiences three stages: the Purgative, the Illuminative, and the Unitive. For San Juan, light and dark are not always in opposition; in the Night of the Spirit, the inmost soul is pared-down, illumined and purified.

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The works and biography of San Juan de la Cruz have become my daily studies during lunch breaks. I make sure to leave the building and be away from interruptions, so that I can soak in the ideas that seem very far away from limitations and barricades. Just as it was for the congregations he addressed and counseled in 16th century Spain, this is life-giving consolation and food for more thought. I’m able to return to work somehow equipped with some renewed fortitude. Over the years, I’ve tried to read his works and have set them aside. But now the poetry of illuminating night speaks squarely to my condition. Comprehension is built up with time and experience, even if it’s about the peeling-away of self. I’m grateful for the enduring studies which I’ve pursued at my own pace. When this is done around consuming schedules, only small distances can be covered. Just as well for the savouring. When I study philosophy and theology, I don’t always immediately understand what I’m reading. But I follow along, many times swept up by the images in the words and what they cause me to consider. When I revisit the texts later, understanding more of the concepts, I realize how little I grasped on the first pass. Evidently, cultivation is a patient process, and the crepuscule remains.

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In this solitary wilderness time, I’m compelled to provide my own direction and defense. The arrivals of reinforcement and granted prayers are unknown to me, yet that cannot be cause to stand still. I’ve learned to be resourced enough to provide residual energy. It’s the proverbial spare battery in the desk drawer. Sometimes the fuel reserves can be pulled from personal history. During my 14-year career in commercial photography, I was immersed in a profession that valued available light. We measured light in lumens and footcandles. Most my workweeks were spent in complete darkness, producing imagery under intense pressure. Just today, I thought to myself, the present abyss must have some places for available navigational light. I cannot really provide what is needed; it’s never entirely adequate. But since I’m never at liberty to stop and procure the full picture, I still must proceed with whatever I can scrounge up. In this Dark Night of the Soul, as San Juan de la Cruz described, the conditions of the passive depletion and active renewal run parallel for a span of time. He said the soul must become accustomed to the loss of solid signs, as it transitions from meditation that relies upon the intellect- to contemplation that relies on naught but the Spirit.

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Indeed, the metaphors are surely appropriate to me, but my life is not that of Juan de la Cruz. He didn’t have employment tribulations, or deal with dissonantly cold online application processes, usurious student loans, or have to concoct the perfect résumé. Granted, he did suffer biases and cruelties, and had to live by his wits. The darkness of his cramped dungeon had a crack in the stone wall through which just enough sunlight could enter, by which he could read his breviary. Such things endear people like him to me. As for the dark nights in my context, I suppose I’m something of a clock-punching Juan Lunchpail in northern New England.

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Just as my inspiring studies become provisions in this indefinite desert, I’m reminded of the necessities for the voyage. How did San Juan de la Cruz resource himself? As a monastic, primarily living in communities, he had his basics covered- austere as they surely were. It seems his critical resources were his insights, his sense of judgement, his tact, and his ability to persuasively communicate mystery to novices. He retained and applied his studies, while he continued writing. A powerful and discerning mind is an instrument of inestimable value. What else is needed for survival? During my decade as a photography teacher, I used to assign what I called the “Spaceship Project.” I told the students to imagine they were going to be sent into space for an undetermined amount of time, and they could only bring 12 photographs. Each student produced images of what they felt they’d need to have with them; each dozen marvelously unique to the creating artist. There was scenery, people, light patterns on objects, cats, essentially images of beauty. Go up into the void with imprints of beauty.

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As San Juan de la Cruz would recommend, as we choose what is holy and life-giving, we also determine what must be avoided. For me, there is surely imagery, and there are books, keepsakes, and writing necessities. The Night of Sense is summed up as detachment and readiness for the darkest strata. San Juan said this is passive, and the soul finds that it must allow for the simplification to happen. It surely does not feel passive, as he described. Purgation is wearisome, monotonous, emptying, desolate, and obstructed. He lived through it and left us a guide, quoting his guide the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s Lamentations, that in the purgation it is as though God has cut loose and cast aside the anguished soul. But the soul perseveres with just enough faith that the darkest night will become light. “Enter the silence, when burdens are at their heaviest,” wrote Jeremiah; “Don’t ask questions, wait for hope to appear, confront the trouble full-face.” And I do so, responsibly every day. Among my vital provisions are the spirited words of adventurers whose footsteps are documented. There is just enough available light and thirst for me to continue reading and writing.

“The soul is like one who has begun a cure, all is suffering in this dark and dry purgation of the desire, by which it is healed of many imperfections and exercises itself in many virtues, in order that out of its care and solicitude for God it grows in desire for God alone.”

~ San Juan de la Cruz, The Dark Night of the Soul.



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Monday, September 4, 2017

labor days


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“You run and you run and you run
And you never stop
And you work and you work
Until you drop
You're in over your head and the pressure just don't quit
But you can't escape the reach of love.”


~ Michael Been, You Run.

As the general and historic commemoration of Labor Day is a recognition of workers and organized labor, the occasion can certainly have its personal connotations. For practical purposes, and in my personal history, Labor Day has been something of a new year’s day for me. The holiday coincides with the start of the academic year, the closing days of summer, and both have combined in heralding new ventures. I began my self-supporting life at 17 years old, moving to Portland, Maine from New York City- enrolling at Maine College of Art. I came to refer to Labor Day Weekend as Arrival Weekend. As a member of the labor force, that began at age 14 for me. Through high school, I worked in inner-city New York grocery stores, stocking shelves and delivering purchases. I continued working a variety of jobs in Portland, various other parts of Maine and Boston, in an odyssey continuing to this day. The venues have included factories, offices, stores, warehouses, commercial darkrooms, studios, colleges, museums, and libraries. Indeed, Shakespeare was quite right: all the world really is a stage, populated with characters that make their exits and entrances. There have been many places, people, and dramas for my memory and journal-writing. Plenty of recurring types through these different scenarios, as well as some remarkable originals.

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Through this summer, I’ve been digitizing whole portfolios of my photographic prints- working all the way back through the work I’d done in art college. Many, many, many images. This project has to be done systematically and in measures, otherwise it’s as daunting as the large archival collections I’ve organized over the years for my various employers. Apparently, as artists choose to preserve and document their output, we wind up becoming our own curators. Being a professional archivist, I automatically want to know what I have, where it is, when it was made, and how it’s stored and retrieved. There’s actually some interior humor in this.

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During the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I transitioned from part-time to full-time work, at a local hardware company job that went from bad to worse. There was nothing good about that job, but I needed the paycheck. During my breaks, I used a parking lot pay phone to cold-call potential leads. Answering an ad from the local Goodwill, I was interviewed and was offered the job. My new supervisors were sympathetically apologetic about the minimum wage, but there was something I liked about them, and I gladly took the pay cut- and the chance to get away from the bullying hardware people.

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My work assignment at Goodwill of Maine was to work in what they called textile processing. This meant working in an unclimatized, antiquated, repurposed warehouse- sorting piles and piles of donations on conveyor belts, moving massive amounts of material to their designated locations, operating an industrial rag-baler, and assisting where needed. At that time, I was 20 and fascinated by the whole operation, the extent of what people were donating to Goodwill, and the colorful cast of characters around me. Some of the workers were called staff, and others were known as clients. That meant I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with co-workers with various developmental disabilities. We all worked together, chatted together, and learned from each other. Very occasionally, when there were behavioral problems, I was deeply impressed by the supervisors’ patience, their calm tones, and abilities to coordinate all of us.

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As the summer concluded, I needed to reduce my hours to correspond with my school schedule. Goodwill was so happy with me, they gave me a part-time assignment as the bookkeeper at the attached Goodwill store, on Cumberland Avenue. Even after classes began, I’d stop into the warehouse to visit my many friends. Co-laborers are not quite like schoolmates, though in both situations we are brought together by necessity. Those we work with at our jobs are much more diverse, and with time we cultivate our own shared “battle stories,” which are distinct from isolated school memories. An assignment from my photography class was to create a reportage of a place that would be easy to return to, so that images could be revisited and refined. Classmates chose topics such as landscapes and architecture. I chose the Goodwill of Maine processing warehouse. My co-workers were very comfortable around me by then, even with my camera. They knew I was an art student, and that I was a friend. Recently, while scanning the photos- made in the 1980s- all the names, sounds, and procedures came back to me. Preserved photographs rekindle impressions, outlasting physical locations which change or disappear. Goodwill is long out of that location, and the building was divided and renovated. My photographs now serve as a documentation of a society of workers accomplishing their tasks, in the midst of a small city.

______________________________

Truckloads from collection points were dropped off on the Portland Street side, to the loading dock and The Pit (at right and below):

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From The Pit, and down a chute, clothing (separated from hard goods) were sorted on conveyor belts. Material in good condition was sorted into various bins. Rejects were left on the conveyor and baled for recycling.

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Above: Laundering and pressing.

Below: Baling.

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Above: Packing boxes for routing to Goodwill retail stores.

Below: Desk with location codes.

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______________________________

Some of my co-workers:

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Below: My co-workers enjoying the photos I took of them. I gave them my proof-prints, thanking them for being such good sports.

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Above: Clocking out.

Below: Goodwill, on Cumberland Avenue, along with the loading dock on Portland Street
.

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The Photographer, at age 20.


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My supervisor's desk, decorated with salvage.

Monday, August 21, 2017

l'oraison


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“Blessedness is no superficial joy or indolent repose,
but the opening vision of the Divine glory, the growing
insight into the mysteries of the fulfillment
of the Divine counsels.”


~ Origen, On First Principles ii:10.


paths and definitions

In this recent narrative exploration of the interior way, I’ve acknowledged the contemplative path as the avenue in my midst that is not barricaded from my reach. The first essay addresses the sustenance of the spirit, beginning with the contemplative path, as taught and lived by monastic communities. The second essay celebrates reading and the study of the written word as inspiring strength. Now we come to the most essential of ingredients...

Setting words to subjects as elusive and dauntingly personal as contemplation and prayer has challenged thinkers and practitioners through untold centuries. In my own ways, I suppose I have also been contributing to the ocean of words. As words go, I’ve long appreciated the French expression l’oraison, which covers the essential ground for those responding with their lives to a spiritual vocation. The Latin root, oratio, meaning “prayer,” does not suffice to define what l’oraison encompasses. In the simplest terms, this means a life-perspective that is immersed in reverent conscientiousness.

The Carmelite tradition, often looking to its own historic contemplatives St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, frequently uses the term l’oraison. Soeur Marie-Laetitia refers to the personal call to live with one’s whole heart, “giving way to the Presence of the One who lives and prays within you.” To speak of mystery in what might appear to be arcane terms is surely not the intention; monastic teachers tend toward an assuring, plain-spoken style. In her book, Découvrir l’Oraison, Sr. Marie-Laetitia uses terms such as vivre pleinement, vraiment, intensément (living fully, truly, intensely), and that (translated) “too often we are living at the superficial surface of our being,” and “contemplation is an attentiveness to the Spirit, which is a matter of willingness and determination.” That seems pedestrian enough. But then she says contemplative life is “essentially situated in the domain of the unseen... in the face of the incomprehensible, we want to understand.” Contemplation is “not an intellectual work,” wrote another contemporary Carmelite, Pierre-Marie Salingardes; in the same essay he referred to l’orasion as a “schooling of affection and compassion.”

As every discipline has a practice, the applied life of l’oraison begins and lives in the current of silent reflection. In uninterrupted quiet times, thoughts can be reigned in, and the mind cleared. Being a clean (or clean enough) slate, it becomes possible to listen beneath and within the “surface” referred to by Sr. Marie-Laetitia. Quakers describe this regathering as “centering down.” Contemplation is more than something one “does” when an occasion arises. An anonymous monastic once wrote, “we make the time to be there for God.” In that recollective quiet, a soul can “enter” the interior environment of l’oraison. We express our longings and ask, perhaps, for greater understanding, or a more forgiving attitude. Another aspect is to slowly absorb a few words- or a text- and taste its meaning. The spirit of this practice is really that of dialogue. Not a desolate experience, but one of union.


personal

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My own oraison comprises journal writing- even if the entries are fragments of sentences. The journal provides a place, as well, for reflections about readings. Lengths of time for quiet meditations vary with my scattered work schedule- but I manage to devote parts of early-mornings and lunch hours to contemplate and commune. This is merely a portion within the general context of l’oraison and journeying through life. Interior prayer is astonishingly accessible. Contemplation is transcendent of place, and does not require special words or intermediaries. It is as direct and proximate as a person’s own thoughts. Thinking and writing curve and dovetail easily into intentions and gratitude. The contemplative spirit does not separate prayer as an “activity” differentiated from ordinary thought processes. Prayer is an appeal, as much as a recognition (of things, of my limitations, of God’s magnitude). It isn’t even really an isolated “action,” as though I were to say, “at 2:30, I am going make sure to breathe, so that I’ll have a dose of oxygen.” All means of inspiration are integrated. After some time, distance, and experience, contemplation becomes quite involuntary and extemporaneous.

Once embarked upon the interior way, the commitment must be whole-hearted. Without a sustained, all-in attitude, contemplation too easily becomes extraneous and stagnant, instead of being as life-giving as its definition. It would be like cutting off the water supply from its wellspring. As the gospel passage declares, we would be unfit for the realm of the Divine if we continue looking backwards while setting our shoulders to plow forward. Simplest ways seem to demand the most discipline. Being committed to contemplation is much like my commitment to learning. The latter requires study, as faith requires the lifeline of prayer. Despite much of the cultural formalism that tends to moor prayer down, it’s really not a “religious” matter. The less fettered, the better, and the more dynamic. Having a sense of direction is far more consequential. Religiosity may be viewed as a scaffold, but it is not the building- neither are formulae. All if this is transcended by longing and perseverance. But in the context of l’oraison, this is not a one-way communication. Reaching up for a rope turns out to be the rope lowered within reach. A person’s seeking is not possible without help. Life in the Spirit invites a direct rapport with the forces of creation. In God: Creator, Word, and Spirit of New Life- the Logos is Christ who speaks directly to the human condition, and is the compelling Mentor to all that would be disciples. The frisson of taking up the yoke and beginning the pursuit invariably leads through wilderness temptations of unknown depths and durations. Along the trial roads are places of respite and validation. But it’s all very unpredictable, and thus l’oraison throughout these paces becomes even more vital. We cannot perceive vastness from inside hiding places.


experience and the invisible

Describing the boundless with the limitations of written language has challenged practitioners since the advent of narrative writing. But we do continue, somehow undaunted, knowing we are not alone. The important thing is to know the topic by first-hand experience. Dirt roads, sidewalks, and expressways dissolve into mystery, considering the Searcher of hearts. “Contemplation is essentially situated in the domain of the invisible,” wrote Sr. Marie-Laetitia, adding “l’oraison is the ground beyond our senses, and we more easily sense that which we can see. We face the incomprehensible, and we desire to understand.” Paradoxically, the unknowing can be less discouraging than the seen, and the absence of answers must not derail the prayers. Contemplation is surely not entirely of the individual’s will. We experience, as the Carmelite sister observed, “the Presence of the One living in us and praying in us.” For my very humble part, I’ve come to notice more recently, alongside how reflexively I’ll take notes while reading, how I also need no provocation to pray. Of course, in times of duress, prayer is at the front of my thoughts. It’s the first thing in my consciousness when I wake, bringing to mind the Mosaic meditate upon these words at home, on the road, wearing them in your thinking and doing.

Abstract as it may sound, the going forth into spiritual realms is much more solid than it sounds. All those petitioning words and emotions go somewhere. That is indeed blind faith, and a surrendering of holding on to the known and seen as the sum of all that is. It is a major stride to ascent to the acceptance that what we see is not all that is. In the context of contemplation, it means a loosened grip, giving over the struggles and even what appear to be their solutions. A wise friend made the daring suggestion of “offering one’s oppression” as a gift to God. This brings to mind the words of Marthe Robin, foundress of the Foyers de Charité, who was known to say, “Your life will be worth the sum of your prayer [ton oraison].”


the visible and the active

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Lived experience may blend into contemplative reflection, turning toward the invisible. Conversely, the formless unseen may prompt the visibly tangible. The written word represents this, as we compose our insights and observations. From the long history of autobiographical writing is St. Augustine’s Confessions, written at the end of the 4th century. He even wrote about the action of writing poetry, within which he observed: “These things I then knew not, nor did I mark them; and they on every side beat about mine eyes, yet I did not see them.” Confessions is a large and kaleidoscopic work, by a complex and brilliant author. His philosophical analysis of life manifests as a work of prayer and thanksgiving.

Some sixteen-hundred twenty years after St. Augustine’s words, I inadvertently overheard an extraordinary conversation. I was in a crowded bookstore in Boston, and from the next aisle came the voice of an older man teaching a younger man to read. They were in the Judaica aisle; the younger man was learning to pronounce the words of the Kaddish prayer in Hebrew. The prayer is one of remembrance and praise, and it is also said when remembering the departed. Kaddish (which means holiness) is the ancient basis for the Lord’s Prayer taught to the disciples in the gospel. Since these two men were not speaking in hushed tones, it was easy to listen from where I was. Evidently, they had been complete strangers to each other. The younger man introduced himself as a military veteran to the older man, and called himself “damaged goods,” and that he was mourning someone who had been close to him. The older man helped the young veteran pronounce some more words. They repeated each other. By this time, I could see them both- the elder finally handing the book to the younger, wishing him “health and healing.” This was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed in a shop. Such lived experiences are part of l’oraison.

As the interior way is unconfined, contemplation physically manifests in the exterior. L’oraison is not removed from practical living; indeed, the one needs the other. In his book, Contemplation in a World of Action, Thomas Merton wrote, “the contemplative experience is in touch with what is most basic in human existence.” We become able to “join things together in such a way that they throw new light on each other and on everything around them.” From my vantage point, still very much in the weeds of the temporal, there remains the effort to direct myself to encouragement and being creative. Along the way, I’m able to encourage others toward creativity and inspiration. While there are hardly any successes to claim, and so many unfulfilled projects, perhaps in the context of contemplation these are not things to dwell upon. Perhaps the greater strides are in the unseen and hopeful motions exemplified as l’oraison. In his journal, Struggle and Contemplation, Brother Roger of Taizé remarked about the day he submitted his manuscript for his book Festival to be published. “Have I managed to say what I intended? No. Then why write? Because a boundary always remains, beyond which we are left alone with ourselves, whether we be writing or speaking.” A truly hopeful motion, whether visible or not, is what can transcend that boundary.

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* Note: The black & white images in this essay were made and printed by me, when I was 19 years old.


Friday, June 9, 2017

tolle lege


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“When I discovered your words, I devoured them;
they became my joy and the happiness of my heart,
because I belong to you.”


~ Jeremiah 15:16.



on the interior way

In a time of closed doors and barricades, the road rising up- albeit through darkness- is the interior way. Now this may seem rather abstract, perhaps otherworldly, and in some significant ways it is. But contemplation is natural for the human mind. That which we may think as being far above us can be immediately and overtly at hand. In various degrees, we are thinking, dreaming, and observing all the time. As disruptive noise gets shut down, the life of thought has a chance to breathe. Many refer to the need to hear oneself think. That expression might be considered abstract, though we all know what it means to consider a point or a matter. It is expressed as mulling it over, or weighing possibilities, giving physical volume to our thoughts.

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For a life of insight to flourish, it is necessary to find ways to turn off the distracting racket- or remove ourselves from the dissonance. That’s not easy to do, in a culture that makes all the world an amplified phone booth. A defensive knack is also necessary: I’ve had to approach restaurant proprietors, train conductors, and librarians to discipline those who aim their big voices into their little devices. There are others in the world, too, has become a tag line. Part of that protective defense is also to do things like avoid businesses that throw media screens and sound systems at their customers, even at gas pumps- and even in churches! Indeed, many of us really don’t mind, and actually cherish, quiet space; silence is healthy, it’s not to be feared, and it mustn’t be “monetized” to our spiritual detriment. Interrupt the interruptions. A good offense is the best defense. Contemplation is more easily ignited than it is extinguished.

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The interior way is actually quite an accessible lifeline. I like to tell students not to doubt they are philosophers, particularly as they dispute a referee’s or an umpire’s call at a sports event. You are a burgeoning contemplative, if you are sent into reveries of recollection at the sounds of familiar songs. Perhaps on your way home from work, your thoughts return to something you heard or saw; your mind is making sense of things, by perception and assessment. Imagination projects into the future. To aspire is to be something of a contemplative. Aspiration compels me to reverence that which is greater and vaster than myself- and especially to recognize where there are forward possibilities in this wilderness of hindrances and deterrents.

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To aspire is to ambitiously and actively hope, praying into clouds of unknowing. During dark times, it is best not to look too far ahead. I’m reminded of when I’d notice myself intensely working in photo labs with eyes closed, back during my years as a commercial photographer. Production with light-sensitive material caused technicians like me to have to “see” by touch. Producing bright, full-color imagery, converting between negative and positive, in complete darkness gave me paradoxes to ponder. I could not see what time it was, though I could see the wall-mounted, faintly-glowing Gra-Lab timer with its clock hands counting backwards to zero. When my studio became a darkroom, even amidst razor-edge deadlines, it was often a place of prayer. My community experiences have surely influenced solitary times- whether at the wheel, in the woods, or aperch at the ocean- when the invocation, “come to my assistance; make haste to help me” surfaces effortlessly. Along the interior way, my sources of inspiration come to me in words and ideas. The Holy Spirit, unmanufactured, penetrates and beckons the individual soul to step forward and discover.

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take up and read


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Paracelsus, one of the great philosophers of the Renaissance, said that in our lives, “the striving for wisdom is the second paradise.” The admirable truth to his words is something I’ve grown to realize. It took finishing graduate school and getting away from enforced curricula to arrive at my profoundest education. As a child, I wasn’t much better than an adequate student, and in high school my high grades in arts and humanities served to compensate my average from abysmal scores in science and math. Successes began as I advanced to levels in which I could choose my own courses. Immediately after completing my masters thesis, I joined the Boston Athenaeum library, unwittingly beginning an overt pursuit of studies covertly embarked upon while having to study other subjects for school. During my seminars in Late-Antiquity, I managed to interpolate some Neoplatonist and Christian underpinnings. But once released from the constraints and biases tied to grading, I could dive headlong into medieval philosophy and theology. These greatly-faceted subjects are as practical as they are theoretical, even after many years, books, and travels. I grow and strengthen with these studies, intertwining with the contemplative life, and providing balm for employment duress. My abiding thirst for wisdom and learning causes me to seek with greater tenacity. As well, daunting physical dead-ends force the inward drive.

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“Tolle lege,” (“take up and read”) was the message Saint Augustine heard, in the form of a child’s singing voice. A good friend likes to use the expression, “resource yourself,” which means to keep oneself close to sources of strength. Thinking of my mother tongue, the expression is something of a pun for me, in French: to say se ressourcer, is to say to recharge oneself. Turning to my interior richness really is equivalent to being recharged. Having professional research as part of my jobs for the recent 18 years has cultivated an adeptness and comfort level to all formats of information. I find texts for reading through complex databases and online catalogues, as well as by reading bibliographies in books, periodicals, and documents. Many of my best leads have come from annotations in margins of patiently-researched books. Age does not devalue an authority; great work is great work. From these, I seek out more reading which invariably brings me to more recommendations. Using the Athenaeum’s collections as a basis, I’ve never run out of reading sources. If a particular author’s style intrigues me enough, I’ll read more of their works, and learn about their lives. Every writer has influences, and their endnotes provide more potential leads for a reader.

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Throughout my self-directed studies, I’ve been keeping notes. In handwritten journals, of course, which are enjoyable for me to reread. My notes always specify their sources, and thus I have been creating my own free-standing provisions. On many serendipitous occasions, I’ve been able to share these with other researchers and kindred spirits, including students I teach.

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Finding a book that interests me enough to invest the attention, I proceed with a slow, notetaking read. So that I don’t lose the continuity of absorbing the text, I parallel my reading with fast jottings on index cards and page-markers. If a book’s theme leads to a second or third simultaneous read, I’ll balance all of them with the same method of notation. Not having deadlines, I’m free to broaden my sources and stop for additional research, if a statement especially speaks to me enough to savour. At the completion of a study, I compile my quotes and references into electronic databases, so that I can retrieve my steps by keyword searching. Studying is indeed an exploration of understanding.

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Twice a year, I spend a week of dedicated study at the Athenaeum, residing at Beacon Hill Friends House, so that I can delve deeply into manuscripts for extended spans of time. Transcribing my subsequent notes can take days. These experiences are always gratifying and inspiring. On a regular day’s visit to the Athenaeum, I find my favorite reading in the Basement Drum, which is the very bottom-most stacks area. The cramped space has a brick floor, and is in the viscera of the Athenaeum. I always think of that space as equivalent to a cathedral crypt. This is where grand and ancient tomes of philosophy and theology rest on their cast-iron shelves. The library wisely classes various languages of a given work all together; for example, Pascal can be read in French, Latin, and English from the same shelf. From the depths of the Drum, I pull the sages of antiquity up to the rooftop terrace, and the tanned pages see the light of today. Scottus Eriugena speaks to me in Old French, from across the centuries and the ocean, as the Periphyseon sees the light of a New England day in my careful hands.

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pilgrimage of scholarship

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Occasionally along the way, people ask me whether there is a book in the making. “Maybe someday,” I’ll reply, though I’m not really thinking along those lines as I study. The joy is in the learning and the stretching of my intellectual forces. By studying under my own terms, I prefer not to upstage the treasures in front of me with future motives. Maybe someday, and what might be really interesting is to relate what I’ve been learning to this life of mine that is still formulating. As with the interior way of contemplative prayer, study is open-ended; it is an effort over which I have full influence. Enduring a workaday existence of constricting oppression, it is well worth extending all the energy I can toward healthy pursuits like education. To cease learning- even modest increments of learning- is to fall backwards; stagnation is the same as shrinking away from growth. The same holds true with faith and spiritual understanding. All of these facets are intertwined in one life. At the point of embarkation, the pilgrimage has been engaged. Paracelsus concisely wrote:

“Once reason is in us, the innocence of childhood no longer protects us, we are no longer counted among the simple, but considered as beings endowed with reason, and we must make operative in us the force of baptism, that is to say, we must know of Christ and we must have faith in Him, love Him, and follow Him.”


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With the ancient psalmist, holy writ faces me, and the verse comes to mind, “Sweet are your words to my taste.” If hope is hard to find, wisdom needn’t be. If fate forces me into more wilderness, I take more good reading with me. Perhaps it is a form of the providential to respond to deferred grace by making the best of a bad situation. Make that stone soup taste good. The words are more than devoured; they become part of me. Physically, the books often accompany me, when possible, on commutes and travels. When I look at my Jan van Ruysbroeck notes, I remember how his words consoled me during anguished times in hospital waiting rooms. Beyond the physical, my studies strengthen my reasoning and intentions. More amusingly, during those solid weeks of study, journal entries will take on the archaic tones of the source material du jour. I’ll make note of the moment, in an urban coffeehouse, from observations using centuries-old expressions. To contemplate and synthesize does make for a walking anachronism. But the studies do go with me like whispers of good advice and wise counsel. The voyage of learning is a pilgrimage of scholarship. Each adventure volume leads to another. The words and their essences are as much survival rations as they are seeds to cultivate.

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