"I can see night in the day time
Into the woods I quietly go
It takes all the strength I have in me
These are the woods
The night of the soul
Painful to see
Love without action
Painful to see years of neglect
Creatures we are worth defending
It takes the right word said from the heart.
Given to you without ending
Given to you, the purpose of art."
~ Michael Been and The Call, Into the Woods
My recent extended time in contemplative solitude, quiet and uneventful as it was, has since been gradually speaking to my recollections- of this pilgrimage of the heart I have been pursuing. The paths and roads, my steps and adventures, since my retreat in the early part of this month have surely not congealed into complacency. Driving away from my wooded hermitage, aside from my gratitude for the repose, all that had been innately clear to me was a reference to a subtle change in my path. It had been a notably uneventful string of days- something extremely rare for me. Retreats can self-defeat, if they are over-planned (and thus become imitations of the work day), or if there are any sorts of expectations. I’ve made those mistakes before, and this time I simply needed a break in my pace and a recovered focus. The peace of that experience, effortless as it had been, is the resulting gift. Indeed, with days steeped in contemplative prayer, I should not be surprised and perplexed to sense a return on what was sown. Yet, a manifestation without striving was what I needed, to be reminded of the source of life originating- and creating- from (thankfully) well beyond my efforts. It’s had me thinking about an unforced, almost implicit spirituality. A proceeding without extraordinary labor; almost a reflexive sense of prayer. The anonymous 14th century author of the Cloud of Unknowing wrote some essays about a kind of "intimate counsel," in which he suggests a soul advance to a point that, after seasons of fascination with the intricacies of learning about God- should be content to let go and contemplate the very present reality that God is. Having had an eloquently unspectacular respite time, I noticed how even the spiritual life can be diverted by expectations. How sublime the simple! But one must be brought to recognize this: hardly emerging from some intense exhaustion, mine was a state between a vulnerable bareness and a plain desire for peaceful communion.
Indeed, the whole point of these thoughts is to not over-emphasize a place or time- no less while considering transcending the transitory. If anything, the silence reminded me that prayer- even a wordless stirring from within- and perseverance can be sown to become a root system which, in time, yields proof that living is a trusting progression. Away from facades and material trappings, our anonymous monastic author bids his reader "abide continually in the deep center of your spirit, offering to God that unarmed and blind awareness of your being which I call your first fruits." He reminds us of the inestimable gift of our profoundest and most unadorned selves. The illustration of first-fruits might be thought of as a "best of the best."
Our truest, most authentic selves. Much is said, these days, about the subject of "authenticity." Perhaps the interest is inspired to contrast this culture’s currents. Recent studies outline our essential psychological needs as being competence, a sense of relatedness, and authenticity. In this context, this means a self-determination defined by acting in accordance with the "core self." I think of it as perceiving and making decisions from the vantage point of my ideals. Carrying our medieval monastic author’s phrase a little further, by living as our authentic selves, we can approach our profoundest potential as created and creative beings. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve found the concept about as elusive to think about as to write about. As with the spiritual quest, I am brought to try to verify my impressions and notions. More than asking if I am true to myself, the second consideration is whether I am faithful to my renewed self. I’ve noticed a problem with writing about "authenticity," is a confusion between what authenticity means and how I want to embody that definition. Granted, part of my aspiration is the desire to live from a personal core that is cultivated increasingly by a conscientious correspondence with the Holy Spirit. When I begin to fathom what is meant by core self- even beneath my identity and history- the next thoughts are to my deepest intentions. A fathom is a depth, but its alternate meaning is to comprehend. Often, I think of my desire for mercy, above all, for self and for others- to see and help realize merciful actions in all spheres of life. I’ve known enough mercilessness to deeply oppose it, without deliberation. Mercy can mean many things, but in my interpretation it’s the offering and renewal of hope that encourages life. It is the noblest of intentions and an ideal worth seeking and practicing.
Seeking, practicing- even an unarticulated aspiring toward more satisfying days- means motion. There is no such pilgrimage as that which does not reach forth. The desire to move forward, with any kind of practical learning, indicates the sort of passion that propels us through our various kinds of inertia toward our dreams. And in that purposeful reaching, we notice how far we’ve already traveled. As the parlance of the spiritual voyaging goes, forward motion can be as tangible within our hearts as upon physical trails and roads. Life in the Spirit is intrinsically transitory. The other day I said my farewells to a friend who, with his family, has embarked upon a cross-country relocation, where he will lead a congregation that awaits him. In our conversations we recognized the different ways the both of us have been in transit.
Even long after dramatically fresh starts, journeying souls are ever in a trusting pursuit. The spirit of God, going before us- preceding our thoughts and movements- exemplifies the trusting steps of faith I so cherish, even without knowing the specifics. Be it a journey of uprooting or one of perspective, we must continue to renew our vision- and with that comes the chance to reflect upon living from one’s "core self." In my own evaluations of conscience, I am the astonished scholar, leafing through memories both near and far, often indexing through the archives of the mind which are categorized by experience type. Noting all the miles I’ve covered, recalling pleasant situations and regrettable pitfalls, it amazes me to consider the sheer diversity of places and circumstances for which the sole common denominator has been me. It is, then, for me to thread the experiences together, make sense of what there is to learn, and try to recognize familiar signs along ways I am yet to see. Thus far, I’ve come to see how ethics and perspective are transcendent of setting and task. These are all collocated by my continuing path.
Finally, in his "intimate counsel," the 14th century monk weaves into his essay a kind of prayer for his reader, that "God be the ground of your being and the focal point of your heart." And thus I return to these subtle new steps calling me to a more permeated, a more implicit, spiritual life. A lesson from the silence was the idea that quiet need not mean nothing is happening. The café table, from which I write these words, is in the shade of a solidly spreading tree. I am looking at the innumerable leathery leaves and thinking, "truly something is happening, as surely as this tree is alive." Like the paces I followed from the woods and depths of my retreat, this new season may be the calmest and most unnoticeable I have experienced. But it makes sense that after such intensity, there must be a simple exhaling, a quiet consistency that moves with the spirit. Elijah’s place of communion was in the solitary presence of the "still, small voice." All he could do, after his desperate searching and physical turmoil, was to cathartically reverence the Divine presence in his midst. I believe part of that catharsis was the assurance of God’s enduring presence- regardless of situation or visibility. With such fears surmounted, it becomes possible to shift the focus away from personal stability and make room for grander things. This is a time to take stock of what these roots are bringing forth, remembering that although contemplation begins on earth, it is eternal.