Accepting the Risk of Contentment

Wedding skyI am trying to decide whether there is tragedy in the discovery that contentment breeds silence. Granted, as the pieces of my life seem poised to draw together into a shining collective marked by peace and possibility, I feel largely protected from tragedy. The bits of me tinged with superstition and fear wonder when I will be cursed for such blithe naivety, such hubris, but in reality, I just feel incredibly fortunate to be walking through life with eyes opened wide enough to realize when I am moving through a blessed stretch of my journey. Caroline Myss was the first person I ever heard to use the phrase “field of grace”; I think I know what it is to have my star enter such a space.

We didn’t win the lottery. I didn’t lay a spread of tarot cards that predicted nothing but prosperity. My husband didn’t tell me I could forget about the money and quit my day job. I was not told that life would become any simpler or less full of questions.

After months of scurrying after fate, dreaming that the Divine would set my future ablaze next (sort of like really, really, really hoping you would get picked for the kickball team), it just seems that I have found an end to all of the franticness that has marked so much of my life. It seems time that I learn the difference between stagnation and stability, between laziness and contentment.

James Martin, SJ paraphrases Mother Teresa’s pronouncement that “you should find her own Calcutta” with the familiar “bloom where you are planted.” He suggests that you “discover sanctity in your own life.” We have decided to embrace that idea, but only after a roundabout interrogation of what seemed like every option, not (I hope) because we fear challenging the status quo or because it seemed easy to adopt a nice little line from a supportive priest. Suddenly, living in this beautiful valley full of progressive thinkers and going to work every day in a place that sets galaxies of information at my fingertips seems like the fruit of a sweetly conspiring universe rather than the consequences of a few unrelated accidents.

When the tide turns, as it invariably will, and we seem to be taking less advantage of this time of comfort (declared now to be a couple of years marked by conscious growth in a familiar world), I may blush at this sweet faced optimism. Perhaps the fear that I will sound foolish to the eventual jaded self that will read these words with derision keeps us from wanting to express hope and happiness. Somehow drowning in confusion and complaint is easier; there are so many more dramatic ways to describe misery than pain (isn’t that why modern fiction robs us of happy endings so often these days?). Or perhaps the truth of contentment is to be found in the stillness it begets, the ability to cease the need transmit an emote and simply be.

Pacing the Earth With Humility and Grace

“In order to obtain the astonishing and unifying image of the whole earth whirling in the darkness of space, humans, it would seem, have had to relinquish something just as valuable – the humility and grace that comes from being fully a part of this whirling world.”

– David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous

Apollo 17 Crew, NASA

In his remarkable book, Abram looks at the way written language (and all of the technology that resulted in perfecting that particular form of magic) has altered our relationship with nature. We are almost completely wrapped up in the power of our own minds to the degree that we no longer recognize that living on this planet is to coexist in an infinite partnership. He describes the ability of people of oral cultures to live in harmony with the land and every entity; he makes it clear that we “moderns” have alienated ourselves almost completely from such a symbiotic dance.

I wanted to celebrate the chirp of every cricket right along with him and know what it would be like to see the earth not as an inanimate setting upon which I enact the drama of my life, but to recognize the landscape as a main character. I was able to lose myself in the text. At the same time, the unforgettable element that reverberates through this work is that such a well-crafted narrative can only exist thanks to the innovations that have pulled us away from this original sensibility. And though his story is captivating, I think I would be looking for a little more excitement than the local moss and soaring birds might be able to offer after a little while. He offers a very brief solution to this separation from nature, and that is to return to a localized culture that truly focuses on what is immediately outside your back door rather than on the global vision that entrances us now. I am not sure that his answer is immediately practicable or even attractive, but I gained much simply from Abram’s description of an idealized unity of humans and their environment.

I chose the quote above both because it creates a startling perspective on the consequences of “progress” and because Abram employs the terms “humility” and “grace.” During this period of soul searching I am trying to take a break from my current dilemma that revolves around asking “what’s next?” to move further within to ask “where am I now?” Caroline Myss’s Entering the Castle has been my guide, and in working with this book I have encountered these two words that I have thrown around before but certainly did not fully understand. These words are an interesting choice for Abram because one thing I missed in his book was any direct discussion of God. That is not a failing of this book necessarily – the natural world is the mightiest manifestation of the divine and it is easy to read into this text the sense that removing ourselves from nature is also to separate ourselves from the most beautiful and immediate expressions of the sacred. It is just something that I noticed was absent since so much of what I am reading these days is so overtly laced with “God talk.”

But what does it mean to live with humility and grace? This question is enough to fill endless entries, but it is one that I must begin to pose. At this moment I would consider grace to be the ability to walk through my day knowing that I am a channel of divine energy, conscious of the unity of all creation and of my own powerful place in that continuum. Humility is a concept I am just beginning to get my head around – to understand on a personal level that it is not about fading into the woodwork and sacrificing my personality in an effort to be blandly and angelically good. It is about settling into my truest self so that I am secure enough and grounded enough not to need to be first, not to demand constant attention and praise, not driven to denigrate others in order to improve my own position. It is about honesty and authenticity.

Both of these terms apply so perfectly to the way in which we must be bound to behave on this planet. To act with grace is to recognize our position in this web of life both by refusing to exploit it and by making positive contributions that better this world. And to move from a place of humility is to give up the idea that we are supreme creatures entitled to trample every other species and resource in a mad dash to have more and more and more. It is to recognize our own impermanence and look upon this planet with respect rather than as another foe to be conquered, another force to be controlled.

Inner Light and Other Dangerous Business

Candles 1 - greyman stock.xchng“Your task? To work with all the passion of your being to acquire an inner light, so you escape and are safe from the fires of madness, illusion, and confusion that are, and always will be, the world.”

–Rumi (trans. Andrew Harvey)

Inner light. What can seem more distant as we push through our daily lives, confined to routine and obligation, trapped by the illusion that there is not enough time or energy or resources to effect change? It seems no less that the human condition to dream of transformation and simultaneously cherish the belief that altering one’s situation is inherently impossible. Certainly there are the rare few who can truly be the change they wish to see, and we read their books and celebrate their vision, often with national holidays. The rest of us, however, seem mired in the world of dashed hopes and shimmering mirages.

Am I too pessimistic tonight? I only write of this sense of shared stultification because I am so afraid that I am just another victim who reads all of the right books and says the right prayers but forgets them as soon as her trust in the beauty of the world is called into question. At work the other day we discovered what seemed the perfect e-mail signature: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door.” The unspoken sentiment that we all might prefer to be home with husbands and cats and perhaps even a Lord of the Rings marathon hung in the air as we drifted back to work. We just might like life better if we were not confronted with the madness and illusion that experience and the Sufi poet tell us are inevitable.

Recently I have found my capacity to walk through Rumi’s fires of confusion to be in serious jeopardy. I claim despair at the ugliness and cruelty of the world and the pettiness of the people around me. When I can call on the greater inner voice of wisdom that so often gets drowned out by my victimhood I can understand that such whining about everyone’s else’s attitude is as boring as it is useless. Perhaps it is just an adjustment period as I try to find my bearings even as my perspective begins to shift in light of all that I am learning. Or maybe it is a sign that I have to finally step up and make some of those changes that I imagine in the moments before I fall asleep each night. At any rate, I guess it is time to redouble those efforts to actually practice walking in the paths of those saints and visionaries who seem to be able to make dreams manifest. It is as simple and as tragically complex as cultivating that inner light that I know Rumi would say is already there, glowing within us all.