Flow Through Different Worlds: Writing, Sharing, Loving

A couple of things you mightn’t expect when you first get to know me: I have a subscription to the Jesuit weekly magazine America and I check the entire college football schedule so I know how to plan the weekend.

My husband and I fell in love with versions of the other that were not totally representative of the sort of mates we would turn out to be. I partied a lot more and wrote a lot less and I lived in a cramped basement apartment without cable. Never did I realize what an autumn would really be like when I would have to share the man I love with a screen covered by giants in tight pants. Then again, he couldn’t realize the number of evenings I would spend with the door closed, constantly typing away.

In hopes of understanding my husband’s passion for watching sports on t.v., I opened the latest issue of America that is dedicated to “The Soul of Sports.” The article failed to enlighten me as to why someone can be so passionate about a game he cannot influence, but it did introduce me to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of Flow Psychology.

“Flow” is described as the “holistic sensation present when we act with total involvement.” Csíkszentmihályi equates it with the Buddhists samadhi, or one-pointedness of mind. Though this article focuses on team sports and then turns to Ignatian spirituality, I thought about how I experience flow in my writing.

I write in two worlds, the pages of my novel and in this space. My writing group and select friends are great cheerleaders as my story progresses, while I rely almost exclusively on the comments of strangers when it comes to my blog. The delayed gratification and the lack of the dreaded blog stats page make crafting characters and plot seem like more like Flow, which is said to be marked by “egolessness.” In terms of this article, maybe working on my novel does fit the bill because it is meant to be about being in a space where the “explicit reflection on the self stops.” My experiences are wholly enmeshed with my fiction, but at least I feel like I am writing for the sake of the people I have cast on the page. The desire to write my way out of a day job is usually held at bay when the inspiration takes over and the words just come.

I cannot find an equal amount of selflessness in blogging, however (especially when I mention the word “self” at least once per post!). It’s more difficult to find that effortless movement of ideas in a genre that exists to be read and replied to immediately. Flow was the world of private journaling. Blogging is constant performance.

That said, I am making the connection: I read about Flow not as a commentary on the psychology of sport or writing, but in a religious publication. This piece puts the wisdom in Christian terms, which I still feel vaguely uncomfortable with, but I have to remember that Flow is yoga, Flow is the goal of meditation, Flow is something I have studied in so many different worlds. Flow could be sharing my thoughts with a simple goal of serving the reader with some ideas that may sweetly color her day.

I keep writing about my quest for wisdom, but I think it is time to remember that the process of writing and communication my vision of wholeness is an essential part of the journey.

Imbolc and Revising My Sacred Calendar

Sacred PathOn this unusual solitary Sunday I found myself in in a noontime twilight when I yearned to fill fruitful hours with reading and writing and meditation but instead wandered between rooms, giving a few minutes to a novel before remembering I had left a cup of tea steeping in the kitchen a half hour before. Though I often resist the wisdom that tells me to pull on some boots and get outside, I looked out to the melting snow and realized that I had to leave my cocoon.

I was tempting nature to glitter through its bleak February palette with unmistakable manifestations of the divine even as I consciously settled for the mundane beauty that is a false spring: forty degree sunlight air hanging over mud and snow that will invariably freeze in a few short hours. Really, this is how I gaze upon life much of the time – resigning myself to reality but coloring it all with a sense of hope I am sometimes unwilling to admit. As you will see from the picture above, this ended up being a much more sacred journey than I might have expected; it seems that there in fact must have been some magic delighting in the sunshine.

Gradually I was able to release the expectation of revelation and even stopped chanting the vaguely frenetic mantra that was intended to shape this tramp through the woods into a productive walking meditation. I pulled back the layers of ego until I was simply a woman on a path on a warm winter day. Soon, I started noticing sounds beyond those of the crunching ice and the squelching muck beneath my galoshes. I pitied myself and the wonder of the earth for a while; our perfect communion was marred by distant shots from the gun club and the low hiss of the thruway – destructive neighbors that I so rarely acknowledged. For a time I let these impostors excuse my neglect of the natural world: being outside barely worth it when any signs of wildlife that hadn’t been hunted or pushed into oblivion by human incursion were drowned out by all that human noise. But eventually even those pretexts melted away as I watched blue jays chase one another from birch to birch and realized that the little movements at the corner of my vision were due to an underbrush alive with busy squirrels. All of my intentions of really being present in nature were forgotten in the act of actually being there.

Everything I “should” have been thinking about melted away under the flame unmediated experience. My thoughts turned to flowing wax that was free to drip through my consciousness to form new shapes, loosed from their old forms and patterns. Finally my sense were opening wider so that I remembered to take a deep breath of the sweet fresh air. It tasted just a little like spring, and I remembered that in Ireland the weather had seemed to turn at the first of February in celebration of Imbolc.Brigid

That is when I stopped to stare dumbly into the middle distance. It was February third and I had not even thought of the festival of Imbolc, Brigid’s Day. For so many years the feast of goddess/saint whose image I had worn around my neck had been deeply important to me, marked by rituals both public and private. I remember so clearly the first Brigid’s Day of the millennium when I hung my cloak out in the damp Galway night so she could pass by and bless it.

What does it mean that I had been thinking of how to make Lent more meaningful but had not remembered what I had always considered what I thought to be the most important day of the Celtic year? I have been so disconnected from the relationship of time and nature that I don’t even know if Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow (just Googled it, he did). As I began walking again I marveled at strange new focus my awareness has taken – Catholic traditions treasured over pagan rites? Who was I? I mourned a bit for all it seems I have forgotten.

But then I realized how artificial our calendars are, how arbitrary our scheduled holy days. Certainly the winter solstice is a moment in time, but unless you are standing in the inner chamber at Newgrange how can you know for sure? When celebrating Brigid’s qualities such as fire and home and healing and poetry, does the divine care if we are off by a day or two? After all, time has proven to be a plastic thing when we remember that the Church imposed December 25 upon the newborn Jesus.

After that walk through a wintertime awakening, I am feeling graced with a deep peace to realize that I remembered Brigid not Bandiabecause I turned the page on the calendar, but because I heard the whisper of the earth.

Beyond All Separation: The Birth of the World

Image AfterStill taken with Rachel Naomi Remen‘s interview on Speaking of Faith, I want to share her description of the “Birthday of the World”:

In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world.

And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. And that story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.

In the last few posts I have spent some time examining my relationship to organized religion (well, to Christianity and Catholicism really since that is my only valid reference point). A story like this makes it all the more clear that the separations that are necessities of the labeling and packaging a belief in God are truly irrelevant.

This myth from the Jewish tradition is new to me, featuring terms I have never heard, but that does not make the tenets of its vision any less relevant or awe-inspiring. The story acts as the poles of the tent that support the beautiful blanket that is the belief that God dwells within all of us. I am building my life around such a belief, but never had the chance to describe this unifying light to myself with images I could understand.

Initially I was attracted to this part of the interview because Remen said, “We are all healers of the world.” It is through my desire to be a healing force in this life that I became attracted to matters of the soul in the first place. The sense that this practice of restoration is a global project and an imperative of the human race inspires me to live with a sense of purpose I have only just begun to explore. The theological questions of whether we are on a trajectory to return a perfect time before history began is best discussed at another time; for now, this tale can simply be a new way to experience the present.

Even if one wants to find fault with organized religion or at least remain an outside observer, one vital and enduring benefit of entities like a local parish is the sense of community that such places provide. We know that we need such a sense of connection to feel whole and recognized. This story gives us a way to understand all people as members of one spirit community populated with everyone who is responsible for making this a better existence. Certainly one can feel the loneliest in a crowded room, but perhaps drinking in this story fully can dispel some of that sense of alienation.

My Expanding Vision of “Believing in Everything”

http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevefe/18931518/Last week while I was reading the Bhagavad Gita I listened to Christine Kane‘s album Rain & Mud & Wild & Green even as I went through the part about “one-pointedness” that described how background music keeps one from being fully aware what she is studying. The iPod was necessary to block the rest of the sounds from a busy Sunday afternoon at our house; plus, splitting my attention lead me to realize the way the lyrics of “One Once More” spoke directly to me, especially a past, cherished version of myself.

The song starts:

Saints and Valkyries
Runes and rosaries
I believe in everything I guess

As I sift through various traditions and sacred writings, I feel I am someone who can find something beautiful and worthy in countless corners because I am not worried about finding the One in a single book or building.

An old friend’s comment on my blog today reminded me of the person he first got to know when I was on my year abroad in Galway during the junior year of college. The twenty year old that I was railed against governments and religions over endless pints of imported lager, shocking as many people as possible with her feminism and her convenient radicalism and her ecstatic pagan ways. Now, my political views are more informed and less strident, but mean more to me; my feminism is a softer, lived-in ethic rather than a jubilant in-your-face volley of girl power. At this point, my radicalism is stewing more quietly, but with a great deal more potential as I actually feel poised to be the change I wish to see in world, opposed to just arguing in the pubs about what ought to be done. These days I’ll drink a bit of Guinness and become still as I tell you that I think I’ve finally discovered what I am meant to do in this world, that this spiritual quest may just be it.

A few years ago, the symbols in Christine’s song would have been what captured my imagination, esoteric collector of sacred talismans that I was. I was an indiscriminate and undisciplined believer, just looking for a few traces of magic in a world that seemed all too cruel and mundane.

As I feel what it might be to mature into my relationship with the world and the sacred, and I look beyond the spiritual souvenirs to the truth behind the rituals, I can reevaluate the habit of believing in “everything.” Now, I can begin to understand what it is to look at all paths to the Divine with an open heart, even the one with the weight of two thousand tumultuous years of Western World defining history behind it. The major religions today are tied to terrorism and sexism and homophobia and countless other prejudices. Due to these social concerns, I do not have to subscribe to any of them completely, perhaps, but I cannot assume that my modern political consciousness makes me wiser than millennia of saints and mystics and prophets. The beauty of their thoughts may not nullify the contemporary manifestations of their respective faiths, but it makes their religions worthy of much more than a second glance.

Healing Through Questioning

Listening to the podcast of American Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith the other day, I was introduced to Rachel Naomi Remen, a doctor who has pioneered the “integrative medicine” movement that pulls the modern medical establishment’s attention to the mind/body connection. I was reminded yet again that holistic healthcare is actually considered quite radical in most circles and that many well meaning doctors have been (and continue to be) surprised by the fact that a person’s experience of her illness is as important as the clinical symptoms she may demonstrate.

The airing of this radio show is yet another instance in which the Universe seems to be conspiring to make me think about wellness and infirmity, and the place of health and illness in my own life and the lives of those I touch every day. When I was trapped on the couch with another sprained ankle last week, I plunged into a bout of self pity while speaking to a friend, listing all of the ways that my body has betrayed me over the last handful of years, including six months when I was reduced to debilitating exhaustion most of the time due to a nexus of calamities. She suggested that I might be taking good enough care of myself that none of these health issues became insurmountable, long-term issues. That is a nice thought, but I really think that I am being taught what it is to be temporarily unable to meet the days’ challenges so that I can allow that knowledge to become empathy that will eventually be transformed into the power to help others heal. These days, I am working on developing my sense of perspective on the moments when my body does not perform exactly as expected, hoping to realize that I should just be overcome with gratitude for all that she accomplishes each day.

All of this is merely meant to be an introduction (that I will surely explore later) to a passage included on the program from Remen’s book’s Kitchen Table Wisdom:

The most important questions don’t seem to have ready answers. But the questions themselves have a healing power when they are shared. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places, life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment that just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.

At this moment, this quotation gives some shape to my thoughts about what I talked about yesterday, my struggles with conforming to the fullness of any particular church. I think one of the elements of the Catholic Church that I grew up with that leaves me so conflicted is that claim to the Truth with an absolutely knowable capital “T.” I am still in a place of delicious, torrential questions. Perhaps the reason we have religion in its modern sense is to find solace in a monolithic entity that seeks to comfort its flock with creeds and commandments and promises of the ultimate wisdom. The only answer I have received to all of my questions so far is that this is not my path.

From my reading of the Christian mystics I know that the tradition that has its most obvious manifestation in the one-way communication of Sunday mass (all priestly answers, it seems), also has guided centuries of questing souls who have interrogated issues more deeply than I can possibly imagine. I am just left to wonder how to reconcile these two expressions of communion with the divine.

Reconciling, ever reconciling…

Sneaking into Jesus’s House

St. Patrick'sMy husband and I were honored to be asked to be the godparents of two of our friends’ children. We felt comfortable with the broad spectrum of such a role from giving the best birthday presents to offering counsel, spiritual or otherwise, especially in matters they didn’t know how to talk to their folks about. The family sent us a lovely bottle of wine the other day, which only upon closer inspection proved to be less of an early thank you, and more of a way to soften the blow. Enclosed in the box were two innocuous looking sheets of paper – contracts from the Episcopalian church that asked us to affirm our allegiance to Christ and his Church and assure that the children regularly take part in public worship and personal prayer. Personal prayer I have covered, but the rest… Well, the concerns about the above mentioned elements pale next to “I share regularly in the worship and the ministry of my own Church. I live a life in harmony with the Christian faith an the responsibilities of my own Baptismal covenant. My priest/pastor has seen this statement and affirms its accuracy.”

What does it mean that my mind was instantly whirling with ways to beat the system? I was applying the same sort of creativity one must take to traffic court when she is trying to talk her way out of a speeding ticket she almost certainly deserves. Can my mother see the priest at our church from home, where they still attend, and mention that we have been doing a lot of traveling (untrue) and have not had a chance to settle into a parish but that I fulfilled all of the requirements once upon a time? Can we make an appearance a few times at a local church and grin and bear it until we get these pieces of paper signed and then never be seen again?

It is not even the last vestiges of Catholic guilt that make me feel horrifically devious as I try to think of a clever way to prove we are card carrying members at a local house of (a Christian) God. One can laugh about such things if she did not respect so much of what those places stand for, and if she did not feel a deeper sadness at the inability to join one of them.

I don’t think I have ever been to a non-Catholic mass, so I cannot speak for the Anglican service, but I when I attend church a few times a year due to family obligation, I am always so troubled by my my incapacity to recite the Creed. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…” “One holy, catholic and apostolic church…” Perhaps I am missing something, but I cannot make these statements work with my conviction that all true faiths that seek unity with the divine are essentially working toward the same place, simply using different symbols and vocabulary. One cannot claim primacy and still respect other traditions as equally valid – can they? I spend much of my time in beseeching prayer asking whether this is supposed to feel right, if I can love Thomas Merton and Teresa of Avila and feel so conflicted within those walls.

This happens at the same time that I am just beginning to understand what it might mean to worship Jesus, though at this point I am still trying to get comfortable with saying His name. Actually, Gartenfische‘s post simply entitled “Christ” helped me to begin to understand that Jesus is in fact a figure with whom I can feel a deep resonance. It figures, she is talking about a Hindu’s love for Christ. I find I can get a better perspective on His greatness through the writings of other faiths – they do no assume the ingrained belief that is meant to be second nature to a confirmed Catholic.

We have until June to sort all of this out; with the speed that spiritual developments seem to be spinning through my life, I cannot say for certain that I will not have befriended a priest or found peace with a local parish, but at the moment, that doesn’t seem all that likely.

Is there anyone out there who cares to vouch for the fact, if nothing else, I think about God an awful lot? Think I can just email the address of my blog to all of the local pastors and see if anyone can give me points (and a signature) for effort?

Definitions, Categories, and Other Roadblocks on the Way to God

A couple of years ago I sat in a colleague’s office in the midst of yet another existential crisis (as you might surmise by the fact that I was sharing such a dilemma with a coworker, she is also a good friend). I was agonizing over whether I should enroll in a graduate program to get a master’s in library science. There were loads of good reasons to do it: my experience would set me up well for a job in academia; I hadn’t been to school in a few years and was starting to miss my student status; there seemed to be a general feeling of “what are you going to do next?” and this seemed a logical answer. Of course, the main reason I could cite in opposition to committing the next two or three years to my life to this pursuit was that I really didn’t want to be a librarian. At the time, that did not seem like a compelling enough answer to give up the idea.

My friend sagely observed that I was just wanted to be able to tell people: “I am a… something.” My currently ambiguous job title could be traded for a recognized profession and I could rest assured that I had secured a stable identity. When I was too scared to present myself as a writer, or it felt too new and strange to call myself a wife, or when calling myself a feminist or a redhead or a Cape Codder or a spiritual seeker felt too limiting or unacceptable or broad, I could cheerily fight the stereotype of a geriatric creature in a bun with a habit of shushing people as a declared a librarian.

Fully realizing that this quest for a title is practically a caricature of my need to construct and cling to my fragile false self, I can laugh at this misbegotten bid for a prepackaged mask. This is not to say that I no longer cling to my ego, but at least my need for it is slightly less transparent these days.

This episode belies my addiction categorization, even as my right-brained literature studying being seems to shun such logic. I think part of that came from feeling lost in the free flowing waters of fiction and poetry; I required some vocabulary to help me structure my education, a few rocks to cling to in that eddy of words and expression. Part of it, of course, must be human nature as well. Even now, I refuse to cleave to any specific religion but I still seek to build a framework of earthly logic upon which to hang my experience of the Divine in my life. I dance with definition – longing for it even as I endlessly dart away from its comforting grasp.

Of course, as I unpack this box of thoughts by seeing them sprawl across the screen, I realize that all spiritual writing and even thinking is produced against the backdrop of this essential paradox: we write and read to understand and describe that which can never be captured on the page or even by the mind. Another elementary epiphany, I realize, but something that I need to remember as I repeatedly make the mistake of choosing theory over practice, reading that book about meditation opposed to, well, you know.

All of this comes to mind specifically after reading about the difference between Celtic spirituality and mysticism at The Website of Unknowing. I was presented with so many new terms in that post, and the ersatz librarian in me longed to start researching words like “apophatic” and “cataphatic.” While such knowledge has its place however, and I recognize the site’s writer to be incredibly learned, I am going to make a conscious effort to avoid discovering the tenets of such dichotomies for a while and experiment with trusting experience and the wisdom of the body rather than trying to cultivate further encyclopedic book smarts.

Surely all of this is a delicate balance as we gain insights from great thinkers and mystics even as we risk using their quotes and vignettes as crutches that allow us to hobble ever away from the sacred.

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.

Life Changing Philosophy and Bumper Sticker Ethics

“Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something we would never want t0 be, if only we knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we are made for?”

– Thomas Merton (quoted in James Martin’s Becoming Who You Are)

I read Martin’s slim book about the search for the true self this morning and was transported by Merton’s quote, feeling as if he were speaking directly to me as I try to sort out my perspective on occupation and duty on the one hand, and dreams and destiny on the other. My education and experience position me to continue to climb the professional ranks; the inherited family work ethic has generally lead me to follow this path without question. But now the questions refuse to fade into the background and the path looks like it leads to a thicket of doubt and mediocrity rather than an upward spiral to worthy achievement.

One of Martin’s central theses is that we are never alone in this search for meaning and identity. If you think your existential dilemmas are more harrowing than someone else’s, you’re probably just a touch self-absorbed. Trying not to assume that my current internal debate is any more taxing than other people’s, however, only makes the choice of what to do next marginally easier. I am certain that some of this could be chalked up to being a recently married college graduate in her late twenties who was raised to be believe that she was clever and accomplished and could have it all. That would really explain my predicament if I was wondering how to balance career and motherhood, but we are not even there yet. Right now, I am trying to sort out how to reconcile the pull of a full time spiritual, writerly life even though I think I cannot bear the guilt associated with leaving what, by all appearances, is a lovely job that compensates me quite well.

Being a Jesuit, Martin flavors his work with examples from the lives of the saints. That’s probably the best way to maintain some perspective and remember that my current crisis does not rank all that close to say, Thomas Aquinas (his family imprisoned him for two years in an attempt to get him to forget about running away to join the Dominicans). At the same time, articulating my desire to leave the 9-5 life behind seems like one of the most difficult things I have ever done – marriage was a simple “yes” in comparison!

As I try to employ this bit of wisdom from Thomas Merton, I admit I am reminded of a cute little slogan that graces the bumper of many a Subaru wagon around here:If it's not fun why do it?

To tell the truth, I have always sort of hated that sentiment (even if Dublin Mudslide is the best flavor ever). All I can think about when I see that line are all of the not-so-fun things that are quite essential – trips to the dentist and the dump, paying taxes, walking a dog on a dark, rainy night. Guess I am not such a crazy hippy after all…

But you do not have to look too far to realize that Merton was not giving us sugar coated philosophy when he talks about “what we are made for.” To follow his lead and question our current existences in an attempt to sort out whether we are striving to become something we don’t really want to be is not to choose a sundae instead of a salad, hedonism over maturity. It is an act of ultimate bravery that may take us outside of the expected social norms, but is the only way to fully understand your purpose in life. The question for me is to determine whether I actually have to leave the framework of my current occupation behind in order to discover what I am truly meant to accomplish in this world.

And maybe, just maybe, Ben and Jerry really wanted to say “If it’s not uniting you with your true self, why do it?” but it wouldn’t fit on the back of a Volkswagon.

Solstice: Returning from the Darkness

This week I have been pulled into an unsettling spiral that set me to thinking about darkness and death even in this season of joy and franticness. Despite the piles of Christmas cards and the antics of a kitten discovering his first box of wrapping paper supplies, I felt oddly bereft and adrift. I was not sure what scared me more – the emotions themselves or the fact that they should set upon me during this time of year when it is all about extending oneself by dragging through stores and baking that extra batch of cookies and generally “being in the spirit.” There is nothing worse than being called a Grinch or a Humbug in the weeks before Christmas, but sometimes it seems we slap those labels on one another because we are so terrified of acknowledging that we are having trouble hearing those distant sleigh bells ourselves.

One reason I started this writing project in the first place was because I became aware of the way so many things I thought I already knew had a way of sneaking up on me to appear as a totally new burst of wisdom. So here’s another epiphany that I have “known” for years but clearly never found a meaningful resting place in my soul. Today we have reached the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year when the earth stands still for a moment before tilting back on itself to reveal to us in the northern hemisphere longer, sun-kissed days. The weeks approaching the Solstice are full of darkness both in the celestial and spiritual sense. We feel called to slumber and reserve our resources in this bleakest time. I celebrated Midwinter for years, but I do not think I really understood that stillness of the earth that stands so close to death until now, and I certainly never felt its pull like this before.

If we are as connected to nature as I believe, it is inevitable that we should be affected by the slow winding down of the world around us. Of course, the reason I can speak of death so blithely is that it is just one turn in the cycle away from the rebirth that means an earlier dawn and an inevitable spring. We honor the birth of Christ at this very moment exactly because of this return of the sun. This sense of celebration sets us in a great paradox, however, as we fight our animal natures that tell us that winter is the time for hibernation and the contemplation of mortality. Human nature seems set to defy the wider rhythm of nature in so many instances, and this is no exception as we distract ourselves from the shadows with a festival of light. Wait, that sounds too critical, because I love that we are such ingenuous creatures who recognize the need to kindle a fire rather than curse the night. I just think it necessary to recognize that something more primal than western style consumerism or religious holidays may be at work on our souls right now. Some of the Scrooge impulse is certainly born of burn-out and weariness, but some of it may be that the secret parts of our spirits that have always listened to the sun and the moon and watched the trails of the stars are now yearning for quietude.  We all feel the loss of loved one who have passed on more keenly in December.  Part of that sorrow is the bittersweet memory of how they my have looked by the glow of a Christmas tree, but this remembrance of how death has touched our lives may also spring from the Earth itself as it whispers to us in these moments of deepest darkness.