New Year, Same Past

New doesn’t always feel good. We are told to embrace the New Year full of things that have never been as if we’ve been given a clean slate. As though we have no histories of brokenness, loss, torment, or suffering. And our world preys on us with its expectation of resolutions and quick-fixes––there’s a product for everything. For a day or two, maybe, we forget our pasts and embrace this newness, until the rest of us catches up and we deflate into the truth of where and who we are. Perhaps, for me, it’s the third-day itch of the New Year. Some feel it earlier or later. Some never feel the newness. My friend sends me a text: “Everyone now expects a depressed Christmas, but by New Year’s you’re supposed to get over it?”

On this third day, I did not rise. Instead I awoke to the silences around and within me. My heart as still as the days that move slow. My mind as empty as the blank page before me. Everything hushed to nothing. Reaching back into myself, I could only find the spaciousness of absence, the expanse of void. 

Tears are emptied.

The heart is out of questions.

The mind is thoughtless.

The list is so full, it is empty.

The hope is so deep, it is lost.

There’s a feeling of being so together, so clear; There’s only brokenness.

There is the place in my life, paradoxically, where mystery is conceived and the best of myself is birthed. It never seems to be a place of great joy, but it is a place of great truth. The world tells us this is brokenness, that we are the wounded walking around aimlessly. But, I dare to think that these are the breeding grounds for more truth, for more love, for something of the healing we all need and are looking for.

Suffering, Parker Palmer says, breaks our hearts, but the heart can break in two different ways. We can release the anxieties and sadness upon the world in a way that is reminiscent of breaking into shards, shattering the one who suffers as it explodes, and sometimes taking others down when it’s thrown like a grenade at the ostensible source of its pain. Or, we can transform like the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, the one that can grow into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.”

How to be that supple heart? The heart that breaks open, not apart? To suffer in a way that connects us? I cannot wander around looking for wounds that match—for that limits personal healing. I cannot thrust myself into the suffering over and over again, for that prolongs the pain. I can only be. Just be. Be with my suffering, my pain, my anguish, in all of its vulnerability. I dare to remember the strength and the courage that this kind of suffering takes. The kind of suffering that is so deep, I’ve lost words to describe it. The kind of agony that is so dark, I fear it will not let me go. Of course there are times and days when I must reach out, whether that be to friends or for professional help, for I am not meant to walk through suffering alone. But I do believe I am asked to try and see the fertile ground on which I stand when I suffer or when I encounter another’s suffering.

In Thomas Merton’s “Hagia Sophia” essay, he expresses that there is “in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom…” Going on to name wisdom as Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), he says of the suffering, “Gentleness comes to him when he is most helpless and awakens him, refreshed, beginning to be made whole. Love takes him by the hand, and opens to him the doors of another life, another day.”

On one of the last days of 2019 I cracked open a fortune cookie and read, “Believe in miracles.” Scoffing at the note I thought to myself, what does that even mean? What does it mean to believe in miracles amid a world so broken, so lost, and in such desperate need of healing? The word “miracle” often seems like a far-fetched hope which lives on the outskirts of possibility. My mind wants to make miracles smaller: there are the miracles of ordinary stuff of life, like the friend sitting to my left, who mocks the fortune right along with me. My nephews, who constantly remind me that play is more important than the seriousness of life. The relationships in my life that offer me the rarest and purest form of love by way of time and presence.

But what if the miracle is also so much bigger?

And I know that for too many, suffering has no end. And yet I’ve seen some of the greatest wisdom among those long sufferers—a raw wisdom drenched in presence and love.  While my agonies may not bring me closer to new life, they may bring me closer to an unveiled one. May my dark nights embolden me, on this painful ground, to long for more love and more truth.

Thomas Merton spoke of our world as a place where humanity is “taught not to be content with what they are and to be constantly yearning for something else.” In our longing to feel better, we find ourselves reaching for things to fix or even sustain us. For the everyday miracle. But it is on the ground of being where the miracle of the ordinary lives and a great depth abounds. He goes on:

“…the most crucial thing, at least for me, is the necessity to dig into what one is. A mysticism of is-ness, a mysticism of existence, a mysticism of accepting what is here and now right in front of your nose. And seeing that it is useless to reach out to what one is not and what one will never be. The passage is immediate, there is no passage. You’re not going anywhere, you’re where you are.”

So, onward we all go, into exactly who we are. Into a new year with the same past. Into another day with the same pain. Into the ordinary miracles of life, breath, love. And to the extraordinary miracle of being.

In this new year,

Blessed are you who are broken.

Blessed are you who are suffering.

Blessed are you who are trying.

Blessed are you who feel you cannot try today.

Blessed are you who are hopeful.

Blessed are you who are hopeless.

Blessed are you whose hearts are supple.

Blessed are you who heed the wisdom within yourself. 

Blessed are you who keep opening for the sake of Love, for the sake of Life, for the sake of Truth.

Blessed are you in your dark nights, my friends.

 

 

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The Way of Love; The Way of the Outlaw

(Friends, this is from my lecture last night, 01/31/2019, at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis for the Thomas Merton Course I am lucky enough to co-teach. I decided to focus on the concept of vocation and in the lecture had also included quotes and concepts from Mary Oliver, Simone Weil, and Elizabeth Gilbert. Hope you enjoy a portion of what I shared in essay form).

I’ve long held the belief that the contemplative way is a way of agony. There are no shortcuts from human pain—ours or those we love. And being that such a way of living is also a way to love the world more deeply, there is no escape from this depth of agony. While this dull ache cannot be ignored, it also cannot be one’s central focus, for any focus solely on the pain limits the work of love and minimizes the infinite possibilities each of us host.

Many of us don’t identify with the word contemplative, and even the word contemplative is messy. In The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton writes, “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves.” To be a contemplative, therefore, is perhaps just another way of letting go, a way of being with the suffering, in the suffering, a way of showing solidarity––a special way of being present to the pain of and in the world.

That being said, it seems any vocation where one so fully gives themselves to loving others and the world more deeply is inevitably a vocation of agony. It is often a place of loneliness, aloneness, and an ache for the world to know love. On April 4 of 1962, Thomas Merton wrote to Abdul Aziz (a friend who propelled Merton’s interest in Sufism) saying,

I believe my vocation is essentially that of a pilgrim and an exile in life, that I have no proper place in the world, but that for that reason I am in some sense to be the friend and brother of people everywhere, especially those who are exiles and pilgrims like myself.”

Nearly five years later, on April 3, 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared of his experience with vocational agony,

“And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak… Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.”

Thus, another pathway towards meeting the pain of the world is undoubtedly the way of the activist. In 1961, not long after his discharge from the Navy as a conscientious objector, a young Catholic Worker volunteer named Jim Forest first wrote to Thomas Merton. The correspondence began when Dorothy Day handed Jim a letter from Merton and asked him to respond. In the years that followed frequent letters were exchanged between Jim and Merton. In February of 1966, Merton wrote the young activist saying,

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

The one whose vocation is love lives in a narrative that is controlled by reality. And it is within this reality that one meets the pain of the world. It can often feel like a lonely woundedness, a gaping ache, or a gnaw that is just simply ever-present. When speaking of loneliness and aloneness with a sister of Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey in Massachusetts, she shared how loneliness belongs to us all, to the most human of hearts,

“I think the loneliness strengthens you over time through whatever life brings about… it’s a loneliness that says ‘there’s space there for the whole world… there’s space there for the whole world.’”

This pain—for the contemplative, for the activist, for the contemplative-activist, for those of us in all vocations of loving humanity—is a pain that only deepens and widens with time. As we bear our own wounds and gaze lovingly at the scars and scabs of those we love, our compassion grows deeper still, our hearts break once again, and we move closer to the unending heart of God.

I’ve long believed that all of us are artists and all of us have the capacity to pursue this kind of vocation of loving in our individual ways. Sister Corita Kent once wrote,

Creativity belongs to the artist in each of us. To create means to relate. The root meaning of the word art is ‘to fit together’ and we all do this every day. Not all of us are painters but we are all artists. Each time we fit things together we are creating ––whether it is to make a loaf of bread, a child, a day.”

And, Evelyn Underhill argued, “All artist are of necessity in some measure contemplatives.” … Finally, Thomas Merton reminds us, “To be a contemplative is therefore to be an outlaw…” 

 

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Creating From The Wound

I live in Los Angeles, the epicenter of self-defining artists. And, like most people in this city, I consider myself an artist. However, unlike most people living in Los Angeles — I believe we’re all artists in some form or another. I’m in constant awe of the way people create, perform, produce, and refine their skills. I see this in the visual arts, parenting, writing, cooking, teaching, care-taking, and most avenues of life.

In LA, I’m constantly bombarded with things that take me away from my ability to create — the time in traffic, the busyness of a day’s work, the notifications on my phone, the amount of people. Because of this, I try to hike a couple times a week. Hiking seems to be an activity where I process through things in my life — often to the point of talking aloud as strangers walk by me curious about my babbling. More often than not, it’s reworking a conversation and my place in it, sometimes it’s prayer, and other times it’s just a subconscious dialogue I’d yet to consider. This personal jukebox seems to flow most easily in a natural setting; the safety of nature guides me into letting it all out. This sense of safety is not only ingrained in our genetics but is also evident in our psychological interaction with uniting our bodies with the earth.

“We’ve learned over hundreds of thousands of years, that when the birds are singing, we’re safe. It’s only if they suddenly stop that you get a really bad feeling.” Julian Treasure of The Sound Agency via In Pursuit of Silence

While hiking the other day, I unknowingly lifted my right hand to the left side of my face, holding it ever so tenderly, like a lost lover would. I stopped, closed my eyes, and began to weep. After a few seconds of embracing this deep grief, I finally gathered myself enough to keep walking, continuing to cup my own face as if I wasn’t alone, as if I was someone’s beloved, as if she was with me. And, as these moments turn out, I was indeed alone, on a trail, walking by strangers as I held my own face. And just how many times have I found myself grazing my own hand, twisting my own rings, comforting myself? More often than I’d like to admit, but less often than I’d like to feel. 

This alienated agony we all face reminds me of the bottomlessness of my need to belong. A human need that we all know so well. That the depth of my longing is quite simply a part of my being, a part of how I was created, a part of my insatiable thirst for finally feeling home.

“…The normal way never leads home.” John O’Donohue

I’ve often considered one of the few certainties of our lives (as if there were any actual certainties in life) to be found in our relationships. Because, let’s face it, this woundedness demands a sense of tangible security. A security that no human ought to be made responsible to carry for us — both because it is beyond human possibility, and as we well know — the pain never dissipates. The cracks never fill. Belonging feels momentary. Home is never really found. It is eased, comforted, soothed — but it is the precisely the agony of these stirrings that call us to our work. And that is the artist’s response. That is the response of the creative that leans into her image as being made in the image of her creator. That is the moment where we become the artist and create our work. The work so deeply intertwined with eternity — the work that meets the infiniteness of our fellow humans because it comes from the infinite broken-heartedness of our own being.

“We all have wounds. We all are in so much pain. It’s precisely this feeling of loneliness that lurks behind all our successes, that feeling of uselessness that hides under all the praise, that feeling of meaninglessness even when people say we are fantastic—1that is what makes us sometimes grab onto people and expect from them an affection and love they cannot give.” — Henri Nouwen

Our hearts are bottomless pits that no human can fill. But, that is a gift. A gift that must be poured out in the creative work. A gift that requires constant courage and vulnerability of the self. The artist points to eternity because she creates from an eternal emptiness, woundedness, and ache.

These are the things that keep the artist alive. Tenderness. Intimacy. Love. Connection. Community. There are certainly times a friend’s touch can reignite us. There are moments a companion’s gaze can reinvigorate us. And there are seconds our own hand on our face might remind us that we do indeed belong, if only to ourselves. These are the moments that must be recalled time and time again so that we might stay afloat and keep creating.

“Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.” — Audre Lorde

“…But I believe that loneliness is something essential to human nature; it can only be covered over, it can never actually go away. Loneliness is a part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart.” — Jean Vanier

This piece was originally posted on the Sick Pilgrim Blog.

 

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