Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Discerning the Way

A colleague came into my office yesterday afternoon with something she thought I would want to read. It was a passage from a new book by Quaker writer J. Brent Bill. This colleague and I have had conversations over the years on the topic of spiritual direction and spiritual discernment. I would like to think that the message in the introductory chapter of Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment will speak to a number of readers of Writing Cabin.

"A compass, no matter what direction we turn, always points us to the north pole – a destination most of us (unless we’re named Amundsen, Byrd, Peary, or Henson) will never reach in this lifetime. In that way, a compass makes a good metaphor for our spiritual lives and the work of discerning God’s will for us…

"Learning to follow the divine compass means stopping and paying attention instead of looking for a magical map with the shortest route highlighted in yellow. Learning what God wants of us means letting the Holy Spirit guide us into the deep places of our souls. We learn to look for God in those deep places and in all the places our lives take us.

"When we travel through life attentive to the sacred compass, we find that God’s direction changes us. We discover that spiritual discernment is about sensing the presence and call of God, and not just about making decisions. …true transformation happens when we let the map (and any idea of a map) flutter from our tight grasp and instead begin to use the sacred compass that God provides – the compass of the Holy Spirit’s work within us."

From "Introduction" to Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment by J. Brent Bill

Image of Casper Friedrich's Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog from Boston College

Monday, April 28, 2008

Spring Awakening

There are some kinds of conversations that catch you off guard.

Or rather they sit surprisingly well with you when you might never have thought you could listen calmly to what someone was telling you.

A friend, a one-time colleague whom I have known for over ten years, called me this past week.

She wanted to tell me about a Sunday afternoon she had spent with a friend. The quality of the time she spent with her was out of the ordinary in her life. It left her smiling, she said, uncontrollably and continually. It made the household to which she was returning in a few hours' time and the commitments that bound her to the people who shared that household with her no longer the only important thing in her life.

And I think that startled her.

And I think she knew that it might startle me.

And I may have been one of the few people that she could comfortably risk startling with the degree of her own surprise. And delight. And hunger.

My own life, I realize afresh, relishes those moments when someone tells me where space and possibility and unexpected joy have appeared in their life, opening them to how much bigger their lives might one day be.

Photo from Slow Muse

Friday, April 18, 2008

Books and Binding

If you grew up loving books, you might – like me – have dreamed of becoming a writer one day.

On the other hand, you might have grown up loving books and never once entertained the notion of binding a book on your own.

My favorite teachers in school read aloud to me, and I watched them opening the covers of books and turning the pages, sometimes holding them open to show an artist's illustrations as I listened to the text being read aloud. My eyes enjoyed the familiar shape of the pages fanning out, rippling in waves until the teacher's fingers flattened the pages and steadied them.

I understood that not all books lay flat, that new books especially had pages that wanted to balloon, to bounce, to dive back and rest safely inside the covers again. I understood that this tendency had something to do with the spine of the book (I didn’t know it was called a spine), some mechanism tightly knit and ordinarily hidden under the extended fabric of the cover.

I early learned to envy the skill of the writers of books. On the other hand, I acknowledged the power wielded by books’ illustrators without ever hoping to wield it myself, and I had no idea who the shadowy individuals might be who knew how to keep pages together inside a book's covers.

I had exceptional luck with writing. I discovered that emulating successful artisans of words was helpful in my doing well in school. With deft circumlocution I managed to explore things in my personal journal that could pass the censure of nosy family members. In my first years in seminary, I even wrote weekly letters to my parents that succeeded in sounding as though we had regularly and warmly communicated everything that was important to us in the years before my entering.

Sad to say, those letters were largely works of fiction. I confessed as much to my friend Michael when we visited last month in New Orleans. An English teacher, Michael is used to commenting on someone’s writing, and the letter he sent me the week after my trip was a gift of characteristic insight and generosity:

One thought that has occurred to me is how your own exquisite writing skills themselves, ironically, belie a deeper turmoil. Your carefully measured prose, your perceptive and nuanced reflections hint at a well-ordered inner house. But these, I think you would now tell me, are (have been) the scaffolding holding up some disrepair. Writing has been one tool, among others I am sure, of survival. I am glad you have that tool. I hope you find many others.

A consoling and emboldening thought: the many other tools of survival that may be available to this inveterate wordsman. So here…

What I have recently begun to explore is the craft of bookbinding. In my fifties I have uncovered in myself a fascination with the ways books hold physically what those of us who craft sentences and paragraphs dream of preserving in them. Borrow an image from my friend Michael, and you might say that I am setting my hand to creating the physical scaffolding for the writing and reading that have been lifelines for me.

On a Saturday morning two weeks ago, I stood at a bookbinder’s workbench in a local crafts school and began. It was important to feel myself in a new environment and at a new task. It was reassuring to look around me and see nothing familiar and be able to listen to what my hands and eyes wanted to say with the materials before me.

I am proud of what I have managed.

Photo uploaded from CJ's Woodland Shed

Friday, April 11, 2008

Early Chapters and Late

No one has the relationship to the little boy in the picture below that I do. It is a photograph from one of four albums that my mother prepared thirty years ago, one album for each of my three brothers and one for me. Without retaining any memory of the occasion on which the photograph was “snapped,” I know that it is a picture of me returning from school one day.

I presume the person who took this photograph was either my father or my mother, standing between the two lugustrum shrubs that flanked our front walkway in New Orleans. I can’t claim to know for sure why I am running. We didn’t ordinarily use the front door of our house; it led into a formal living room that was carpeted, and my brothers and I were normally not permitted through it when we first came home from school. Perhaps we had unexpected family visitors that day, and I was heading as fast as I could to the back door of our house to get into the house and greet them.

When my parents died, two people vanished who could effortlessly link in their minds the child in the picture of that school day with the grown man forty years later entering their home on visits two and three times a year and driving them to doctors’ offices and picking up meals for them at the nearby Piccadilly Cafeteria. It is hard for me to realize that they could have watched me walking through their house during those visits and pictured in their mind earlier times when I had walked through without a beard, without a job, without Marc.

In the entry hall of our house, there is a photograph of Marc and me from a visit we had made to New Orleans the first summer after we moved in together. We are on our way to breakfast at Brennan’s. Marc is wearing a seersucker suit, and I have my yellow tie and blue shirt and grey flannels. We are flush with the excitement of a warm welcome from my family and a sense of something working out in our lives that we might sometimes have despaired of ever seeing.

To my eyes over twenty years later on the eve of our anniversary, these two men in their mid-thirties look young.

I marvel that there are people in our lives now who can effortlessly link in their minds the picture of Marc and me on our way to Brennan’s with the men twenty years later welcoming them into our home and eating with them around the dining room table. I pause in wonder that friends and family can watch Marc and me walking through our home during their visits and can picture in their mind the earlier times when we all of us walked through other homes, talked through other jobs, and tried to glimpse the future chapters of our lives.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Letter Writers

Some people love to write letters. I have recently been thinking about the richness of the lives that friends have revealed to me in the letters that they compose when they think I am their only reader. Let me presume on their good will and briefly introduce them now to one another – with their own words. Let me introduce them to any other readers who wander from time to time to this writing cabin of mine. I feel I am a lucky man to know them.

One friend…

Something came to mind tonight as I was washing dishes. In early 1998 when my parents were happily in Florida, I moved into their home to keep an eye on the place, take care of the dog and especially keep an eye on Nana, my Dad's Mom in her late eighties. She was living alone two houses away and the idea of her enduring another winter on a darkened street was too much for me.

Nana was a tough New England gal, nicknamed "Pete" during her early years. I have some amazing photos of her – my favorite is one of her wearing her brother's overalls, hair tucked into a man's hat, looking tough as nails. (She told me it was a joke photo, hmm.) At any rate, I ate dinner with her most every night, cleaned up, watched TV, took her out to eat and grocery shopping. I was lonely but knew that these three months alone with her would be a gift in the long run, something I could endure before she left us. I did endure it, I laughed with her, connected with her. Some times I didn't stay long and headed back to my parents’, but other nights we stayed up late talking.

Another friend…

Wow... for whatever reason it has seemed more apparent to me of late that you and I are two of a kind. You mentioned Patricia Hampl and beginning her book, The Florist's Daughter. I, JUST THIS MORNING, opened Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl while I was waiting for the crosstown bus. It is one I have wanted to read for a while and just got at the library. Have you read that one? A wonderful, rich reflection on *looking* at things, slowly and deeply (using Matisse as a backdrop for it all). I am only on page twenty-one and already want to put this book, a pad of paper and carefully chosen pens, a rare roast beef deli sandwich, and binoculars and a magnifying glass in a backpack to spend the day doing just that. I'd go to the Met and read/write there... I'd hit the research branch of NYPL and do the same...have lunch on the steps, watching, listening, feeling, the world laid out at my feet.... and maybe then a good long walk down to Xavier to end at Mass.

A third friend…

Wise friends over the years have told me over and over, in so many circumstances, that life is all about "blessing," and so there is nothing to be discarded as useless or meaningless or mistaken. I still do not understand all of the connections among the various pieces, but I've lived long enough to be aware of the many things "I don't know I don't know."

I've been having some rather intense email conversations with my brother lately. It started when he saw the play Doubt, at my recommendation. Have you seen it? It's the story of a suspected priest pedophile in a Catholic school of the early 60's. That was the time when my brother and I were in parochial school ourselves. The play surfaced for both of us all sorts of memories and stories from that era. Many of them were school related, but even more had to do with our family life and, particularly, our father, whose alcoholism was at its zenith in those years. Our conversation kept coming back to the wounded child we both still carry around and what's needed to quiet and soothe him. In other words, how do we incorporate his life into ours today? How do we love and cherish him and ease his spirit along when we can often still operate out of so many false understandings of the child and so much misinformation about his value and worth?