...the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
their red stems holding
all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again —
beauty the brave, the exemplary,
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
...with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
I have always loved Autumn..and not just because I was born on All Saints day. I’ve always loved the color change of the trees, and the curious paradox of the bounty of harvest as nature simultaneously lets go and prepares for its descent into winter. Abundance and non-clinging together. Interesting how those two things seems to be connected.
In the Jewish calendar, the fall is the beginning of the year…and frankly, that makes a lot of sense to me: the harvest of the year’s work seems to coincide not just in an agrarian way but in a spiritual one as well. I seem to always find the fall as a time of great clarity of insight into the year’s work, while also relishing the chance to take inventory of what needs to be shed in order to make room for new life up ahead. I find comfort in knowing that the season between the letting go and the growth of what is new is separated by the quiet darkness of winter, that there’s time and a kind rhythm to these seasons.
This fall equinox marks a particular set of challenging releases for me. Among them, the loss of my most beloved grandmother: Rosemary Ada McNiece. Just like the seasons, we’ve known her time was on the horizon…but somehow the sharp edge of the transition, the startling finality of the line drawn “before” and “after” elucidated all the ways I feel myself on the precipice of the unknown, standing on the edge of “in between”.
I feel a little like Frodo Baggins, when he paused one last time with Sam at the edge of the Shire…taking in one last glance toward all that they had known before pressing onward into the unknown their journey.
When evolution beckons, when we finally stand at the edge of our "shire", there is always one last pause: we always have one final moment to decide if we really do want to press on into unfamiliar lands of adventure, or return to what is safe and comforting about what is known.
What urges some of us onward? What keeps us from turning back?
What is this thing that calls some of us out of the grooves of life’s established order and into the deserts and “fierce landscapes”?
I’ve been digging into the Desert Fathers and Mothers at class, and consequently have been spending time again lately studying their words of wisdom. There is something that has always drawn me about those who are willing to leave the comfort of the familiar behind and risk it all for the sake of the journey of becoming…and the Desert Fathers and Mothers were among the first to take Jesus’ evolutionary invitation seriously to “leave all things that you have.”
Desert life was no cakewalk: these were not communities that had a common building as we think of modern monasticism. These were individuals who lived in caves or small human-made dwelling places, and although they were in contact with each other, they lived far enough away from each other so as to not be able to see another fellow monk (male or female) unless they made the journey to do so. Their rhythm of life cycled through work and prayer and constant solitude—an arduous and demanding schedule for anyone, let alone in the middle of a desert. The appeal to this lifestyle had to have been much deeper than any escapism…for could you really call this rigorous life of perpetual solitude an “escape”? If anything it seems to be trading social and economic difficulties for challenges of physical and mental survival: something deeper was calling them onward.
So what exactly were they doing out there???
I spent some time studying the desert fathers and mothers writings in depth a couple of years ago by reading Thomas Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert and The Sayings of the Desert Fathers in preparation for a Wisdom School with Cynthia Bourgeault on this very subject. I began fully expecting to write them off as ascetics who hated the body and were borderline masochistic, but I was surprised to discover a deeply embodied approach to the Christian incarnation that yielding profound and timeless wisdom. These were people who, in the face of the new Christianity-as-an-almost-state-religion, recognized that simply “belonging” to Christianity in a tribal-religious way was not in fact the same thing as “following” Jesus and becoming Christ.
They didn’t do what they did for the sake of identification; belonging to the newly minted “safe” Christianity represented a loss to them. Somehow while the rest of Christian-dom went about building the beautiful gilded churches that towered in the cities and creating a hierarchy of bishops (male, of course) to run and organize the church, the early monastics stood in peaceful opposition, seeking instead to make their bodies the quiet locale of transformation. They knew that such steady and committed work to change necessitated a movement away from the ease of an intellectual system of belief that didn’t require everything.
When I returned from my Grandmother’s funeral late wednesday night, I was shocked to discover that my cactus had bloomed. I had named my cactus Amma Syncletica after a desert mother, so the poignancy of the bloom happening that day was not lost on me. Even more poignant: the bloom only lasted 24hrs, reaching its apex sometime in the early morning hours the next day. Luckily, (being an absurdly early riser that I am) I saw the bloom at its most open, beautiful and vulnerable expression, but I didn’t get a picture of it…and somehow that also feels important.
What if I had missed it??
I jokingly said to myself, “ If a cactus blooms in the desert did it still bloom?”
And it hit me. Hard.
Who or what do we seek to bloom for? What kind of bloom are we creating with our lives? Perhaps more importantly…what is the cost of a life’s bloom?
It seems strange that we think what is most beautiful, intimate, and precious about our lives comes without the quiet work of discipline and the patient bearing of the suffering that defines this finite realm. Will we accept the constriction? Will we bloom even if it is not for the sake of being seen, praised, or rewarded?
We’ve been exploring an understanding of love that is creative, abundant, and that flows…but Teilhard also describes Love as an energy that must be harnessed, indicating that energy in and of itself does not get the job done. Teilhard tells us we have to learn how to focus it somehow, concentrating it like the beam into a laser. The nature of love is not, apparently, diffuse—spreading itself any which way—but seems to invite us to the particular, to a specific container in which the transforming energy of love can be tended, clarified and unleashed into the world.
People often describe love as having two directions: “horizontal” love, and “vertical” love. The horizontal love is the love between human beings and the created order, and the “vertical” love is the love between Divinity and the created order. So, with this lens in place, monastics often get a lot of criticism: “They escaped the world! They refused the horizontal and chose the ease of living alone rather than the complexity of being in relationship!” These same critiques often are accompanied with critiques of the contemplative path in general as not serving to make people relationally attuned and accessible people who are concerned with action in the world, but rather people who prefer solitude, are emotionally closed off, etc.
On the surface, the “vertical and horizontal” framework sounds like a nice holistic picture that encompasses all directions… except that its base assumption is that God is above and not already in the midst of this created realm.
Like the cactus in the desert knows, you have to reach beneath what is seen if you want to actually be of any use to the environment around you and serve your “neighbors”. The roots extend far to hold and share water, that precious and desperately scarce resource…and like all trees, the systems of roots that connect it to others is below what appears on the surface as separateness.
That is what I think the early monastics were up to. They dug deep so that humanity would continue to have access to the waters of wisdom. They disciplined themselves because they somehow understood that love requires concentration, that there is a cost to the process of transitioning away from what is diffuse into becoming focused, and that blooming is not contingent on being seen, praised, or rewarded.
We’re going to explore some of their teachings in the coming weeks… so dig your roots in deep, evolutionaries. Take an inventory of the leaves you need to release. Are you willing to leave the comfort of the familiar behind and risk it all for the sake of the journey of becoming?
As Cynthia likes to say, "Good! It will only cost you everything."