It’s about time.
This is a little story about the value of time. Or, perhaps the timing of value. Either way, here goes.
The numerous eccentricities that sequin this life of mine would not, to the uneducated stranger, seem to include punctuality. Spend just a few minutes with me and you’ll wonder how I manage to dress myself every morning, let alone have a driver’s license, or be allowed to procreate. But, in contradistinction to everything else one might know of me, I’m a stickler for being on time. To everything. Always. It is a point of pride. More so, it’s an exercise in lessening anxiety.
Friday, November 3rd. The Highland Dancing competition that provides the opportunity for this little sojourn takes place in Portland, Oregon, a mere three and a half hours south of us. It offers one of the most stunning drives one could ask for. And today is that day.
A leisurely drive over Satus Pass, stopping at my favourite monastery (like I have so many) for their legendary coffee and spanakopita. The Orthodox nuns who run the joint do so with friendly smiles and winsome personalities. And, they run a pretty tight ship. They’re a credit to their tradition.
Once over the pass, I descend the golden hillsides of Eastern Washington and cross the Columbia River Bridge. Then, it’s through the green, rain-soaked, monolithic tunnel o’ rock otherwise known as the Columbia Gorge. It snakes along Interstate 84, hugging one of the world’s biggest rivers. To my right, the Columbia, deep and slow and deceptively dangerous. To my left, the tufted ancient rock formations thrust up over millions of years that now frame this idyllic little meander.
A pain-free, largely traffic-free, Google-guided route to one of those perfectly perfect Portland neighbourhoods, more trees than people. Just as it should be. I park without difficulty right outside the B ‘n B where I’m to be staying. Then, in an effort toward appropriate courtesy, I stand for some time outside the door, searching my email history for the owner’s phone number. To call first means avoiding that uncomfortable walk onto someone else’s deck or anywhere a family might not want such interruption.
It was an unnecessary concern since another occupant opened the door just as I reached for the buzzer. Australian guy I think. The home owner – let’s call him Roger – greets me at the kitchen door with a look of confused amusement on his face. Confusement? Amusion? He is already scrolling through his Air BnB phone records looking to secure what, to him, is apparently a surprise.
“Um, it seems there is a bit of a mix-up here,” he says, face super-glued to his cell phone screen. His thumb scrolls over face after face. It suggests a tidy little business he’s got here. But, none of them appear to be mine. He gives one more healthy swipe of the thumb and up pops my profile Gravatar, making its embarrassing appearance.
Now, as I’ve mentioned, punctuality is a point of pride for me. But this was precedent setting, even by my exacting standards. Roger is a cheerful enough chap, professional and gregarious. He probes a little further.
“Well, this is a rather unique situation,” he offers. “It appears you’re booked for next Friday evening.”
My dumb numbness, framed by my gawking, is matched only by his look of pity. He can afford it. He has a place to sleep tonight! I squint my eyes in disbelief at the reality staring at me from his phone. Sure enough. I’m booked for the following week.
I could have feigned a look of personal incredulity. But, alas, this is not exactly precedent setting for me and I’d be anything but convincing. The best I can manage, “well, shit.” This however acts also as my admission of guilt in this matter. It effectively relieves him of any wrongdoing.
He thus forges ahead. “No matter. Obviously, you need a bed for the night, and finding anything on a Friday night at 5:00pm won’t be fun.” Pause. “I’ll need to check with my wife. You know, whether she’d feel comfortable with this…”
Great setup I thought, for the kind but awkward punchline that followed.
“We actually have another room upstairs we don’t normally rent since it’s right next to our bedroom.”
My gut clenches a little as I consider all the uncomfortable scenarios that might make this not such a great idea. Two adult males, mentally circle, both grasping for enough manhood not to appear either retarded or lacking control of the situation. Mercifully, he steps outside to begin the negotiations with his wife.
No use trying to “man-up” with this mix-up. Instead (and instinctively I might add) I do what I normally do and call my wife. She knows these calls. Really well. She’s had lots of them and is well practiced in the art of the de-pickle, quite like the one in which I presently find myself.
I agree with her immediate assessment. “You need to let me make your reservations from now on.” Normally, such statements would seem an affront to my masculinity (a bit shaky right now), hinting at an inability to tie my own shoes. Given the circumstances, and how good she is at these correctives, I hand it over to her capable contrivance.
Within seconds I had cancelled my hastily-made reservation and she’d booked me a hotel room nearby. This was a huge sigh of relief since Roger was still nervously pacing back and forth outside in obvious negotiations with his wife. I smile. I know those conversations. I bid farewell and made a hasty exit, allowing him respite from whatever deliberations were underway. Roger, you’re welcome.
The moral of this little tale?
Who cares. Life isn’t merely a collection of “teachable moments.” But, since we’re on the subject.
More often than not life is, quite simply, about life. We live it, trip over it, and usually love it. It comes to us as is, unadorned, but real, unpredictable. And, all the better for it.
Failure is a promise (to some more than others). Embrace it. I’m getting pretty good at it. Well, really good if you must know.
Independence is not a biblical principle. Dependence is (God). Interdependence is (each other).
God is good. Theology lesson over.
I’m well rested (albeit at a financial loss).
Roger is once again snuggled safely in his world none the worse for wear.
My wife, as much an expert in unexpected chaos as I, once more proves her worth as booking agent, social convener, and non-judgmental partner.
It’s about time. Wait, that came out wrong.
I pray this is something we can always say with authenticity and joy. Be at peace, dear souls.
In October, 2002, I quit drinking. But I’m only getting sober now. Let me explain.
Through a series of cataclysmic circumstances, I first came to sobriety while living and working in McMinnville, Oregon. It was a time characterized as much by chaos as it was possibility. I was in a personal Shangri-La on one level, experiencing life among kindred spirits, and hobnobbing with the Linfield College intelligentsia. I was making my mark in a town with an artistic spirit, positively electric to guys like me.
But, like many alcoholics before me, I stopped telling my story. Do that for any length of time and one grows smug. Over-confident. Or worse, blind. That most devious of all beliefs slithers into our thinking: “You know, I think I’m good, a drink or two would be just fine.”
To stop telling one’s story in the company of others, equally knowledgeable of your plight, is to let your story tell you. Stories are both descriptive and prescriptive. They narrate one’s past but shape one’s present, both of which promise a better future.
Dry drunks trade one addiction for another. Whatever “gets the job done.” Euphoria is still euphoria after all. It matters not from where it comes. Euphoric escape from reality into any available alternative is what we’re after. Booze isn’t the end. It’s the means to the end; for some, quite literally.
One of the most humbling undertakings of the recovering alcoholic is the more clear-headed journey back from foggy open seas to the shoreline, awash in all the stuff I threw overboard along the way. Regrets litter the beach of our lives. It is saying sorry to those I soaked in piss along the way.
Yesterday’s kegger. Today’s shame. Tomorrow’s tattoo.
The return to more stable footing reveals just how many lives were impacted by my jaunty revelry. And, life is friendships. Friendships are the wheat of life, bread in the making. To damage them, even under less fretful circumstances, should be immensely concerning. Returning to those who have supported and trusted you, believed in you, walked alongside you when you least deserved it, is the best and worst thing imaginable.
Steps 8 and 9, respectively, of the A.A. program:
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Shame and guilt are bed buddies. They intertwine limbs and sinew in an indivisible mess of carnage, stealing everything, giving nothing. They are also highly deceptive, rendering up the law of diminishing returns. The more shame one feels, the worse one’s behaviour becomes, leading to deeper shame, leading to a life in checkmate.
It is paralyzing.
It is also ubiquitous – the gift that keeps on giving. Guilt hides in every corner, shame slips in among the shadows where we can’t see things clearly. It guides our thinking, further clouding a brain still seeking a reboot.
But, to the recovering alcoholic, dismissing shame in favour of courage is our lot. It is, by far, the hardest work. Refusing to hit rewind and play all the old tapes for the pleasure of being our own whipping boy will always be in our job description. Those we’ve hurt, willingly or not, are seldom interested in adding any more pain, guilt, or betrayal to that which they generally feel already.
Some will applaud the new life of sobriety, the face a little less shiny and red, eyes more clear. Others may simply feel duped and deceived and happily dump us on the curb. The same fearlessness, directness, and gentleness will be received in any number of ways. Kick a hornet’s nest and there are always consequences, most of them unpredictable, all of them deserved.
A long-winded way of saying to any and all unfortunate enough to be in my addictive pathway…forgive me?And, to my Higher Power, whom I call God…thanks for grace and the knowledge that you love prodigals.
Today, it occurs to me how blessed, perhaps even entitled, I am. Sitting here, in this idyllic environment, relatively free of care, well fed and clothed, in a little chapel associated with a Priory, having made my way here with someone else’s money in a new van paid for with our own money (well, theoretically), all to return – freely, and without fear of reprisal – to a local church that hired me and pays my wages.
Who gets to do such things other than the rich, and free? The power-brokers? Those who write the headlines and history books? These things become much clearer in the light of God whose heart beats wildly for the little ones. They also become easier to recall to one’s mind. To remember these basic things in order to bring proper perspective and sufficient context to my time here is now my task.
Silence. Solitude. Journalling. Reading. Prayer and discernment. Although, these are presently my experience, to a lesser degree I anticipate this to be the case upon my return. It has been good. Very, very good. It has allowed me to slow down, attend the needs of my soul, and to avail myself of the riches of the Lover of my Soul.
As a result however, the greatest takeaway from my time here is this: I do best when staying actively involved in the vicissitudes of daily living, embodying truth. Not just thinking it. I must seek a deep, inner life as I’ve been doing, but one that leads to full engagement. I am not a person who is going to readily make the biggest discoveries from behind monastery walls. Start there? Absolutely. But the field of dreams for me will always be on the field, not in the dreams. It’s hands and feet and kinetic energy I require to keep my inner kingdom alive and growing.
Hence, it is now, as they say, “down to brass tacks.” While in the midst of discerning the movement of God within, weighing consolation with desolation in a balance (thank you Ignatius), this philosopher-poet, Enneagram 4 needs to get real, practical. Perhaps, while doing so, God can more easily steer this spiritual ship to new and expansive waters. The larger call and vocation upon my life will emerge more clearly in the minutiae of the face to face reparté of those who need what I’ve discovered here. It must be in goal-setting and the hazards of life-on-the-ground, where we all must live every day.
Gracious God of small things, help me see what I need to see, so I might become eyes to the blind, voice to the voiceless, and a support to the weary. Speak Lord, for your servant is listening…
Here at St Placid Priory, my ongoing discoveries in the contemplative enterprise have been eye-opening, soul-expanding, and at the risk of hyperbole, even a little mind-blowing. And, although I will never grow appreciably better at navigating these things, they are the stuff of life’s best acquirements.
But, for all that, I admit I’d likely not make a good career contemplative. Those brave and hardy souls who risk it all to face God so closely, so regularly, are a breed unto themselves. The monastic experience is so rich and good – for a time.
However, I also need my present reality – a corner chair at a local Starbucks. This lively interchange of strongly felt opinions (poorly considered in many cases), postured pretensions, all with a sprinkling of social anxiety, is just as real. Equally fraught with the beautiful danger of God-among-us. In true Celtic fashion, it is as much a thin place as any other, the ridiculously unexplainable. All while sipping a hot Americano (that came out wrong, didn’t it?).
I am still very much a marketplace Christian. The agora is yet my home, despite my penchant for the numinous and otherworldly. My vocation is to pursue the heart of monasticism amid the mire and stress of busy, workaday folks. In the rat’s nest of holy chaos that is the avenue, the neighbourhood, the hospital bed, the lover’s bed (mine, of course, not just random!), the early morning rush hour, all of it awash in the presence of the God who sees.
I am called to be a mystic in the mess where mystery meets mammon (no extra charge for the clever alliteration). I guess that, alone, is a significant rediscovery of my time here. I am coming to miss the buzz of the city. Perhaps even long for it. If spirituality can’t work here, then it can’t work anywhere. Otherwise, it’s not spirituality, or some inauthentic version of the same.
Whatever else may come from my days here at St Placid, at least I can say with confidence that I don’t belong here for any length of time. The outside world calls me back to share my hard-earned discoveries. And this notion, this understanding, draws me to these contemplative moments in very specific ways.
I dive down deep with God to rummage around in there together. I let God mess in ma bi’niss. Revealed to me are tiny snapshots of my soul that, surprisingly, is more calm and rested than I might otherwise have expected. Armed with these pictures of the potential stillness and breath available to all, I am then called back out to where little people fight big dragons. Out where tears fall with no one to dry them, or just with whom to sit and cry together.
Far more than any silence, or spiritual gymnastics, or fancy Desert Father talk, the prayerful in-this-world life speaks most readily to who I am and prods me toward what I need to become – a Starbucks-mystic-martyr-monk (for this alliteration, I’ll gladly take donations).
I want to be a ready, willing, and eager purveyor of Jesus to the crowds. Simply put, a lover equally of marketplace and monastery for the purpose of sharing God’s mysteries. Someone possessive of contemplative spirit called to witness to a hurting, unjust world the great riches of the gospel.
Lord, help me do exactly that, even if imperfectly.
Six miles of damp, spongy pavement pounded out this morning. Running – the healing constancy of deep, rhythmic breathing. So good in this environment. It’s little wonder that Portland, Oregon is America’s running capital. Every back road, trail, and alley is afoot with runners. It houses Nike corporation and its disciples, of which I am, apparently, one of the faithful. I’m a committed convert to the marriage of time, distance, and pain.
Baffling to non-runners, it is, in its own way, contemplative space. And, these days in particular, as I struggle once more on the longest road, the one leading toward daily sobriety, it becomes apt metaphor in the slow process of change.
Hanging like a shadow over it all are those who would pooh-pooh this whole sober-running enterprise, suggesting in my case that it is classic avoidance – the via negativa of the dry drunk. In this scenario, one merely transfers addiction from one thing to another, trading booze for the self-emasculation of hardcore running.
“Well, he may be running,” say they, “but it doesn’t mean he’s dealing with anything related to addiction.” To such self-righteous do-gooders who feign any real interest in me preferring, instead, bookish platitudes I offer the following retort(s):
Phew, now that that’s off my chest, some brighter notes.
I’m awash in the effervescence of expectancy. The more I consider who God has made me to be, the passions that drive me, the skills that help me, the more I prayerfully consider my options. What doors and windows are availing themselves through which to move into bigger sky? What new field of dreams might await my conveyance?
More every year, I believe that so much of this is more our decision than the theologians lead us to believe. Jesus tells us that we gain our lives by giving them away. But to give something away is first to own it. We cannot give what we do not own. Otherwise, it’s just passing something down the pipeline that found its way into our hands. Once we own ourselves, there is real sacrifice, but greater reward, in relinquishing ourselves to love and serve our neighbour.
God has given all of us a vocation. It is for us to discover it. Then, it is largely up to us how to fulfill it. For me, that may be changing. Imperceptibly at first, baby steps toward cave openings through which new shards of light are reaching out, tempting me in. Sitting here in this place, dedicated as it is to the rigour and welcome of the spiritual life, its delightful chaos, there grows in me a light. It is yet dim and inconsistent. But it grows moment by moment.
I want to do all I can to fan it into flame.
In a time and place such as this one is gifted with a bird’s eye-view of the bigger narratives at work in one’s life. That has certainly been the case since getting re-sober and, specifically, at a nunnery where my overworked mouth must be silent.
I am further gifted with precious reading time. Double up the task of discerning the peaks and valleys of a life with a reading list and I find myself reading something I’ve not touched in years. Perhaps it is a page turner only to those like me, but I’d forgotten that fact about “the big book” as it is affectionately deemed by A.A. Equal parts childlike, level-headed zeal, and complete lack of pretension put it alongside other great spiritual works.
And that is exactly what Dr. Bill and Uncle Bob’s magnum opus is. In the simplest terms of the novice, it is akin to Augustine’s Confessions or C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy or Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. As honest and probing as any other memoir-retrospective-guidebook, they have no other agenda than telling their life-changing story in a way that draws others like moth to flame into a message of freedom and sobriety. And, they roll it out like excited grade-schoolers at a show ‘n tell.
But what a show ‘n tell!
I am so grateful to be, once again, sober. Well, on the arduous road of daily sobriety and the mindset required to fight the good fight of staying that way. I am equally grateful for the timeless stories of lives changed under the care of Someone higher and greater than we, Someone I call God.
And, to that God, on this day, I give thanks.
It is a gift indeed to awaken to a cool, damp stillness, the air thick with green. A pervasive fog has sprawled itself over the lazy landscape, coating everything in the misty otherworldliness of coastal life. The air feels finished, like many of the best ingredients, absent in the Yakima dust, are present here.
Dear God, how I’m made for this. My body feeds on its wealth. And my dry, wizened spirit is likewise, refreshed.
As I’ve mentioned, I am on a week-long preparation for a vocal procedure later this week that requires total vocal rest and copious amounts of Prednisone. This means of course that I get a robust two hours of sleep every night, during which time I’d prefer to be punching something than struggling to sleep. I guess I thought the nuns here able competitors should things go south. But, despite the raggedy experience of steroids, St. Placid is, if only for a few days, home. And here I can capitalize on the silence in pursuing the attentions and intentions of God. That, and nap, as things would have it.
When one finally shuts up with words, other more prominent voices become clearer and more pervasive. And once pervasive, persuasive. Gone are the constant interplay of questions that never needed asking in the first place, now requiring answers. The small talk niceties that are social expectation more than interpersonal necessities. The interjections into conversations with your own, much better versions of things. Someone poses a query, whereupon you can sweep in with the most impressive tales of conquest and adventure, guaranteed to impress the room and justify your significance before all present (most of said adventures happened to someone else on your favourite YouTube channel anyway).
Clear out the clutter and the soul perks up considerably. You begin to rediscover what’s truly precious and real. One’s deepest yearnings reappear in the absence of competition. My soul has much to say these days. And the heart settles into a calm stasis with the God who never left but whose mouth I’ve unwittingly clothes-pinned shut. “Lord, please don’t interrupt while I’m interrupting. It’s rude and I’ll get to you soon enough with my laundry list of requirements, otherwise called ‘prayer requests.’”
I’m the undisputed champion of drifting in and out of crisis. And, I am again at a crossroads, the intersection of lost and found, good and great, ego and spirit. Historically, I don’t do well there. Knee-jerk reactions to the discomfort of unknowing, uncertainty, and discouragements have left me – and those around me – with many unnecessary scars.
To be here is, if nothing else, a good jumping off point into the great Silence. Sometimes, just to be convinced anew of things I’ve always known, is enough to offer repose to a stormy heart. I can take myself alongside the likes of Job who didn’t rejoice because God had all the right answers to his every question. He rejoiced in the comfort of God’s presence made manifest after God’s long vacation. God showed up. The rest was icing.
But God did so much more. God helped Job to broaden and expand his horizons toward himself and the context in which he and his God could relate. In short, God annoyed Job with pages of gorgeous rhetoric. Answers came, first, in presence, and second, in better questions which invited him into a relationship of asking, seeking, knocking and, occasionally at least, weeping.
“Don’t ask that,” God seems to say, “ask this instead.” And, in the process, Job’s little world so fraught by pain and despair is opened wide to see things far beyond his ken. There, he finds renewal, hope, and strength.
Best of all, Job is justified by God in full view of his overly zealous, preachy friends. They typify those with nothing better to do than toss around Bible verses, which by the way, is the ideologue’s means of proving their own self-professed authority over things they only think they understand.
God has placed Job in a spacious place and his friends, convinced of their own spaciousness, in their tiny one. Job’s world, now newly gargantuan, cosmic, and mystical, subsumes the quaintly rational question and answer, notebook faith so cherished by the faith police. Mystery brings with it the greatest gift of presence and comfort. Certainty brought table scraps – a soggy bag lunch to a tux ‘n tails banquet.
The next few blog entries are taken from my journal notes of last week’s sojourn at a Benedictine monastery.
* * *
Only the slightest whisper of a breeze caresses the ferns outside my window. Although barely 4:30 in the afternoon, the slanted, abstruse light lends a touch of whimsy to the failing day. Evening begins poking her nose around, making her presence known in a clear air, embroidered in light green leaves.
Here in this place I will spend the next three days in silence and contemplation. St Placid Priory in Lacey, Washington. My intentions are simple – complete silence, largely in preparation for a vocal procedure on Thursday morning. But, coincidentally, serendipitously, providentially, I avail myself of this calm serenity at a Benedictine place for prayer, discernment and listening.
To silence the tongue from speaking is in great measure to silence the mind from fretting, the heart from hunting, the brow from frowning, the soul from hungering. It is genuinely remarkable the amount of stress one accumulates through constant chatter. I use words in a thousand ways I never even consider until they’re removed from my agenda. Then, I see just how often words take their place among a virtual hierarchy of internal chaos. I use them to hide both from others and from myself. I use them to impress, to seek validation, to reveal my devastating charm, my stunning facility with any imaginable topic with which I am, of course, an expert. I use words to create pictures of how I want people to see me; how I choose to see myself and the world around me.
James, a New Testament writer of the letter that bears his name tells us how the tongue is a serpent and a raging fire, ever full of destruction. He suggests that it acts as a very small rudder to a very big ship. As is generally attributed to Abba Arsenius, “Oft have I been made the fool having spoken. Never have I been made a fool having remained silent.”
So, speak Lord, for your servant is listening.
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