The end of summer (sadly) draws nigh and, like many, I have spent these dwindling days of August attempting to tidy up the clutter, whether it’s physical, mental, or spiritual in nature. I’ve tried to achieve a bit of focus, clarity, and equilibrium before September arrives This has meant tackling my physical desk, rearranging unread books and recycling correspondence that has been rendered irrelevant by inattention, and trying to wrest a bit of order out of the chaos of random files and documents on my computer’s desktop. Things need to be put in their proper place, after all. Here are a few bits and pieces whose proper place is, evidently, another “miscellany” post.
To be a pastor is to often find oneself as something of a dumping ground for the things on other people’s minds. This frequently takes the form of “things that you really ought to read.” I rarely find myself short of reading material. One person in my life recently dropped off a plastic bag full of magazine articles, newspaper clippings, and periodicals, mostly related to the decline and decay of the church and the myriad reasons thereof. Among this collection was an excerpt from an unnamed, apparently older book (see gender-specific language) with the heading, “The World is Too Much With Us”:
The problem of the religious man’s attitude toward the world is persistent and perennial. One reaches a conclusion about it only to discover that it becomes unresolved again. Perhaps the most direct attempt toward a solution is to seek withdrawal from the world. “The world is too much with us” is a common feeling. When one seeks withdrawal from the world, it is admission that the world is fundamentally and completely “other than” that which is congenial to the things of the spirit; or the individual who seeks withdrawal is convinced that, for his highest possible spiritual growth, he must not be involved in the entanglements which are the common lot. If it is the former, the inescapable conclusion is that the contradictions of experience are in themselves final and binding. There is ever a recognition of the temporary withdrawal from the world and its insistences. This is a part of the very rhythm of life. We live by alternations. The religious man is no exception. He withdraws from the world, and then attacks the world; he retreats and he advances.
When I read this quote, my first thought was to relegate it to the “ah, yes, this is the sort of hyper-spiritual thing I would have been drawn to in my twenties” file. Oh, to be sufficiently un-worldly, able to avoid all the proscribed sins and temptations of “the world.” Thank God I’ve left all that behind.
Or, perhaps not. How I understand “the world” has certainly changed over the years, but it has probably not ceased being too much with me. And this experience of living by alternations, of withdrawing and attacking, retreating and advancing is a persistent and stubborn one. I wonder how much we ever really leave behind…
I took a motorcycle trip with a friend up into the mountains last Saturday. It sounds so cliche, but mountains can put us in our place. It is exceedingly, and probably appropriately difficult to drape oneself in the hubris we humans are so fond of, whether of the optimistic or pessimistic variety, when in the presence of such grandeur. It’s a good thing to feel small sometimes.
Another addition to the “things you should read file” that I acquired over the summer was a 1978 edition of Canadian Golden West. It’s pretty interesting to look at a publication from around the time of my birth. Pre-internet, pre-photoshop, pre clickbait, pre-comment boxes and endless sharing options. Annual subscriptions cost $4.50 (probably not much more than today, when the Internet is effectively forcing publications to almost give their product away). You can send a letter (!) to an address in Calgary if you’re interested. There’s even a form you can clip out with some scissors and fill out. It’s so strange to not be able to click on something…
Anyway, there was an article on my hometown as told through the eyes of the a Japanese Canadian whose family was shipped in from BC during World War 2 which was fascinating. But I’ve found myself just staring at the cover more than reading what’s inside. If ever there was a face that told a story…
One of my favourite books has been lying on my desk for the last week or so. I must have taken it off the shelf to possibly use in a sermon or something. Before putting it back this morning, I reacquainted myself with this passage from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss:
It is a strange thing how sometimes merely to talk honestly of God, even if it is only to articulate our feelings of separation and confusion, can bring peace to our spirits. You thought you were unhappy because this or that was off in your relationship, this or that was wrong in your job, but the reality is that your sadness stemmed from your aversion to, your stalwart avoidance of God. The other problems may well be true, and you will have to address them, but what you feel when releasing yourself to speak of the deepest needs of our spirit is the fact that no other needs could be spoken of outside of that context. You cannot work on the structure of your life if the ground of your being is unsure.
The first step in the life of the spirit is learning to let yourself experience those moments when life and time seem at once suspended and concentrated, that paradox of attentive oblivion out of which any sustaining faith grows. These moments may not be—and at first almost certainly will not be—“meditative.” They are more likely to break into your awareness, or into what you thought was awareness (“inbreaking” is the theological term for Christ’s appearance in the world and in our lives—there is no coaxing it, not way to earn it, no way to prepare except to hone your capacity to respond, which is, finally, your capacity to experience life, and death). This is why we cannot separate one part of existence, or one aspect of our awareness, from another, for there is a seed of peace in the most savage clamor. There is a kind of seeing that, fusing attention and submission, becomes a kind of being, wherein you may burrow into the very chaos that buries you, and even the most binding ties can become a means of release.