For a long time, I thought about contemplative practice, but never really committed to it.
“I don’t have time for that,” I told myself.
Then some time ago, I began to think about this differently by considering two things.
1) Life is short – like, wildly short – even in the best case scenarios.
And 2) if contemplative practice is how I am going to (slowly, day by day) begin to see people as they truly are, witness the sacramentality of life, not be reactive and ego-driven… if I am going to do any of this… I don’t have any time to lose.
Put a different way, from the perspective of my short lifespan, the “that” that I don’t have time for is putting off contemplative practice, the cultivation of solitude, the expansion of awareness.
That is what I don’t have time for. I don’t have time for avoidance.
To create such a book, an author must assemble a preliminary distillation of ideas, recognize it as worthy enough to continue, overcome waves of fear and inadequacy, show up day after day to the page to write, scrap what was written, and try again. They then must subject these (as yet unfinished) thoughts to conversations with interlocutors who offer critique. This feedback in hand, the writer must then undergo the discipline of considering which bits of critique to integrate and which to let go.
(And all of this assumes as a prerequisite that the person has become someone who makes things. This is no small feat, and a place to which many would-be creators never arrive.)
But when a wise person succeeds in doing all this and offers us a great book, the experience of it is like nothing else.
Take Consolations, for example. For me, working through each tiny chapter is like being bowed to by an ancient fighter, then being decisively overpowered, pinned to the mat, and offered a hand back up. The process teaches me what I was not even cognizant that I needed to learn about the experience of living.
It is scandalous that I have access to this distilled experience for the price of one book.
“You do not rise to the level of your dreams. You fall to the level of your systems.” (from chapter 1 of this book)
And it might have been “goals” instead of “dreams.” (I was listening to the book while doing dishes, so I didn’t write it down.) But I think either is true.
Each moment that we use to simplifying our environment and sharpen our priorities into a habitual system (that gets us where we’ve decided we want to go) is time better spent than waiting for herculean motivation or unimpeachable clarity on the execution of our dreams.
Usually they have a grand time, talking shop about school work, school friends, and what is likely to be for lunch.
And occasionally, as brothers do, they disagree with each other.
The more trips they take in the bike, though, the less these misunderstandings turn into actual fighting. The space incentivizes gentleness and understanding since, if they start a fight, they have to live with an angry brother for the remainder of the ride. This vulnerability incentivizes the peaceful resolution of tension.
In public and private life, we, like these two brothers, will disagree with each other. The modern world (fueled by the interwebs) gives us plenty of places to deal with this disagreement unproductively, to stoke our self-righteousness and circle the wagons on the moral high ground.
But what if, instead, we were to act like we were strapped into a modestly-sized cargo bike with our adversary? What if we acted like our collective well-being depended on our ability to create structures that incentivize gentleness and understanding?
Some years ago, my wife and I spent the day in the Basílica de la Sagrada Familia, pictured below.
The original architect, Antoni Gaudí, hoped the basilica to be “the Bible, made of stone.” Of its uniqueness, one art critic said that “it is probably impossible to find a church building anything like it in the entire history of art.”
These superlative statements are entirely deserved. Its beauty and layers of meaning were exhausting to take in.
And what about the crane and scaffolding in the picture? Well, they are still completing construction of the building that was consecrated as a basilica in 2010.
Wait, what? Unfinished and consecrated?
And so I think it is with us.
We are also cathedrals under construction – in need of grace and good company to help us to grow and already capable of the participating in the love that is God. When we are able, with that same grace, to hold our cathedral-ness and our under-construction-ness together, we are capable of unique and remarkable beauty.
When I was in elementary school, two of my very favorite events were scheduled for the same Saturday: A Cub Scout campout and a YMCA basketball team end-of-year party at Pizza Hut.
“Camping or Pizza Hut” is a tough choice indeed.
As my father is generous and fun-loving, he asked if I wanted to try to do both.
Of course I did! Hooray!
So, on the fateful Saturday, we drove to the camp in the morning, set up the tent, hung out through the early afternoon, and then drove 90 minutes back into town for the party. After I had collected my plastic trophy, we booked it back to our campsite. By that time, though, most folks had headed to bed.
It was an exhausting day and it turned out that we were out of sync with both events. We missed out on the camaraderie of the camping trip and we were definitely a little stinky for the party.
The lesson was not lost on us – that in choosing both we actually got to do neither – and has become a helpful conceptual hook in considering similarly tough choices.
When this sort of over-extension creeps into the schedule, we know that it is time to pick just one.
Since 2006, I have had twelve different homes in six different countries. I (and now we) move a lot.
Toward the end of our time at each place (when I give myself the space to be quiet) an unbidden sense surfaces:
It is wonderful that I have had the chance to live here.
Certainly, leaving a place and then adjusting to a new one is not easy. It involves a great deal of loss. I sense, though, that it is all preparation, for when I have no more days, to be able to say with serenity:
It is wonderful that I have had the chance to live here.