Everywhere and in all things

I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Philipians 4:11

The escapist takes her leave

This is a continuation of the reflective thread begun in the previous post (‘the misanthrope bows out’).

Escape is a common theme for the good-hearted pilgrim who is unwilling to entangle themselves in mainstream pursuits. My youthful response to the repellent selection of ‘acceptable’ life paths on offer was to carve out an impressively colourful array of (attempted) ways out. The more notable methods I used involved detailed explorations of alternative culture and extreme fringe activities, immersion in music as a temporary means of exiting self and various unhealthy means of sedation and stimulation. There were periods of intensive travel that included the building of various retreat fantasies in foreign lands and the tactic of situating myself in remote, rural locations. I sought out every unusual experience under the sun, determined to find or build something decent and to ameliorate how deeply sad I felt on the inside. The haven of a lush, subtropical island, the peace of my own slice of rural woodland, the safety of distance from family and heritage….all of these were transitory balms to my inner fragmentation. 

Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them.
I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure,
For my heart rejoiced in all my labor;
And this was my reward from all my labor.
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done
And on the labor in which I had toiled;
And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind.
There was no profit under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 2:10

With hindsight, much of what I was doing was simply an attempt to shield myself from the pain and disharmony that I felt around me. I wanted to create a place of sanctuary, somewhere that I felt safe and protected. My desire for solitude was an inversion of my desire for communion, founded in good measure on what Thomas Merton rightly articulates as a “frustrated need for human affection”. 

In placing the search for comfort and sanctuary ahead of the search for truth, I had my priorities askew. I was destined for repeated, necessary failures. I had to explore futility in many of its manifestations in order to know those dead ends for myself. At times the journey was exhilarating. At other times it was pure hell. The more I insisted on seeking meaning apart from God, the louder and more aggressive the hurdles in front of me became. This continued until I paid attention, acknowledged where I was and changed direction. 

“Truly, if you wish to transform all your poverty, then go to the abundant treasure of wealth beyond measure, and you shall be made rich. For you shall know within yourself that He alone is the treasure that can fill you and make you replete. ‘Therefore’, you should say, ‘I wish to come to you so that your wealth shall fill my poverty, your infinity shall fill my emptiness, and your immeasurable incomprehensible Godhead shall fill my base and wretched humanity.” Meister Eckhart

Today’s maze of futility is more of a puzzle than a nightmare. Though the discovery of further dead ends will continue to cause some unpleasant bruising, I feel hopeful that for every cul-de-sac reached, another piece of falsehood is being deconstructed. The need for escape lessens with each new step.

The inner misanthrope bows out

A period of wintery reflection has encouraged me to look back and learn from the tones and textures of paths already trodden.

Once upon a time, my younger self saw that the world was broken and that contemporary society was quite rotten. As a result of this (correct) observation, the youthful me wanted as little as possible to do with ‘normal’, and viewed everything through a lens of fiercely individualistic misanthropy. This was a perfectly reasonable stepping stone to land upon.

“Most of the world is either asleep or dead. 
The religious people are, for the most part, asleep. 
The irreligious are dead.” 

Thomas Merton

I still cherish my inner misanthrope – she knew that something was wrong, and she kindly steered me away from the toxic mainstream and towards a process of deeper questioning. However, it is now time for her to take a bow and exit the stage. She has served her purpose. Scorn and disdain are no longer necessary as protective allies. Today I can do better than this. Developing real faith (by making the journey from faith in self to faith in God) means that I am capable of loving and empathising with my fellow humans.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

2 Timothy 1:7

We are all here undertaking this incredibly difficult journey, and most of us find ourselves adrift in a sea of pointless materialism, deep in forgetting and entirely without wise guidance. It often amazes me that any of us are sane. A softening in my attitude towards the people around me has arisen in tandem with a deepening of my understanding of disharmony as a teaching mechanism. Seeing this more clearly means that I no longer need to pour all of my energy into protecting myself from disharmonious people and situations. The negative, the challenging, the difficult and the crooked are the means by which we learn. Interestingly, I have found that the more I accept this, the more I encounter harmony.

Consider the work of God;
For who can make straight what He has made crooked?
In the day of prosperity be joyful,
But in the day of adversity consider:
Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other,
So that man can find out nothing that will come after him.

Ecclesiastes 2:17

In light of the above, I have four daily contemplations that have been providing me with good company. They represent the shift in attitude that I am currently navigating.

  1. Discern the difference between what one wants to do and what one ought to do.
  2. Differentiate between glorification of self and glorification of God.
  3. Look from a perspective of love. 
  4. Hold life with an open hand.

Night Thought – Kathleen Raine

My soul and I last night
Looked down together.
I said, 'Here we are, come
To the worst. Look down
That chasm where all has fallen,
The rose-bush and the garden 
And the ancestral hills,
Every remembered stone.
Of that first house
There is no trace, none.
You'll never cross that burn,
Again, nor the white strand
Where lifted from the deep
Shells lie upon the sand
Or among sea-pinks blown,
Never hear again
those wild sea-voices call,
Eider and gull rejoicing.
Turn away, turn
From the closed door of home,
You live there no longer,
Nor shall again.
You have no place at all 
Anywhere on earth
That is your own, and none
Calls you back again.'

Soul said, 'Before you were
I spanned the abyss:
Freedom it is, unbounded,
Unbounded laughter, Come!'

Kathleen by Juliet Van Otteren

A reminder from Paul

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16