A daily wilderness

You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass.*

(Seamus Heaney)

This is a tale of two books. The first is Eugene Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Path which pushed me out to explore a path – more a trail – some twenty two years ago, the second is David Brooks’ The Second Mountain which I have only begun to read, but know it will continue to challenge and encourage me in the same direction.

Brooks’ first mountain is climbed for ourselves and, while the climb shapes and feeds our ego, it can leave us hurting, bruised and dissatisfied when it dopes not provide us with the meaningful we fid ourselves seeking. So we descend into the valley where we face our dilemma and pain, and into the wilderness where we can begin to listen to our lives. Perhaps we see it as a gift providing us with the space and time we need:

There are no shortcuts. There’s just the same eternal three-step process that poets have described from time eternal: from suffering to wisdom to service. […] Listening to your life means having patience.**

From the wilderness, we will be able to begin to climb the second mountain, not for ourselves, but for others.

Twenty two years ago, as a minister in the Methodist Church, I found myself wiped out by all the different expectations placed on me, reading a book I’d been loaned in which a church pastor described a dilemma I knew only too well:

Every few days or so another pastor gets out of bed and says, “That’s it. I quit. I refuse to be a branch manager in a religious warehouse outlet. I will no longer spend my life marketing God to religious consumers. I have just read the job description the culture handed me and I am buying it no longer.^

Though it can sometimes be our utter curiosity and wide openness that takes us to the wilderness, more often it is pain and difficulty that takes us there. The author Eugene Peterson had found himself pulled in three directions: the expectations of denomination, local congregation and himself. He was about to quit. In describing where he found himself, Peterson introduced me to the term askesis, a place of confinement without which there is no purpose or energy.

Askesis is wilderness.

It is space in which we are able to listen to our life, a place the ego fears for being found out, but where our True Self can emerge. It is where, Brooks writes, we find our heart and soul:

We begin to realise that the reasoning brain is actually the third most important part of our consciousness.*

We are able to move beyond the shoulds others send our way: You should do this, you should do that; you do them so well. Though often well-meaning and even making sense in our heads, these shoulds make no sense to our hearts and souls. Brooks suggests that our hearts want to fuse with a person or cause while our souls want to fuse with goodness and meaning.

Looking back, I see the result of my own askesis was not to sort me out for another mountain, but began a daily practice of entering the wilderness, to listen to my life alongside being aware of the world around me. From this, in turn, has come my work with all kinds of people around their values, talents and energies. We slow things down in our conversations so we might look more closely at what their hearts resonate with – not a straight line to the future but a walk down the mountain and into the wilderness to find what Carlos Castenda refers to as[ a path with a heart:^^

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments and life itself is grace.*^

Where to begin? Why not find a daily quiet place where you may spend a few moments, gently and kindly holding your pain, and listening to what your life is saying to you about your values and talents and energies?

(*Seamus Heaney, quoted in David Brooks’ The Second Mountain.)
(**From David Brooks’ The Second Mountain.)
(^From Eugene Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant.)
(^^”Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a man finally realises that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path. A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.” – Carlos Castenada.)
(*^Frederick Buechner, quoted in the Northumbria Community‘s Morning Prayer.)

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