Saturday, 11 August 2018

At Home in the Elements: John O’Donohue’s Minding of Our World CAROL O'CONNOR


Here is Carol O'Connor's paper on John O'Donohue given at this year's Symposium on spiritual writing held at the Carmelite Centre in May.

‘I was born in a limestone valley. To live in a valley is to enjoy a private sky.’
Anam Cara p107 

The valley that John O’Donohue grew up in was situated in the Burren, County Clare, West Coast of Ireland.  He was a poet, philosopher, priest, mystic but always described himself as a ‘peasant of the valley.’ He was born here in 1956 and is now buried.

At John O’Donohue’s funeral in 2008, his brother Pat described him as: ‘a big, beautiful and gentle presence in the world, also a protective presence. When you were with him you felt minded.’ Irish Times, 14th Jan 2008. When I heard him speak in Melbourne in 2001, I felt something of that same presence and mindedness in him.  I’d brought along a stack of copies of his works, Anam Cara and Eternal Echoes, for him to sign for St Peter’s Bookroom. At the end of the session I joined a queue of fellow devotees and when I sheepishly presented him with my dozen or so books on his table to sign, he looked at me and smiled, saying - ‘sure, you must love my books awfully to have so many copies.’ 

Since my first encounter with the writings of John O’Donohue in the 1990s I’ve always resonated with a sense of something very ‘elemental’ in his work: his spiritual wisdom is founded on an understanding of life that is premised on the concrete, the visceral, on what we can directly apprehend with our five senses. Sections of Anam Cara are devoted to our human senses. Philosophically he’s not a fundamentalist, but neither is he a relativist or overly abstracted. His writing gives credence to God’s mystery, but directs us toward what we can trust: the senses and the elements.  The images of earth, water, air and fire ripple through all his books.  The Four Elements, was first published as a single volume on the 3rd anniversary after O’Donohue’s death in 2011. But the individual blessings themselves contained in this book, first appeared in To Bless This Space Between Us: A Collection of Invocations and Blessings. This was the last work written and recorded by him, before his death. 

For O’Donohue each element has its own particularity, but is never independent from the other three. In the poem In Praise of Earth, the element of earth is an ‘ancient clay / holding the memory of seasons’ - and holding too memory of ‘The passion of wind / fluency of water / warmth of the fire.’ To Bless This Space Between Us p 70-73. Creation happens because of the combined efforts of the elements. They co-exist with one another. We also have our own human capacity in them; we are made of clay and air and water. The spark of life itself is in us. 

And John O’Donohue shaped his own vision and way of being in the world through a deep attunement to the images of fire, air, wind and water.  The Celtic vision of life, the stories and poetry and song he grew up with and later read about, gave him a framework for his own writing and teaching. For him, having faith in God was not to ascribe to a system of beliefs, but to risk living experientially inside the felt presence of God in our world. His voice was resonant with early Celtic Christians. And he talked about this journey through life in terms of becoming ‘enfaithed.’

 So elements have their own shape, their own science, but they like us, have been formed by a Creator - God who, as Trinity, continually participates and delights in creation and invites us to participate in the dance of this delight. But John O’Donohue recognised we are also asked to have custodianship and responsibility for the nurture and health of our elements.  And he will sometimes ask our forgiveness from the elements for our human acts of despoiling and pollution, as in this blessing of the earth: 

Let us ask forgiveness of the Earth
For all our sins against her;
For our violence and poisonings
Of her beauty.
To Bless This Space Between Us p 73

 For John O’Donohue life is a constant flow of emergence.  The earth takes on her own persona, and having been nursed by light at the beginning of time, then holding hope in her heart, became ‘ready to welcome the emergence’ of life: 

Let us thank the Earth
That offers ground for home
And holds our feet firm
To walk in space open
To infinite galaxies.
Let us salute the silence
And certainty of mountains:
Their sublime stillness,
Their dream-filled hearts.
To Bless This Space Between Us p 72

O’Donohue’s father was a stonemason and there’s a memorable passage in Divine Beauty where he remembers childhood moments when land needed to be cleared. When his
uncle and father (levelled) a field, the ground would be opened, the tightly packed layers of caked earth broken and freed; then sometimes an inner mound would reveal where a huge rock lived inside the earth. They’d dig around it, and then with crowbars they’d hoist the stone up out of its lair.  For days and even weeks afterwards the stone looked dazed and estranged, stranding unsheltered and alone in the severance of wind and light, a new neighbour in the world of eyes weather and emptiness….as (the rocks) slowly took on the accretions of weather and it erosive engravings, time enabled them to forget the underworld.  In a sense this is the disturbance, the revelation and strange beauty that a new piece of sculpture causes in the world. Divine Beauty p135
And there is this same sense in John O’Donohue’s writing. It is as if he is coaxing or encouraging something deep within the human psyche - within each one of us - to emerge through means of the written form. He recognises that ideas surface within us and that as human beings we are materialising. He also loves to break open the meaning of English or Irish words and find new nuances of meaning by examining their etymology. For example, a favourite of mine O’Donohue employs is ‘entwind’ which literally means ‘God unravelling.’ This sense of God streaming apart to reveal new truths, says something of our innate human longing to re-see and re-understand.  So too our souls individually emerge gently and gradually in life, like these stones in his valley.  And just as no two of all the stones in the valley are ever alike, so no two souls emerging on earth can ever be alike.

John O’Donohue died suddenly aged 52 years. He was the eldest of 4 children. His early education was local in the country, then he bordered at St Mary’s College in Galway. At the age of 18 he entered the novitiate at Maynooth, there completing an Arts degree in English and Philosophy, and in 1981 Theology. After being ordained for priesthood he became a curate in a Conamara parish. In 1986 he worked on a PhD on the dialectic between the individual and society in Hegel’s phenomenology of spirit,  entitled ‘The Person as Mediator’ at the University of Turbingen in Germany, which was completed in 1990 and published in Mainz in 1993. During these years in particular, he would have been much more directly exposed to a broader European influence on his own thinking and praying. To date, I don’t believe that this thesis has been published in English. Which is a great pity.  Between 1990-95 he was a priest in a number of parishes in County Clare and also had developed a strong interest in the works of the 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart.  Echoes of Memory was published in 1994. In separate essays, what became posthumously published as The Four Elements: Reflections on Nature was also released at this time.  In 1995 he began to lecture in Humanities at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.  O’Donohue’s breakthrough in terms of public recognition as a writer on spirituality happened with the publication of Anam Cara in 1997. Later, after applying for a year’s leave from the university, which was refused, he resigned and began to lecture and teach around Europe and America.  He became a full time writer.  Eternal Echoes was published in 1998; Conamara Blues, a book of poetry, was published in 2000. At the end of that year he ‘retired from priestly life’ and bought a cottage in Conamara which became his sanctuary and writing refuge. The process of writing Divine Beauty, which was published in 2003, absorbed his thoughts and feelings so intensely that afterwards he would enjoy recounting his mother’s words: ‘Ah, poor John, Beauty has killed him’. 

I’ve always resonated with John O’Donohue’s identification that we are existential beings; we are essentially alone in the world. Though the earth has been here before us, and will be there to receive us, we are born into the world alone, and we die alone. But like the hidden stillness of mountains there is yet a hidden secret wisdom of life itself. And this is found in silence.  There is a deep silence within each of us and at the heart of this inner absence of sound, is stillness and presence. Here is the space of prayer. He says: ‘Deep below the personality and outer image the soul is continually at prayer.’ Eternal Echoes p196 Prayer voices our longing and is the door to our own eternity. Prayer can’t be reduced to simply a sequence of holy words or actions. But ‘prayer issues from an eternal well within you’ Eternal Echoes p 198. We pray ‘in’ the Holy Spirit, not ‘to ’the Holy Spirit. And recognising that we are limited beings of clay, ‘deep prayer of the heart continues within you in a silence that is too deep for words to even reach.’ Eternal Echoes p 198. So we are existentially alone, but deep within us is the capacity of silence, and an awareness of a much deeper presence. 

Let us bless the grace of water.
………
Let us bless the humility of water
Always willing to take shape
Of whatever otherness holds it…..
To Bless This Space Between Us p 63-65

Water is graceful, yields, it is a ‘liquid root’, a well, ‘a river to continue belief’, is buoyant, we voyage over water, water voyages inside us, when we cry we cry in water. Water is sacred - we are blessed by holy water, baptised in water. 

Water is the element I would chose to describe O’Donohue’s style of writing. All his books are works of poetry, even his prose reads like poetry. The path of his prose is not linear, not straight but circular; not rational, but not irrational. He likes to explore around ideas, come back to main perceptions, leave gaps, design ideas with threads. His work is always formed and structured, tight and well thought out, but serves to encourage the reader’s thinking to journey downwards towards deeper places within ourselves; to become more thoughtful and aware. Water he tells us prefers the lower places. The Four Elements p 47.  The first forms of life were from the primeval ocean. Our source is water. The Four Elements p 4.   But it’s not just our deeper inner world he attunes us to; in Anam Cara the body is a sacrament; a mirror of the soul. ‘To be sensual or sensuous is to be in the presence of your own soul,’ he writes Anam Cara p 85. For John O’Donohue the human journey is one of continually going down - but simultaneously calling us to engage through our senses with the environment, and with others. Water surrounds islands - it links landscapes.

Fundamental to all O’Donohue’s work is this pouring out into connection.  We are existentially alone but interconnected.  For me, having grown up in the 1960s and 1970s it was then a threshold moment in the late 1990s to discover a spiritual writer who could reflect in a new way many authors I was very familiar with: Camus and Koestler and Laing, Kafka. O’Donohue does not refute their ideas, but somehow seems to yield and in so doing drew my eye towards a bigger framework holding the world together  - our being not only held in relationship, but born and sustained there .  He was able to articulate and build on in a new fresh way an understanding of human existence that when seen and lived experientially through his Celtic Christian lens, reveals the ongoing expansiveness of the world in God. In the early 1990s I had been introduced to Celtic Christianity via writers such as Esther de Waal, David Adam, Philip Newell.  But here was a writer who could referentially drawer me back to the pain, the intellectual and philosophical challenges I struggled with earlier in my life and then left unresolved, to suggest new paths towards God through their writings.  So John O’Donohue has been a writer enabling me as an adult to intersect back into my own young adulthood and knit in there a small piece of resolution for my soul today. I believe he had much more work and exploration to do with these existential writers and I ponder the further directions his work may have taken.

So we begin life alone but already deeply gifted in relationship; held in the watery womb of our mother.  O’Donohue writes:
when you come into your solitude, you come into companionship with everything and everyone….when you patiently and silently come home to yourself you come into unity and belonging Anam Cara p 154.  

In his spiritual writing he crafted words such as ‘whoness’ and ‘whereness’ - pronouns given essence. Who-ness is that unnameable part of self, that unnameable relationship we have with God.  We have a relationship with our body, with others, with the landscape. Our primary relationship begins in God. And to know real beauty in the world is to know who-ness.  O’Donohue says:  ‘The who question is the most numinous and mysterious of questions….. Who has no map.  When we claim that God is beauty, we are claiming for beauty all the adventure, mystery, infinity and autonomy of divine who-ness.’ Divine Beauty p241. And again and again he shows in his work that to be participatory in the ‘who question’ is to recognise that every relationship we have is personal. Our solitude and silence opens the door into place and belonging and togetherness. 

Let’s look at the door itself between solitude and companionship. Let’s explore a little more this opening gap, this intersecting edge, this space, this unseen air. 

Let us bless the air,
Benefactor of breath;
Keeper of the fragile bridge
We breathe across.
……
Air along whose unseen path
Presence builds its quiet procession;
Sometimes in waves of sound,
Voices that can persuade
Every door of the heart;
Often in tides of music
That absolve the cut of time.
To Bless this Space Between Us p 31-34 

Air is a bearer of a hidden reality; ‘home for us in what we can’t see.’ And, in particular, ‘air’ takes on its own presence as the edge between the seen and the unseen, the form and no form, the concrete and the invisible to the outer eye, the in-between.

For John O’Donohue, like the early Celtic Christians, this edge is the contemplative space; it’s ‘the hidden world that waits on the edge of things’ Divine Beauty  p148. It’s a space which recognises possibility. For him ‘the imagination works on the threshold that runs between light and dark, visible and invisible, quest and question, possibility and fact.’Anam Cara p183. It is into this liminal space, this edge on the world of the visible, the ‘ab esse’ (to be elsewhere), that we are each called to go.  For here, ‘absence seems to hold the echo of some fractured intimacy.’ Eternal Echoes p228

Like the early Celtic Christians, O’Donohue recognised that the realm of the invisible is ‘one of the huge regions of our life.’ Eternal Echoes p27. Anam Cara is the only book I know whereby the author in the prologue confesses to a ‘silent hidden 7th chapter which embraces the ancient namelessness at the heart of the human self.’  After the 6th chapter which is on Death; there is no chapter 7 written in the book because it is silent and hidden within ourselves. We come from a place that is silent and hidden, and thus, ‘our longing for the invisible is never stilled.’ Eternal Echoes p27. Likewise, we cannot see our own or others beliefs or thoughts, but they are great determinants of our tangible being in the world. ’The invisible remains the great background which invests your every gesture and action with possibility and pathos.’ Eternal Echoes  p28  

This is also the space that we inhabit when we enter church. ‘The house of God is a frontier region, an intense threshold where the visible world meets the ultimate but subtle structures of the invisible. We enter this silence and stillness in order to decipher the creative depths of the divine imagination that dreams our lives.’ Divine Beauty p170 It is the place of prayer: ‘even though the body may kneel or words may be said or changed, the heart of prayer activity is invisible. Prayer is an invisible world.’ Eternal Echoes p 214.   It is the space of contemplation: ‘the contemplative is the artist of the eternal; the one who listens patiently in the abyss of Nothingness for the whisper of beauty.’ Divine Beauty p 255-56. Here is the world of angels, ‘our secret companions who watch over our journey through this world’ and who ‘watch over that secret threshold where the shy invisible come into visible form.’ Four Elements p 28-29.
 
In Praise of Fire
Let us praise the grace and risk of Fire.
In the beginning
The Word was red,
And the sound was thunder,
And the wound in the unseen
Spilled forth the red weather of being.
In the name of the Fire,
The Flame
And the Light:
Praise the pure presence of fire
That burns from within
Without thought of time…..
To Bless This Space Between Us p 10-11 

In this collection of his poems, O’Donohue has placed the element of fire under the theme of beginnings. Fire, as he explains, is primal and basic. Unlike the other elements it feasts on the present moment only; the depths of the earth are hot with molten lava, and boiling sulphur meterorites are hurled into our solar system from far off galaxies - exiled from other worlds. Fire itself is amoral; it knows no boundaries nor borders. It is wild and unstoppable, unless governed; it is the passion of love and place of transfiguration. It is the creative force and ephemeral.  Meister Eckhart, he tells us, identified the sacred temple in every heart to be the Vunklein - that divine spark within us. The Four Elements p 132. Fire is also the place of domesticity, of Bridget’s hearth - 

Brighid of the Mantle, encompass us,
…Guide our hand in yours,
Remind us how
To kindle the earth….
The Four Elements  p 109

The human longing to come home to the hearth of God are central to O’Donohue’s spiritual writing. The virtues of hope and compassion spring from this longing. And yet, just as our thirst for knowledge and wisdom and homecoming can seem endless, so too do we in our life’s pilgrimage in becoming ‘enfaithed’ slowly realise the endless immensity of God.  

John O’Donohue was a mystic with feet grounded in a limestone valley. For him faith meant our being encircled by the fire of love between God, Son and Spirit. The more you read his work, or go back to the poetry or stories, you seem to learn anew. His works continue to draw my own vision outwards with a sense that the generosity of God’s love is tireless and ongoing.
Much of his writing also circles around our human urges of longing, and our human need to belong. There is a wonderful Irish word O’Donohue draws our attention to which is so very pertinent for us in our contemporary world. 

The word is Ducas. John O’Donohue tells us that in Irish there is no fixed noun for the words ‘longing’ or ‘belonging.’ They are both inferred in the word: ducas. The word ducas has a sense of our being caught up in a greater embrace. Ducas captures an inner sense of belonging in terms of heritage, but also includes ‘those networks of subtle belonging that will always somehow anchor you…’ Eternal Echoes p 259. To return home is also to experience ‘ducas’ and to feel close affinity with a friend is to experience ‘ducas.’ Ducas enables and sustains anam cara. So there’s contentment here, resting, a fulfilment of longing and belonging. For me it’s a word that resonates with the sacred.

 And in a sense, for us now in 2018 when the world can feel so restless and rootless, so fragile and precarious, where truth feels slippery and doubts and anxieties about the world’s future can take hold of emotions, that to take time to sit in the ebb and flow of O’Donohue’s wisdom of this word ‘ducas’ is to remember that there is something much deeper - a deep longing and a deep belonging - that continues to work for health and wellness in the world.  

‘God has a great heart. Only a Divine Artist with such huge longing would have the beauty and tenderness of imagination to dream and create such a wonderful universe.’ Eternal Echoes p 273.

Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom From the Celtic World by John O’Donohue
Transworld Publishers 1998
To Bless This Space Between Us by John O’Donohue
Doubleday 2008
Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O’Donohue
Transworld 2003
Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger to Belong by John O’Donohue
Transworld 1998
The Four Elements: Reflections on Nature by John O’Donohue
Transworld 2010


Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Simon Carey Holt: Heaven in the Ordinary -- Finding the Sacred in Everyday Life


 This is the text of a lecture given at the Carmelite Centre, Melbourne, on Tuesday August 7, 2018. It is an edited version of the first chapter of Simon Carey Holt’s book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life (Cascade, 2018).


He was mad, an obsessive-compulsive given to freewheeling visions and the most bizarre behaviors of self-harm. Voices told him things; at one moment they inspired him and in the next condemned and ridiculed him. Today he would be diagnosed and medicated, with a mental-health care plan to govern his days. But not then. For all his manic eccentricities, he was widely revered as a holy man. “That angel upon the earth,” they called him, “that citizen in the flesh of the Heavenly Jerusalem.”[1] Clearly, he was a man impossible to ignore. Even today he is venerated as one of the Saints of the Christian Church. 

Symeon was his name, born in 388 in Sisan, a small town in the Roman province of Cilicia on the border of modern day Turkey and Syria. Even as a boy, the son of a shepherd, he was given to long periods of self-imposed fasting and the most troubling dreams. As he watched his brother’s herds on the mountain slopes of Sis, he was moved by ancient stories of sacrifice and imagined his own—a boys-own-adventure with a religious twist. Not long after moving with his family to Antioch, by then a teenager, Symeon heard the Gospel passage from Matthew read aloud: “Blessed are they that mourn for they will be comforted; blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Struck by the force of the words but mystified by their meaning, Symeon sought counsel from an old man in his village. The grey-headed sage explained to him that true devotion was only found through suffering, and that solitude was the most certain pathway to God. At just fourteen, captivated by this prospect, Symeon pledged to become an anchorite. He made plans to leave his family, his home and his shepherding for a life of solitude and separation; “a spiritual hunter” they would call him, roaming the mountains “to stalk his God.”[2]
 
For the next twenty years, Symeon stalked the monasteries of northern Syria, but without finding the spiritual home he sought. In fact, he was routinely expelled because of his excessive behaviors. Apparently he slept so little and prayed so much, and so loudly, the other monks could barely cope. At the same time his fasting practices became more extreme. Symeon developed the habit of standing upright for as long as his body would hold him, for days and even weeks on end.  Finally, the monks judged him unfit for communal life and expelled him to an isolated hut in the mountains. 

As a hermit, Symeon became known as a solitary miracle worker, and a good one at that. Such was his reputation that his beloved solitude evaporated. The endless stream of human need overwhelmed him. It was in 423 that Symeon, then aged thirty-five and desperate for relief, moved out to the desert of Telanissus where he found a pillar among the ruins around nine feet high. He constructed a small platform on its top and made it his home. Small boys from the local village would climb up the pillar with parcels of flat bread and goats milk, but for the most part he was left alone.

Much to his dismay, Symeon’s isolation was short lived. Soon he was overwhelmed again by need. Great crowds gathered with requests for mediation with God and each other. A man of compassion, Symeon could not refuse them, but clearly his pillar was too short. What’s more, his personal thirst for God now consumed him. After six years on his pillar and with the aid of a small group of disciples, Symeon set about renovating his home. It was an extension he had in mind. The end result was a pillar some fifty feet high. An engineering feat, this was the deluxe version with a small platform at the top, a wooden enclosure to keep him from falling off in his sleep, and a very, very long ladder by which his disciples could bring him food and water and dispose of his waste. Once complete, Symeon moved in, or up as the case was, and there he sat, come wind, rain and heat, for the next thirty years of his life.  Tradition says he never came down once. His expired body was found stooped in the position of prayer.  He was seventy-one.

I confess, I am quite taken by Symeon, or Saint Symeon the Stylite as he is better known—Simon of the Pillar. Since first reading his story thirty years ago, his portrait has hung in my mental gallery of saints. To be honest, they’re all a bit odd, but that comes with the territory of sainthood. I have always wondered, what could possess a man to sit on a pole for thirty-six years? Was he just mad, or is there more to his story than that? Frankly, I am not averse to a bit of pole sitting. To an introvert like me—though I have a terrible fear of heights—the thought of solitude is appealing. What’s more, this drive to know God and to be with God resonates. 

When I was twenty-seven years old, my brother gave me Psalm 27 for my birthday. Though at the time I judged it to be an especially cheap gift, it has been one of the most lasting of my life. It is a psalm attributed to David and one clearly composed in adversity.  David describes God as his stronghold, his shelter and his rock. Danger lurked in his life and enemies were numerous. He found in God the strength he needed to persevere. No matter how many times I read this psalm, I am stopped in my tracks by the fourth verse. “One thing I ask of the Lord,” David says, “and this is what I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.” David’s “one thing,” his one desire that trumped all others, was to dwell in the presence of God each and every day, to gaze upon God’s beauty forevermore. 

As a person of faith—a person steeped in the Christian tradition—I have spent my life seeking to know God and to live in response to God’s presence through Jesus Christ. As a pastor, I have given my professional life to leading others in the same pursuit. Further, through twenty-five years of research and teaching, I have wanted to understand the nature of the spiritual life, how it has been lived through history and what is has meant to know God. Even more, if God is to be our “one thing” today, I want to know what that means and how we pursue it.  

When I gaze up at Symeon sitting on his pillar in the Syrian desert, I may well shake my head in disbelief. At the same time, I cannot help but see in him the most tangible expression of David’s prayer. Indeed, he might have been mad, but he was mad for God. David’s “one thing” was Symeon’s. They shared a spiritual longing as deep as longing can be.  While l cannot fathom Symeon’s choices in life, his resolve is extraordinary. Though I share with him his yearning, Symeon acted upon his in the most peculiar way. His “one thing” had him sitting on a pole for more than half his life.

Symeon is not alone in the history of the church. Indeed, countless women and men through history have gone to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of God. Symeon may have been the first pole-sitter, but so many others have sought the same goal through different means. There are those who have lived alone in caves; those who have chained themselves to crosses and circled the desert for years on end; others who have confined themselves to secluded monasteries, living by strict vows of silence and separation; and those who have passed their years isolated on rugged pinnacles of granite in the middle of the ocean. Whatever course they have chosen, these spiritual eccentrics have lived with a passion for the presence of God through Christ. In the grip of this desire, they have been compelled to relinquish all ambitions, possessions, and relationships judged peripheral to their pursuit: “One thing I ask of the Lord, and this is what I seek …”

As much as I am enthralled by Symeon and captivated by these extraordinary men and women of faith, I am equally frustrated. The truth is, if people like these are the exemplars of real spirituality, then frankly, it’s a journey from which I am excluded. It is not a pathway I can follow, not even in a moderate sense. Why? Because the spirituality of Symeon and his companions hinges almost entirely upon one thing: withdrawal. To pursue the presence of God, one must leave behind the pursuits of ordinary life.  It is a spirituality of the desert, a journey to the margins. As a way of life, it centers upon practices of solitude, isolation and retreat, and has almost nothing to do with the busy ebb and flow of my every day.

I am not an ascetic or desert recluse.  What’s more, as much I long for a little solitude, I will never be one. The desert is not my home. The margins are not my neighborhood. I am a husband and a father.  I have made certain life-choices that mean acts of withdrawal will always be the exception and never the rule.  I cannot run off to the desert or climb an isolated peak in the middle of the ocean.  I certainly cannot live perched on a pole for the next thirty years.  I have a marriage to nurture, a family to provide for, children who need my presence and support, and an ageing father who needs a son.  What’s more, I have responsibilities in the workplace, friendships to maintain, neighbors to relate to, a mortgage to pay, groceries to buy, and lunches to make.  Because of this, the spirituality of Symeon will always draw my attention as an admiring observer but never as a full participant. If I am to pray David’s prayer with conviction—if I am to name my “one thing” as devotion to God and God’s world—I need a different way.

Of course, I may be advised to simply brush this frustration aside, to honor the stories of these eccentric aunts and uncles of the faith, but then move on. The trouble is, if I have a heart for a deeper experience of God, moving on is a challenge. It’s a challenge because the way the church understands the spiritual and our pursuit of it continues to be deeply tied to practices of separation. No matter how much has changed in our understandings of God, mission, and the sacredness of creation, once we shift the conversation to spirituality, we revert back to images of private prayer, mountaintops, and solitude. 


In my Baptist tradition, the usual measure of one’s piety is the daily “quiet time:” a period of personal solitude for bible reading, meditation, and prayer. It is a practice through which I have been deeply formed and continue to value in my daily routine.  Across traditions, a practice like this might be broadened to include prayer books and the daily office, Eucharistic celebration, charismatic worship, or days of spiritual retreat.  In every tradition we have learned the value of setting aside regular time for focused prayer and meditation, whatever form they take. We do this with good reason. A spirituality disconnected from such practices is foolishness. You need only scan the gospel accounts of Jesus or examine the rich traditions of spiritual practice through history to be reminded of the immeasurable worth of solitude and retreat for all people of faith. But is there not more to our pursuit than this? 

David’s “one thing” is a longing for depth with God. The spiritual shallows are no longer enough. He articulates it again in Psalm 42. “As a deer longs for flowing streams,” he says, “so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (42:1–2) It is this “deep calling to deep” (42:7) that compels him, a longing for life in its fullness all the way down. But if the only pathway to such a place with God is via practices of separation and relinquishment, then where does that leave those who will never live in the desert? By all means, let’s nurture such practices where we can, but my contention is this: if the act of withdrawal defines our understanding of spirituality, then many of us are sold short when it comes to our experience of God.  We who will only ever withdraw occasionally or momentarily end up feeling sidelined, having to content ourselves with being observers while others play centerfield with God.

I am a passionate cook and I love recipe books. My kitchen shelves are weighted down with a collection that far outstrips my need. I am not alone. In the world of publishing, food related books outsell most other genres. What’s more, the production values of these tomes are extraordinary. A recipe book today is a work of art. The sumptuous photography, the layout of text and image, the covers and binding all combine to make an object of pleasure and inspiration.  However, research suggests the degree to which our fascination with such books increases corresponds with our declining presence in the kitchen. The truth is, these recipe books sit impressively on our coffee tables as we cradle our containers of take-out Thai.  We know that we can never reproduce the stylized images contained in their pages, so we don’t even try. Somehow the simple possession of such books enables us to live our culinary longings through someone else’s expertise. It’s coffee table gastronomy and has an interesting correlation with our current interests in the ancient arts of spirituality. 

The classic stories of spirituality in the Christian tradition are a most precious resource. I have taught many classes in which students have been introduced to these texts and I’ve seen hearts opened in transformative ways: texts like The Cloud of Unknowing, Augustine’s Confessions, and Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. But all too often resources like these become nothing more than coffee table spirituality, reminders to us of a journey so different to our own, so removed from the daily realities of our world. 

In his book Journey to the Inner Mountain, the Australian author James Cowan traces the life of Saint Antony, the third century Egyptian ascetic known today as “the father of monks.” Orphaned at eighteen, Antony was left with the care of his younger sister, a considerable fortune, and a large family estate.  Having heard the words of Jesus read aloud in the town square, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor … and come follow me,” Antony was struck by a profound sense of God. His response was immediate: he gave away his estate, donated all his money to the poor, placed his sister in a “community of virgins,” then moved out to the desert to live the life of a hermit. Indeed, Antony spent most of his life a cave dweller in complete isolation. His story inspired thousands to follow his lead.

At the very beginning of his book, Cowan entices the reader to believe that this model of spirituality is more than an interesting story from the distant past. “Few people inspire us more than those who take themselves off to the wilderness,” he writes;  “they awaken in us an urge to abandon the normal constraints of society so as to pursue a free and open life.”[3]  Indeed, but all too often we leave such encounters no more able to address that urge than when we began. The question persists: how does an ordinary person with a job, a spouse, dependents, a mortgage, and an overflowing diary give expression to this “free and open life”?  The only hints that Antony and Cowan give us are that we must “dispense with diversion,” and commit to the task of “renovating consciousness by a deliberate act of withdrawal.”[4]  Cowan’s account of his own stay in an ancient monastery emphasizes the point:

“I am somehow content. In fact, I don’t think I’ve known such contentment.  In a place where there is nothing to do but read and think, gaze into the distance, eat a simple meal each day in the refectory, and sleep on a hard bed in a room that is bare of furniture save for a stool and a desk, there’s something to be said for solitude.”[5]

As a teacher of spirituality, I have deep respect for the contemplative disciplines and for the rich heritage of the monastic tradition upon which Cowan’s book is a fine reflection, but I confess to scrawling in the margin, “So who does the school run?” I do not mean to be flippant, but I tire of feeling as though I, and many people like me, are left standing on the spiritual sidelines when it comes to the real treasures of the spiritual life. Honestly, accounts like this leave me feeling like an amateur in the professional world of spirituality. Like a lavishly presented recipe book, the story sits on my coffee table alongside the story of Symeon, testaments to my spiritual interest and corresponding poverty. Yes, I am inspired but not invited, intrigued but not empowered.  At the end of the day, the spirituality of such stories is one to observe, but not one that invites my participation.  Truthfully, I struggle to find entry points, handles on which to grab hold as a citizen of an entirely different time and place, and so I return to my everyday life enlightened but really none the wiser. It’s back to the washing up. 

 Sharing my frustration with this desert-obsessed spirituality and its grip upon our understanding of devotion, the writer Ernest Boyer Jr. asks a simple but revealing question: “Is there childcare in the desert?”[6] The answer is obvious. The simple fact is, desert spirituality requires a set of life circumstances foreign to the vast majority of ordinary Christians, and not just those with children. While we may be disciplined in our daily prayers and bible reading, routine in our church attendance, even committed to periodic practices of meditation and retreat, the lion’s share of our lives are taken up with other things. We can no more climb a pole than we can fly to the moon. Nor, frankly, do we wish to. The desert is not our home. Our lives are consumed with being sensitive partners and devoted parents, good neighbors and reliable friends, engaged workers and just employers, active citizens and carers for the environment.  The fact is, our primary responsibilities are not to the desert but to the routines of domestic and community life. Because of this, we need models of spirituality that lead us to embrace these elements of our lives, not minimize them. We need daily practices of spirituality that press into the stuff of everyday life with intention and purpose, not require that we walk away from it.  We need a different way.

In addressing this need, Boyer draws a contrast between two contexts for spirituality, two pathways to a life of devotion.  The first, the spirituality of the desert, he calls “life at the edge” and the second, a spirituality for those who remain in the routines of everyday life he calls “life at the center.”[7] Key to this is that the worth of the desert calling is not minimized. Indeed, it is honored as a valid and rich pathway in the expression of faith. The consequence, however, is that life at the center is lifted to a place of equal worth and opportunity.

Life at the Edge

The “edge” is the place of withdrawal. It’s at the edge that numerous men and women of faith pursue that “one thing.” This edge spirituality is a rich vein within the story of Christianity, easily caricatured but complex in its diversity and depth. The historian of spirituality Philip Sheldrake describes the earliest expressions of Christian monasticism as essentially “a movement to the margins.”[8] From its beginning, it demanded of its participants the most decisive act of separation from the traditional centers of life. And this for good reason. 

The early practices of Christian asceticism flourished in direct correlation with Christianity’s movement from edge to cultural center, from fringe and persecuted minority to sanctioned religion of the empire.  It was in the fourth century, in fact, that church and empire began to merge. The call to follow the way of Jesus was no longer a call to physical martyrdom at the hands of the state, but to a spiritualized death to self and “the world.” Faced with the possibility of a new laxity in the expression of discipleship, the desert hermits stood apart from the world in the most tangible way. Indeed, this was and remains their genius. 

For four years I lived with my family in the northern suburbs of Los Angeles. Next door to our apartment complex in a quiet suburban street was a small Carmelite monastery, home to a handful of nuns who lived according to strict vows of silence and an unchanging cycle of daily prayers.  Occasionally we would see the nuns walking their dogs around the neighborhood, though the rate at which the large animals moved pulling the stumbling nuns behind them, it was more likely the dogs were in charge. These women would always smile warmly but never stop to chat. The only public entrance into the cloistered community was through the doors of its chapel. At particular times I could go and sit in this space to pray. In the small narthex were some words of explanation about the Carmelite order. According to the leaflet, the nuns’ primary vocation was “to pray for the city of Los Angeles.” And this they did with rigorous discipline day after day, month after month, year after year. 

What’s important to note is that the edge is never entirely separate from the center. Lest we imagine the earliest ascetics hold away in some vast and distant desert, an arduous journey from the edges of civilization, a little geography is revealing. According to the historian of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown, the deserts of Egypt and Syria were not as we imagine. To enter the desert was to wander into the “ever-present fringe” of the village, not to disappear into another world. The desert was right there, a “standing challenge” at the immediate edges of daily life.[9] At its best, this withdrawal to the edge was not a hiding from the world but a vantage point from which to see it more clearly and speak into it with a particular authority. 

The truth is, that small community of Carmelite nuns in suburban Los Angeles was never meant to be cut off from its center, and neither was Symeon centuries before. From the top of his pole he could see the daily happenings in the village below and watch the farmers working on the nearby hills. From this vantage point and at his best, Symeon understood his vocation not as antithetical to society but marginal to it, and with purpose. History tells us that a steady trickle of delegations from the surrounding villages made their way to the base of Symeon’s pole seeking arbitration on matters as domestic as water rationing, crop harvesting, financial loans and neighborhood disputes. Symeon’s responses were often extraordinarily detailed and betrayed a man not of another world, but uniquely present to the one around him.  According to Brown, it is only when we see beyond the bizarre feats of self-mortification in those like Symeon that we begin to understand the social significance of their role. Theirs was “a solemn ritual of disassociation, of becoming the total stranger,”[10] standing apart from the institutions and obligations of family, village and church so as to mediate the grace and calling of God back into them. 

This calling to the edge has been part of the Christian church since its beginning. One of its more recent proponents was Thomas Merton (1915–1968) who lived his calling as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane in rural Kentucky. In the year of his death, he gave a lecture in which he described the essence of his own vocation, and that of all monastics, as a call to the edge. It is through this “marginality” as Merton called it, that the edge dweller seeks not only personal transformation but the transformation of society.[11] Indeed, as Bernard McGinn observes, this call to the edge is not, at its heart, a self-centered, other-worldly expression of faith. Rather, it remains a noble calling to a very different presence in the world.[12]


Life at the Center

In contrast to the edge, the “center” describes the contexts where most of us live the majority of our days. While the edge dwellers are called to a very different presence in the world, those at the center are called to a comparatively ordinary one. The center is the place of our homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces. It’s where we buy and sell, cook and eat, work and play. It’s the context of family and friends, neighborliness and citizenship. It’s the place that hosts all the daily transactions, conflicts and intimacies of life. While the edge is never far away—we may see it from the center and go out to it from time to time—the edge is not where we live and never will be. Our more pressing need is to know God at the center of our lives, to hear God’s call with the same clarity with which Symeon heard it at the edge.

The language of the center necessarily differs to that of the edge. At the edge, it’s the language of withdrawal: renunciation, relinquishment, surrender, leaving, and denying. Though this language is not exclusive to the edge, it is not as immediately helpful to those of us who inhabit the center. Life at the center has more to do with the equally risky language of engagement: embracing, enfolding, choosing, cleaving, and nurturing. The Catholic writer David Knight reflects on this difference in language and its importance for those who live in the world.[13] It’s a spirituality of involvement, not withdrawal; a spirituality of risk, not renunciation; a spirituality of commitment that flows from our baptism, not from a particular order or rule of life; and a spirituality attained not through successive stages of prayer or purity but through successive choices made each day amidst the chaos of life. It’s a spirituality that presses into the tasks, places, and encounters of the everyday, believing that God is as present there as God is anywhere else.

Despite its ordinariness, life at the center is as much a response to divine call as life at the edge. Typically, edge dwellers have embraced the notion of calling with a good deal of conviction. It’s why they are there. Deserts and monasteries have always been full of people for whom moments of epiphany and life-changing redirection are standard. Frankly, life at the center seems too ordinary in comparison. Dazzled by Moses and his burning bush or Paul and his divine encounter on the road to Damascus, we’ve come to understand a good calling story to be as rare as it is mystical. Epiphanies aside, the truly biblical notion of calling is much less extraordinary. Importantly, it’s as real at the center of life as it is at the edges.  According to the Bible, the call of God is part and parcel of our identity as the body of Christ and the household of faith. It is not mine, nor is it yours. It is ours.  It does not separate us into different strata of spirituality but unites us as one. Together we are called to be the people of God, to live in holiness and to serve the purposes of God in the world.  The challenge for each of us, at the edge and the center, is to work out that calling in our particular circumstance.

Despite misgivings about Cowan’s portrayal of St Antony, the gift of his book is the author’s own immersion in the monk’s story.  Cowan retraces Antony’s steps.  He travels to the Egyptian desert where the ascetic lived in isolation as a cave dweller on the side of a mountain.  When Cowan arrives at of the edge of this desert 1,700 years later, he is told there is now someone else living on Antony’s mountain: “the last anchorite” they call him.  Curious, Cowan seeks permission to visit him.  

With the recluse’s approval, a week’s supply of bread and a clear set of instructions, Cowan makes the trek up the mountain to the foot of a terrace carved out of its slope.  Following directions, he waits awkwardly at a distance.  In time, a man emerges in a black habit and a hood that covers his head and casts a shadow across his bearded face.   After a long pause, the man lifts his weathered hand in the air, bidding Cowan forward. Taking the final steps toward the terrace and with his heart still pumping from the journey, Cowan introduces himself, expecting from the aged man a strong Egyptian accent and broken English. Instead the man responds warmly and in a distinctive Australian drawl. “Lazarus is my name, because I am reborn,” he says as he invites Cowan to sit down.  Over two mugs of tea, a loaf of bread, and some honey for dipping, the two men talk. With some prodding, Lazarus tells his story. 

It turns out Lazarus was a teacher of literature in an Australian university and happily ensconced in the suburbs when his mother was diagnosed with incurable cancer. Moving in with her for her last months of life, Lazarus was deeply affected and felt a growing sense of dissatisfaction with his own life. Upon her death, he found himself wandering the streets of Melbourne in deep distress. Overwhelmed with despair and a rising sense of meaninglessness, he walked in through the open doors of a church. Amidst the filtered light of the stained glass and the burning candles, he watched an elderly woman lay prostrate before an icon of the Virgin Mary. In that moment, Lazarus said, he heard a voice. He understood it as the voice of the Holy Mother calling to him. He fell on his knees and called out, “I have nowhere to go. Please help me!” The voice replied, “Poor man, place yourself in my care, just as this woman has done.” As Lazarus exited the church into the stark light of the afternoon, he knew his life would never be the same. What followed for Lazarus were years of pilgrimage through the rituals and monasteries of the Orthodox Church, culminating decades later in his retirement to this desert home in pursuit of the same spiritual “exile” that Antony had sought. 

In the weeks that follow this first encounter, Cowan makes a number of return visits to the mountain and each time the conversation with Lazarus is challenging. Eventually, though, Cowan has to say goodbye as he begins his journey home. His final question to Lazarus relates to the application of this anchorite way of life beyond the mountain. Lazarus is clear: the spirituality of the future will not be a spirituality of the edge. “I can’t imagine,” he says, “nor would I like to see it happen, that the desert becomes once more populated by thousands of hermits living in caves. This would be to repeat history rather than to honour its gift.”[14]

According to Lazarus, our task is to cherish the stories of those who have preceded us while discerning new ways forward in the spiritual journey, ways that reflect the realities of today and for those who will never inhabit deserts or mount fifty-foot poles. The Catholic scholar in spirituality Elizabeth Dryer says it well. “Not only must we know, critique, and make use of the past,” she writes, “but we must also envision and create new words and new categories that will reflect the experience of more black and yellow and female and married saints; plumber saints and teacher saints, secretary saints and mother and father saints.”[15] As one such ordinary saint, I couldn’t agree more. My hope is that this book can make a small contribution to that important task.    



[1] Attributed to Evagrius, a theologian of the fourth century. Quoted by Gannon and Traub, The Desert and the City, 28.
[2] Brown, “The Rise and Fall of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” 112.
[3] Cowan, Journey to the Inner Mountain, ix.
[4] Ibid., 6.
[5] Ibid., 33.
[6] Boyer, Finding God at Home, xiii.
[7] Ibid., chapters 1– 2.
[8] Sheldrake, Spirituality, 50.
[9] Brown, “The Rise and Fall of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” 111.
[10] Ibid., 131.
[11] Quoted by McGinn, “Withdrawal and Return,” 149.
[12] Ibid., 153.
[13] Knight, “A Practical Plan for Lay Spiritual Formation,” 7–16.
[14] Cowan, Journey to the Inner Mountain, 171.
[15] Dreyer, “Traditions of Lay Spirituality,” 210.