a little artifice

We have just finished our annual eight-day, silent retreat here at the monastery. A line from Henry James comes to mind: “Something, it seems, has happened.” But what, exactly? And how to articulate or understand it? I hardly know.

From the Gospel of Thomas, which Fr. Matthew Wright shared with us during our retreat:

Jesus said, ‘If those who lead you say to you: “See, the kingdom is in heaven,” then the birds of the heaven will go before you; if they say to you: “It is in the sea,” then the fish will go before you. Rather, the kingdom is within you, and it is outside of you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the children of the Living One. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and you are poverty.’ (Logion 3)

I moved deep into the silence this week, and it moved deep into me. Something has shifted, like a boulder coming dislodged after thousands of years of the stream’s gentle drip against its side. Although I usually hate the passive voice (more on that another time), it would be most accurate to say that I have been shifted, or some part of me has been let go. Because I didn’t actually do anything but show up, and that imperfectly and incompletely.

Now, at the end of the retreat, I find myself somewhere between the “when you know yourself” and the “you will be known,” and also, always, still lurking near the poverty bit, too, as if perhaps this time, finally, I’ll find there what I’ve been looking for.

Several weeks ago, I wrote of a dawning sense of ecological consciousness, which, although it surprised no one else in my life, surprised me. I don’t remember whether I wrote this at the time, but I certainly felt and expressed to some the desire for a mentor in contemplative ecology. I’m used to forging ahead on a new pathway, creating the way if I don’t see a path already marked out for me. The habit is so old and so familiar that I rarely stop to question whether it’s the best way now, in this circumstance. And, even if it’s possible to forge ahead on my own, do I want to? Is that the easiest and most nourishing way?

Synchronistically, lately life has provided me with many opportunities to be a student of those who have more wisdom and experience than I do. No sooner were these opportunities presented than I felt resentful of them, wondering sullenly why I hadn’t been asked to teach the things I need to learn. Ah, the ego.

But, ah, the spirit, too. Amidst the resentment another voice spoke up, the example of my elders in monastic life, urging patience and humility, which is to say counseling an honest examination of what I know and what I don’t know. To paraphrase Carl Jung, if something is good news for the ego, it’s usually bad news for the Self. And if it’s good news for the Self, it’s often bad news for the ego.

Standing outside myself, I could almost watch these two impulses contending for control. Or, perhaps more accurately, offering me information to make a choice: Self or ego?

I feel like someone between his sophomore and junior year of college. Having spent sophomore year acting, well, sophomoric, I am beginning to recognize in a different way that I don’t know all the things I thought I knew. I’m beginning to see the artifice in my wisdom, my teaching, my writing. Which isn’t to say that I’ve been lying in any sort of conscious way. Rather, I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy writing a narrative over the silence and the spaces, interpreting what can only be lived, telling a story when the only proper response is yes.

With comparatively little time for silence in my daily life (which, I realize must sound strange to those who live outside of a monastery and likely have much less silence than I), I hadn’t noticed how noisy my speech and my writing is. Always we begin again.

So, I return to the silent space between “you know yourself” and “you will be known,” and I pray for the courage to stop talking and to wait.

4 Replies to “a little artifice”

  1. Ahhh…a brilliant way to word it — that silent space between knowing oneself and being known. I’m nearly 53 years old and I still cannot fully articulate either of these piles much less the in between. Thank you for being on the path and voicing the way so beautifully.


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