a little life

I have just finished writing a book. To be more accurate, I have finished a rough draft of a book. It’s a spiritual memoir that traces the the thread of early losses, the way they hollowed me, and the way God entered my hollowness and pulled me into monastic life.

I’ve now written this book twice. The first time I wrote it as a therapeutic experience. I needed to see the loss, to feel its contours, to know that it was real. Then my father died. During his last year, my heart opened to him wider than I thought possible. The need to judge him disappeared, and I found I had, without my even knowing it, learned to love. I wrote the book the second time to tell that story.

There’s an alchemy in writing. At least for me. As I said last week, I write to learn who I am. This book has taught me so much already.

Reading a draft from three years ago, a dear friend told me that the sections on loss were visceral. You could feel the pain throbbing in the words. They were embodied and sharp. The later sections on joy, though, lacked the same immediacy. Of all the feedback I got on that early version, this is the observation that has remained with me most strongly.

When I felt compelled–and that really is the word for it–to return to and rework this book, I wanted to make sure I could write about joy in a way that was compelling. I wanted the joyful bits to sing as loudly as the painful ones. Part way through, though, I realized that you can look at pain straight on. Really, you have to, or it will overwhelm you. But joy is a shy guest. You can only see it in the periphery of your vision.

Joy will never outweigh pain, and to the extent we are looking for compensation for what we have endured, we will be disappointed. Joy comes, not as compensation, but as companion. It does not erase pain. But it can surround it. It can give it a different context, and in doing so, it can help us to see painful experiences for the hollowing and hallowing that they can be in God’s hands.

Then, too, my joy has been so small. How can I describe the rapture of the pale grasses blowing in the breeze in our meadow? Or the soothing shade of the maples outside my bedroom window? How can I make you see that the soft white of the church walls caresses me, wraps me up in a sweet silence that helps my soul rest? This is what joy looks like in my life. It will never outshout the absence of a father or the horror of losing friends to AIDS or the betrayal of a mentor. But for someone who moved around every two years as a kid, staying in one place is a miracle I couldn’t have imagined.

More and more I relish the littleness of my life. For years I survived on ambition. It took me to Choate and Yale and Union on full scholarships. It quieted the voice of self-doubt that plagues us all. It offered me big dreams of a big life, full of freedom and success. But it couldn’t heal me. It couldn’t teach me to love.

The person I was at sixteen would look at my life today and think I’ve settled. He would be so disappointed. And he would be right. I have settled, and I am settling. I am learning to breathe deeply, to look carefully, to love freely this perfectly ordinary life I have been given. My life is smaller than it has ever been, and, perhaps for the first time, it is enough for me.

29 Replies to “a little life”

  1. This is revelatory to me. The idea that joy is “small” and will never outshout pain is very pleasing. I, too, use the eye of my heart to see joy in the “small”, but there was still that nagging sense that JOY should be BIG. It can be, but mostly not. It’s a companion. Perfect. Thanks for this, it is very helpful.


  2. This is also revelatory to me. Joy unable to outweigh, erase or compensate for pain, but able to surround it and give a sort of new or different context to the pain we’ve suffered. This is what I’ll be thinking about today on the farm. I’m thankful for you, Brother Aiden.


  3. Thank you for this reflection, dear friend, it identify me…
    I still struggle not to succumb to total pain … I struggle to find the grace of God to help me endure the difficult existence without her, without my father, who was assassinated by the Chilean dictatorship more than 40 years ago … Life is tough … but only in the small, in the subtle, can we find those little joys … together with God


  4. Your words always offer me a deeper way of looking at my own life. Joy as a companion and surrounding grief gives me a visual of being held in God’s hands. I lost an adult son four years ago and recently moved 1200 miles from my spiritual home to be near family…grandkids. My husband is losing his cognitive abilities. Major losses. The older I get, the smaller my life becomes but I find myself constantly acknowledging the gratitude for things that make my life big on a daily basis. Thank you for sharing yourself, Brother Aidan.


  5. Congratulations on your book. Can’t wait to read it. In my book, success is doing what you love and doing it with love. You’re a winner and you make our lives better by just being you. Thank you!


  6. Aidan,
    Thanks for your reflection. I find that sometimes I am so overwhelemed by the pain life brings that I miss the joy life can also bring. Thank for pointing where joy may be waiting for us. For me it is different from happiness because it is always an experience of the divine.


  7. I am in awe of the joy i experience daily as I look at nature. Lately it has been snow and the full moon shining on the snow, the birds in the bird feeder outside my cottage, and hugs from my great grand children.
    though I have lost much I still find joy and Peace in my life. Thank you for being part of my joy.


  8. That was so wonderful, so beautiful. You found the key to open your soul. What a gift to be able to hear about, thank you so so much!

    Rose Garwood



  9. Aidan,

    Reading your words, it struck me just how important it is for each of us to recognize and try to immerse ourselves in the little, small things in our lives that bring us joy. Particularly when we’ve been living through the maelstrom of a pandemic for 12 months and counting…

    Hopefully when the pandemic comes to its end and life returns to “normal” (whatever that will look like), we won’t lose or forget our ability to experience joy in its little, small manifestations. Your words will be an important reminder to us of why we need to keep doing that.


  10. Aidan, you really nailed it for me! Words to explain my experience. I remember about 7 months after my son died, when Joy snuck up on me, coming out of the woods after a long walk, early evening, and surrounded me and briefly captured me before I was able to escape. But Joy let me know that it would be coming back, and so it has. It’s the way you explain the imbalance that I like.


  11. Aidan, as I read this the tears flowed. You know my pain, and reading this I know I need to find joy in the small things. Thank you for your words and wisdom.


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