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.