The Burning

It’s been a trying time. Within my own extended family in the past couple months there has been a failed adoption, several trips to urgent care, a surgery, and a layoff. A line from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing keeps coming to mind: “Doomed enterprises divide lives forever into the then and the now.”

My brand of late, it seems, is crisis.

Once the initial shock of a new situation subsides, though, I have to say, there is a profound peace that emerges. Another layer of attachment is recognized, held, let go of.

In my own situation I’ve grappled with questions of work, vocation, and identity, along with others. Growing up in a pastor’s house, there was no distinction between work and identity. My Dad wasn’t a pastor during just work hours, but operated out of that identity all the time.

And in my different careers, there sometimes seems to be a mismatch between my inner sense of self and the work. Given the deeply held assumption that identity, vocation, and work should be in alignment, that always generates an inner tension in and of itself when it comes up.

Is this me? I inevitably ask on some gut level. This being a High School teacher? This being an administrator? This organizational consulting? This recruiting and hiring? Does this allow me to authentically live out my values and principles to the fullest extent possible?

Sometimes, the answer is no. Sometimes, the work seems to create a context for a never-ending slew of external problems that distracted from where the real action is for me: the inner space. And the external demands sometimes take more energy than I have, with nothing left to devote to the inner life.

This then becomes another layer of tension and frustration.

But for sensitives, empaths, introverts, or whatever label you care to apply, there is also a temptation of making emotional experience itself into a pleasure center. Though there are of course genuine emotional breakthroughs, we can also create the illusion of movement, the illusion of growth.

As with all things, there has to be a balance, or maybe better: a rhythm and a priority.

For me that came in the form of morning Centering Prayer practices. I started by reading through the Psalms, and then later engaged in Centering Prayer and more traditional practice of Lectio Divina.

Instead of growth or inner movement per se, this opened up an open space around experiences. Whatever happens in everyday life soon plays out against a rootedness in peace. We become anchored in a divine silence.

I might get angry, but I know where center is, and it’s short-lived. I might feel near overwhelming grief, but there is a cable linking that back to an inner awareness that is untouched by the grief. It’s moored in the depths of my inner being. It recognizes the grief, observes the grief, allows the grief.

Or I might have a moment of deep joy, or a week of inexplicable levity and confidence. That too plays out against a backdrop of practice, of being anchored in a divine silence that is untouched by the psychological movement on the surface reality.

Teachers like Thomas Keating and Richard Rohr often recommend that beginning practitioners treat their thoughts and sensations like passing boats. Sometimes there is a trawler here and there. Sometimes there is a whole armada passing through.

With ongoing practice this becomes a lived reality. There is always a part of our awareness in reserve that doesn’t get sucked in to the surface experiences, but stays connected to the indwelling spirit.

So what does this have to do with vocation, work, and identity?

Well, even for those of us who deeply identify with our work, even that is something that has to be let go of eventually. In our inmost being, we’re not doctors or artists or lawyers or teachers or therapists or pastors. We’re spirit.

One way to understand the invitation to “seek the kingdom” is to find this inner space of spirit that is ageless and nameless. It’s untouched by insecurity and pride, by failure and accomplishment. It recognizes no certificates of merit, and no insult.

This does not dismiss the need to find meaningful work, and to align our inner values with our outer action. We still have to live lives as good stewards of our talents with diligence and responsibility.

But in the order of priorities, the barefoot Galilean is pretty clear: “seek first the kingdom.”

As we go about that process, the dross we often clothe ourselves with is exposed and, sometimes painfully, burned away. This is the path of the contemplative, of the mystic.

Reflecting on Moses’s encounter with the Burning Bush, Madeleine L’Engle writes “I think that the part of us that has to be burned away is something like the deadwood on the bush; it has to go, to be burned in the terrible fire of reality, until there is nothing left but our ontological selves; what we are meant to be.”

Going Further

Thomas Keating on Letting Go of the False Self

Madeleine L’Engle A Circle of Quiet

Free Course on Walking With The Christian Mystics by Contemplative Light