Sunday, 7 August 2016

A waymark or milestone or something



I just woke up to something so blindingly obvious I can’t believe it took me so long to understand it. But I’ve been on the trail of this since I was fifteen, and only tonight got the point – that’s 44 years.

So, when I was fifteen I asked Jesus into my heart, to be my Master. I gave my life to him. It’s been his property ever since, and I have – though it remains true that my choices and how I have lived have not always been what he has asked of me or shown me how to be.

Then just a little while after that, still when I was fifteen, I came across the life and writings of St Francis of Assisi – and I recognized in him the quiet eye, the single-pointed concentration of being, that I knew I wanted. And the joy of a pared-down life, the freedom and exhilaration of irreducible minimalism. Exposure to angels, to the presence of God. Luminous humility.

I loved Francis then and I do still. I love his slightly unhinged literalism, the blaze of his compassion and tenderness, his astonishing self-discipline, his ability to turn away from himself to a gaiety so translucent that Holy Spirit shone right through.

So, there was Francis, lodged in my mind and heart, in my consciousness.

When I was sixteen I worked with nuns, and I searched in them for the inspiration I’d found in Francis – and didn’t find it. Some of them I liked better than others, but they were only people, if you see what I mean. Just women who had chosen to live that way. Nothing special.

When I was eighteen I left home and went to live with some monks in the West Country.  Unusual men – I think it would be fair to say they were even somewhat odd. Delightful in their way. I lived with them for a while. I liked some things about their company – but one lived with fairly serious mental illness, another struggled with the turbulence of his humanity. They were interesting, I learned about life from living with them; but they did not have what I was looking for.

I went from there to college, and met the nuns attached to the cathedral where I worshipped. They used to invite me to tea and I found them intriguing – but not inspiring. Most weeks I attended a rather wonderful prayer meeting at a monastery of Poor Clares. I loved them, and their way of life delighted me. They were darlings, but I could not find what I was looking for in any one of them.

I made friends with the monks at Ampleforth, and found inspiration there. In the unfolding of time, two of the Ampleforth monks have remained vivid in my mind – dearly loved, people through whom I saw the light of Christ shine so clear. But they could not answer my questions – even dodged and rebuffed me. Something evasive, elusive, something I could not grasp. Something that disappointed me and slipped away from me. What I was seeking wasn’t there.

I searched everywhere – reading the work of Thich Nhat Hanh and Gandhi and Lao Tsu, sniffing along the Amish trail and looking among the Plain people.

Everywhere I looked and read and studied, all I found was people – ordinary people – when I got close enough to really see. People with foibles and issues and frailties; only people like me.

Early on in my search I asked God for a guru, and the Spirit breathed inside me saying, you have to be what you are searching for – you have to be your own guru.

I tried out spiritual directors and writers and communities and teachers and leaders. I watched and I listened, I weighed and I thought. And always I found some that was good and some that was lacking. Nothing I could entirely trust myself to.

Alongside this I had been tracking simplicity, experimenting in myriad ways with the holy poverty I saw in the life of Francis – trying and failing, working on it, seeing its power and letting it slip through my fingers.

I tried simplicity of dress and taking up little space, owning and disowning, a while wearing saris, a while wearing Plain dress – and attracting gently affectionate mockery or silent bewilderment.

Along the way I encountered all manner of traumas and tearing griefs – losses and terrifying life crashes, the implosion of illusions including illusions about my own integrity and spirituality. I learned that nothing could be relied on, not even oneself; nothing is permanent, everything passes.

I came to minimalism and discovered its startling power – taking me closer to freedom. The less you have the more you have. 

And every now and then the intense longing would spiral round, for my community, for the people on the same trail, the same path. And I wanted a teacher, a guru. But every time when I thought I’d found someone, I looked closer and thought . . . hmm . . .

This last stretch of time – the last few months – has come back the intense longing for people to compare notes with, who are on the same track; and for a teacher, a guru. But the thought doesn’t even have the time to expire before I know, “Not that . . . not that . . .”

I know that if I found others committed to extreme minimalism, trying by every means to live the most pared down life, the most frugal and hidden and poor – we would recognise each other, but have nothing to say. Because it doesn’t really organize or formulate – it comes to the place where it just is, where there is only the self and God and silence, and nothing else will do.

And then it was just tonight, recognizing that, I understood what had been in front of me all along – why the nuns and monks and anabaptists and Amish and all the rest had never been able to supply the thing I was looking for; it’s not in the person, it’s in the life.

The person is only ever just that – a person – a flawed and ordinary human being. The wonder, the transformation, the light shining through is not in the person, it’s in the committed life. The person becomes the fuel for the burning of the flame, and the flame rests on them like Pentecost, is upon them but does not belong to them, rests on them but is not owned by them.

There is no guru, no teacher, no authority. There is only the Tao – the way – and you’re either walking it or you’re not. Life is the teacher, the guru, the message.

This has happened to me before once or twice, this coming out into the loneliness of naked light, where the unbearable love of Christ waits in uncompromised silence. I glimpse it and then shut my eyes, can’t look, let it slip. It’s very hard to sustain. I find myself wanting someone to do it with, to be a pilgrim alongside – but that’s the thing; everybody is, but nobody perfectly is. We are all on the journey – or at the very least muddling around the same territory like book mites traversing a map.

Life will be my teacher and Christ my companion and in the untracked improbability of the Tao I will be lost and found and lonely and come home to myself a thousand times. And the less I have the more I will have until I have nothing and come into my inheritance, Light invisible and unimaginable. Which I have to say doesn’t sound very promising, because what it offers is abjectly terrifying until one’s being slips into that socket and knows this was home all along.





17 comments:

Ros said...

Interesting. Thanks for sharing :-)

Like you, I discovered St Francis when I was in my teens - primarily because he was featured on my 'Friend to Animals' badge when I was in the guides. I read his story, was captivated immediately and he became my teenage 'hero' almost overnight.

For me, it was was about 'the blaze of his compassion and tenderness' together with his willingness to do whatever he felt God was asking of him, regardless of how crazy it seemed and regardless of what other people thought about it. So it was more his unswerving commitment to Christ than the simplicity this produces that inspired me; more his pioneering spirit than the community life that he ultimately founded.

Perhaps because of this, I was not attracted by the monastic way of life in the same way that you have been. Nor did I consciously seek out a guru. Where you saw - almost immediately - the benefits of a particular practical outworking of faith in the form of simplicity and community, I passed over all that nitty gritty sort of stuff and focused on the trailblazing: 'What new thing might God be asking of me?' In that sense, I had no interest in either following or leading. It was simply the willingness to carve out a new way because love demanded it that inspired me.

So it's taken an almost equivalent number of years and a long journey through illness for the penny to drop with me that it's not about the pioneering any more than it's about the pioneer (St Francis and the like). It's simply about being. Being the people God has created us to be. Ordinary. Human. Loved. The pioneering, the healing, the simplicity, or whatever becomes our 'obedience', flows from there.

As you rightly say, it's not about us. It's about the flame that rests upon us. But that the flame does so - that there is no shame in our flawed human ordinariness - that's a reality that still hasn't fully sunk in. It blows my mind. Yet it's so utterly basic to the Christian message, that I don't know how I can have missed it all these years!

Pen Wilcock said...


Thank you, Ros - so interesting to read of a journey so similar and so different.

:0) xx

Yiayia Ann said...

Thank you for this Pen. I have been looking for and failing to find a quote in (I think) The Cloud of Unknowing' or 'Letter of Private Direction' to the effect that we (the contemplative) would travel ten thousand miles to find another who we think shares the experience and then when we find that person be unable to speak, or have nothing to say. Maybe it was from Thomas Merton. Anyway, you get the gist and your post reminded me of this as I have found it to be the case in my own life.

As ever your thoughts spoke to much of my own experience, especially in the search for belonging.

I can't follow your minimalist lifestyle, although I've been very influenced by your accounts of your researches and experiments.

By the way, I have just finished reading the whole of your 'Hawk and Dove' series and thoroughly enjoyed them. They too have given me much food for thought.

Bless you.

Pen Wilcock said...

Ten thousand miles and then nothing to say. Exactly that.

I'm so glad you enjoyed the stories.

:0) xx

Becky said...

I missed this one yesterday. I spent all day with my siblings ( I have 6) and their respective families celebrating birthdays and came home longing for that which you have written of. I am very different to my siblings and that always strikes home when I am with them...However much I love them, we have been chosen and are on a very different path to them. I have been so struck this summer by the gospel of storing up treasures in heaven and yet that longing to shine like a light and that means that it's ok to be different. I have a very long way to go :-) but your post so helped me get things back into perspective. Thanks again.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Becky. You know that scripture about loving the Lord with all your mind, with all your heart and with all your strength? I think it has something to do with that. It's like there are no half-measures; to do this thing we need all that we have and are. Possessions are a distraction and therefore weaken our purpose, ferry away the focus we absolutely need to accomplish singleness of heart.

Yiayia Ann said...

I may have said this before here so apologies if I am repeating myself. But I think that as we set off along the path of silence, stillness, solitude, simplicity we maybe think we can dip in and out or stop at a certain point. But for some of us there comes a point of no return and we cannot stay were we are nor go back. And our lives may seem increasingly odd to those around us.

The more silence and solitude I build into my life the harder it is to carry out what is considered normal social activity. I find I am not storing up energy to deal with others at all, it diminishes my capacity for and enjoyment of these things.

Pen Wilcock said...

What you say resonates with me completely.

TechTeacher said...

Your writing and these comments bring me comfort. And challenge me. And make me think and pray and sit in silence. Thank you.

rebecca said...

Yes! Exactly. And when I couldn't find "it" in people, I buried myself in books...
Recently, I've committed myself to sorting out and paring down my book collection. It is painful! I notice that a large part of my collection centers on the development of the characteristics and lifestyle you have longed for. These I cannot part with. Yet...

Pen Wilcock said...

Thank you, Tech Teacher - yes, our online connections are a source of strength and encouragement.

Hi Rebecca - yes, I have a pile of books-to-go that I want only the right people to have!

gail said...

I very much like what you have written here Pen. You are a master at being able to express your thoughts and feelings. Sadly I don't have that ability. We live (just the two of us) in a too big house with way too many things. I am slowly letting go, but it is taking time. I have also sought that someone that helps make it all clearer. We are all so different though, each one on his own journey. I have found that this walk with my Lord is a constant discovery where I can almost touch the understanding and then it moves up a notch and I am left with knowing there is so much more to receive. I so want the full understanding. The more I know the less I realise I know. So very difficult to put into words. Maybe this is what it means to be in the world but not of the world. Sometimes I feel as if I'm two different people living in the same body. The one who would sit quietly at the feet of Jesus and the other who must continue with the ordinary living and being. How I wonder does one bring the two together. One seems so far apart from the other.
Blessings Gail.

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes, you are right on the nail.
"Sometimes I feel as if I'm two different people living in the same body. The one who would sit quietly at the feet of Jesus and the other who must continue with the ordinary living and being. How, I wonder, does one bring the two together?"
This is exactly what the simplifying/minimalising does.
Blessings on your adventures and continuing discovery! x

Patricia Yandell said...

This last comment so resonates with me. I have just returned from a week's silent retreat and am now home wondering which me is me. Which one is the fraud or is it just a case of that is how it is.

Pen Wilcock said...

Thinking of these things I am drawn to the scriptures (Corinthians and Colossians if I remember correctly) that say God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Integration is precisely the task. It asks everything, yet wants of us not more and more but less and les. Like the Passion of Christ - 'passion' is the same word as 'suffering' (and same root as 'passive'), not it the sense of masochism but of surrender - trusting, giving permission. That Chinese word 'wu-wei', the art of non-doing. As some popular Evangelical writers express it, 'let go and let God'.
The word 'confidence' means 'with faith'. I suspect this whole thing has to do with joy and gladness - with the eagerness of trust in God, the ability to open one's hand in the stream of life rather than vainly trying to snatch and clutch at the water. Letting grace and life flow through oneself washing away bitterness and debris. x

Gerard Brady said...

Just came across your site and love it. I live in rural County Longford on a 2 acre smallholding and a lot of what you write resonates with me. St. Francis was a great saint and is a profoundly attractive personality. So Italian though! He had his guru and it is the same as myself so we share that. God bless you.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello Gerard! Waving!

:0)