Thursday, February 18, 2010

Simplicity 4

My life hasn't been very simple in the last week or so. But it has slowed down for the monastery's Lenten Retreat, for which I give thanks.

One further preliminary thought about ascetic practices leading to better focus. I was wondering why I was reluctant to write more, apart from general busy-ness, and yesterday it came to me. Focus on what? Focus for what? Whose focus?

If the focus is mine, or on something that comes from me, then what I will achieve in that kind of focus is to narrow my attention down to something that is going to be of my choosing, and will reflect me. But that is precisely what I do not want, as a monk, as a person striving for simplicity so that God may be more present to me and I more present to God. An ascetic discipline which increases intensity of focus on my life, my hopes, my desires, my past experiences, my whatevers, is going to narrow me and draw me deeper into myself, into a place which may not in the end be productive.

Yesterday during the Ash Wednesday liturgy (at which for once I was not a liturgical minister of some kind, thank God) I had an experience of focus. I began to focus on ashes, the ashes of my life. Losses. The literal ashes of Mount Calvary, lost a year ago November, into which I poured my working life for eleven years. The losses at St. Michael's, Anaheim, whose Anglo congregation has largely dispersed and which has reverted to mission status. The ashes of my parents' bodies, buried these many years in that little cemetery by Red Bank Creek in Hawthorn, Pennsylvania. One ash-loss after another. The losses began to cascade in my consciousness. And after I had wallowed in the ashes for a while, it came to me that I was not focusing on something that could let God in, but on something that kept God out. These really are losses. But life -- my life and the lives of others -- has been made possible by these things. Their significance is only partly in their loss. The kind of focus I was practicing was not really on loss as a path to God, but on me -- my losses, my feelings, my failures -- me. Me. Me. And it was not going to go anywhere but deeper into me, and it was not going to produce anything but depression.

That kind of focus is not good because the object of the focus is inadequate. It doesn't expand my life. It doesn't open anything up. It doesn't take me out of myself. Rather, it closes me in, in the name of compunction latches on to my depressions.

Self focus will not take us very far.

So the focus a monk, a Christian, seeks needs to be on the Not-self, on the Other. Setting aside the barriers to focus is not an exercise that should close us down interiorly, but should open us up. And if that Other is God, the focus will illuminate my life, but this time with the light of truth.

If my focus experience yesterday had been better directed, it might have moved in quite a different direction. Instead of taking me into a pity-wallow of depression, it might have shown me how loss is part of the Cross, how one cannot grow unless the past is transformed. It might have led me to speculate on what new wonders can come in the life of our community in Santa Barbara, in the different circumstances we now enjoy there. It might have led me to wonder at a new model of church being born in Anaheim, an Episcopal church for the immigrant poor, with a ministry so large that it can't be sustained by the current model of parish support, and the joyful problem that presents to the Church. It might have led me to speculate on the gifts my parents gave me in their too-short lives, how they and their gifts continue to live in my life.

So as we simplify in order to focus, what are we training our focus on? Is it self, with the inevitable inadequacies of self-smallness, or is it God, who brings life from the ashes?