It is true that media, over-programmed days and American work hours are hard to avoid. If we work hard, we also play hard. And judging from my recent retirement I know I am not the best person to suggest our work need not be all-consuming and endless. Before you jump to defend yourselves, hear me out. Twenty-four hours can also include the luxury of trying to wrest meaning within the chaos of busy-ness.
Of course, for me, days go by without meetings, or someone asking me to do something, or my contacting my friends or their me, doing some or no work at all (housework, laundry, gardening, reading, writing, grocery shopping), and napping when napping feels like the best thing at the time. I cherish separation from the world of work and relish the conversations that surprise me on the path.
I retired at age seventy-two. I can hardly remember when I didn’t work except when I hadn’t yet begun piano lessons: so I was 7. I worked in high school and all the way through college and university, and then after hours after I had begun to teach full time in public school. I taught English all day and played the organ for churches on weekends between shifts of taking evening and summer coursework toward advanced degrees. I’m one of the rare (old) persons who paid for their entire university career themselves. In these varied “careers” I learned many roles, some of them unawares, because I was a willing listener, too. As I became more skilled, listening itself became my vocation.
It was listening to my day at a deeper level that invited me to contemplate the larger realities in the many events I was thrown into. Parker Palmer admitted to no scripted contemplative techniques in The Active Life (1990). Instead he wrote, “life compensates…by providing moments of unintentional contemplation….life makes contemplatives of all of us.” He lists four such invitations: feelings of disillusionment, pain, dislocation, and unbidden solitude.
It is easy to turn to busy-ness simply to avoid facing painful feelings. In churches some people identify as do-ers because they’re proud they get so much done for the rest of us. While they’re indispensable, they rarely risk finding time to sit with others to discern a new path, or attend a small sharing group.
In the familiar parable of Mary who sits listening to Jesus teach, Martha has several choices. One is to continue to do what she’s doing and NOT complain, another is to join Mary so that the two sisters can get the meal together afterwards. Instead she triangulates with Jesus, asking him to get Mary to help her. Instead, Jesus rebukes her for her anxiety that prevents her from making a better choice.
If we spend all our time dashing about from home to work to errands and house keeping and back again ourselves, how can we be thoughtful about anything? When can we be quiet and solitary? When do we think? Or do we simply react to circumstances? Parsing over life stories and the dilemmas our lives so easily create can be done while running, or at the gym, or even occasionally, sleeping in. Watching less television. Squeezing one fewer activity into the day. It is not so much the way we choose to contemplate as it is to choose a way when we must.
I continue to find deep conversations, contemplation. A rest from action—a necessary balance to action in fact, lest in any calling I go off in all directions at once. Listening has been part of every position I have held. Many times, even though I didn’t know what I was doing, listening was my chief gift. When I felt called to seminary in my mid fifties, my whole life was walking toward this door. When I opened it I believed I would never need to retire again. The calling (a strong spiritual attraction to prayer, the interpretation of scripture, and listening) felt the most like me, the most appropriate of my gifts.
Now after nearly seventeen years serving the church, I am exploring who I am anew. My denomination calls me a “ wandering minister.” Imagine! Permission just to wander. Wandering I understand. Putting one foot in front of the other, often turning to draw near to a curious thicket of leaves in the eddy of a stream, or a knot of words among individuals, become walking meditations. Both require my attention to everything from dust motes floating in a beam of winter sun, to the half-heard sounds of laughter in the room next door and the inner messages that keep me tethered to the Mystery of living in this age.
So, I wander. Listening for sparks of thought, the messages that recreate me over and over again for the years ahead. Life beckons even as it grows shorter, tantalizing, summoning, gesturing, “Come here! Come and see!” There will always be time for our heart’s desires to spring forth, or burble up, or slowly dawn on us. Even death is a portal to the undiscovered.
Look, I am about to do something new; even now it is emerging. Don’t you see it?