It hit me first in my stomach, a gut punch I was not braced for: news that I would no longer be needed to teach a load of courses that I had, in one way or another, taught for almost 35 years. On one level, I knew this time would come. In fact, it needed to come. It was healthy and in the nature of things to pass the torch to the next generation. What’s more, I’d become more and more clear that I no longer really wanted to teach content-heavy courses, preferring instead courses that allowed me to accompany students in spiritual formation.
But I hadn’t realized it would happen now, this day I received the news. The shock stunned me, reverberating to my core. As I regained my breath, I began slow breathing, trusting breath to return me to myself.
The wisdom of the contemplative stance is precisely this: it roots us in ourselves, the real-life, true self where the image of God resides. When I can inhabit this contemplative way of being, I can slow down, experience the love that holds my life and gain eyes to see and ears to hear God’s own heartbeat, right here, even in the midst of this disorientation.
But I couldn’t stay there for long. My mind raced to figure out how to fill that now-empty space in my calendar. Should I text friends to see if they needed anyone to teach in the fall? Or send out emails to let folks know I was available? Maybe I could be a regular classroom aid in our public schools or work at the library. I began to craft a plan of action to ensure a full schedule for continuity of my work and identity.
Again, the contemplative posture nudged me to pause here, too. Perhaps this empty space was also an open space? Perhaps what appeared to be the end of this teaching load was also an invitation to simply stop and pay attention? What might it be like to not jump into action, to not start planning replacement activities but instead, to simply sit with this and listen?
Living as a monk in the world, for me, means trusting contemplative listening and presence to offer me a deeper path, a wisdom path, that my eager, managerial mind would never propose.
n this case, it meant attentive breathing. Then pausing to pay attention and this helped me be more available for the poem that would fall into my lap a few days later. It became a place to linger during this season of disorientation. By David Wagoner, the poem “Lost” offered me a resting place called Here while I waited, feeling lost in my own life, before setting out again.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here, . . . Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you. (David Wagoner, Collected Poems, 1956-1976)
I want to stand still. Here. Ask permission to know Here and be known. And let the forest find me.
I want to live in this poem a while. I want to trust that what first seemed to be a terrifying cliff’s edge might also be a fertile place or an abyss where I might learn to soar. If I have eyes to see. The contemplative life offers me those eyes.
For me, in this season, living as a monk in the world, looks like this:
Pause. Breathe. Pay attention.
Lean in to poetry, words that invite me beyond words.
So I can listen to what is, now.