On Contemplation

On Wednesday, I will turn in my final paper of my graduate program in religious studies. The looming finality has not sunk in yet. It feels surreal that only two years ago, I was writing here, in this place, about my hope for what this time would be, what it would mean to me eventually, and how it would change me. And this week, it is coming to a close. It has already happened. Like the tracing of a spiral, I will move on. I will graduate. The circumstances of my life will change. On Thursday, what will be radically different? Not much. Becoming is also continuing.

In the course of the last five years, I graduated from college, met the love of my life, moved cities, held my first formal job, went to graduate school, became engaged, planned a wedding, got married, and finished graduate school. It is enough to make me breathless just thinking about it. I have changed, morphed into new iterations of self, more quickly than I could reflect upon the change that preceded this one. “Here we are,” I’ve said to myself on more than one occasion, gathering my strength, pushing fatigue away, keeping on keeping on. The weight of these shifts in my life have converged upon me only in the last month, pushing me into deeper questioning: “Who do you want to be? What do you want to make of this life?” As I now face truly uncharted waters, the open deep, I cannot flinch away from the harder questions and jump into the next thing, if I want to lead a well-considered and meaningful life.

For the first time in my life, the next step is not determined. As has been the pattern of my entire, and yet young, life, I grow at lightening speed during certain periods, like spiritual and emotional growth spurts. This period has felt existential, no surprise considering I have spent most of the last two years questioning the purpose of human existence and communal virtue. I often wake up in the middle of the night between the hours of one and three a.m., with a pounding heart. Jack is a sound sleepers, so these moments, only lit a thin ray of city light streaming in the space between our blinds.

My doctor says these early morning heart pounding episodes are probably signs of adrenal fatigue and that I should be resting more, but no matter. It reminds me, in the near stillness of the night, that life is finite. It is fleeting; things can change faster than you can catch up with them, even when change is for the better. To live purposefully, to create a life which one can greet in the morning with joyful expectation, requires contemplation. When contemplation is neglected and life accelerates, choices are less carefully considered, and often fear takes the wheel, so that I make decisions out of fear rather than out of joy and love.

Stress often forces contemplation upon us. “Is this really the sort of life I want? Do I really want to be running from one thing to the next? What if I feel this stressed every Sunday night for the rest of my life?” Which leads to deeper searching, “What kind of person do I want to be? What am I committed to? Am I living in integrity? How do I want to spend my days?” These may seem like privileged questions, which they are, but they are also necessary questions, no matter the circumstances we face, because they form the bedrock of everything else, who we are when we make our commutes, who we are in our relationships, whether or not we live gracefully. The untended soul cannot grow anything beautiful; it is too dry and tired otherwise and understandably so.

In the final year of my program, I wrote a book-length thesis on women of faith, drawing upon varied wisdom from the female mystics to feminist theologians to contemporary leaders. Among many other things, I have learned this: faith flies with two wings, the wings of contemplation and action. Contemplation leads you to justice, to good work, to action. Everything that contemplation brings out in us, hope, joy, peace, gratitude, humility, love, permeates the rest of life, everything we do and everything we touch.

When I spend time in my hometown in Ohio, I often go for long walks around our neighborhood, the center of town, and in the woods. This corner of the state is leafy, hilly, soft, with rivers running through it. In the warmer months, I take off my shoes and I stand in the bare grass, often looking directly at a willow tree in my parents’ yard. For a time, I understand what Wendell Berry meant when he said, rest in the grace of the world.

Over the last eight weeks, I have been writing for deadlines, and I could have used that sort of embodied contemplation, as my mind has been saturated by the words of ethicists, scholars, and pilgrims. Looking out on my neighborhood street, which has increasingly been flooded with tourists, I wished I could just walk onto the asphalt, barefoot, and watch everything move around me. Of course, so many things about New York City make that impossible.

Not having a next step in mind is incredibly painful for me. It goes against every perfectionist impulse in me, but as I have learned over the last few years of running, rushing to resolve the “I don’t know,” is not what grows wisdom. It is certainly not what engenders joy or what will heal adrenal fatigue.

Contemplation, first. In this new evolution of adulthood, this interstitial period, the receptive waiting and sifting is what I believe will make what is next clearer.

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” – T.S. Eliot