I've been thinking, as Steve and I talk and walk, or sit together in silence, about signposts along the way of our shared spiritual journey. One of the most significant of these, it seems to me, has been the counsel Rilke gave the aspiring young poet in his letters to the young man. Rilke tells the writer-to-be to live towards the future he glimpses, but which is not yet present--and may never be fully present in his life or in the world around him.
Still: live towards the future you glimpse with hope. And live as if that future is already breaking into history, into your own life and heart.
This signpost has meant far more to me in my spiritual life than mere abstract embellishment of theoretical thought. There have been times when I've found there was no way forward for me unless I lived precisely as the signpost directs me to live. It's been a way-marker that has shown me the path at times when I could see no path at all in the darkness.
I've blogged here in the past about this, if perhaps glancingly. As I've noted previously, not very long before the life-shifting difficulties began for Steve and me at Belmont Abbey College, I was in the Abbey church one Sunday praying before liturgy. I happened to look up at the statue of the monastery's patroness, Our Lady Help of Christians, as I was praying, and something difficult to describe happened as I did so.
It was as if I had the sense that I was just entering a very dark tunnel where I could see no light at the end. There was a sense of tremendous heaviness and foreboding about this knowledge that I was entering a tunnel--a sense that I could do nothing else, because this was where my life was headed under God's providential direction. I had no inkling at all at this point of what was coming towards me with the terminal contract I was soon to receive, the lies and stonewalling I encountered as I sought a reason for the terminal contract. The destruction of Steve's and my careers as theologians in the Catholic church . . . .
I only knew, somehow, in that moment as I looked up at the statue of Mary, that I was facing a tunnel, that I had no choice except to let the Spirit impel me into the darkness. And that there would be light at the end.
And in the months of pain, of sleepless nights, anguish, futile appeals to various Catholic pastors to help me understand and cling to faith when the church itself was shattering all I believed in, Rilke's words sustained me over and over again. My journal entries from that period of our life together, often written late at night when I was unable to sleep and was up praying, thinking, writing, speak of Rilke over and over again.
In other words, I had to make a determined choice during this period of our spiritual journey to do precisely what Rilke advised the poet-to-be to do: to live as if a future that was not yet present in our life together, but which we could glimpse together, mattered more than the broken, disrupted present. I could no longer hinge my hopes on the present and its promises, on my accomplishments (which the vice-president of Belmont Abbey admitted were sterling, even as he told me I'd be given a terminal contract).
I had to live for the future. To journey to the future along with others whose lives were disrupted because they glimpsed a future in which men and women might live as equals, in which the Catholic church could welcome gay and straight equally, and so forth.
Rilke's counsel to the young poet resonated so strongly in this difficult period of our life together, of course, because it harmonizes with what Ernst Bloch says in his magisterial work The Principle of Hope, which I'd read with passionate interest just after I finished my graduate studies. And with Walter Benjamin, whose work I also loved, and with the theology of Johann Baptist Metz and his eschatological proviso, which had also greatly influenced me.
In different ways, each of these prophetic thinkers encouraged people to think about how the future is not merely a hazy horizon of dreams, but is a reality that pulls the present into itself--and which therefore deserves careful consideration. From a Christian theological standpoint, Metz noted that Jesus calls his followers to live in the period between the already of the paschal mystery and the not yet of the final eschatological fulfillment of history--a period in which the kingdom proclamation of Jesus and his death and resurrection ground our hope for God's final fulfillment of the possibilities we can glimpse for a future in which the poor will finally have enough to sustain fulfilling lives, those crippled by injustice can straighten their backs and walk erect, and the table the Lord sets for all will really invite all to the table.
Built into the thinking of Rilke, Bloch, Benjamin, and Metz is, of course, the call to live in solidarity with others who also recognize the seeds of the eschatological fulfillment of history in the present. This is thinking that impels us to find others who share our vision of the future, and to cast our lot with them, struggling together with them to move the present towards its eschatological fulfillment. This is not a solipsistic, superior way of thinking about the spiritual life, in which I sit apart from you and others seeking justice, peace, food for the hungry and gaze at my navel. It's a way of thinking about the spiritual life in which my solidarity with you as we struggle together for a goal that corrects and transcends us in our individual lives is all-important.
It's, in other words, a way of thinking about the spiritual life that accents love--love lived with fellow pilgrims as practical compassion. This recognition, too, has been in my mind in the last day or so, particularly as two men writing in to this blog community seek--predictably, given their own privileged status--to set me straight about my spiritual journey and what the spiritual life is about.
With no reference at all to the primacy of love in either gentleman's orders to me to do things their way, as privileged white heterosexual males . . . .