“You did not choose me, I chose you” (John 15:16)
With 20 podcast episodes published and another on the way, for the next couple of weeks I’m shifting gears a bit, spending more time simply bike-camping. As I shared in a previous post, leaving the West Coast has placed me in a more solitary situation, perfect for deeper reflection and discernment. Also, in this more solitary and reflective place, I sense the two strands of the journey—the spiritual pilgrimage and the exploration of communities—converging in a new way, requiring my giving shape to this convergence through writing. In fact, spiritually speaking, this journey is the sequel to the bicycle tour of over ten years ago that led me back to the Christian faith and into a Catholic monastery. Therefore, to better grasp the content of this present journey, it’s first necessary to recap its prequel.
In January of 2001, I left the Sirius Ecovillage in Shutesbury, MA, which had been my home for 2 ½ years. That previous fall, I had been seized by a mysterious restlessness, not simply to move but to create, to generate life, as if, contrary to the earthly season, new sap flowed in my veins and pressed forward to bud and bloom. I sought for ways to express this impulse—start a cottage industry? join the Core Group?—but nothing seemed to resonate. Within a couple months of searching in this way, the insight dawned that this life-impulse was in fact pushing me out of the community. I didn’t know why or to where or for what purpose. I just left.
Several months after leaving the community, I was on a bicycle, clothing and camping gear atop the rear rack and stuffed into panniers, bouncing around the deserts of the Southwest and finally tracing the California coast. The pressing life-impulse by that time, at least to my perception, had degenerated into a wrenching sense of futility and an eclipse of life’s possibilities. I simply couldn’t see a road ahead of me beyond the asphalt under my tires. I didn’t know why, but the tide of hope and vision had receded. Did I dare expect its return? Still, the more dependable rhythms of ocean tides and redwood forest cradled me each night as I camped, giving me solace, drawing me out of myself and into the cosmic symphony. I may not have known what to do with the life-impulse entrusted to me, but in more lucid moments I could rest assured that Life beneath and above me, within and beyond me, had meaning beyond telling.
Slowly, this sense of communion with Life coalesced into a voice addressing me personally. I can’t remember how or when I took notice, and no, I didn’t literally hear a “voice,” but somehow, at some point, I knew that I should stay in a Catholic monastery if given the opportunity. The press of the life-impulse took on a strange specificity, all the more strange because “I” didn’t share its prerogatives. A Catholic monastery? Why? Yes, I had gleaned inspiration from scant reading of authors such as Thomas Merton and Kathleen Norris, but…did I really want to stay in a Catholic monastery?
In the meantime, the miles rolled on underfoot, until one evening in early November, while pedaling down Highway One through Big Sur, CA, I came upon the drive to New Camaldoli Hermitage. Too late to visit, I pedaled on another mile and a half and slept on the beach below. The next morning, having broken camp, I stood on Highway One, looking north, then south, wanting to keep biking but still possessed by the intuition that I needed to visit the monastery. So I did. And I was offered the possibility of a job on the residential maintenance crew. I didn’t stick around to find out whether the position was available or not, though (all the more baffling in hindsight, considering I had less than $300 to my name, with no job prospects ahead), but continued biking, camping on the beach again that night 50 miles down the road. I had no idea where I thought I was going. I just wanted to keep moving. I was searching for I-knew-not-what, all the while dimly picking up on and yet still missing the cues from the One who had already found me and was inviting me to something startlingly concrete.
The next morning I woke up depressed. I got ready but just couldn’t bike. I lingered in town awhile, listlessly. I opened the book by Thomas Merton I had bought at the monastery bookstore and began to read. The intuition once again flooded me, reminding me: I need to return to the monastery. I called the maintenance supervisor to see if the job was indeed available and the offer still good. It was. “See me at 9am Monday morning,” he said. That night I camped in the same spot as the last, but this time my spirits were buoyant, filled with a quiet peace and joy. I even danced in the moonlight, beneath a tree, listening to Emmy Lou Harris. The next morning, I turned my bike north to retrace the ride of two days before.
Before telling any more of the story, I want to make a few observations. First and foremost, bicycle touring has been for me an act of faith, even when I haven’t been aware of it as such. Yes, I plan and prepare, but I’ve come to believe that these decisions and actions are a participation in a larger pattern and purpose not of my devising. Yes, I planned and prepared for this present tour, and yet I am haunted by the conviction that I’ve also been lured into this endeavor for purposes beyond my own making or comprehension. As the story above illustrates, on the one hand, bicycle touring can have the mark of a restless running-away in a time of distress. On the other, and unbeknownst to me, or perhaps dimly intuited, is a running-toward a wider horizon, a new level of meaning that seems like nothingness until I am led to a crucial breakthrough. The bicycle tour narrated above had a clear, concrete breakthrough-event in my arrival at the monastery. Will this tour have a similar breakthrough? Obviously, I cannot know, but I recognize the telltale symptoms that precede such an event—the sense of being stripped of old ways of perceiving and experiencing meaning, of attachments to particular people, places, goals, activities; in short, being stripped of familiar narratives that held life together for a while but have outworn their appropriateness, a necessary dying in order to receive a new story and direction. Now, having the benefit of being taught by experience, bicycle touring this time around allows me to literally pedal through this process of deconstruction and reconstruction as a conscious act of faith.
To be continued…