I had an interesting insight the other day.

As I’m wending my way through my midlife years, I have been playing with the “What if…” questions that I suppose haunt many people in their forties. But I guess where some people wonder “What if I really had become an artist/musician/actor/writer instead of just settling down in my career?” my questions run more along the lines of “What if I really had pursued a professional career instead of the writer’s life?”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m deeply honored to be a writer, and to be as modestly successful as I am. It’s really cool having been published, getting to do interviews, being invited to come speak to groups or lead retreats, and so forth. I love the writer’s life and am wildly thrilled and truly humbled that I have been granted this particular dream come true. But like many artistes, part of the price that I have paid as a writer has been to put my energy into my writing rather than into work that actually pays well (!), which means that, at almost 50 years old, I’m still doing work that almost any reasonably well educated 25 year old could handle — with compensation and prestige commensurate to my position.

But what if I had chosen a different path to follow?

Here’s one what-if: what if, instead of working at relatively easy jobs in order to pour my efforts into writing, I had actually gone on to seminary (back when I was still an Episcopalian) and become a priest? That’s an easy one to answer, as frankly I think I’m a far happier man today, than I would have been if I had gone that route. As much as I admire the dedication and hard work that priests and pastors pour into their ministries, at this point in my life I have enough self-knowledge to realize that I simply don’t have the right skills to excel as a clergyman. I think I’d have been another Barbara Brown Taylor (only not as good a preacher): burning out as soon as I realized that being a priest “wasn’t meeting my needs.”

But the other what-if haunts me more thoroughly. What if I had pursued a Ph.D. and followed a career in education? I probably have the skills to make it through the day as a prof, and I certainly would enjoy the college milieu and the privilege to teach. I get to do enough teaching here and there (Evening at Emory, for example) to know that it would be rewarding to do full-time. And I don’t think anyone would disagree that, at a cocktail party, people would be more impressed if I said, “I teach English at Such-and-Such University” rather than “I work at a bookstore.”

So that’s the setup. Now, here’s the insight. The other day I was talking with my wife about how basically happy I really am, even as a mere bookstore clerk. I’ve got a loving family, wonderful friends, all my material needs are met and my financial picture gets a little better each month, I have a wonderful personal library and a beautiful if modest house, and I even can afford to make it to Europe once in a while. Meanwhile, about that job: I work in the largest Catholic bookstore in Georgia, owned by a Trappist monastery, which means not only daily do I get to rub elbows with men who have given their lives to the contemplative life, but my customers are people seeking a bit of that deep silent peace for themselves. And they come to me, looking for a book to two to read to help them on their way.

And as I thought about that, that’s when it hit me. I am a teacher. Only instead of teaching a three-credit course that meets three hours a week for 12 weeks, I teach two-minute-long micro-courses on an ad-hoc basis to whoever walks into the Abbey Store. Someone asks for a book on Lectio Divina, and as I explain the different books that we carry and why we recommend the ones that we do, I’m giving that person a very brief overview of what Lectio is and how to make it part of their lives. The same goes for contemplative prayer, the Rosary or the Jesus Prayer, the Daily Office, reading the Bible, reading the saints or the mystics, learning about the Christian faith in general or the Catholic faith in particular, learning about the Rule of St. Benedict or Benedictine or Cistercian spirituality in general. I’ve helped people who’ve read The Seven Storey Mountain to figure out which Thomas Merton books to read next; I’ve steered folks interested in east-west dialogue to Bede Griffiths, interested in religion-science dialogue to Teilhard de Chardin, and interested in both topics to Raimon Panikkar. I’ve encouraged devout Catholics to open up to Protestant writers by recommending Cynthia Bourgeault or N.T. Wright or Roberta Bondi, and have done the same for Protestants with an interest in Catholicism by introducing them to Merton or Michael Casey or Thomas Keating. And more times than I can count I’ve had someone ask me to “recommend a book or two on mysticism” only to have them walk out of the shop with copies of Bernard McGinn’s anthology along with Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing.

I was telling a friend yesterday: If I were a college professor, I might get to teach a course on Julian of Norwich once every two years or so. It would be a senior or graduate level seminar, and maybe four or five students would sign up for it. But at the Abbey Store I sell at least a copy or two of Julian’s book every month, which means that I’m helping probably 6 to 12 times as many people discover Julian as I would be doing at a University. That’s something I find deeply satisfying.

I know this is a rather self-involved post. Forgive me this. But I’m writing this because I love this notion of microteaching. Who says you have to be a college professor in order to teach? And, for that matter, who says you have to be a bookseller to microteach? I suspect that many readers of this blog might have opportunities arise over the course of your lives when you can briefly and without any ostentation offer someone a micro-lesson on the contemplative life, or the mystical tradition, or simply the lavish love of God and how it has made a difference in your life. Don’t underestimate the power of such ephemeral encounters. Sometimes they can be life-altering moments. We who have embraced the contemplative life do not have to be proselytizers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have just a touch of the evangelist about us. When the opportunity comes to share the good news of a life loyal to silence in Christ, do so — humbly and with gladness.

And if you’re in your forties second-guessing your life, forget about “what if.” I bet there are tons of blessings in your life, right in front of your nose. Go find them.

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  • R.C.

    Carl, at my niece’s wedding, I met a wonderful couple who are interested in genuine spirituality, and are eager to explore primary sources.

    So, when people leave the bookstore, you suggest Bernard McGinn’s anthology along with Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing.

    Which of McGinn’s anthologies? The Essential writings one?
    Which are your favorite editions of Julian and The Cloud?


  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I recommend Bernard McGinn’s The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. Large and daunting, but well-chosen selections with great introductions.

    Far and away the preferred translation of Julian is John Skinner’s Revelation of Love. I don’t have as strong a preference regarding the Cloud, and here at the store we just carry the classic William Johnston translation of The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling. At only $9.95, it’s not only a classic, but a bargain.

  • Liadan

    I am both amused and surprised that you never realized how much of a teacher you are everyday. You’ve taught me so much in the short time I’ve ‘known’ you.

    You are a natural teacher to yur very core.

    Never doubt the impact you have on so many people. Never doubt how wisely God has used you.


  • judith collier

    Liadan said it so well! Of course you are a teacher and a patient one at that. And you helped me find my voice, do you know what a precious gift that is. I was so afraid when I first happened here and over time a lot of thoughts came together for me. I have much more clarity and confidence. If ever there was a classroom for you it is here. And I got to know all different kinds of people from this site. You have to believe God wants you here or He would move you. I really, really believe that with all my heart. This is the biggest classroom in the world.

  • http://desertfishing.wordpress.com Dfish

    This is such a beautiful post not only about choice of work but finding God – that is joy – in every work. In my mid-30s, contemplative thinking always brings me to some moments of awe because it is so encompassing of every nook and cranny of our lives. With this blog, the contemplative teacher/abbot/monk/ in you always comes out.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    You guys make me blush! :-)

    Certainly this blog continues to be a joy for me, and I look forward to the day (hopefully February) when I can get back to it on more or less a daily basis. Writing and teaching naturally go together, which is why I keep wondering if I shouldn’t have been in a more explicitly “teach-y” job, i.e., at a college or university. But I think having as humble a job as I do is good for my Benedictine soul, and since both the bookstore and the blog appear to be venues where I can let my didactic tendencies roar, all is well in the world.

  • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

    I think it has been helpful to me, being among Quakers. In spite of all the jokes (mainly from Quakers) about how Quaker “set out to do good, and ended up doing well,” I know an awful lot of people living lives of deliberate simplicity in order to have more time to live life in a spiritually centered fashion: folks who retired early to work with refugees, or who work part time in order to have more time for community and contemplation, or to dedicate themselves to work that has little money in it, in order to pursue a ministry of environmental witness or peace activism. I know that some of the people I look up to most in my meeting are living at or near the poverty line, and it makes me question my priorities…

    If I were not a teacher, but a bookstore clerk, would I in fact have more that was worth teaching? Would I be living more closely the life that Spirit intends for me?

    I think it’s good to stay sensitive about leadings to move into more or less visible professional roles. And if you ever decide to change careers, Carl, I bet you’ll be great at whatever you do. But I know that you are already one of the writers I look up to most; the fact that you dare to have a “day job” that lets you do the work you seem called to do, without being unduly swayed by how the “World’s people” keep score–well, that seems pretty bodacious to me.

    As for this being self-indulgent, is there a difference between being self-indulgent and self-revealing? I know that I have found a lot of food for thought here today; self-examination and self-reflection are things I know I need plenty of, and I get better at them partly through example. So if this is self-indulgent, well, indulge away–I know I benefit from it, at least.

    Blessed be.

  • judith collier

    Carl, I still do believe you are where you’re supposed to be at this time and I did pray for you but I remembered or it came to me without remembering(?) how every time I had a longing like what you experienced something did change, not always or rather never, really, what I thought it would be. What Cat said about staying sensitive to leadings of the Spirit is important. You will know it when it manifests but you might be surprised as to how it plays out. I just had to tell you this. This could be the Spirit groaning in you, praying about something He is preparing you for. And the fact that you have learned to be content with what you have and where you are is also a sign of something new coming. I hope you believe me and do be aware of events and what people are saying, usually little things but later looking back it all comes together.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thanks, Cat & Judith. Plenty of wisdom in what you both are saying. If six years ago you had told me that in 2008 I would be working at a monastery bookstore and writing a book on Christian mysticism, I would have told you you were crazy. Which means, who knows where I (or any of us) will be in 2014? Simply staying in the present moment while also allowing the future to be richly full of undreamed possibilities is, I think, vitally important — and a spiritual practice in and of itself. Ironically, the joy I have found working at the Abbey Store gives me a pretty strong base — I’ll only accept whatever opportunity comes my way if I discern that it is even better than where I am now, and where I am now is pretty good, so the bar is pretty high. With that in mind, we’ll see what the Spirit is cooking up!

  • laura

    I suppose I still second guess my life in my 40′s. But the mid-40′s definitely seems to me to be more about a time of acceptance rather than second guessing the choices I made earlier in life.

    It’s funny – all of the decisions I made in my 30s that I thought I might feel sorry about in my 40s haven’t made me sorry at all – just the opposite!! Even though things didn’t turn out at all like I thought they would.

    I guess I started recognizing the fruitlessness in second guessing choices sometime in my 30s. I don’t know about things all coming together because that hasn’t been my experience at all. If anything, life has become far more chaotic. But, amazingly, that’s been OK. Chaos in my 40s doesn’t bother me like chaos in my 20s would have. And I think my teenage children are extremely grateful for that! :)

    Nice post. Thank you!

  • http://abracazen.tripod.com Loretto Gubernatis

    Dear Carl,

    As I mentioned a while back I came upon your site in a search for info on Anam Cara. I am writing a book on angels and I wanted to include some of the less known ones. I grew up in Dublin as a child and came to America at nearly 10. My name Loretto is now linked with your site due to my facetious post. I then posted 3 angel poems so that I might redeem that first post. I now see I will be forever linked to your site. So I have been reading your more current posts.

    I would just like to say that “To be an artist at 20 is to be a dreamer, to be an artist at 40 is to be an Artist.” You can be an artist in many ways and to be a writer certainly is one, so you are a true artist if you are still writing. Being a teacher is the highest form of artist as the best form of flattery is plagiarism. When people are influenced or follow you and you change even one mind you have accomplished a great goal. To be a teacher in a book store is humble and Christ like. Christ taught in simplicity with no money in his pocket, barely shoes on his feet. In this jet set world we have lost a lot of that simplicity. How nice to see it in you.

    As for money and bigger goals, 5 years ago my husband and I gave up everything to follow the voice of spirit after 9/11. We convinced the Baltimore World Trade Center to let us shoot a local cable show from the Observation deck shining our television wave light out like a beacon across the world. The show is titled Top of the Morning. We are in our 1000 episode and we totally fund it ourselves while living on social security. We have won 14 Telly Awards for the show including Silvers. We have had some amazing guests to interview from Rosie O’Donnell to Bishop Desmond Tutu. Someday maybe you might come and be a guest. So if you build it they will come. Meanwhile keep up the good work of teaching and feeding the sheep and lambs from the humble pulpits of the site and the bookstore. My favorite film is Keys of Kingdom with Gregory Peck about one of the humblest priests in the world. I have a feeling if you had become a priest you would have been like him. But I think a lot of people are glad you are doing what you’re doing. Below is the poem I wrote after checking your site.


    Oh walk with me oh friend of my soul
    Upon the pathways of my life and see where I did go astray
    With you beside me do I wonder how it happened?
    That I should lose my way

    But lost I am and have no one to find me if you are not there
    And I can’t see you anymore as I did see you in my youth
    When you did listen to my babble
    And give it substance seeming truth

    For if we pare the onion down there’s nothing there
    And I have found the truth deceived in a cloak of love
    Without a bosom of the soul
    Nothing below and nothing up above
    Except my God

  • Sarah

    Carl, I’m 65 and still have those “what if” moments. I think they are very much part of the human condition, but God, thanks be, deals with what is, not what if. And in His economy absolutely nothing is wasted. He makes use of everything you’ve done, every place you’ve been, every idea you’ve ever had, and we are all immeasurably enriched thereby.

    Here’s a thought for you. Just as you micro-teach day in and day out, so do you offer Holy Sacrifice day in and day out. Not of course, in the same sense that a priest offers the Sacrifice of the Mass. Because, however, you are a member of the priesthood of all believers by virtue of your baptism into the Body of Christ, every micro-sacrifice of self that you make is an offering, holy and acceptable to God.

    Years ago I was privileged to attend a retreat led by a Benedictine monk. He said his novice master taught him to think of every flat surface he encountered in the course of his day as an altar and the work that he did upon any given flat surface as a sacrificial offering. I have never forgotten that teaching.

    If I am ironing clothes, then the ironing board is an altar and the work an offering. If I am at my desk writing (my profession, too), then my desk is an altar and the work an offering. Thinking of all one’s work in this way takes the sting out of the “what ifs” for me, because seen in the light of the altar and sacrifice, no work is more important than any other work. All work is an equally acceptable offering to God.

    When my children were still small, there was a woman who loved to play the guitar and lead the singing in our prayer group. She too had small children at home. One night, a man came up to her after dthe meeting and said, “I have a word from the Lord for you. He says that He has given you a beautiful voice because he has called you out for music ministry.” She laughed and wisely said, “That may be so, but right now, He has called me to diaper changing and toilet cleaning ministry.”

    That lesson has stayed with me too. God may use each of us in many different ways during the course of our lives. Our ministry of the moment, however, is usually right where we are. We seldom have to look any further than our own doorsteps to find the work He has prepared for us to do.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thanks for passing this on, Sarah. That teaching of the Benedictine monk is quite lovely — and I hope you don’t mind if I mention it in the book I’m writing!

  • http://www.findinggracewithin.blogspot.com Shannon

    Carl, I was just thinking along these lines today in the midst of Monday at Open Chapel in the prison. I went from marriage counseling to answering “what’s the sin against the Holy Spirit” to “what’s the difference between Christians and Catholics” to “why isn’t my name on the Ramadan list?” all in the space of half an hour.

    I spent 10 years teaching high school religion and 12 years in parish work, but I swear that it’s here in prison that I get to have the most fun–and I never know what the subject will be from moment to moment. Fits my lint trap brain, for certain.

  • http://www.matthewsmith.id.au/ Matthew Smith

    Hi Carl, I have learnt heaps through your blog perhaps in micro increments. I’m glad you stayed a bookstore clerk and wrote your books and this blog. I’m hoping to write a book one day but for now I bang away at software all day.

  • Sarah

    By all means use the teaching, Carl. I’m sure the monk would be honored. I wish I could remember his name, but all I remember about him is that he came from Three Rivers Monastery and was an awesome retreat leader. I have a feeling, however, that he was the sort of person who would prefer I remember his teaching rather than his name.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thanks, Sarah!

  • http://abracazen.tripod.com Loretto Gubernatis

    Merry Christimas Everyone, may the true peace of Christmas descend upon you.

    Here are two poems from my book Angels N Things which will be available

    Christmas day. What a great present we have received!


    Loretto Lou and Toto


    Oh golden angel of the Christmas tide

    With soft satin wings your reality

    Those wings dipped deep in Yuletime pride

    To shine atop upon our Christmas tree

    And looking down on all below you see

    Such innocence of childhood’s winsome smile

    As little faces watch thee back with glee

    And hope their wishes fulfilled in awhile

    What joy in Christmas for an angel’s soul

    To sit upon the family’s favored tree

    And reminisce of Christmas’ of old

    And know you’re alway part of family history


    The Christmas Angels have gathered to sing

    A song of the ancient holidays

    With trappings modern of modern things

    Like Santa and reindeers and loaded sleighs

    With wreaths and stockings and decorated trees

    They try to sing an ancient song

    With stockings and candy canes and more that please

    Our ears hear songs that don’t belong

    Materialistic things seem everywhere

    And things we seem to worship most

    It’s no wonder that angels feel despair

    Of Father Son and Holy Ghost

    The spirit of Christmas was humbly born

    And humbly walked in foot steps bare

    Across a world filled with forlorn

    He offered love in place of sad despair

    And needing more to worship the simplicity

    Of the humble babe born to be a king

    For the greatest gift at Christmas time

    Is to hear true song tha the angels sing