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.