The Road Not Taken

My dear readers, I try to keep the angst-quotient on this blog to a bare minimum, but this morning I am going to indulge myself a bit. You have been duly warned. Read on at your own risk.

Yesterday morning I received an email from Bob P., a reader of this blog, who wrote this observation:

I’ve been reading your wise blog posts on discipline and your rule for life and the huge amount of reading that you do.  I’m wondering why is this guy not teaching Spirituality at the Phd level at a well known University.  Just from a human maybe false self perspective you could make a ton more money and have some recognition for your reading efforts. Having a chair of Theology or Spirituality of a famous dead person could open up a lot of doors.  Or be a famous monk like Merton.  I’m wondering why is he wasting his life at a bookstore.  Anyway that is my issue.  I know I’m not telling you something new.

Then, I found a post from Fencing Bear at Prayer, a blog by a medieval history professor at the University of Chicago, who said in part:

Carl McColman over at the Website of Unknowing has a post this week about discipline that speaks to many of the issues that I am struggling with here. Full disclosure: I’ve just started reading his blog a few weeks ago, and I am incredibly jealous. He (like Jennifer at Conversion Diary) is pretty much saying everything that I want to be saying in my blog, but much better than I ever could and without even having an academic degree. Plus he’s published ten books and counting while I, as you know, am still struggling with number two. Which is actually relevant to my frustration about doing my homework. See, here I am, the good student, having gone to graduate school and gotten my Ph.D., having jumped all the hoops and been well trained, and somehow they who have not jumped even one hoop (at least of the “do your homework first” sort) are doing exactly what they want to be doing (respectively, working in a bookstore owned by Trappist monks; raising four kids and writing a memoir about her conversion) while I, somehow, am not.

This historian may have only written one book so far, but it looks really cool: it’s called From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200. Needless to say, I wasted no time ordering a copy. She may be jealous of my ten books, but then I’m envious of her one; I always compare myself unfavorably to those whose work is peer-reviewed and published by academic presses. So I wrote her a comment on her blog about how the grass isn’t always as green as it looks, and she posted a very warm reply, saying “I do want you to know how valuable I find your writing from a perspective outside of academia. You are able to say things that academics find it very difficult to say but often want to be saying themselves.”


Like Fencing Bear, a lot of people have told me they’re envious of me. Nevertheless, like Bob, I myself secretly wonder if I’m wasting my life — working at a job that only requires skills I had mastered by the time I was 23. I suppose many of the monks I work with have similar feelings; some of the older ones entered the monastery fresh out of school, but the more recent vocations have been men who’ve entered the monastery after they’ve had successful careers “in the world,” including engineers, lawyers, and yes, college professors. It’s got a be a jolt going from teaching at the University level to making fudge for four hours a day while praying and meditating for another six. Not exactly what most people would call a significant career advancement. And perhaps that’s the point.

Here’s the crux of my problem: I’ve never taught at the University level, so I don’t know what I’m missing. My C.V. pretty much consists of speaking at churches and retreats (and let us not forget pagan gatherings!), as well as a few continuing education courses. I do know that my friends who teach don’t seem to be any happier than I am, but they do pretty much all have a higher standard of living and are far more well-traveled, not to mention that they’re perched higher on the prestige totem pole than booksellers (monastic or otherwise). Have I dodged a bullet by staying out of academia (allowing me the freedom to “say things that academics find it very difficult to say”), or have I simply buried my talent? Is the boredom that I feel when I have to write yet another purchase order for novena cards and devotional prayer books really any worse than the viciousness of faculty politics or the endless hassle of committee meetings and dealing with unappreciative students?

And then there’s seminary. One of the reasons why I thought Catholicism would be good for me is the fact that I am ineligible for the priesthood, which paradoxically liberates me to simply be me: a lay contemplative, an ordinary guy with a geeky interest in the mystics. I know enough to know that a fondness for Teresa of Avila and Meister Eckhart won’t open any doors in the world of ordained ministry — but I still wonder if I didn’t make a huge blunder by not at least going to seminary and getting a theological studies degree.

Welcome to the angst-ridden side of my ego-self. Am I wasting my talents? Angst-ridden-ego-self says, “You bet!”

But, you know, I am more than just my ego.

So I take a deep breath and remember how, years ago, I made a commitment to write and to pray — not to teach. And with that in mind, the life I’ve designed for myself very much supports that essential commitment. Then I take another deep breath and I ponder all the joys in my life. These joys include: a wife and daughter who truly, in-their-bones love me (and the feeling is mutual); a modest, but very nice, house in the Atlanta ‘burbs; the utterly awesome privilege of working at a monastery, which means I have access to a real contemplative community each and every day. In addition, there is the riches of the larger online Christian spiritual community that I have plugged into, largely thanks to this blog. I’ve got a book that I’m very excited about in production, along with every reason to trust that future books will be written and published as well. And while I may not have ever been invited to spend a semester teaching in London, neither have I been totally deprived of opportunities to travel — and my intuition pretty much assures me that I will find far more speaking gigs as a Christian contemplative author than I ever did as a Neopagan author (and the pagans kept me busy enough).

As I’ve noted before in this blog, when I lead retreats — or even wait on customers in the store — I do get to teach, in that I get to share with others the one thing I am most passionate about: contemplative spirituality. As for research, I can explore whatever I want, and thanks to the work I do, I get more free books than I have time to read. Informal opportunities to provide spiritual direction to others comes along all the time, and I have a constellation of wonderful, down-to-earth friends, who are intelligent and vibrant and not particularly worried about proving anything to anybody.

In short, my life rocks. Every day I get to write and to pray and to hang out with monks and books. It’s such a singularly wonderful life that I suspect any egoically-driven attempt to “make it better” might actually make it worse. When you stand at the north pole, every step you take takes you south. I am keenly aware that I have as much to lose as I have to gain when I consider taking my life in a different or a new direction.

So, why then, do I get so triggered when a well-meaning guy like Bob asks me why I’m wasting my life, or a University professor marvels at my accomplishments “without even having an academic degree”? Because I’m human, which means I’m proud and insecure, which means I’m the type of person who agonizes over the road not taken.

And if I had gone to seminary and become a priest, or pursued a Ph.D. and launched an academic career, I suspect I’d be just as haunted by all the other roads not taken — one of which would have been the road of a modest career that enabled me to pursue my spiritual and creative interests entirely on my own terms.

At the end of the novel Lake Wobegon Days, Garrison Keillor notes that “Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.”

Wise words there, even if you have to read them three times to make sure you get it. And on my better days, I am smart enough to see that I am right where I want to be. I’m smart enough to love my unusual little life, without judgment or regret. And then, on my less-centered days, I wonder about what might have been, or what ought to be. And who knows what tomorrow might bring? If I pursue a Ph.D. or run off to seminary at age 65, I won’t be the first person nutty enough to do so. All I hope is that, if ever I do return to the classroom (on either side of the podium), I will be driven by the desires of my heart, and not just some egoic need to prove myself.

Meanwhile, until I have that knot untangled, I know there are a lot of people who need to read books by Julian of Norwich or Bernard McGinn or John of the Cross. And I happen to know a wonderful bookstore where you can get just those books.

Seamus Heaney reads "St. Kevin and the Blackbird"
Something I wrote for
Dana Greene speaks on Evelyn Underhill
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Bob

    Thanks Carl for the wise and encouraging post for your blog sheep. There you go a another category(Sheppard) for you to be saddled with.
    I’m sorry if I elevated your blood pressure. It was encouraging to see that you struggle at times with your ego and with those kinds of messages. I’ve had a Spiritual Director mention that I get an MDiv just because I like to read some theology. These messages take on different forms depending on your community.
    Roman Catholic- best if you work in a inner city soup kitchen or be a celibate priest.
    Evangelical- Missionary to Africa sleeping on the ground eating bugs
    Society at large- get ahead “make something of yourself”
    Emergent- live in the negligentrd inner city growing your own food in vacant lots.
    Those messages can become crushing if you don’t realize the depths of God’s love.

  • Carl McColman

    My blood pressure is fine. I think it’s evidence of the Holy Spirit’s sense of humor that your email and Fencing Bear’s comments came to my attention within hours of each other. Sort of like, “Hey, Carl, play with these ideas, and see where they take you!”

    I don’t know that I could eat bugs, after all, I’m a vegan. But an inner city garden sounds really cool.

  • Fencing Bear

    Bless you, Carl, this is just what I needed to hear! Serendipitously enough, just yesterday my students and I were talking about Geert Grote’s decision to give up the academic life and become…well, not even a monk, actually (if he hadn’t died of the plague) a bookseller, since that is the way many houses of the brothers of the New Devout supported themselves. What you have helped me see is not necessarily that I should give up being a Good Student to go follow my bliss (as I was agonizing over), but that I should attend to the things that I do have in my life and that bring me joy. I’m afraid I’m doomed to be worrying about whether I’m writing enough or, more important, whether I’m writing what I most want to say, but I am going to try now to attend better to the context I have been given to do it in.

  • Carl McColman

    Thanks, and I think the “just what I needed to hear” feeling is mutual. Since I (obviously) have my own greener-grass issues, it’s comforting to be reminded that angst knows no boundaries (!), and that the real work of life — finding joy and meaning, being true to ourselves and our calling, nurturing our souls, caring for our family, and growing in love and holiness and devotion to God — pretty much carries on whether we are booksellers or academics, priests or parents, fencers or aspiring bassists. Nice to make your online acquaintance, and I’ll definitely be in touch after I have a chance to look over From Judgement to Passion.

  • Chris

    Really good food for thought for me these days. Since the economy has cut pretty deeply into the practice of every massage therapist I know – including me – I’ve taken a part-time HR job at a college, to “fill in the spaces.” As I see the credentials on other people’s job applications, I find myself wondering… For 18 years, I’ve had a vocation that I could have gone into after high school. I still love the effect I can have on people, and am told I’m very gifted at it, but lately I’ve been wondering whether I have taken a safe road instead of stretching and challenging myself with grad school. Don’t know where I’ll go with that, but I appreciate this blog post.

  • Dan

    I bet most people, like myself, who have spoken with you in the bookstore, have noticed how genuine you are. There is a lot to be said for that. It’s a characteristic that’s only found in those who are keenly aware of God directing their lives. Touching lives is a ministry whether it’s in a church, university, or a bookstore. I thank God for your ministry and pray he will continue to bless it.

  • John Sobert Sylvest

    What beautiful people and what generous & depthful personal sharing. And that strikes at the heart of my own road not taken, which I’ll address after describing the roads I have.

    Vocationally, I don’t experience the road not taken angst because I retraced several forks in the road and trod some rather diverse paths. I spent a couple of years in grad school researching my boyhood passion of understanding the physiological & psychological precursors of behavior, focusing on bird neuroendocrinology (for example, why they migrate now north, then south). I’m so extremely introverted, rather than pursue a teaching assistantship, I took a job caring for a sugarcane greenhouse. I loved my life in the field mist-netting my birds (research objects), in the lab, in the library & the greenhouse, but life’s inevitable financial exigencies converged on me such that, curiously, at the urging of a friend in my charismatic prayer group, I began selling real estate during a local boom period. There I learned that I was sociable, interacting with one customer at a time, even if not social, not one who thrived in groups. My bird research became less important and suffered from increasing inattentiveness & a dearly loved member of my grad committee died & I left school with most of my hours but without my degree. Fast-forwarding, I married and raised 4 beautiful children & retired 9 years ago this month at age 46. This early retirement was facilitated by a bank consultant who came off an Ignatian retreat & asked me if I wanted to buy a troubled financial institution & run it. I had been a bank president a couple of times but only because opportunities came up to run shops in a conservator mode as they were on the brink of failure. In other words, I was but an alter-ego of the regulators and didn’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body, much less money to invest. My fellow investors said not to worry, my investment would be via stock options. In a few years, we had turned the bank around, grown it modestly and I looked for a larger shop to buy us, taking extra time to ensure it was a bank from out of state who would keep all the employees. I must live frugally but we are comfortable enough. Should we hit any rough patches, I’ve resolved to find caretaker’s work in a greenhouse before re-entering the world of business. I’ve not been seriously tempted to pursue any advanced degrees.

    What I do is stay home and pursue my lifelong passion of formative spirituality & contemplative spirituality, interreligious dialogue and the science & religion interface. I’ve been immersed in Thomas Merton & Richard Rohr & similar writings. And I have started writing, which is where my road not taken comes in. As an enneagram 5 and Myers-Briggs INTP, I deal with and then share impersonal ideas and theories and abstractions, with philosophy, metaphysics and theology, as it relates to spirituality, to be sure. I have not shared personal narratives, practical approaches or faith-sharing stories, which is what most people hunger for and how most process reality. When I have been an interloper on this or that forum, my type of sharing has mostly induced glazed-over eyes and befuddled heads. Eventually, I got in touch with this dynamic and decided to blog rather than enter forums, which are not really interested or nourished by my particular passion and peculiar & idiosyncratic writing style. On occasion, I say something that resonates with one or another soul and I take comfort in the thought that my small cyberniche is where and how I’ve been called. Perhaps I minister to the few who minister to the many. Perhaps not. I’m in manufacturing, I tell myself. Not marketing.

    But I have pretty much exhausted my interest in my theoretical pursuits and have resolved to turn my attention to the more practical and even the more personal. So, yesterday, for the first time, I decided to share publicly what many, many years ago I had only shared anonymously on a friend’s website, I suppose partly out of integrity and stepping out in a new-found vulnerability and also to honor his memory as he is recently deceased. This sharing describes experiences, not gifted during my more contemplative post-retirement life, that were consolations received in the midst of a very difficult daily grind:
    A Journeyer

    This seems like a safe and welcoming place, like a real anam chara.

  • oakabbey

    Though it is not my journey Carl, I do “peek in” at your world, to the extent that you share it. In my estimation Dear Sir, you have the best of both worlds…a rich life, sharing your gifts and doing things you love to do, with a foundation of simplicity which allows you to remain truly free to attend to your spirit and be present to your family.
    There’s one word for such a life: blessed.
    Deep Peace to you,
    Cheryl Anne

  • Leslie

    Your timing is exquisite Carl. Just last night, after a blessed conversation with my aunt about some of the stormy circumstances of my life right now, I felt the levity of heart that comes from having laid down its burden by sharing the load. Driving home in the dark, listening to some meditative music, I felt all the desire in my soul well up and the ache of it made me cry with joy and increased longing.

    There was a time when my desire would have caused terrible angst but only because I didn’t recognize what my desire really was. I only felt that I wanted everything, and knowing I could not have it registered in my soul as a deeply tragic and unfair loss. So many roads untaken…

    But then God found me and whispered to my soul that my desire for everything was really my desire for Him.

    Now my desire is one that seeks to look where before it would have consumed (thank you Simone Weil for that beautiful clarity). Rather than angst for the road not taken, I find, like you, gratitude for them and a great anticipation for the roads I will travel, whatever they may be.

  • phil foster

    Let your life proceed by it’s own design (GD/John Barlow, I think)

    Chop wood, carry water.

    Wherever you are, there you are (’60s bumper sticker?)

    I should be suspicious of what I want (Rumi via C Barks)

    We live in a culture obsessed with direction and choice. Minimal if any value is placed on being present, introspective and contemplative. Your authenticity draws folks, Carl. It’s a rare gift for which I am grateful.

  • Don

    Keep doing whacha been doing, you are doing fine.