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.