Tuesday, January 03, 2006

On Spiritual Life and Beaver Dams

If you’ve read the weather news lately, you’ve noticed that northern California has been getting battered with incessant storms and heavy rain with the attendant flooding, mudslides, etc, for the past couple of weeks. (Still raining, by the way.) The road on which we live is covered with mud in several places—sometimes trees have accompanied the mud, sliding down intact, looking now as if they are growing right out of the road—and it’s covered with water in other places. Happy New Year!

Back on the monastery property, we had floods and muds of our own. Aside from digging (or re-digging) drainage ditches, one of the most urgent projects was to divert a suddenly-raging river of rain runoff away from our newly-built shrine to Our Lady, so that it would not float down the hillside and join the trees growing out of the newly-mudded road. I noticed this impending disaster when I was on my way to meet Mike, one of our retreatants, who was seeking a bit of spiritual direction. When I saw the river, and the pool of water gathering around the foundation of the shrine, I had to tell Mike that something urgent had come up that needed my immediate attention. He generously offered his help, so, sloshing toward the shrine with shovels in hand, we attempted to assess the situation and come up with a (quick) plan to divert the water.

Our solution was a sort of beaver dam, made out of mud and firewood (which was about all that was readily available; sandbags would have been better, but it was too late to try to pick some up, since the roads were flooded anyway). We somehow had the opportunity, while trying to contain the flood and direct it away from the shrine, to reflect on the spiritual life. We concluded that trying to protect the shrine and to re-direct the raging waters was analogous to trying to control and direct the passions, those spiritual/psychic energies within us that drive us toward good or evil.

Water, especially flowing forcefully, can be either beneficial or destructive, just like the energy of the passions. If allowed simply to flow without restraint or direction, serious damage could be done. Once they have flowed for some time, having eroded trenches along the way, it is difficult to get them to follow a new path. They still want to go they way they carved out for themselves. “Look,” I exclaimed, “as soon as you stop it in one place, it squirts out in another!” “Ain’t it the truth,” Mike replied, or something to that effect.

Mike then said, “I found a piece of firewood that has a bit of a branch sticking out of it, so I drove it into the ground. That’ll hold the dam in this spot.” As he spoke, the flood lifted up the log and began to send it downstream. Hmpf! Can’t get overconfident when dealing with the passions. The area in which you think you have the most strength may be the first to collapse under spiritual attack.

Finally we patched it up enough to send the water away from the shrine, hoping that it would at least last the night. Thoroughly drenched (even the pockets of my habit filled up—I wrung about half a cup out of my hankie), we went to get a bite to eat before collapsing after evening prayer. But morning revealed a breach in the beaver dam. Makeshift efforts to control the passions or live the spiritual life will not endure its serious demands or repeated attacks or temptations. We ended up hauling out some concrete blocks and sufficiently reinforcing the dam, so that the water had time to erode new trenches and happily flow in the direction to which we had diverted it. If we make a serious effort to control our unruly impulses, desires, and energies, they will eventually (with the help of divine grace) start flowing in a way that we can rationally and willingly direct, rather than raging unrestrained and thus breaching any feeble or half-hearted attempt to contain or positively re-direct them.

There’s no way to keep a flood from happening, but there are ways to creatively and fruitfully re-direct its flow. For all things can be made to serve the Lord and his purposes—even beaver dams and those who reflect on their meaning.