Middle age metanoia
I turned 40 just before the start of the pandemic, and found myself grappling with the fairly common range of emotions that our society refers to as a “mid-life crisis.” I felt overburdened with responsibility and seriousness, constantly pressured by high expectations, and uncertain about where to go next in my career or how to find fulfillment in my work. I suppose the global pandemic and its attendant upheaval contributed too. All of this, along with some history and circumstances in my church community, manifested in a sense of restlessness, boredom and alienation in my faith life. While I was pretty sure I still believed the things I proclaimed at my profession of faith, they somehow seemed rote, predictable and hollow, more drudgery than delight.
My initial and instinctive response to these feelings was to seek out books, music and television featuring middle-aged people cathartically shirking responsibility or wallowing around in nostalgia for simpler days of ninja movies and Nintendo. Without fully realizing it at the time, I was scanning the culture for clues about how to be middle-aged. This direction, however, wasn’t sustainable. Checking out from adult responsibilities feels liberating and indulgent in the moment, and I know I’ll always have a need for some level of reckless abandon and unproductive fun. But when you have obligations and people who depend on you, embracing this sort of retreat and regression is to behave selfishly and let your loved ones down.
The mystical way
And so eventually I moved on, scanning the culture for other clues that might teach me something about how to be middle-aged and possibly reinvigorate my spiritual life. It turned out that the way forward was the way back, and I found myself drawn to the rich and deep tradition of Christian mysticism that I first encountered as an undergraduate. In those days, I thought that mysticism was about decoding a series of esoteric insights, cosmic clues from the Creator that would lead to some hidden knowledge or grant access to the beatific vision as if it were an exclusive club. But that’s not how it actually works. Rather than earning, striving, or figuring out – the whole capitalist and Cartesian thing – mysticism is about slowing down, letting go and quieting the mind so that God can get a word in edgewise.
Typically by the end of a day in my digital knowledge-work job, my mind is bouncing around frantically like a pinball. But as I begin cultivating a practice and a mindset around the principles of mysticism, the foundations of my faith are coming back into focus. I’m starting to get a sense for what ora et labora (pray and work) might mean. I’m learning to love silence. I am finally starting to understand what T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote that “prayer is more / Than an order of words, the conscious occupation / Of the praying mind.” And I’m seeing anew, grudgingly at times, that putting aside my own selfish interests and tendencies creates space not only for God but for others. Here’s Eliot again: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”
A bit more on that last point. I re-read W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being over Christmas and was struck by a couplet that I’d never really remarked on before: “Space is the Whom our loves are needed by, / Time is our choice of How to love and Why.” I’ve been contemplating these lines ever since, but in the mystical sense of contemplatio as explained by Carl McColman where “eventually… the words will drop away and the wordless silence will embrace you as you simply sit in God’s presence.” The effect has been profound, and has helped me reframe my perspective and make some meaningful changes in my behaviour.
It’s always been fairly easy for me to spend time with my sons (ages 12 and 10). They’re little versions of me, and we have all the same interests. This isn’t the case with my six-year-old daughter, who wants to do things that – to be totally honest – I find pretty boring. Lately, though, marinated in Auden’s sentiment that time is a choice of how to love and why, I’ve been quieting my selfish impatience in order to immerse myself in my daughter’s world. We’ve spent hours playing school and ponies, making her room into an art gallery, crafting our own fascinator hats to wear to our own fancy tea parties and done a lot of baking. (So. Much. Baking). But it is good, profoundly good, and I am finding myself blessed and enthralled to spend more time in my daughter’s company and to try to see the world through her eyes.
Could there be anything more mundane, cliched or prosaic than a father realizing he needs to spend more quality time with his child? Probably not, and yet I can’t begin to convey the difference that this adjustment of heart and mind is making in my life – and I pray in hers. One of the recurring tropes of mystical writing is the ineffability of mystical experience. How do you describe the full force of something that everyone knows but which you come to truly, deeply and profoundly know? Or at least to see a little more clearly, become better calibrated on? Mystical insights often sound like bumper sticker slogans or Hallmark cards, but they can visit their subjects with a depth of feeling and knowledge beyond mere sentiment, impulse or comprehension.
Metanoia, as I understand it, means something like repentance. It’s about a change of mind or purpose. McColman, the author of several books about Christian mysticism, describes it as “opening your mind, heart and your soul so that Christ’s Holy Spirit can slowly transform you into love.” I’m grateful to have found a productive direction in my search for middle-aged identity. It’s certainly healthier than the usual cliché of buying a sports car, which is good because I can’t afford that anyway.