“There was an old man named Michael Finnegan.
He had whiskers on his chin-igan.
They grew out and then grew in again.
Poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin again. . .”
(repeat, ad nauseum)
One of my meditations this week at the monastery was on the concept of Beginner’s Mind that the Buddhists speak of, and also on St. Benedict, who said, “Always we begin again.” And then on Thomas Merton, who said, “There are only three stages to this work: to be a beginner, to be more of a beginner, and to be only a beginner.” I have been reading Christine Valters Paintner’s annotations on selected sayings of the desert fathers and mothers, and contemplating in particular some of their words regarding the Beginner’s Mind.
Abba Anthony, it is said, asked a group of monks and other seekers to expound a certain theological point, one by one, and when he reached Father Joseph, he asked him, too. Father Joseph simply said, “I don’t know.” Abba Anthony said, “This one has found the way. He says he does not know.”
Abba Macarius, when asked by a group of seekers to tell about what it means to be a monk, said, “Ah! I am not a monk myself, but I have seen them.” This one reminds me of the legendary comment of the mathematician and mystic Pythagoras, who was asked to speak of how he became wise, and answered, “I am not wise. I am a lover of wisdom.”
Even poor old Michael Finnegan, in the quote up there by the weeping beech tree, is a classic beginner, with the added idiomatic mystery that “to grow out your beard” and “to grow in your beard” mean relatively the same thing. We singsong his story, can’t figure it out, and begin again, until our buzzing heads can’t take it anymore.
I returned home from the monastery to this quotation by Rilke, so exquisitely perfect in its timing:
“If the Angel deigns to come it will be because you have convinced her, not by tears, but by your humble resolve to be always beginning; to be a beginner.”
In some ways the way of the desert Ammas and Abbas, the way of Buddha, of Merton, of Rilke and Finnegan is the way of the Fool, who is always dancing along the edge of that cliff, wind in her hair, free of the burden of being a wise soul, only always seeking wisdom, each moment a new beginning in the quest.
1. My Shining Rose of a friend has just been placed at the top of the heart transplant list, which means that she will likely get her new heart within the next two or three weeks. This is to me a relief and a terror. Now is the time to hold her in the waiting, to wait and to trust.
2. Beginning again and again and again. How this frees me from the burden of expectation.
3. Yesterday’s froggy moments. We found a Spotted Green Frog (rana clamintans) hopping around under the old poplar. The children needed to take it to the pond, so we settled it onto a muddy bank, where it rested a moment, then plooped into the pond and swam into the weeds nearby. And the bullfrogs boomed at us from all around the pond’s edges.
4. Even now, the yellow leaves of the walnut tree are pirouetting gracefully down the wind. Now, when the life force is pushing everything towards abundance, fullness, brilliant health–even now, is the beautiful reminder of decline. The cycle itself is layers of cycles, birth and death all at once.
5. You. Me. Encounters. How every moment that we meet, in whatever virtual or physical spaces, is an opportunity for both of us to experience something new, something profound, something holy. Thank you for the ways you enrich my moments.
May we walk in Beauty, beginning anew every moment.