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Thinking the Unthinkable

02/26/2015 08:06 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

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There is a part of the soul that stirs at night, in the dark and soundless times of day, when our defenses are down and our daylight distractions no longer serve to protect us from ourselves. What we suppress in the light emerges clearly in the dusk. It's then, in the still of life, when we least expect it, that questions emerge from the damp murkiness of our inner underworld. Questions with ringtones that call the soul to alert but do not come with ready resolutions. Questions about life, not about the trivia of dailiness. The kind of questions to which there is no one answer but which, nevertheless, plague us for attention if we are ever to move through the dimness of life's twists and turns with confidence.

These questions do not call for the discovery of data; they call for the contemplation of possibility.

It is these kinds of questions that beleaguer the soul from one end of life to the other. It is these questions that the great spiritual traditions of every age have always set out to face and tame.

But how does this happen and what does it demand of us if we are to brook the inexorable appearance of these confusions, these tormentors of the spirit, and bend them to the best in us?

The truth is that we spend our lives in the centrifuge of paradox. What seems certainly true on the one hand seems just as false on the other. Life is made up of incongruities: Life ends in death; what brings us joy will surely bring us an equal and equivalent amount of sorrow; perfection is a very imperfect concept; fidelities of every ilk promise support but also often end.

How can we account for these things? How can we deal with them? How can we find as much comfort in them as there is confusion? These are the queries that will not go away but which, the spiritual giants of every age knew, need to be faced if we are ever to rise above the agitation of them. There is a point in life when its paradoxes must be not only considered but laid to rest.

The great truth of early monastic spirituality, for instance, lies in the awareness that only when life is lived in the aura of the transcendent, in the discovery of the Spirit present to us in the commonplaces of life, where the paradoxes lie, can we possibly live life to its fullness, plumb life to its depths.

When seekers went out to the wasteland looking for spiritual direction from the Fathers and Mothers of the desert, they did not receive in response to their spiritual questions harsh exercises in self-denial. On the contrary. They received instruction in self-knowledge. They received the wisdom of those who themselves had fathomed the tumult of life's paradoxes. They were instructed in the need to confront the tensions of them in their own lives. Not to deny them. Not to try to escape them. Not to ignore them. Not even to judge them. They were required to learn to see in the opposites of life the real richness of life.

Stories abound in the Christian tradition extolling the exploits of great spiritual figures whose fasts were Olympian, their years of solitude monumental, their rigorous disciplines on every level breathtaking. And so?

That kind of spiritual discipline is certainly impressive, but it does not represent the whole story. It is not even the greater part of the stories of any of the great spiritual eras or traditions. Seekers throughout the ages, the great mystics of every century, knew that it is not in physical asceticisms alone, let alone essentially, that the soul grows, expands, centers, and becomes its most radiant self.

In fact, the physical feats of those whose marks of the spiritual life lie in taxing the body and ignoring the world are, at best, more questionable disciplines to the age in which we live now than they are acceptable examples of an inspiring spiritual life. We flee them like the scourge. So what good were they?

If truth were known, that kind of spiritual heroism may well do more to discourage commitment to the spiritual life than to inspire it. So what is the stuff of the universal spiritual quest and path? What can possibly be found from across the ages as spiritual model for the likes of us?

To the average person whose life is exemplary most of all for its ordinariness--to people like you and me, for instance--it is what goes on inside of us that matters for the healthy life and real spirituality.

Clearly, the spiritual life begins within the heart of a person. And when the storms within recede, the world around us will still and stabilize as well. Or to put it another way, it was greed that broke Wall Street, not the lack of financial algorithms. Whatever it is that we harbor in the soul throughout the nights of our lives is what we will live out during the hours of the day.

This single-minded concentration on the essence and purpose of life, along with a focus on inner quietude and composure, makes for a life lived in white light and deep heat at the very core of the soul. Centering on the spirits within us, rather than being obsessed with the vicissitudes and petty imperfections of life gives the soul its stability, whatever the kinds or degrees of turbulence to be dealt with around it.

It is those elements of spirituality that this book is about, not extreme asceticisms or rejection of the world. Sometimes extolled in early spirituality, they are actually minor themes in the history of spirituality.

Nevertheless, this book has not been written for the sake of recording or repeating the wisdom of the past.

Instead, this book is meant to shine light on the inner confusions of our own age. It is written for all our sakes. For now--for this time and place, where we live our lives at the epicenter of chaos and crises from all directions. We are weary and worn out from its petty problems and daily stress, are in search of the quiet that calms confusion and clarifies insights and firms the path.

It is these paradoxes of our own times that skulk within us, that confuse us, sap our energy, and, in the end, tax our strength for the dailiness of life. They call us to the depth of ourselves. They require us to see Life behind life. Confronting the paradoxes of life around us and in us, contemplating the meaning of them for ourselves, eventually and finally, leads to our giving place to the work of the Spirit in our own lives.

And then will we have answers to it all? Probably not. Johann W. von Goethe wrote once, "Everything has been thought of before, but the problem is to think of it again." It is thinking through life alone, by ourselves or as communities of seekers with no particular or immediate instance in mind, that may save us from giving ourselves up to the enigmas of life in despair.

For all of us, paradox underlies the question of what it means to be human. These thoughts that rise out of nowhere in us between dark and dawn seem to have no content but will not let us rest. How is it that what is right at some times is not right at all times? What does it take to choose between them? This little book is an excursion into recognizing in the convolutions of this process the stuff of our own life of the spirit.

Excerpted from BETWEEN THE DARK AND THE DAYLIGHT by Joan Chittister Copyright © 2015 by Joan D. Chittister. Excerpted by permission of Image Books, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.