Life is an improvisational art, at every age. So says Mary Catherine Bateson, cultural anthropologist and daughter of the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. She’s a prolific author, but the two titles that catch my imagination are those of her best-selling books, Composing a Life and Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom.
Improvise vb [fr. It improvviso sudden, fr. L improvisus, lit., unforeseen] 1 : to create and perform (music, drama, or verse) spontaneously or without preparation 2 : to make, invent, or arrange offhand 3 : to make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand
Bateson’s observation that life is an improvisational art at every age resonated with me in the same way as did the remarks of John O’Donohue, the late Irish poet, author, priest, and Hegelian philosopher: “One of the sad things today is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, or to an image, or to a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled on for them. This identity may be totally at variance with the wild energies that are rising inside in their souls. Many of us get very afraid and we eventually compromise. We settle for something that is safe, rather than engaging the danger and the wildness that is in our own hearts.”
Both observations are apropos to my retirement from the latest of my careers, that of parish pastor. For thirty-six years I tied myself into a system, a role, an image, a predetermined identity that other people – the recent tradition of the mainstream Western church in general and my denomination (United Methodist) in particular – settled on for me. In doing so, I ignored or suppressed the natural “wild energies” of my soul.
I did it willingly enough, I confess. The work allowed me to use some of my better gifts; it provided salary and benefits, both social and material, including a decent pension, that were attractive. But the system, I found, exacts or in its peculiar way coerces compliance and conformity at the expense of integrity, authenticity, and radical creativity. And it does it oh so subtly.
Donatism, the ancient heresy, is alive and well today in the church (as much as it is in politics). That’s the heresy in which people view as most acceptable not the pastor who best embodies the values of the gospel but the one who most effectively embodies the values of the community, whether or not the community’s values have anything at all to do with the gospel.
In retiring from parish ministry, I’m discovering how tightly I had tied myself to the system, the role, the image, the identity that the church had settled on for me and that the community required me to fill. Those ties are not easily cut, and it will take a long time to loosen them.
As I extricate myself from those ties, I’m having “to make or fabricate a life out what is conveniently on hand,” using those gifts and wild energies that have survived their long bondage. Not all of them are easy to find and identify. Some have been constrained so long they’re barely recognizable. So I’m going to take some sabbath time during which to let the waters grow still until the mud settles and they clear again.
When Lewis Mumford felt his creative energies were being constrained and depleted in delivering what he referred to as “unimportant lectures to vacuous people,” he wrote to the literary critic Van Wyck Brooks about his determination to turn over a new leaf. “Henceforward,” he wrote, “I shout to the heavens, I shall deliver no more lectures on behalf of good causes: I am the good cause that denies the need for such lectures. Avaunt! importuning world! Back to my cell.”
Go into your cell, the ancient monks advised, and your cell will teach you everything. Look into the depths of your own heart, and you’ll find written there the law of God (Jer. 31:33), the code of principles by which life is created to be lived. So avaunt! importuning world. I’m going to retreat and search my heart for a while to (re)discover the stuff with which I shall improvise a life. While I’m at it, I’ll publish no more of these ruminations. And when I’ve searched enough to be ready, I’ll be back with, I hope, something a little more worth putting into words.