In the summer of 1992, I was in a rather nasty car accident. It left me with a jaw broken in several places, a few missing teeth, lacerations along one arm, and a totaled vehicle. After surgery (leaving my mouth wired shut for six weeks — no easy feat for this enthusiastic speaker) and the purchase of a shiny new Saturn sedan, I met with my spiritual director to sort out my feelings. There I was, a young man who just had a brush, if not with death, at least with what could have been a far more serious incident. What meaning could I squeeze out of such a turn of events?
On the surface, I felt like I was living a wonderful life. I was dating a lovely woman, enjoying a successful career managing a bookshop at a wonderful college, living in a beautiful cottage tucked in the woods of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, and feeling nothing but confidence about my future. And then I got a few teeth knocked out of my mouth — and, perhaps, some sense knocked in to me. For, I suppose like many people do, I had given up (or paid scant attention to) some dreams in order to pursue others. Is that a bad thing? Probably not. But in the aftermath of my accident, it was time to re-think just how I was steering the course of my life.
I realized that two key elements of my life so far were starving for lack of attention. I loved to write, but was “so busy” living my fun, carefree life that I barely bothered to keep a personal journal, let alone write for others. Perhaps even more crucial, I hungered for intimacy with God — an intimacy I knew could be fostered by prayer, meditation, and contemplation, thanks to a rather dramatic experience of God’s presence I had when I was a teenager, followed by several formative classes in Christian spirituality taken at the Shalem Institute shortly after I finished my degree. Like my writing, spirituality was something I said was important to me, but in all honesty I had not made much of an effort to practice a daily commitment to prayer.
Writing and prayer. Word and silence. Wisdom and emptiness. These two neglected longings in my soul were what I most yearned to make a real part of my life. As a friend I would meet a decade later would say, these two things “had me in their confidence.” It’s not so much that I wanted to pray and I wanted to write — it’s more that writing and prayer wanted me.
So I wrote. And I prayed. And I sat in silence. And I tried to do these things every day. None of it was perfect, but I learned to be okay with imperfection. And within five years of the accident, my first book was published, a rather generic meditation on the spiritual life called, appropriately enough, Spirituality. More books followed, covering a wide range of interests and perspectives on the inner life at the turn of the millennium. For a few years I turned away from the faith of my childhood and explored the colorful world of Goddess spirituality and Celtic paganism, spurring in me a deep respect for interfaith dialogue but also leaving me thirsty for the profound wisdom of the Christian mystics and contemplatives, whom I had followed ever since reading Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism while in college. So like the prodigal son I returned to my spiritual home and found refuge in an unlikely place: at a Trappist monastery some twenty miles from my home (having moved to Georgia when that lovely woman and I married). Drawn to the Abbey’s silence and blessed by friendships with a number of the monks, I shyly took steps to formalize the relationship by making a profession as a Lay Cistercian. But tending to prayer did not mean giving up writing. Early on during the five years I spent in Lay Cistercian formation, I heard a talk on writing by Anne Lamott where she counseled her listeners to “write the book you wish you could have read.” So I did just that; and the publisher gave it a whimsical title: The Big Book of Christian Mysticism.
When the book came out, I discovered I was not alone. Many people, both inside and outside the boundaries of the institutional church, hunger for that intimacy with God that the wisdom of the mystics points us to. The more I meet people who share my hunger for the God who comes to us in mystery and silence, the more convinced I am that contemplation is not just for monks, or nuns, or the especially holy. It’s for all of us. In the book, I call contemplation “Christianity’s best-kept secret.” And so I think I have at last found my vocation: to help get the word out.
So I still write, and I still pray, every day — or most days — always by the grace of God. These days I also speak and teach and lead retreats whenever I am asked to do so. My life is, easily, more wonderful than ever. I have to wear a bite guard every night because after all those years, my jaw still bothers me. But it seems to be a small price to pay for the blessings that continue to flow in my life.
To learn more about Carl, visit these links: