I’ve been thinking “there must be something more” for as long as I can remember. Some kind of invisible force drove me to explore deeply everything I took a keen interest in, from literature to adventure sports to spiritual pursuits. I was the kid in school who looked out the window, imagining the clouds in the West Texas sky to be the High Alps.
I gave my parents a lot of fits. Besides taking everything very seriously (more about that in my book Letters to a Perfectionist), I had a habit of disappearing into the horizon as I headed out on my bicycle or in a truck bound for the wild places. I thought it was completely normal to go on a 30-day mountaineering expedition in British Columbia at the age of 17. Looking back from the age of 42 I realize the strength of my parents’ faith as they allowed me that kind of independence.
In high school I came up with all kinds of (very firm) ideas about what I would do when I grew up. Like riding a horse from Patagonia to Alaska. And climbing all the 8000 meter peaks in the Himalayas. After winning the Tour de France of course.
I didn’t do any of those things, but I did leave the only home I had known in West Texas the day after high-school graduation, my truck packed with all the gear I had accumulated for cycling, mountaineering, and skiing. I blazed a trail for Colorado, where I studied Geology at the University of Colorado of Boulder. It was hard to focus on studies in a place where we could climb ice waterfalls in the morning, go to class, and climb the cliffs of Eldorado Canyon the same evening. I finally graduated after many twists and turns, and taking one year off to live the life of a “dirtbag climber.” Most summers I spent guiding backpacking trips for Young Life’s Wilderness Ranch, which operates out of a basecamp high in the San Juan Mountains.
Then came the big shift which set me on a course for a whole set of experiences I never could have anticipated. During my senior year at the university, I became obsessed with understanding the roots of Christian dogma and spirituality. I discovered the Eastern Orthodox Church. As I had the lifelong habit of taking virtually everything to an extreme, I quickly sought out the most traditional form of Eastern Orthodoxy – a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The aesthetic beauty of the iconography, hymnography, and church architecture—combined with the deep ascetical and mystical spirituality—seemed to be what I had been looking for all my life. That’s when I decided that the greatest adventure of all is a journey into the depths of the wilderness of the human soul. Less than one year after I graduated from the university, I entered a monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.
Like I said, I gave my parents lots of fits.
Life in the monastery was a great adventure, and not only in a spiritual sense. As the years passed and we developed a donated property of 180 acres in Appalachia with temples, buildings, farms and roads, the size of the brotherhood tripled and a number of business enterprises were undertaken by the hard-working monks. We survived fires and floods and many other challenges with God’s help. After three years in the monastery I was ordained a priest, out of a need for more young and healthy clergy to serve the daily liturgical prayer cycle.
In spite of my lofty spiritual ideals, I always gravitated toward the practical side of things. The never-ending list of construction and business projects kept me busy. I stayed in the monastery for 16 years, and for the last 12 of those I traveled extensively. Sometimes the trips were pilgrimages to holy places in Jerusalem, Egypt, Russia, and Ukraine. But I also developed some business for the monastery that required me to travel often to Moscow to buy vestments and other church goods. And then there were lots of trips to New York and New Jersey—two places which always seemed to me to be foreign countries—for other church affairs. Along the way I met many holy and interesting people, experienced deeply other cultures, and learned new languages.
I could write volumes about what I learned in the monastery. My book Letters to a Perfectionist describes one (and only one) aspect of my experience. If you’ve read it, then you know that underneath all of my activity—both practical and spiritual—trouble was brewing. There are so many layers to the personal crisis which ensued that it’s impossible to describe them all in a few short sentences. My brain broke from years of workaholic stress and lack of self-care, and I couldn’t process basic information. I became disillusioned with the human element of Church life, including my own part in it. More rugged souls than my own might be better able to pass over that hurdle, but I was not properly equipped. I was confused about my identity (one of the symptoms of perfectionism I write about in the book) and out of harmony with my life and work. I felt useless, burned out, and confused. But I also sensed that beyond this monastic mid-life crisis—this dark night of the soul—were fresh horizons I was meant to explore. As I left the monastery with the blessing of the kindly and compassionate Abbot, I didn’t know what I would do, but I knew what I could not do anymore.
Music, writing, and a deep dive into the depths of my heart saved me. Some of the music came from a piano, and it was composed and performed by (in my opinion) the most remarkable improvisational artist in the world-the Parisian musician Renara Akhoundova. I organized her music and began distributing it online. And the writing–well, it was something I had loved all my life, but never gave myself permission to pursue and share with others. Words have always moved me more than any other form of creative expression.
There is nothing easy about making a dramatic transition in your life after the age of 40. Anyone who has ever experienced such a shift knows how difficult it is. But it’s also impossible to put a price on self-knowledge, which requires an honesty and integrity with ourselves the world often talks us out of. I write first for myself, and second for all those people who like me are constantly asking the question “is there something more?”
I have come to the firm belief that every sublime piece of art, every perfect note, and every true sentence come from a connection with the Source–a mysterious wellspring unconstricted by time and space, the collective everything which has been and will be, bursting forth into the present moment. Sometimes the piece expresses our light, and sometimes our shadow. We can’t have one without the other, as long as our feet are made of clay and bound for an eventual separation between soul and body.
I wish for each and every person to find their own unique way to express themselves through some form of creativity. Giving ourselves permission to create, whether it is through painting, writing, photography, building, or even entrepreneurship, is one of the most loving things we can do both for ourselves and those who need what we create.
After all I have experienced and learned in almost 43 years on this earth, perhaps what fascinates me more than anything is the question of how we come up with our personal world view. That is, how does each person come to the view of the world which he or she holds to? Some inherit a world view from their parents and never question it. Some choose a world view intentionally because they believe it represents absolute truth. Others are drawn to a world view which allows them to feel they are part of a very exclusive society–the truly enlightened, or the only ones that will find salvation after a coming cosmic upheaval. I have found that the deeper truth, and indeed the most interesting part of this eternal story, is that each of us chooses a world view which seems to meet our greatest needs–in accordance with the strategies we choose to fulfill those needs.
And perhaps there is another layer of meaning underneath all those needs and strategies and the many things which make each of us a unique human being. A contract between the soul and the Divine. An invisible contract we can either spend our life running from and complaining about, or embracing with gratitude. The decision to embrace this contract with gratitude is the greatest choice we can make in this life. It’s a decision which allows us to be completely honest with God and with ourselves at every moment. It opens up the possibility of a world view in which we see every joy, every pain, every obstacle and every triumph as a manifestation of Divine Providence. It also makes us free to be compassionate with ourselves and others, and it makes way for an attitude of respect and empathy for each and every soul we encounter. Even if their choices don’t make sense to us. Even if they attack us because our choices don’t make sense to them.
This is a world view which is not exclusive to any creed or culture. It’s a world view which is not afraid of mystery, and is comfortable with not having all the answers. There are only two requirements necessary: the belief that God is Love, and the commitment to pursue that Love which relentlessly pursues us.
My expression of these two requirements will always be unique. And so will yours. There’s no sense in deceiving ourselves about why we have arrived at this present moment with a unique collection of genes, influences, needs, strategies, choices, and experiences. The person which is formed by this unique collection is worth acknowledging, and worth cherishing. Let’s explore together what it means to be human, and what it means to become love. I have a feeling that the product of our exploration will be a beautiful mosaic of poetry and music, and a celebration of the mystery of life.
Thanks for visiting my site.