Dark Night of the Soul

I’m about to go to a twelve step meeting, like ones I have been attending for several decades, and at this particular meeting I will get my chip.  This chip is a metal disk the size of a Kennedy half dollar, with the Serenity Prayer on one side, and the phrase To thine own self be true, on the other.  Shakespeare, a one man Scripture, authored this oft heard yet trenchant phrase and he had Polonius speak it in Hamlet.  Polonius died tragically, wouldn’t you know.

I’ve been thinking about this phrase and its many cousins for some time.  For the past eighteen months, I have been in the wilderness.  I’m just there.  I am not somewhere else, though if I were in charge, I think I would be elsewhere, not wilderness, more city or brass band or ecstasy (the non-pharma kind).  More assurity,  more clarity, more purpose, yes, more purpose.

One would think that at 60 purpose would be resolved.  One would think that one could state in a simple declarative sentence to the satisfaction of all one’s purpose.  The accumulated achievements of one’s life, if such a pile could be gathered, would surely declare, hopefully once and for all, one’s purpose.

But I am sensing one’s purpose, actually, my purpose, is not so easily ascertained.

I loved graphs as a boy, and I still do.  If I graphed my life in linear time, there would be parallel lines correlating my purpose with the moral tasks my religious faith at any point in my development imposed.

But in that simple graph, there would be a faint disruptive line, irregular, sometimes seemingly erratic, which would criss-cross both purpose and religious faith and make a jumble of them, point out their too perfectly connectedness.  That faint line would grow darker and more vibrant over the length of the graph, and if viewed closely, would not quite be on the surface of the graph paper, but somehow hovering just over the page, not wanting to be so easily defined and managed, by me or by others.

This third line I understand somehow as my soul, manifest in my intuition.    It has little to do with my life’s endeavors and little to do with the religious faith I inherited at birth and which was reinforced in ways unchartable but immutable over the course of my life.  I rue neither, and am glad for my life’s experience.   But I increasingly sense, with nothing but my intuition to guide me, that the wilderness portends an encounter…not a purpose.

In the first few months of this wilderness occupation, not knowing its duration or durability, I grew distressed with its effects on me.  Among my many explorations, I sought medical guidance, wondering if in fact my fugue might be caused by mere physiological phenomenon (I hoped so, in any event).  My doc wanted to rule out any potential causes related to neurological phenomena and so I met with a neurologist.  He did a work up over the course of an hour, and at the end said:

I have some good news and some bad news.  The good news is there is no sign of any neurological problem that we need to be concerned with.  Bill, as a psychologist, you appreciate you mainly deal with the wounds of childhood in your adult clients, now writ large as they encumber your patients today.  And so like you:  I manage the effects of childhood disorders at whatever age they come into my office.  You have been managing three such disorders since childhood, without the benefit of diagnostic or medical or pharmacological help.  I see in your notes that you were raised in an alcoholic household.  In effect, I would assert you raised yourself, and you did so managing symptoms of these three disorders, which I suspect caused you some great travail.  The kicker is, you managed them so well that they have not outwardly interfered with your life.   But, untreated, they continue to extract a price from you, as they evidently do still.

I first of all was amazed at his perception, his literal perception, that he could observe these manifestations that I had hid, or thought I had, since I was a young boy.

He offered me a pharmacological response to offset their symptoms.   I declined.

What has haunted me since this productive visit with the neurologist is that the symptoms he noted I, and many others, have or once regarded as character defects, flaws in self control, causes of both discipline and shame, the eradication of the effects of which became moral targets for me for which no amount of effort was mountable to offset their daily, hourly, minutely demands.   Not unlike my early understanding of my sexuality, the homo-part and the sex-part.  Everything seemed to be something that needed to be willed away, to be purified, but ultimately, to what end?

I share this story because I encounter daily similar stories from others, perhaps such stories reside in us all.  That which became the object of religious zeal has so often not been the encounter with Love which must be its only goal, and the creation of justice, which must be the path, but instead, the purification of the self, understood primarily as the ego, with the assistance of a highly cultivated super-ego to provide constant instruction.

But this is not a problem of religion alone.  Families, social structures, economic systems all play their part.  Achievement, a name, a legacy, a reputation, accumulation, a total and seamless personal defense system these become the goals of life, the absolutes, the purpose for which we were created, if there is nothing in life to which we submit greater than our paltry selves.

My life has in some fundamental way been a grand purification project.   Everything needed to be perfected.  More than everything.  This is full time work.  Actually, because it seeps into one’s unconscious and works itself out in one’s dreams, it is work 24/7. I have been pretty good at it, had some achievements, created a name for myself, perhaps a legacy, certainly a reputation, accumulation as if there were no tomorrow, which accumulation might insure there isn’t, and a pretty good defense system, though, unfortunately for the perfection project, not quite seamless.  My absolutes, in the finest traditions of Thomistic philosophy, were very absolute.  As an Enneagram One, for your aficionados, I was well prepped for this role, and had a variety of perfecting arrows in my ample quiver.

So how is it I find myself, nonetheless, in the wilderness?

Come to find that the perfection project is not sufficient!  Who knew?

On a retreat eighteen months ago, about which I have previously written in this blog, I was changed.   But I was not yet ready for the change.  Through no fault of my own, I am quick to add.  In these eighteen months, much has been taken away from me.  Much assurance.  Much insurance.  So many absolutes.  So much knowledge.  The solace of connections on the cheap, as if there were no price to pay for veracity.  Some apparently not essential hope that the human project is one that extends forever in one direction, regardless of what we do to the environment in which the project unfolds.  This I can hardly bear, and I am very often reduced to tears, tears of grief and tears of awareness of the profound limitations we humans face, both those our facticity entails, and those our rampant egos have imposed on us and on our sublimely beautiful planet.  We trust in every and any solution any charlatan with a perfection project of his own offers as long as he is culturally appropriate to our moment and class and offers a plan other than one grounded in Love and trod in justice.

I have been, like all human beings, thus torn.  I like my charlatans , don’t think for a minute I don’t.

But they are not so active in the wilderness.

In the wilderness, intuition is again become my essential guide.  When I was a young man just starting my purpose-filled life in the Bay Area, there was a quote in Herb Caen’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle by Bill Ball, the long time and deeply admired director of the American Conservatory Theatre.  Ball said:  I have come to trust my intuition at all times, in every situation, with every person I meet.   I knew Ball’s assertion to be true, but was yet incapable of holding the width and breadth of that truth.  And yet, in a email missive the Franciscan author Richard Rohr sent out this very week, he reminds me: the best thing I can possibly do… is to help people to recognize and trust their own deeper and even deepest spiritual intuitions.

When I was a boy, living in a family-as-village of ten, I knew many things, certain things, unspoken things, denied things.  And I knew that I knew them, though I could not explain to anyone how that was or could be so.  But that which I knew I did not doubt.  What I knew did not jive with what one might call the real order of things, the way things were explained, or parsed, or enunciated.  The adults were not letting me know they too knew these things, if in fact they did, though that did not deter me from receiving that which I came to know.  What I knew had nothing to do with the perfection project, but, like for the children in Pan’s Labyrinth, offered a richer understanding of life.

This deep dynamic within never left me, though I constantly downplayed its import and unshakeable presence.  I gave over significant parts of myself to others, to institutions and persons who did not merit the giving.  Not because they were bad or ill-intentioned, though sometimes they might have been.  No, because those givings-over were not corresponded to by this deep sense I have always had.  The results have been predictably counter-productive.   And have led me to the wilderness.

The wilderness is map and chart and path void.  Hence, wilderness.

But the profound grief I first encountered, so unnerving for so many months I did not know how to make it through, has given way to an immensity of space, not fecund, but neither barren.  And in the wilderness there are days of full sun and nights of moonlight.

The Italian Jungian analyst Aldo Carotenuto grapples with the lack of correspondence between a person’s inner and outer states, which is the essence of that with which I grapple today.  In a stirring passage from The Vertical Labyrinth, he suggests that a person’s inability to demonstrate their own value and richness, wherein creativity… flourishes, lies in a fundamental and structural fear of other people’s envy. To be creative, to carry the world forward by one’s thought or by one’s works, means to risk drawing down hatred on oneself, and only someone capable of withstanding it is able to say the right words… What prevents us from discovering ourselves and from expressing our truth is always the fear of losing other people’s love.

I came upon this passage early this summer.  It glistened on the page.  It is what I hear daily, in very different constructs, from the clients with whom I work, whom I have grown to love.  It is what in my own life and in the lives of those in my life, often friends, extended family, the dying, those in prison, the young, those cast out of the formal structures of society.  This is at the heart of the human dilemma:  To become ourselves, our human project, to abandon the perfections and projects the world sets out for us, to go beyond all those who threaten to withdraw love in the myriad and skillful ways that occurs, most subliminally, that keep us from the kind of freedom the wisest spiritual guides have spoken, the freedom from the false self.  It is what the whole of the life of Jesus bespoke.  You must risk everything.  You must go deep inside.  You must trust the deepest knowing you have.  Even when it appears to have vanished, even when it leaves you bereft, even when it leaves you alone.

The wilderness is an alone place.  Is necessarily so.  Its purposes, there’s that word again, are singular.  That we might become ourselves regardless of cost.  Irregardless of cost.  Without regard to cost.

To stay in the wilderness as long as it is required of us means to know each day we have no map nor  chart nor clearly delineated path.  It means that the ones whose love we have thought we could not live without we either find out we can or that we need not fear losing.  It means that our deepest knowing, available to every human being, is sufficient as a source of our wits for today.  We are guaranteed nothing more, expect that we will beyond our recognition be grounded in Love, and invited to trod the path of justice.

Everything else, desert dust.

I’ve been a preacher for nearly 25 years—occasionally I’ve had a bit of a break. But for a long time I’ve followed the discipline of letting the biblical text challenge and convert me every week so that I could say something about the good news—something that I hoped was worth listening to. But some months back I began to realize that I shouldn’t keep preaching. At that point I was preaching in different locations just about every Sunday—doing what is known as “supply” work in my denomination. (Such a sad, sort of economic term for officiating at a celebration of the Eucharist and preaching). This realization about preaching didn’t come over me suddenly, although I finally got very clear about it one day after a person in a congregation called me on an example I’d used that seemed to her to set a whole group of people up for criticism—most likely unwarranted. I didn’t entirely agree with her, but realized that I needed to pay attention: there was a deeper reality to be addressed. I simply didn’t have much to say as a preacher.

Oh, I’ve been through dry times before. And having stayed up late at night, woken up in the middle of the night finally “getting it,” I’ve preached well and not-so-well.  I’ve even written a sermon on my way in the door—the whole gamut. This was different. It is different. I simply don’t have much to say. That is most probably why I have been so silent on this blog during the last months. As my friend Bill pointed out to me, I haven’t made an entry since last year. (“December,” I said. But that was beside the point.)

Recently at an informal gathering of clergy women I wondered aloud about all the things we spend time doing in churches—how many of them actually invite folks into the mystery of God’s love? We talked a bit about how hard it is in the church to actually be present to God. One pastor at the table said simply, “How sad.” I was silent. Over the years I’ve grown increasingly drained by the most familiar “explanations” of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. My tradition is one that places a high value on order—not much spontaneous happens in worship. But often, the many well-crafted words spoken in worship seem to me to be so pitifully inadequate or misleading. I read somewhere that Aquinas once said, ”I have seen things that make all my writings seem like straw.”  Not that I’ve seen things so clearly, but even my intuitions lead me to silence these days.

Many years ago I pronounced a blessing over a woman, ending my prayer with the words “in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.” She drew back, angry, and told me with complete certainty, ”I don’t need redeeming!” (So much for more inclusive language.) Now I think perhaps I understand her point—at least what it might have been—she didn’t explain at the time. What she needed maybe was not someone to redeem her from her sins as though she were damaged merchandise, but someone to open her heart to God. I was silent then. And am more so now.

Not that we don’t have darkness within us. I am aware of at least some of my own—and my efforts over the years to deny, bury, control my darknesses. Yesterday morning as I drove to worship I got on the road behind an open pick-up truck pulling a little trailer. Both were piled high with stuff: some of it significant, weighty, furniture, a mattress, a chair, and all kinds of other stuff thrown in too, trashcans, pillows, rugs, miscellaneous items. The truck had one rope tied around it, and there was one around the trailer too. One rope holding all the stuff in place. I wondered to myself, “Surely he (it was a he) won’t drive that on to the freeway.”  But of course he did. And the instant he picked up speed, the stuff started flying all over the freeway, trashcans, pillows, boxes, flying free. Jettisoned. It was something to see. I had to laugh.

But then I fell silent.

I’d caught a vision of my own interior life. I’ve been getting rid of material stuff for a number of years now. I live a lot leaner than I once did, but inside me there’s still all kinds of stuff—some light, some dark, some weighty, some not so. In his book Things Hidden, Richard Rohr uses the metaphor of Noah’s ark to talk about how God is in the business of holding. Holding it all together. Encompassing it all. The good, the bad, the ugly. The animals you’d expect to eat each other alive. The parts I’d like to hide or hide from: anger, judgment, grief, jealousy, fear. . . The parts like generosity and kindness that are there too. My own little ropes, tied by my own devising and hard work are pretty pitiful when I get out in the real world: stuff is always falling out, being jettisoned, and sometimes in public no less.

Oh, I trust that I will let go of what needs letting go of as I am more deeply transformed by God’s love. (Maybe that was a Pentecostal wind that blew all that stuff out onto the freeway)  But, inside the truck and the trailer is an important place—there in the holding together—the meeting of the opposites, the enduring withness, the bearing of the truth of who I am, who we  are—there is where my life is being deepened. The school of love is found in facing the other, the other outside me and the other within me. In the what is-ness.

I think that is where I am these days. I am just trying each day to live more deeply into what this divine holding might mean. The implications are more than words can hold. I knew a priest once, a mystic really, who toward the end of his life would only celebrate the Eucharist in silence. Without a word. Maybe that’s where I’m headed.

Three summers ago, Scott and I travelled in Italy, making our camp in Umbria, and I spent a glorious morning alone in Assisi.  The ancient hillside town is Francisco-fied to the max, but it was inoffensive,  even endearing.  I arrived at dawn, participated non-verbally in a Eucharist with several old women and an equally old priest, and roamed the town before the tourists (like me!) arrived for the day.

The heart of the Assisi journey are the interlocking churches that celebrate Francis’ life and death, and among the glories are the literally incomparable Giotto walls and ceilings in the lower church, the awe-filled crypt where Francis is buried and to which pilgrims (like me!) kneel in some kind of awe-filled adoration.  As I slowly meandered through the churches, at one point I saw a small sign that pointed to museo.  I followed it down deeper into the cavernous space, and came upon a small room, no bigger than a large parlor, which contained Francis’ effects.  On the western wall was a large Plexiglas frame the size of a massive painting, and in the frame, splayed out like some couture gone wild, was Francis often-self-repaired brown habit.  When my eyes were clear as to onto what they were gazing, I went over to the Plexiglas, spread out my hands as if to embrace it, and I began to weep.  I wept, and I continued to weep, and had to leave.  I found myself outside, in a courtyard, and continued to weep.

What had so moved me about that robe?  Its prominence in the Francis’ iconography?  Its proximity to his person, housing and protecting his flesh?  The perhaps hundreds of repairs in its modest circumference?  His exemplary life, with the trickster in him available to all, the invitation to surrender which he models nonpareil?  The abject poverty of his habit in contrast to the lush midnight blues and gold stars of the Giotto’s  just a few feet above?  I did not know.

We later ventured to Rome, my first time in someone’s eternal city.  Like Dr. Jung, I could not visit the Vatican, but I did hightail it to the Gesu, the mother church of the Society of Jesus, the order which educated me, gave me a lot of my trenchancy, and to which I belonged and aspired to serve for the first decade of my adult life.

The Gesu is the polar opposite of Francis’ robe.  It’s in all of the books as the finest exemplar of Baroque architecture.   It has lived for two score years in my imagination as a series of large golden swoops of grandeur, triumphant  in its vastness.  It did not fail to impress.

On the left side of the nave, up near the high altar, is the altar where Saint Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, is buried.  While a Jesuit, I had no real truck with him, always preferring the more romantic  Francis Xavier as my model.  But being where I was, I knelt on the prie-dieu in front of Ignatius crypt, not intending to word anything, and I heard instead these: Write what you know.

I stayed for the Eucharist, marveled at the international congregation,  felt connected to each of them, and left the Church as the late afternoon sun was setting over the buildings west of the piazza that formed the church’s welcome.

Write what you know.  From Ignatius, no less.  I had not prayed for this instruction, nor desired it, nor really wanted it.  But it heard so clear.

I have heard such unaccounted declarations in my life, once in 1974 on a retreat in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, so humid I might have been hallucinating; in 1978, riding on as bicycle on Lake Shore Drive in Milwaukee, not quite knocked off the bike à la Damascus but nonetheless life-altering;  a third time four years later, while quietly sitting on my sofa reading the newspaper one February morning.    These were followed by a triptych of dreams in 1990 that demanded similar attention.

We get these visitations, no?  We hear what we are intended to hear, we are messaged in grace notes that drift into our consciousnesses from some deeper place in the interior, or perhaps exterior, we don’t really know.  The messages are always simple, declarative, and life-threatening.  As least as we are currently leading our lives.

A year ago March, I ventured up to a Trappist monastery in Oregon, a beautiful house set into the wooded hillside of the Cascade’s coast range southwest of Portland.  Named Our Lady of Guadalupe, as fine a virgin as one could want to sit near in a fir-beamed chapel, I went to spend nine days still.  The monks were silently hospitable, the other guest dutifully bowed, and the atmosphere was for me, perfect.  I used to joke with Scott that if he died first, after I gave away our earthly possessions, I would buy an Airstream and park it near a Trappist monastery, not to belong, God forbid!, but to go in when I felt like it to absorb the silence and lend my voice to the occasional chant.

At this particular house of prayer, they had constructed a zendo, a large building fitted with zafus, meditation cushions arrayed in an orderly fashion all facing the full wall glass window that looked out into the forest.  Having practiced my own spiritual discipline in such a seated position for many years, the room, with its Eastern aesthetic and spare Christian iconography was a happy blend of something resonating within, and it was there I would go each day for the several times I wanted to pray.  Late in the evening, the chapel was dark and most inviting.

On the seventh night of my retreat, while sitting, I had a certain experience.   Perhaps I could say I was experienced.  Or perhaps, I no longer was, but reality was, now present within me.   What?  Awareness, or a keen knowing, or a heightened sense, all might capture this, though, again, they cannot.   I received this time, or was it no-time, as a gift, that was so clear, as was everything.  A gift, and that clear.  Transcendent?  Immanent?  Neither or both all at once?  One cannot know.  A gift, though, for sure, and that clear.

And then, I was again just sitting, in the zendo, my little votive flickering, my body just mine, my mind as present, or not, as it could be, my sensibility altered but, then again, not at all.  I don’t know when I blew out my candle, but I did, and I returned to my small cell and went to sleep.

I drove home a couple of days later, and for several weeks, felt clear.  So clear.  As if none of the accumulated smog of my life, especially the dark spiritual particles, blocked my perception of that which we are invited to perceive.  Everyday.  Clear.

I did nothing to sustain this, and sensed I could do nothing to end it, either.  I felt peaceful, and most alive.

One day, perhaps a month out, I was sitting in my office listening to a client share a story from his complicated and pain-filled life.   In his narrative he began to share a particular moment in his life from the previous weekend, and I felt this presence that had inhabited me for a month drain from my body, from my psyche, in a moment.  And, in that moment, my sense of myself prior to that night in the zendo returned or resurfaced or reclaimed my ego-ridden self.  I felt the uninvited presence, providing such clarity and peace, vanish.

In the days that followed, I grew bereft.  Sadness overtook me, not the sadness that accompanies painful events, nor the grief that comes from the loss of some secured source of love, nor the general malaise that overcomes us and moods us darkly.  No.  This sadness went to some rooted place and has held me in its grip now for going on fifteen months.

It startles me, leaves me on many days vacant, has led to unreferenced  tears , scrambles my categories and my many knowings, has upended the order which I so assiduously have placed into my life these past thirty years.  No human thing provides the consolation some part of me, perhaps some previously unknown part (could that be?), desires.

What I have had to acknowledge to myself is that what I do know is mostly unsayable.  The space I inhabit is mostly islandic.  What I hear is often foreboding.  What I do is often uncountenanced.  How I feel I do not finds word to communicate, even with the superb vocabularies the Jesuits and Dr. Jung have given to me.

Those of you raised in tornado territory know the moments before the storm approaches, everything grows very still, and the landscape and atmosphere take on an almost iridescent green aspect.  It is both beguiling and stunning, and one knows the arrival of the tempest is momentary, and you’d better take cover, cover deep inside a basement or under some big oaken table purchased purportedly to host family gatherings but purposed all along to protect you from being hurled some hundreds of feet into the air and dropped in the neighboring county, on your head, dead.

That is how I feel.  A serene stillness mixed with an affectless dread.  It nudges me to its borderlands, and without gesture, mocks my indigence.  The patterns of my life, so finely honed and so ably supple over several decades, do not provide an adequate map.  I have done enough interior work—psychotherapy and praying–to suspect that within the compost of my soul, without the assistance of my reptilian brain, some barely perceptible process is underfoot.  But that, for sure, I do not know, and certainly do not claim.

I stare at others from afar, or very near, and it seems sometimes feel their very feelings, though I know that could not be.  The suffering of the world feels very close and acute, and without my power to effect much at all.  The savior my complex suggested for me when I was but very young has died.  I do not recognize what might be in his wake.

I work to mend the tattered habit, sometimes right through the Plexiglas, I recognize the presence of that whose only name is Nothing, though I evidently do not surrender, and in this instance, I write what I know.

Bob Thompson wrote the other day about the loneliness some people feel during the holidays. How I relate to his words!

I feel deep joy at Christmas. I also feel deep sadness.

Never do I feel more connected, never more alone.

Never am I more completely filled with thoughts–no, it’s more than thoughts; it’s the very essence–of all the past seasons’ precious moments: the hugs, the presents, the carols, the happy tears, the all-embracing love, my folks, my children, my wonderful lover and wife, the trees, the aromas. But never do I feel more sharply my distance from them.

Why is Christmas–even more than other holidays–that way?

Why can’t I just feel joy? Warmth? Hugs?

Why do I have to feel so alone as I sit with hundreds of others, enjoying the rapturous songs of the Sunday morning Christmas concert and saying (sincerely): This is glorious?

Why does the tree’s gentle, embracing light take me back not to the warm together-times but to that Christmas Eve at a Häagen Dazs shop in Tokyo, about to leave my son James, alone in an unfriendly setting, hearing his tears, feeling my own–and knowing little joy?

I love the carols. So why do they stir up Judith’s last Christmas, leaning against the cupboard in Her Kitchen, telling us how to make the turkey, since she knew we might have to do it by ourselves next year?

I sit among the people and love being with them. So why does Joanne’s face refuse to go away, refuse to let me forget how desolately alone she was, how everyone else’s joy intensified her emptiness?

Why don’t those memories leave me alone?

My head wants to scream: Enough of this! Be done with the sadness, the aloneness, the loneliness, the dark memories. Be done with this brooding moment! Out damned spot!

But the moment won’t give me up. Nor, really, do I want it too.

For wholeness, I suspect, means embracing the dark dusk along with the bright dawn, the loneliness along with the hug.

And what does the sadness do for me?

For one thing, it allows me to feel, truly feel. And that’s a better state then being emotionless.
For another, it allows me to empathize. To see Mary and Joseph away from home and alone in Bethlehem. To feel, perhaps, King Herod’s terror when he heard about a potential rival. To cry with the childless widow in the next pew, the homeless man I met at dinner, the children without love or even a memory of hugs.

For still a third, it makes the joy warmer when it comes.

I hate the loneliness of this season. Yet I love it (OK; I kind of love it). For it is part of wholeness. It is as much a part of that deep, emotional connectedness as anything I know.

The loneliness too, I must embrace. For in that embrace alone comes the joy of being connected to all God’s children, the joy of a contentment deeper than ecstasy.

50 years ago the Beat Generation poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote this poem, Christ Climbed Down.

A protest against the creeping materialism of the 1950’s, this poem is astonishingly relevant for Christmas, 2008.

CHRIST climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck creches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
in a Volkswagon sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody’s imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carollers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings

Thirty years ago this past October I ventured over to San Francisco from my Jesuit community in West Oakland to pose as a liberal supporter of the beleaguered gay community as they were fighting the nefarious Proposition 6, which, if passed, would have required all gay persons be dismissed from their jobs teaching in California schools.  I went armored with my clerical shirt and Roman collar.  I did not want anyone to think I was one of them, just an enlightened friend.  I had recently turned 30.

Harvey Milk, subject of the eponymous new movie, was one of several speakers in what was billed as a religious witness against Prop 6.  He spoke along with various religious leaders, including the Episcopal Bishop, Kilmer Myers and the highest ranking Roman Catholic  who would participate, a woman! , my old friend Sr. Eileen de Long, a Good Shepherd.  Milk gave his standard but to me startling speech, sharing that “we aren’t here today for us, but we are here for the little boy in Bakersfield and the little girl in Fresno who live in fear that they are alone, all alone…”

Standing in front of me were two young men, one holding the other.  I had never witnessed this openness before.  As Milk spoke, I swelled with feelings of every kind: shame, hope, my own fear, desire, joy; and I wept.  I took the white plastic tab out of my Roman collar, hoping to somehow blend in, with them.  Afterwards, I took the subway home, put a piece of paper in my typewriter, and clunked out: I am a gay man.

That was thirty years ago.  I was one month sober, full of life and hope and wanting to know everything I could about what it might mean to be a human being.  And everything I could about the God who had, in divine wisdom, made me gay.

The voters rejected that proposition.  Several months later, on the cusp of ordination, I decided to leave the Jesuits, brothers for whom my gratitude and love remains unabated, to live my life with a certain openness that was required of me by the still small voice I have always struggled to hear.

This past September, I turned 60.

On the ballot in California this year was another proposition, this one numbered 8, which again would deny to gay persons rights, the final right if you will, the right to marry, that is, the right to have a couple’s primary, committed, chosen relationship treated under the law in all matters and in all manner fairly and equally.  A quite civil matter.

The California Supreme Court had recently adjudged, as they did in the 1950’s regarding then-banned inter-racial marriages, that all citizens had a right to equal treatment under the law regarding civil marriage.

My husband, Scott Hafner, and I had gotten married—legally—the first time in 2004, in San Francisco’s City Hall.  It was a brief and intimate civil ceremony, performed by a friend who was a City supervisor.  Some months later, along with several thousand other marriages, ours was annulled, so to speak, by the governor.

After the Supreme Court ruling this past May, as with many thousands of other California couples now newly enfranchised, Scott and I got married again, this time in our home, in a brief and intimate civil and sacred ceremony, performed by a friend who is an Episcopal priest.

Scott and I have had a twenty-seven year engagement.  Of course, we have not had an ideal relationship, though I would say he is an ideal spouse for me.  My mother, before she died, used to tout our marriage, her word, to my siblings as one she regarded as a pretty darn near perfect.  She lived 1800 miles away from us, however.  But we have had a graced and ever-deepening life together.  We were married along time ago, bereft of the sacrament, no small thing, without the document and the rights and benefits and the social standing that actually matters for all couples very much, but married nonetheless.

Our marriage commenced back in 1981 and to us quite evidently blessed by the One who brought us together, who has sustained us, and who continues to give us the luminous energy necessary for each of us to figure out how to love another human being for yet another day.  We will hopefully end our days together, one nursing the other, one burying the other, one remembering the other, you know, just like some married people do and have been doing for all time.  Many of them have been men with men, women with women, unbeknownst to or pretended otherwise by wagging tongues and righteous clerics and people who live with a far fear greater than we do.  Married nonetheless.

Our fellow citizens annulled our marriage last month.

We went to bed on Election Night with the ineffable joy that accompanied the election of Barack Obama, for whom we had worked so hard.  Proposition 8 was too close to call.  The next morning, our phone rang before dawn.  It was our next door neighbor Joan, a pixie in her late 70’s, married to her spouse Jerry, who simply said: “Bill, did I wake you? Well, I am calling because I do not want you and Scott to worry, for we will win this yet.”

We.  I loved that.  After we hung up, I again began to weep.

I have kept my own counsel since that day.  My ruminations and feelings have been held close, though ruminations and feelings I have had.

But today, in the New York Times, a full page ad appeared, signed by several religious leaders, such as they are.  They constituted a group self-styled as NoMobVeto.  Reading their text made me furious, and reading the text made me very sad.

In my work as a therapist, and as a friend, I have been present to the wounds of gay persons for the past thirty years, and have had the great grace to witness others as they work through the enormous shadow this culture casts onto us.  I have come to know intimately the effects of scapegoating on gay individuals, on gay relationships and on the gay community.  Just last week, Mike Huckabee, an ordained minister and fauxsy politician, said on The View that gay persons had not earned their civil rights because they had not had an adequate threshold of violence committed against them, a new and puzzling criterion for the Constitution to reckon with.

Surely we remember Harvey Milk, our revered and murdered leader, and Matthew Shepherd, he of the beaten-to-within-an-inch-of-his-life and left in cruciform to die in the harsh elements of high desert Wyoming.  Perhaps the memory of the unmitigated suffering AIDS wrought in the gay community has faded for Mr. Huckabee and his fundamentalist friends, but perhaps that memory never existed at all.

Such culturally shaped images, however, do not compare to the psychic damage these very religious leaders and their ilk in the institutions have perpetrated onto gay people actually since forever.  The scars are of a different form than those of the beloveds sicced with dogs in Selma, perhaps Mr. Huckabee’s referent.  For gay persons, the toxin is held silently within until its damage has completed its course.  Boys and girls grow up alien in their own families, hobbled with a belief that they are, in the words of another sanctifier, Anita Bryant, human garbage, or, sinful deviants or perverts or fags or dykes or disgusting or…who would want this sorry lot for their enemy, let alone their child, their sibling, their friend?

In the aforementioned ad, these leaders equate the outrage felt in the gay community at the loss of civil rights as merely anti-religious bigotry, and they state, and I quote: “beginning today, we commit ourselves to exposing and publicly shaming  [italics mine] anyone who resorts to the rhetoric of anti-religious bigotry…”  They are saying, in effect, If you oppose our political agenda, we will publicly shame you.

Isn’t this what these fearmongers disguised as men of God have always been doing, publicly shaming?  Have not gay people been their villains for years, for decades, for centuries?  Is not the word faggot from the French for kindling, the wood used to stoke the fires that consumed homosexuals at the stake?  Is that not a word used to terrorize schoolchildren yet today?  Is there a parent alive not aware of this?  Is there a parent alive who would wish this term to be used to batter their child?  Their little boy?  Little girl?  I suspect not.

Was not Prop 8 a publicly shaming apex?  Could one believe anything other than that gay people have been made sullied and dirtied and trivialized and discouraged and shamed?   Made to feel by the body politic unworthy and beyond the pale?   Brave fronts we may adopt, but the lacerations never quite cauterize and heal.

After the election I uncommonly felt unstable in public, unsure of myself, tenuous, even after thirty years.  With whom could I share my feelings?  Ancient fears and forebodings returned as if I was again a child.  I have been startled by this, and made sad, and, I find it hard to admit, bereft.  I return, reflexively, to my ancient question:  what is there about me that fills them with disgust? And why is it the religious ones are the most filled with vitriol?

I find myself wondering, is this what their WWJD bracelets commend them to?

I listened to a lovely man this past week.  I had not known him but he was in attendance at a meeting at which I spoke.  He came up afterward and asked if we could have a moment together.  I said, “Of course”.  He was perhaps 35, born Irish Catholic, now a denizen of San Francisco.  He shared with me his story of deep wounding, of having escaped the clutches of death, a death he had desired so as to relieve the untenable belief that he was in fact beyond the reach of God.

I have heard his story countless times.  He asked for no pity, no sympathy, just an ear.  Just a human encounter was what he wanted.  He had a benign presence, and I felt honored to spend those brief moments with him and to extend to him a brief blessing.  He departed, and, walking to the subway afterwards, I again started to cry.  Softly.  So no one would see.

I have been crying a lot of late.  Tears of joy.  Tears of sadness.  Tears of grief. Tears of knowing, terrible knowing.  I know at 60 that that arc is bending, yet ever so slowly.  I see, as perhaps in your work and lives you do, too, the wounds and stripes all around me, in the lives of humans so worthy and so evidently bearing the essence of the divine in their very selves.

The only Jesus I know was present in that young man.  I know, after 60 years, very little else.

I do not want to demonize my opponents, these men of a self- righteous faith.  I have been there.  I need to find a way to love these men, a way I don’t yet fully know, to somehow to see in them their own wounded boy that now strikes out to wound others.  This is hard work. I know, too, I will work to insure that they and their legions inflict no more harm on these gay beloveds who bear love for their chosen ones in the exact way the world so clearly needs.

To say that Yogi Berra is the godfather of malapropisms, is not to say that many other athletes aren’t quite capable of screwing up normal conversations. Take the Olympic athletes. Gymnast Paul Hamm who said, “I owe a lot to my parents, especially to my mother and father.” In defending the sport of boxing, boxer Alan Minter said: “Sure there have been a lot of injuries and deaths in boxing, but none of them serious.” And then there was the soccer player who said, “I’ve never had major knee surgery on another part of my body.”

Every four years, athletes from around the world gather for the Olympic test and sometimes these athletes say really funny things. But getting into the Olympic games is no laughing matter.

During the Olympics we repeatedly hear stories of athletes who have had to overcome one obstacle after another simply to arrive at the games. Every athlete has a story—and many of these stories are touching, sometimes heart wrenching tales of grace and grit, commitment and sacrifice.

When these athletes tell their stories, without exception, they gratefully confess they couldn’t have made it to the games without the support of family, the help of friends, the encouragement of coaches and teammates. Every athlete is tested along the way and every athlete faces obstacles and difficulties. But without exception, every Olympic athlete confesses that she or he couldn’t have made it to the Olympics without the love and support of others.
Inevitably though, there comes a moment of truth.

The sprinter shoots out of the blocks. The gymnast twists on the parallel bars or the diver, poised on the lip of the diving platform bounds up and takes a leap. In these moments the athlete is utterly alone. Nobody, not one’s family, friends or coach can run that race, take that leap or make that dive. In the heat of competition each and every athlete must face the test alone.

This is the Olympic paradox. Olympic athletes can’t make it to the games without the help of others, but in their moment of truth, they are all on their own.

Sport imitates life.

For every human being, life brings trials, tests and intense challenges. None of us can make it through our tests and trials without the support of others but in the final analysis, no one can take our tests for us. This, at least, has been my experience.

In the late 1980’s I entered a period of about 5 years of tests, trials and tribulations like I had never known. First, I went through a painful divorce. Two years later I was hospitalized with asthma. Five months after that I suffered a manic episode and found myself locked up in the psychiatric intensive care unit of a local hospital. Two years after that I was hospitalized again with broken ribs from an automobile accident.

Through all of those trying experiences, I was surrounded by the tremendous support from my family, friends and my congregation. But during that time I encountered an immutable truth.

Nobody else could take my place. Nobody else could take my tests for me. Whatever I found myself in, I was in it alone. There was no savior. No one showed up to deliver me.

We can’t make it alone but we are always alone. This paradox defines our humanity.

It’s like we are all standing in line, waiting for our turn, waiting to be tested. If you don’t know what I am talking about, I guarantee that some day you will. Are you struggling at work? Have you lost your job? Are you facing surgery? Do you have cancer? Is your crying baby causing sleep deprivation and you don’t know how you can keep going? Have you tested positive for HIV? Is your life in transition? Has death stolen someone near and dear? Are you standing at a crossroads and engulfed by the fog of uncertainty?

M Scott Peck began his bestseller The Road Less Traveled with these three words, “Life is difficult.” A book that begins with those three words is bound to be a bestseller. This is a universal truth, isn’t it? Life brings one challenge after another. Some times it seems like a pop quiz. Sometimes it’s like a final exam. Whether the test is large or small, every difficult experience challenges the spirit to rise above it.

Without these tests we have little motivation to face our fragility. Without these tests we cannot appreciate how precious life really is. But we cannot really know how fragile and precious life is unless we experience our own lives as fragile and precious.

Unlike the Olympic games now being played in Beijing, the purpose of the Olympic games of the soul is not for us to become winners—but rather to wake us up.

The Olympic games of the soul teach us to look at life with new eyes, with different eyes than the eyes of the head. The Olympic games of life teach us to look at life with the eyes of the heart. To see life with the eyes of the heart is to look beneath the broken surface of life and see the hidden wholeness.

I love the story about Thomas Merton who had a vision while standing on a street corner in Louisville Kentucky. He suddenly saw something in the people on the street that he had never before seen. He writes, “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see each other that way all the time, there would be no war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

If you have ever come through a really big test in your life, when you have made it to the other side, having fought the fight, expended all that energy, having your insides turned out, to find yourself on the other side of it, one thing you don’t feel is self important. On the other side of tribulation one is filled with indescribable humility and incomparable gratitude. It is only when the heart is cracked open that we see the beauty of life that is indescribable and breathtaking.

In his song, “Panning For Gold,” Ben Sollee sings:

I saw God by the river, panning for gold
I saw God by the river, weary and old
He said “son, I used to know where I put things. I used to know”
I saw God in the forest teaching Tai Chi to the Trees in the wind
bowing to the sea
God said “son, I used to know where I put things. I used to know”
I saw God on the mountain tearing at the sky
I saw God on the mountain with tears in his eyes
He said “son, I used to know where I put things, I used to know
I could have shown you all the beauty in the world
but now I need you to show me.”

So when we are tested, maybe it helps to remember to listen for the Divine voice speaking from within—I can’t remember where I put the beauty in the world, now I need for you to show me.

A “voluptuous God” was the exact opposite of what I grew up with.

I became a born-again Christian at the age of 13 in the ultimate act of teenage rebellion for the household in which I was raised. It was a household in which my mother, a single parent and schizophrenic, had been prostituting to support us. She’d taught me in great detail about all the swear words and their meanings by the time I was eight. She’d taught me her techniques and strategies for shoplifting when I was nine. I had full access to and permission to use any alcohol in the house by the time I was 11. In retrospect, it was the height of irony that I would individuate and differentiate by becoming a Bible-toting, Scripture-quoting, gonna wait ‘til I’m married Christian at 13. My mother was deeply offended by my sanctimonious evangelizing of her. In retrospect, it’s pretty hilarious.

Shortly after that, I entered foster care, and I lived with one family and then another who were Evangelical Christians, as well. I can’t blame them for my skewed views of God – they hardly knew let alone understood the depths of the abuse I’d experienced as a child and the baggage I brought to my relationship with God. They really didn’t know how to access me and my deepest thoughts, and I wasn’t about to help them. But the Bible-based teaching I received at home served as a sort of icing on the proverbial cake of my spiritual life: I used my Christianity from that point forward to repress any inkling of personal desire and connection with my dreams and individuality.

I was going to be like Jesus – and abandon any personality I had in the process. Asking myself what I wanted in my life, in my future, in my relationships, in my home – this was, I thought, an irrelevant question. After all, I believed, what really mattered was what God wanted for me and from me. My desires were to be nailed to the cross, and I was only a vessel for God’s will. When I pondered my career options, the second most odious thing I could imagine being was a missionary. (The first most odious thing was to be a minister’s wife, and I have to admit, that one nauseated me too much to consider. And being a minister wasn’t an option, either, as a good Christian woman, though I thought I’d really like that one.) So I chose “missionary” as my goal. I’d have to live in miserable circumstances, be alone (and most likely single and virginal my entire life), and generally have to slog through evil to bring even the slightest ray of hope to a dark world. It sounded like exactly what God would ask of me. (I was sure he wanted this for everyone, but I was equally sure that most of us were unwilling to answer The Call.)

What I am grateful for now is the health of the human spirit, despite my own and my family of origin’s best attempts to repress and destroy it.

I developed an eating disorder. I was completely mystified by this, initially. I wondered why I would possibly have so little self-control with food, so little sense of satisfaction and happiness and gratitude. What was this mysterious depression about, too? Didn’t Jesus wipe all of that away when I was saved, I wondered? Wasn’t I healed when I became a Christian – and now my task was to live for Him?

Fast forward 20 years or so, past the college years in which I began to face that there were “demons” in my past that continued to haunt my present; when I began to confront the overwhelming mystery that is “God” and “God’s will” for me; and when I began just barely to touch the tip of the iceberg that was my own tamped down spirit and repressed desire for happiness and satisfaction in my own life.

I’ll be 40 this year, and I am now a single parent (and obviously didn’t attain that “alone, virginal” standard I’d idealized in high school). And I still don’t have those mysteries “figured out” or in any way perfected in my life. But I do have some insights and have made some progress toward living in the mysteries rather than trying to avoid them.

My God is, indeed, voluptuous. This, in spite of my desires to fashion my God after my parental example and my subsequent neurotic need for total control and even obliteration of everything that was human about me. I have come to experience God in every kind and loving gesture that has been extended toward me over the years – mentors, teachers, ministers, friends, therapists, self-help groups. At some point I had to let go of the need to convert everyone who wasn’t a professing Christian because it became obvious that many of them were far kinder, gentler and wiser than I, the born again Christian, ever was. Whether Jewish or Muslim or agnostic, many of these people were ministering to me, and I saw God in every one of them.

Up until the point where I had my son, I had attained a remarkable level of functioning for someone from my background. I had also achieved a level of internal misery that was a vast improvement on what I’d experienced in my earlier life – but it was still misery. All my explorations of 12-step groups, Buddhist meditation, therapy and self-help groups had gotten me to a better place…but still not one in which I wanted to stay. I simply didn’t know how to get beyond that place.

The unexpected pregnancy was a blow, though I knew from the beginning I wanted to keep my child. I just didn’t know how I was going to do it…how was I going to support us both, be a present and loving parent, and still have anything left for me? Becoming a parent plunged me into what I liken now to a pressure cooker. The lid clamped down. The pressure built up. I thought I was going to explode from the intensity of what I faced as a single parent. It was like re-living the trauma of my childhood in some ways: I was faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles under continuous responsibility that was profoundly heavy.

Enter a voluptuous God.

My son turned two this spring. As time has gone on, I’ve awakened to my need to re-parent myself as I parent my son. They say on airplanes that if you are responsible for someone else’s air mask in an emergency to make sure to attend to your own, first. If you don’t, you’ll be no help to anyone else, and you’ll both perish.

That’s essentially what happened to me. I began to be forced to attend to my own desires and need for nurturing, for tenderness, for rest, for play, as I attended to the needs of my son. If I didn’t, I became so fatigued, so burnt-out, so miserable that I was no good to him. How can I give my son a fun, rich experience if I’m so miserable I can’t smile, can’t play with him, can’t even think ahead to plan fun and interesting things to do? It became obvious to me that I had to attend to my own oxygen mask – my own deeply repressed needs for nurturing, care and self – or I would never be able to attend to my son’s.

I began to ask questions that were different from the one’s I’d wrestled with in high school. Rather than asking what God wants from me, despite my longings, I began to explore that my longings might be the very things I was created to explore and play with and fulfill. They were gifts to me rather than signs of sin to be obliterated in God’s name. They were part of what make me this unique expression of the many faces of God in the world: no one else has precisely the gifts and longings and interests that I have. If I don’t explore them and make space for them in this human life I have been given, they will die with me, wasted. I have been given these resources as an investment – and it is up to me to cultivate them to the fullest. Rather than trying to quiet the longings of my heart so that I might hear the voice of God, I explored those longings as the voice of God herself – a voice calling me out to play, to explore, to connect.

I guess, in an ironic sort of way, I am the missionary I thought I might become – but with a twist. I’m not interested in converting people to dogma anymore. I am interested, though, in living and spreading spaciousness, grace and loving connection. I am interested in the places we all get stuck in suffering and self-hatred – and in sharing my own story with others so that we all might find a little light along the sometimes dark path of life.

There are many landscapes which evoke for me the longing that I feel subcutaneous, just under my skin, just out of reach. The evergreen fields of Ireland, squared off by ancient stone walls; the basined and ranged deserts of Nevada, sweeping and endless; the oceanic Sand Hills of the Great Plains, recently visited, essentially treeless for hundreds of miles, pale green and haunting. Spain, in every part.

I long for the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, though I know little of them. The endless boreal forests of Canada and Siberia stir my imagination. The formidable Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho hold a tenacious resonance for me.

We all have these places I think. They are ancient to us, perhaps part of our genetic code: the moors of my Irish, Scotch and English ancestors, the flat farmscapes of my great grandparents in Denmark, the endless sweep of familial Nebraska.

That they evoke this longing is curious to me. How the desert abbas and ammas knew to flee metropolitan Alexandria into the desert, how Benedict knew to remove himself to the mountains, how monasteries are mostly located in regions remote, they share a common knowing of landscape and spiritual availability.

Their remoteness suggests what seeks is not so available where everyone is so busy. In a desert landscape, you must really scratch the surface to find life, even microbial. And to find water, well, you will be drilling pretty deep. The refreshment of community is not next door, nor even nearby. The solace of companionship is dear for being elusive. Trinkets are not so available, though our capacity to covet fool’s gold remains large.

Remoteness itself does not qualify one for anything. But it does offer possibility.

I am plotted on a couple of acres in Sonoma County Califonia, with my spouse Scott, and our Airedale, Maude. A black beauty we have named Clementine lives next door. Ex-urban, semi-rural, out in the county. No longer suburban or city dwellers, which we have been. While far from remote, it is remoter. While not isolated, it is at a distance.

For many reasons, we moved here four years ago, but primary for me was the need to spend more time alone.

I am cusping a decade as I write. The world of my earlier years, so involved in so much, so many good works, if I might, productive and beneficial and active and engaged and very appreciated, too, seems no longer exactly what I am to do. And yet, I am afraid not to. Who would I be?

I cannot explain this being alone to anyone, let alone myself. I sense it somewhat misunderstood, in a culture which so values busy. I know it in my heart, not hardly anywhere in my head. And I do it not so well.

But something, some one, some how calls me out.

It is not saying more. It is not saying why. It is not comforting. Nor illuminating. Nor fecund.

It is silent. On some days, more silence than seems bearable. But it is unmoved. Silent it remains.

I distract, and act as if busyness matters. I tidy things up, get productive, still pretend perfection is not a trap, tend to my business, make plans, act as if.

That to which I have bowed and made my ablutions for the past six decades is unmoved. And, I might add, perhaps I am finally knowing why. My bowing and ablutions have been carefully designed, in the main, to keep me in charge. But I am discovering I am, in the profoundest of ways, not.

I cannot justify my existence. I cannot truly earn my keep. I cannot create an equation in which I am owed a thing. I cannot pretend the work of my life qualifies me for anything more than the breath I take as I write these words. It is all a gift. It is all a grace.

I cannot save others, nor can I save myself. And God knows I have tried. But it is not my, nor our, work to do.

I cannot bribe nor cajole nor psych out nor manipulate nor shade nor sleight-of-hand nor justify myself in the presence of that which I am so aware cannot be named. Though name we must try. Doris Grumbach says it best by my lights: The One Whose I Am. About that One I know actually very little. But, if I too grow silent, about that One I will know all that I need.

My ego, the busy center, adept at planning and managing and protecting me from harm and justifying me in every situation of my life on this planet, is pained. Silence is not in its interest. Not knowing is certainly not in its interest. Surrendering, the ultimate gifted task, is most certainly in violation of all that for which it stands.

James Carse says that marginalizing the ego is precisely the work of the soul. What a blow!

The therapist in me, and the client, and the seeker, all know the ego is beyond durable. The author of that humbling work, The World Without Us, notes that after we have passed, what will remain is plastic, glass, and highly-fired bathroom tiles. I have a hunch disembodied egos will be in the detritus as well.

These past few months have been a desert. And a desert they remain. I cannot see my way out. But the desert offers many clues, and one who dwells therein learns to operate on the desert’s terms, not one’s own.

Moses went alone to the mountain in the harsh Sinai. He experienced a theophany seemingly too great to bear. But from that singular moment our spiritual patrimony has been shaped.

It perhaps is not so peculiar that our longing is indeed met in these harsh places, those of the earth and those of the soul.

Perhaps it is only there, in the seemingly barren landscape, really fecund beyond reckoning, where we must scratch below the surface to find life, and if, in addition, water is sought, to drill deep within.

Silence is the map and the journey’s end, too.

Surrender. Submit. Release. Un-grip. Cease. Sit. Stay.

Stop. Still. Breathe. Listen. Hear. See. Sense. Feel.


These are the initial entries in my new Dictionary of Ego-Antithetical Words.

I have sensed a need for this dictionary for some time.

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as refugees. A refugee is someone who flees to a foreign country to escape danger or persecution. Displaced by whatever cause, homelessness becomes the refugee’s home.

Thankfully, most of us never know this fate—at least in a physical sense. But we all know what it’s like to become a refugee of spirit. We think we are living on solid ground then suddenly the ground of our lives quakes—a dear one dies, we lose our job, the mortgage goes into foreclosure, a significant relationship crashes–the diagnosis of a serious illness catapults us into a state of alarm.

Some of us are refugees who suffer the cruelties of nature or political oppression. But one way or another, sooner or later, every human being risks becoming a refugee of the spirit. 

The 46th Psalm begins with these words: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” When people speak of taking refuge in God, they mostly want a God who will shelter them, give them sanctuary and provide a safe haven from life’s trouble and tumult. More than not, people want to be close to God so they can keep their suffering at a distance.

If only it were true. The Hebrew Scriptures say the Jews were God’s chosen people—conventional Christians believe Jesus God’s chosen son. Look what’s happened to them. You better hope God doesn’t choose you.

Over the years, I have spent a fair amount of time with people who have just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. After they are devastated they get determined to beat it. They have surgery or take chemotherapy and often pray, plead and hope that God will be their refuge—and in practically every case those who pray this prayer eventually do find refuge and strength. But it’s not the kind of refuge and strength that protects them from being sick because in every case, sooner or later, these people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, suffer and die.

As I have sat with people through excruciating moments. Often, people say they feel like they are falling—falling into a great inner abyss. They fear they will keep falling—they fear there is no end to their pain. But in each and every instance, they say their free fall stopped. Something caught them and cradled them—sort of like the metaphor of the everlasting arms. People say that it wasn’t that their trouble was over. It wasn’t that they were cured of whatever had beset them. But in the deepest part of their being they were no longer afraid.

They still had trouble, they still had suffering and they knew they were going to die—but after they faced head on their troubles, their fears and their own death—they discovered they were no longer afraid. In their heart of hearts they knew that no matter what happened to them there was nothing to fear. In their heart of hearts they had learned that no matter whatever happened to them, all would be well.

The 46th Psalm begins with the words “God is our refuge and strength and it concludes with the words, “Be Still and know that I am God”.

There is a story about a fifth century monk who felt troubled, distracted and unfulfilled. So the monk went to the abbot asking for a teaching, asking for advice, hoping to hear a word that would help calm things down and clear things up. “Please give me a Word, implored the monk…tell me something that will inspire and motivate me. The Abbot said, “go and sit in silence in your room. The silence will teach you everything.”

In our minds there is that endless babble, the ticker tape of restless thoughts. The mind is always thinking. The mind is always chattering. But deep within each and every one of us is what is famously called, the still small voice. We cannot hear this still small voice unless the chattering mind is hushed. The practice of silence teaches us how to be quiet within even when the world is bustling without. In silence we find our way home to the wholeness hidden in the depths of our being. Learning to sit in prayer, meditation and the presence of each other—is an acquired skill and like every acquired skill, this requires practice.

Finding this inner silence is our true refuge. God is met in silence.

Among life’s greatest challenges is getting over our attachments. We all have our attachments. An attachment is your expectation, your idea, your insistence that life is supposed to be the way you think it is supposed to be. We are attached to our ideas, assumptions and expectations. But the still small voice whispers to us saying, what you have today will be gone tomorrow. Whatever you think you need, let it go—The only thing you really have is what you have, here and now. Everything you think you can’t possibly live without, one day, you will.

In our heart of hearts we all know that when ours expectations are dashed, when our assumptions about life are shattered, when our ideas about reality dissolve, only the still small voice remains.

God becomes our refuge and strength not by showing us how to get out of the trouble, but by whispering to us, from within, saying, you are my beloved—learn to be quiet and let everything else go.

Taking refuge in the still small voice does not change our circumstance—it changes us.

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