Dark Night of the Soul

I carry an unusual coin in my pocket, and renew it each year, so it remains fresh, so to speak. It has the phrase: to thine own self be true, which is a scriptural reference, but to what book and passage I am not remembering, and it matters not at all. Though I do like the thine. At the end of the day, it is what I have to rely on, it is the bumper sticker that has outlasted all the others.

I am in the grip of something. It is connected to my recent experience on retreat, in which I encountered several , what…spirits, images, knowings, sayings, liminations, projections, graces, shadows, are any of these words working? I went, or was taken, to a place not of my own making, or so I suppose, but rather transported, drawn, shown. No worries, I am not talking about a physical transposition, no bi-location, nothing of the sort. I was just sitting. But nonetheless, I was convicted.

The conviction which so moved me, grabbed me, elated me, seems now like a mirage, or a trick, or a, let the psychologist have his say, a projection. And something else, perhaps the same thing, now grips me differently. It is as if I experience two sides of some reality outside of my control, one side consoling and one side disrupting.

My intuition says they are the same, but my intellect and my emotions are at profound odds with this.

My intellect wants to chuck the whole endeavor, and agnosticize myself, go on my merry way, acknowledge I don’t know much at all of anything that pertains even remotely to the cosmic questions. My emotions say enough already, you’ve been having this turmoil all of your life. Really. Basta!

My body, the arena of this intense activity, appears neutral, though tired. But it is knowing something other than that which my intellect and my emotions can know. It is somehow aligned with my intuition, my soul…and there I go again with another one of those words, words I am not liking using these days.

Bill Ball was the longtime boy-genius director of the great American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and he was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle one day in 1979: I have learned to trust my intuition at all times, with every person, in every situation. I read that and was shaken. I knew what he knew to be true was abiding for me as well. I clipped that quote and it has been on my bulletin board ever since.

My intuition is that everything is okay right now, though so much seems to be in turmoil. I am glad for that. But I am unsettled. And I notice, when I am, I am able to notice that many others are, too. My friends at San Quentin are suffering some profound losses: mothers dying while their sons remain manacled, earned paroles gratuitously denied, wives receiving difficult diagnoses with husbands unable to offer a consoling touch. And free persons, a term of art that prisoners use for us, are hurting, too. Marriages in turmoil, unable to see the love beneath; loved ones stuck in miasma; men struggling to put down the bottle and pick up the requisite humility; families torn apart by cancer or routine or unforgiven grievances from years past; friendships languishing for lack of trust. Nothing unusual here, or particular to me, but usual, the stuff of all of our lives.

The transporting grace of the silence of the aesthetically perfect zendo in which I sat recently in Oregon is at a contradistinction to all of the pain I met on my return. My friend reminds me I cannot heal it. I disheartingly agree, though I am want to argue.

Again I quote the great Julian of Norwich: Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every which kind of thing will be well.

I like this quote so much, I suspect, because I cannot penetrate it. I cannot get past the first three words, but again, my intuition underscores their truth.

I am wanting a sinless world, a sinless planet, a sinless country, mainly, a sinless me. A perfect me. And what a perfect dead in that is. While sitting in the zendo, it felt perfect. I felt perfect. But I don’t get to sit all day.

Lately, the corporal works of mercy have been echoing in my mind. When faith is obscured, and hope eludes, and love seems an ideal, they remain. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, visiting the sick, setting free the captives. This morning I perused scripture, which I think I know so well, and cannot find them anywhere. But they exist, permanently, imprinted on my mind, rather, in my heart, as the foundation of any sitting in any zendo in Oregon or anywhere else, of any preaching or dogma or ritual or teaching or spiritual movement or limination of the soul. My intuition reminds me of their always universal and abiding grip on my life. They cannot be denied, nor ought I think they can. The town you live in, Bill, this beautiful Santa Rosa, has humans, and animals, in need today. Get up, get out, and find someone besides yourself to feed today. The rest will come, the balance will return, and you may yet get to sit and elimn again before its all done.

To me, The Secret is like a persistent cough—it comes up when you least suspect it and it is always annoying and it doesn’t go away.

Originally released on DVD now as a book, it has been subject of talk shows and newspaper stories. It promises transformation provided you take it to heart. The website trailer put it like this, “The secret will bring you happiness, health, wealth, anything you want.” It can be summed up in these words “The Law of Attraction.”

According to the author, the law of attraction has traveled through the centuries to reach you. It boils down to this, your feelings and thoughts attract like feelings and thoughts. What you give out comes back, like a boomerang. The secret is packaged as a panacea, a magic potion, the cure-all you have been waiting for.

I happen to believe there is something to the law of attraction and the power of positive thinking. But it’s also been my experience that there are larger forces at work in the world which also have something to say about the state of our lives. As someone once said to me, “I’ve been trying to live by the law of attraction, but it doesn’t seem to be working.”

It didn’t work for Jesus either. Few would argue that Jesus radiated nothing, if not positive vibes. Full of compassion, loving beyond measure, he was the very embodiment of peace. And in the story of Palm Sunday it looks as though the law of attraction is working in Jesus’ favor.

The crowds lining the narrow streets cry out, “Hosanna,” save now. On the back of a donkey Jesus is carried down the road. The messiah is here! Lining the streets the people think, here is our secret! Here is our ticket to happiness, to health and wealth, here is our ticket to everything we want and need. Hosanna.

A savior is someone who does for you what you cannot do for yourself. Several years ago a woman who is a seeker of spiritual truth said, “Every time I read a book on spirituality, I think, ‘this is it, now I’ve found it. This is just what I’ve been looking for.” At the moment it seems that way, but the shine wears off. You may have had this experience as a result of a Landmark forum, a weekend retreat or an illuminating moment in psycho-therapy—a savior can take almost any form.

We forever want to be delivered from the unpleasant and painful experiences of life.

Give me certainty and security. Remove the ambiguities in my life. Deliver me from grief; from depression; from this darkly uncertain moment—deliver me from cancer or AIDS, deliver me from this pain in my relationship, deliver me from whatever is causing me to suffer in this moment. If someone would just come along and get me out of what I am in—everything would be all right.

On Palm Sunday Jesus rides into Jerusalem, hailed as a king, a messiah, a savior. Five days later he is crucified. Here was a savior that couldn’t save himself.

This so called savior couldn’t even save himself from his own crucifixion. He is a mirror reflecting back this same truth to us—nobody can live a life and not get crucified—one way or another. The spiritual challenge is not whether we can avoid, deny or defend ourselves against the painful and the disagreeable. The spiritual challenge is not to look for a savior or a way out. The challenge is seeing there is no savior. The spiritual challenge is to see that it’s precisely when we can’t save ourselves that we are transformed.

Jesus saw what every wounded healer sees. He realized that his pain was really not his pain but that he was participating in the pain of life, that great and inexorable sea in which all sentient beings swim. If we don’t take it personally, if we can see our pain as an experience and not our essence—if we can look at our pain, find the courage to explore it and the capacity to learn from it—we won’t need a savior. We won’t be looking for deliverance.

To relate to our pain rather than from it is the path to resurrection—the path to rising above whatever is oppressing us. The Spirit is eternally resilient.

This spiritual secret works for me.

Before we can blink an eye it will be Good Friday again. Around the world Jesus will be lauded as the lamb of God who by his stripes, his wounds, takes away the sin of the world.

But maybe this story reveals a much deeper truth. It’s not that we need a savior. It’s that like Jesus, we can’t save ourselves. And no one is going to show up to get us out of what we are in.

Divine Presence is the very power of life that connects the universe in a web of interdependence. This Presence is everywhere and it lives at the core of every soul. We need not so much to be saved from life’s circumstances. If we open to and trust our own deepest experience we will encounter a Divine Presence that holds us and everything.

We don’t need to be saved from ourselves.

On Palm Sunday Jesus rides into Jerusalem. Hurrah. This is it. Everything will be perfect from here on out. But it isn’t. Over the next few days Jesus’ story becomes confusing and frightening.

Finally on Friday, he is nailed to his cross, as sooner or later we all are. His arms are outstretched to the world as if to say—Our deepest happiness and fulfillment comes in seeing our vulnerability not as a curse, but as a great blessing that connects us one to all.

At a dinner party recently, my dinner companion turned to me and, out of the blue, asked: What is forgiveness?

Whoa. A dinner party. You know, you expect light gossip, opinions on politics and culture and food, or whatever. Instead she inquired: What is forgiveness?

I have opinions and reflections on many topics, and I’m sometimes lucid. But clarity on this topic eludes me, and I think fittingly so. For forgiveness is a complicated subject, at the heart of what it means to be human, of what it means to be spiritual, of what it means to be divine, and, perhaps, of all three at once.

Several years ago, I went to visit a wise woman and presented her with a difficulty I was having; a conundrum, really. I wanted to but I could find no will to forgive someone significant in my life who had done me harm. I shared with her some of my story, and she stopped me said: Forgiveness is not yours to give. I was stunned, and stumped, and knew that her instruction merited long reflection. She would say no more.

2008 dawned for me as my Year of Being Imperfect, my commitment to try to live as a human being, i.e., as an imperfect person, over against my previous 59 year stint at perfectionism, with all that that means. I have acknowledged in this blog The Spirituality of Imperfection, by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, which informs my current thinking.

I also attend a school of forgiveness, if you will, San Quentin State Penitentiary, where I have the privilege of co-facilitating a men’s group in the maximum security unit. The men with whom I work, most of whom have taken a human life, are in need of being forgiven, and, of forgiving.


I have come to know much of what I know of forgiveness because of my work there, and from my many teachers who live within this prison, this dark but paradoxically sacred place.

But blocking forgiveness are several barriers, foremost among them, resentment. We cling (what a word…) to the past, holding on to our slights and injustices. From resentment stems all forms of spiritual disease, noted Bill Wilson, the founder of AA. Resentment is anger gone to seed.

Anger is like all feelings. It is filled with information for us about ourselves, but it is just a feeling. If it does not go to seed as resentment, anger’s positive value can cut through fear which often shrouds our most primitive and beleaguered feeling, sadness. Sadness. Deeply human sadness. And I have come to think it is the denial of sadness that leads to resentment and profoundly disturbs our willingness to forgive, and, to be forgiven. It is this sadness and our fear of bearing it which leads to our holding on, sometimes, forever.

I’m Irish, and I was recently warned about Irish Alzheimer’s, you know, we eventually forget everything but our grudges. Yikes. I don’t want that to be me. I want to forgive. And, I want to be forgiven. And yet.

Forgiveness requires mutuality, willingness, openness, giving up control, praying, letting go of our very special status as victims; ultimately, it brokers neither rationalization nor explanation nor justification. It calls for surrender. One spiritual writer, Wilkie Au, calls forgiveness the endpoint of human life. Another, D.M. Dooling, says: Forgiveness belongs to the Divine. Forgiveness does not belong to us, it’s not ours to give…only to receive. And it is in receiving forgiveness that from us forgiveness can flow.

And this is what I witness daily at SQ: Men aching to be forgiven, men who have done all of the work, spiritual and emotional and psychological, to come to terms with their crime, and all that led to that moment of fatal peril. Men who have spent twenty, thirty, some of them, forty years contemplating that life-ending and life altering moment, but never being able to kneel at the feet of their victims and say, with all the humility and intention they might muster, I am sorry. Please forgive me.

To be deprived of that. That most necessary healing. That most necessary human activity. That ultimate endpoint of human life. And so, how do they go on?

Bright, warm, embodying gratitude, holding themselves with true humility, bespeaking wisdom. But they did not enter prison with these perceptible character traits. They have, as we say in the group, sat in the fire. Our work in the group is for each of us to feel all that we are feeling. No anesthetics, no drugs, no excuses, no explanations, not self-pity, no justifications, no what-ifs, no if only’s.

Most of the men I work with were abused as children, many sexually, most physically, all emotionally. Many were on the streets at sixteen, half-raised by single mothers, often drug addicts themselves, few role models, hardly any men worthy of emulation, no rules, no law, survival at a level about which I cannot know but am able to see the ravaged effects thereof.

And we ask them, demand of them really, one thing: that they feel their feelings. Just that. Not in some ‘70’s T-group way, no warm sensitivity training, there’s nothing mushy here , but you, yeah you, what are you feeling, and how has what your not feeling been creating havoc for you over the course of your whole life?

Anger, rage, sorrow, guilt, fear, isolation, yearning, despair, ennui unfelt so therefore becoming paralysis and rage and resentment. Sit in it. Feel it. No excuses. No explanations, no what if’s, no if only’s.

If only your mother and father hadn’t been teenagers, if only they had married, if only your dad hadn’t left, if only your mother wasn’t a druggie, if only her lovers hadn’t had their way with you sexually, if only you had stayed in school, if only you could read, if only you hadn’t been dealing drugs…if only, brother, is of no value. You are here. You took a life. And you can, if you want, come to terms with who you are and you can then become a human being.

We are each in prison, no? We have done some deeds, have we not? We have excuses for our behaviors, yes? We have explanations, well, I know I do, and reasons and rationalizations, and a lot of difficult feelings we haven’t quite fully felt. We may not have taken a life, or knocked off a liquor store, but are our sins and faults and transgressions so much more efficacious than those of my teachers at SQ? I think not. Different in scale, in magnitude, maybe in destruction. But nonetheless, placing me, and perhaps you, in the very same category as these men: holding resentments, filled with excuses, learning to bear their sorrow, and then keen remorse, in need of forgiveness.

Paradoxically, as the great spiritual masters have discovered, forgiveness is not ours to give, but only ours to receive. Perhaps this is what the wise woman I asked so many years ago meant. You must first be forgiven, you must know forgiveness, receive forgiveness, and than forgiveness will flow from you. This is what the men in my group experience, deep forgiveness, not directly from their victims but from the divine in the many human faces the divine employs, in theirs, in mine and in yours. Your face can melt another’s resentment and restore human feeling, so forgiveness might flow.

But first, we must know our need for forgiveness, as St. Therese of Lisieux notes, we must acknowledge, each of us, our great incompetence, our absolute reliance on the generosity of each other, and of the divine who sparks what love exists between and among us. Then, and only then, some inkling of how we might begin forgiving others will suddenly, and mysteriously, emerge.

At this late date, I am coming to see this, to understand this, to receive this.

I have a lot I need to be forgiven for. No, I have not taken a human life, but for the grace of God. My accounting is no less grave. For to me, as I suspect to you, much has been given. Every privilege and possibility and kindness has been shown me and yet I still have resentments and I begrudge others and I think myself better and I wait with arms crossed for them, those who have hurt me, to come and ask my forgiveness.

Whoa, again. Herein lies the lie. I have been choosing the God role, when I have only been offered the human’s. And I keep being forgiven for all that I have done, and really for all that I am, for being just this fallible, imperfect, needy human being. As we know we are forgiven for every thing, we can forgive. It’s as if it were a template in the soul, the graced mark of being forgiven leading to the graced mark of forgiveness.

This is the secret the men in my group at SQ have come to know. They discover this while doing the work, while sitting in the fire, while down on their knees, in silent prayer, at their bunks, in their claustrophobically-small cells in the midst of hundreds of others in the fetid cell blocks, asking for the same grace you and I pray for: let me become a human being, forgive me for all that I am and have done.

Forgiveness comes. Mysteriously. No quid-pro-quo. It comes because they, and we, are open and desirous. They, and we, give up control. They, and we, are healed of our zerrissenheit, our torn-to-pieces-hood, from the brokenness within that is unforgiveness.

And then we can forgive. And then we do. And then it may just be all we want to do.

So I have a partial response to Julie, my dinner partner. What is forgiveness? It is being forgiven. Being fully and totally allowed to be human, imperfect, full of gnarl and contradiction, of sadness and hope, allowed to be the precise reflection of the divine we are, and allowing that to dissolve the previously unforgiven brokenness within.

I keep a journal of sorts. Over the years I’ve tried journaling religiously as in “every morning at the same time, same place” as I have been advised to do by almost countless retreat and workshop leaders. I’ve purchased or been given all sizes and types of journals—big leather bound ones that are meant to be sketch books of “real” artists, smaller ones with beautifully designed covers, and once someone gave me an adult version of the diary like the one I had as a little girl that my brother Dan delighted in snatching from wherever I had carefully hidden it. It had a little lock on it—which of course he had no trouble breaking. Who knows what secrets it contained that he devoured. Alas, those have gone to his grave along with so much else that I valued and miss even now.

The journal I keep now is not something I write in every single morning. But, often enough I write in it. One day when I was at work a colleague walked by my desk when I happened to be jotting something in it. He couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice, “You keep a journal?” He sought some confirmation of what his eyes had seen. Caught unprepared, I blurted out, “Yes, a kind of journal. . . and I keep my sermon notes in it too.” As though the latter justified the thing.

In Writing Alone and with Others, Pat Schneider, a teacher of writing, tells of a woman who kept a journal. Her husband walked by one morning, and seeing her with it open, said, “You sit there writing as though your life had some significance.”

My friend Bill urges me to write what I know, and you might think that would be easy, but as the saying goes, ”the older I get the less I know.” I talked with him over a cup of coffee about my inability to sit down and write for this blog.

Last weekend on retreat when we were invited to write out a conversation with our own personal tempter (a la Jesus in the wilderness) mine turned out to be a small pale slight slithery kind of male person dressed in beige pants who made it clear that I had nothing of value to write, and nothing to say really that would be of interest to anyone else. Furthermore, mimicking a high school English teacher I had nearly 50 years ago, he casually noted that my writing was written as though I had ”one foot in the bucket.” This rather enigmatic phrase has stuck itself somewhere deep in my brain, (a brain which nowadays has a hard time remembering names and dates and other facts more useful) and it’s lodged there ever since. I know this because when MPT (my personal tempter) spoke just the word “one” I could fill in the rest of the sentence without hesitation.

We are a piece of work, aren’t we? Positive feedback, a reputation as a good preacher, occasional applause, love and respect and still there are those peculiar words lodged there. All of which brings me to the way, the all-American way, I have been deeply indoctrinated with the need to earn, earn, earn. Earn my way. Earn respect. Earn love—especially divine love. One little slip and all is lost. It’s like my car insurance. I drove for over 40 years without an accident and a year ago caused a minor “cell-phone” bumper rearrangement. The insurance company cared not a wit about those 40 years. All was lost with my admission that I was responsible for one accident. My rates went through the ceiling. That’s how it is in the world of earning and deserving.

It’s so easy for me to forget the very different reality beneath this world of earning and deserving. That reality– the one I keep giving myself to–is about being loved just because—being valued, simply for who I am no matter what. No matter what I may have earned or failed to earn. The little story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness comes right after his baptism when he heard the divine voice proclaiming that he was God’s precious child. That’s who we are all—children of the divine. Bearers of the divine. The beloved of God. It’s simply true.

It’s hard, so hard, to hold on to that deeper truth in our world. Not long ago I co-led a retreat weekend for some beautiful courageous human beings who are living in shelters of our city. As we came to the end of the weekend, one of the women said that she was thankful because on the retreat she knew that she had value: the church had remembered her and people cared about her enough to spend a weekend with her. One of the greatest scourges of homelessness is that it makes people invisible. No one looks at you. One day they do; the next they don’t. You don’t exist—because you somehow are deemed to have NOT earned a glance. Our weekend together reminded us all that we are loved because we are God’s—all of us. We had looked at and listened to one another.

On the one hand, our culture has a strange capacity to be all about me. Me-me-me is the constant song of those who earn and deserve. At the same time we have a great capacity to devalue human life and relationships.

That’s one reason I cherish my community of faith—where I can be reminded that I am loved and that it is not all about me. Worship, prayer, serving, daring to speak and listen to our truths help keep me grounded. And, since MPT might show up at any time, I also follow a practice I learned years ago at the Blue Mountain Retreat Center: I memorize passages of Scripture, poems, and prayers that speak to me of the divine impulse at work. I dwell with them in my times of quiet. I put deep into my heart and my mind words and images to fall back on when I need them—words to transform me in my everyday living—words that settle in alongside the “bucket” words and perhaps someday will replace them. Who knows?

Bill suggested I write what I know. I know that when I really listen to the stories of another person—when I listen carefully to their truth I can’t avoid seeing our oneness as well as our difference. The oneness runs deeper. And, someone else’s story drives me more deeply into my own. I come up against my own truths and half-truths as I listen. And, when I dare to tell my own truth to another I am made transparent. They and I can see more clearly. We are connected. Truth-telling and listening is risky but holy work.

So, keeping a journal—no matter if it is “of a sort”— is a way of valuing the content of my days—as my own story unfolds. There are other ways to do this, but this is mine for now. Too, I write in it as an act of protest against our culture’s insistence that we live at a pace that doesn’t permit jotting down thoughts and wonderings. I keep it to keep myself honest, and to provide a way to look back and see the recurrence of themes and challenges—the insights gained (and forgotten)—the movement of the divine in my everydayness. When MPT shows up, I can look him in his shifty eyes and refer him back to our previous conversation. I can show him how he didn’t have the final word then—nor does he now.

I recently officiated at the memorial service for a dear friend, an extraordinary woman who lived to the ripe old age of 99. Lydia McColloch was a colorful character. She was an articulate plain speaker who wasn’t afraid to tell it like it is. Lydia never shied away from speaking her mind and she often employed aphorisms and maxims to get her point across.

Her verbal arsenal often included cute and catchy little phrases. She loved word play and when she wondered if she had stepped out of line she would often say, “well mardon me padom”. If she sensed that you were hesitant about speaking your mind she’d say, “don’t be backward about coming forward”. But I’ll never forget the phrase she repeated most often—when surprised by some event or circumstance of life, Lydia would say, “well who would have thunk it.” Once she told me it seemed that life was chock full of who-would-have-thunk-it moments. She’s right – life is full of who-would-have-thunk-it moments.

Just look back, ten, twenty, thirty years—look back at all the unexpected moments, surprising experiences, the detours on your road – the synchronicities, the inexplicable joy and unmitigated suffering and pain – looking back over the road we have traveled – sometimes all that can be said “Who would have thunk it.”

If you’ve ever attended a high school or college reunion you’ve no doubt been surprised at what happened to your classmates. There is the homecoming queen who died of the drug overdose. Who would have thunk it? There is the geeky introvert who struck it rich with that revolutionary concept in computer software. There is the inattentive, poor student who barely squeaks by but ends up being elected as President of the United States. Who would have thunk it?

The mystery of how things turn out.

At a very profound level we are always lost. We know where we have been but we don’t know where we are headed. We live in a fantasy that we are not lost. But one day, we wake up and looking back over our lives we find ourselves asking how we got here.

Embedded in life is an inescapable insecurity a mysterious uncertainty about who we are and what we can hold on to. We try to numb ourselves against this uncertainty with sex, or drugs, or drink, or shopping, or television, anything that keeps us from facing the fact that we actually go through life swimming in a sea of uncertainty. Life is predictably elastic. We never know how the next moment will stretch us.

We go along thinking nothing is happening, nothing is changing, then suddenly, everything does. Who would have thunk it?

The truth is it’s when life goes haywire–it’s the moments of topsy-turvy that become our defining moments because in these moments our conditioning and defense mechanisms break down. Unpredictable and unwanted experiences force us into the unexplored corners of our lives.

Buddhist author Pema Chodron writes, “Underneath the surface of your life, there is a groundlessness – an uncertainty – an insecurity – that is always bubbling up. We see our groundlessness – We see our insecurity as the problem.”

It’s true that conventional religion promises certainty and security. Believe the dogma, buy into the doctrine and you’ll always live your life on solid ground. But dogma is nothing more than a collective illusion.

What if Pema Chodron is right? What we fear most is the feeling that life is groundless, that there is nowhere to stand—what if what we fear most is being lost in a sea of changing experiences that may swallow us up. The truth is, there’s nowhere to stand.

What we fear most is reality. What we fear most is the truth.

If I have learned anything in my 30 plus years of ministry, it is that sooner or later we all stand on groundless ground. It is unavoidable. It is as if we are all have all taken our number and are standing in line, waiting for the next unexpected experience that will remind us of the fundamental condition of our lostness.

This lostness, this sense of groundlessness, is inevitable and universal.

Great spiritual teachers tell us that the universe is encoded in such a way so as to conceal from the mind, what only the heart can see. The truth is none of us know where we are going and we can’t explain why things turn out the way they do. We are always holding on for dear life—we hold on inside ourselves—we are holding our breath, holding on in order to make ourselves feel secure.

The trick is to see our insecurity not as a curse, but a blessing.

Insecurity is a blessing?

Great spiritual teachers tell us that our insecurity is not only a blessing but more importantly, feeling insecure takes to a Holy and Sacred place inside ourselves. It’s only when we let go and admit we are lost—it’s only when we admit we don’t know where to go that we become radically open to the Divine Presence within and among us.

This is the great irony. Fear comes from the mind but the heart is fearless. We can only get found once we know we are lost. In our lostness the Divine Presence becomes our refuge and strength because there is no other place to go.

Who would have thunk it?

My steel trap of a mind has a hidden magnet that searches for any flints of perfection that it can attract, and for a long time now, it attracts them surely. Yesterday, I had the graced occasion to speak at a twelve step meeting of the fellowship of which I have been a member since Jimmy Carter was the president. I mentioned that I had spent a decade studying Christian and Hebrew scriptures, and my mind had settled into one definitive passage: Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect. The room collectively sniggled, so I knew I was among friends. Never mind the limited understanding of the divine the passage implies. I glommed onto the admonition to Be Perfect! It suits my Enneagram One, Virgoesque personality, well, perfectly!

The problem however, like the steel door, it’s a trap.

This morning I went to church and what should the reading be, but, yes, that prescription for perfection, the very same. I shuddered. Egads. The wisdom of the synchronous bit me in the behind. But the homilist suggested perfection might be better understood as complete, a word with a non-admonishing tone to it that suggests progress, not perfection, words that echo in every twelve step meeting every day everywhere those wise steps are remembered.

I have been reading of late The Spirituality of Imperfection, subtitled Storytelling and the Search for Meaning by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, deciding as I approach my seventh decade to unravel the perfecting work of the preceding six. Kind of a perfect task in and of itself, no?

This whole undertaking is daunting. I have been on the march for a long time, working to be perfect. Praying for perfection. Deeply bemoaning my always-apparent-to-others-but-somewhat-in-denial to me very imperfect self. For me, there is something seemingly counterintuitive to a spirituality of imperfection. I say apparently, because even deeper is the awareness that in this is my healing. As the authors note: God comes through the wound.

I have known this, and yet. I have been drawn to this, and yet. I have observed the radical wisdom of this, and yet. But my “and yets” are ebbing, as I come into this radical grace of imperfection, a gift to me as is my sobriety.

What it is calling me to is some profound self-acceptance, actually just as I am, and acceptance of you, just as you are, without either you or me having to get all perfected-up, and some pervasive acceptance of the world, just as it is. I am reminded of Julian of Norwich’s eloquent, wise uttering: Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every which kind of thing will be well.

I first heard this in a homily during the Easter Triduum in 1979. I loved it then, but it did not take. It got lodged in my aforementioned steel trap of a mind, and could not wend its way into my body, which all the while ached for its truth. Just a little release, Bill, just let up a little. Well, I knew better…

Dan Berrigan says: All is gift, all is gift. Give it away. It: this life, our loves, our work, our wounds, our joys, our betrayals, they are all a gift. They are all necessary. In them each is grace. I am not yet fully comfortable writing those lines, and yet, I have been coming for a long time now to know they bespeak a deeper truth than what my enervated perfectionism offers.

In this is an invitation, not to passivity, but a reason to love more, and seek justice ardently, and take the Sermon on the Mount into our hearts, and to find even deeper silences. This imperfecting wisdom comes out of these endeavors, out of these movements out, out of our selves as we unlatch our steel traps of minds and pull open the heavily armored garments that sometimes conceal our tender, vulnerable, and in the eyes of the Creator, for whom no design is flawed, our beautiful bodies.

I know I am not alone. We are so hard on ourselves, hence, on each other, hence on our planet. We are having to prove so much, when, in truth, there is nothing to prove at all. We might spend a lifetime coming to see this, through the mists of perfectionism that grip us, but finally, if we but ask, we will be released. We are on a pilgrimage of vicissitudes, as the French Jesuit Jean-Pierre Caussade and the American pragmatist William James might say. We journey forth and inevitably fall down, and through some grace not of our making, we get up, and invariably fall down again. And, yet that grace not only persists, but in us grows, opening us for both the journey and for its terminus.

Complete. That’s what I hope to be, and maybe in this moment am. I don’t even know what complete, unlike perfection, looks like. I hope to just be complete. I am relying on grace, the efficacious way the Divine is always present in the very particulars of our lives and in the life of us all. I’ve tried the other, but that steel trap door is being retired.

I recently joined the International Dark-Sky Association. It was a spiritual move on my part, though at the time I did not think of that. I read about the association’s work in the paper, and felt immediately drawn to support it. And what does it do? Educates the public on the values of darkness, and works to create dark spaces on an increasingly lit planet. In more ways than one. It’s my first foray into the world of science geeks, being an arts person from birth. I can barely follow the newsletter with the involved explanations on good and bad light, but I get the gist because I want the results.

I want more darkness. Less incandescence. I have nothing against light, but am getting picky, and as I age, I want the right kind of light. And not just for photos. I want that which accompanies darkness, too: quiet, stillness, reverberation, night vision, a deepening of the other senses. The main canyon, er, aisle at Chartres, the Milky Way in its ineffable splendor, redwood forests at almost any time of day or night: compelling, almost overwhelming images. They hush us, they re-direct our look, they encompass us. What can we do in their presence but be, and be in awe. We just are.

And so this season of Advent. Since I was a boy, the first echoes of O Come, O Come Emmanuel have hushed me and invited me in, to a place I cannot conjure on my own but which each year returns, as seasons do. That in the northern hemisphere this season corresponds to the daily decrease in light, and its gradual return, is no accident. We wait, patiently or not, for the pinprick of brilliance, which our soul and perhaps heart so want to again experience, to allow a broadening and brightening that in the other seasons too often dulls us into some kind of spiritual malaise.

This darkness for which we pine in this holy season is kin to absence, to longing, to knowing somehow that there is a completion yet to be accomplished, in us and in our world. We find it so difficult to perceive the radical work of grace through the thicket of glaring activity culture has worked feverishly to suggest gives meaning. But meaning it does not render. Meaning’s source lies elsewhere. Meaning is more likely hidden in those preserves where this mercantile light cannot go.

The mystics, to a person, invested in darkness. John of the Cross wrote of no Light Night. Teresa of Calcutta felt darkness for decades yet tended the dying everyday. Those who teach me the most I discover always have in their repertoire a period of profound darkness, sometimes of the soul, sometimes of the psyche, mostly of both.

I suspect this is true for you as well, in your own life and in those enlightened ones we are graced to meet.

For out of that darkness comes a deeper truth, a deeper awareness, and a deeper compassion. Praying during Advent, in whatever silence and with whatever hope we can muster, is not for darkness sake. It is ultimately for light. Light that weaves into us a deeper commitment to our true selves, a deeper commitment to each other, and a deeper commitment to the others whose names we do not know but with whom in fact we are inextricably bound. Darkness and its spouse, silence, re-forms us, re-aligns us, eventually re-verberates us into the world.

In the Gospels, often it is mentioned that he went our early in the morning, when it was still dark, to pray. So this Advent, look for the dark. Look for silence. Look for your local Chartres, doors hopefully unlocked, when no one else is around. Look up at the Milky Way in some preserve near your home. Find your local version of redwoods and sit in their scented presence. That presence is the divine, promising us the necessary light to discover, finally, true presence, true meaning and true community.

The International Dark Sky Association is, after all, mostly interested in the pinpricks of brilliance we know as stars.

I have waited almost thirty years for the news of Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s desert to eke out.  And I’m surprised it ever actually happened, but then, she planned it just so, strategically sending those missives to her spiritual director and select friends, and then asking them to destroy them!  I waited thirty years because back then I just could not get her, nor her immense sway with the press, nor her ultimate superior’s use of Malcom Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God as a smug way to scold others, mostly women, whose posture within the institution caused heart-burn, and for whom docility and the veil were no longer enough. 

I could not get her because all the persons I knew to whom I was drawn to discover the deeper truths of the spiritual life were men and women filled with doubt and who dared to kneel, if at all, with trepidation and wonderment, not that God would not be present, but, aware of their spiritual imperfections, fearful they might not recognize the divine presence at all.  So I admired their profound humility and utter lack of orthodoxical assuredness.  Of course, it mirrored my own profound and unsettling doubt, of then, and fast forward thirty years, of now. 

Finally I recognize Teresa as one of us.  Us being that legion of seekers wanting more than anything to dwell in the divine presence but experiencing, as if this moment now was not that presence itself, a mere desert.  Teresa’s desert apparently lasted five decades, I’m sure no record.  She must have been very close to God, for as her namesake Teresa of Avila scolded the Divine:  It’s no wonder you have so few friends, what with the way you treat those who love You.

We don’t get to plan this, this spiritual journey, this journey of the soul.  We are only asked to pack. But in the off chance we believe we have any real inkling of what it might mean to be in a relationship with the divine, all we need to do is open our eyes.

Teresa of Calcutta did that, on God’s command.  Taking a train from a rest in Darjeeling, in the foothills of the edifying Himalayas, she heard: Go to Calcutta and find me there.  Where?  Among the poorest of the poor.  In Calcutta, that’s pretty poor.  But it’s poor in Chicago or San Francisco or Omaha or New Orleans or in the Mississippi Delta towns where the conditions are not at that great a remove from those of a century ago.

I was thinking about Teresa as the news of Senator Larry Craig came out, so to speak.  I had turned on Anderson Cooper looking for another story, and it was wall-to-wall Craig.

We are mightily titillated by another human being’s desire for sex, especially if the object of their desire or the venue in which it occurs is somehow other than and distinctly below what we believe about ourselves.  And if we can charge hypocrisy in addition to our other inherent judgments, aren’t we justified?  Craig’s colleagues called his behavior unforgivable, squalid, and unspeakable. That’s a large charge for any one of us to bear.

But I understand it.  I led a shadow life, sans the bathrooms, for quite a while.  A life of fear and self-loathing and self-abhorrence, of sneaking around to even admire, from afar, the objects of my desire.  I believed, like those senators, gay people to be squalid, unforgivable, and yes, certainly, of course, it’s all unspeakable.  I scapegoated gay people.  Of course I did.    That’s what I thought we deserved. 

And so Larry Craig, now exposed as caught in a web of a life devised by others, uninformed by his own resonant ensouled awareness of the absolute integrity of his very created self, found himself cornered, at the late age of 62, entrapped really, by a culture that chooses to be titillated and shadowed simultaneously about all things sexual.  And all he could say was, with terrible pathos, I am not gay.  The only thing he thought would save him…  

My righteous, plank-carrying self was busy clearing the speck from Craig’s eye when I had a moment of comeuppance.  I thought: But for the grace of God, Bill. 

Thirty years ago, certain women and men, desert dwellers, too, took a hold of me, and would not let me go.  They loved me right into being myself.  They offered me the courage to not wait until I found myself in a men’s room, at age 62, extending my right foot to perhaps, hopefully, merely touch the sole of another man’s shoe.   They offered me some glimpse that I was, in fact, all along, perfectly okay, and so evidently the recipient of sufficient grace to keep me alive and loved. 

With their love I, at age 29, could finally say no more.  I hope the same for Craig.  I hope certain wise and loving Idahoans take him into their loving bosom and aid him in the difficult task of coming to love himself just as the divine intended he be loved. 

This is all Teresa of Calcutta and Senator Craig of Idaho and we, you and I, are.  Recipients of grace.  Made in the image and likeness of God.  But for Teresa or Larry, or me, not the God made in the image and likeness of the culture.  Rather, the God who extends invitations on the Darjeeling train, who delights in being present not to our ego-heads, but only to our yearning, desirous hearts.  And the more resistant they are, so, too, the divine’s.  Never letting Teresa go, nor Larry Craig, nor me or you. 

We are called to the desert, we are called serve the poorest of the poor, those mightily shamed by the forces that be, those struggling in deserts real and metaphorical to find some inkling of who they are, and to find out, against all hope, that who they are is most fundamentally a fragment of God.  We are called to serve them because we are called to be them.  Their names?   Teresa, Larry, yours, and mine. 

    In the past couple of weeks, nearly a dozen very different people have spoken to or emailed me about new revelations regarding Mother Teresa’s Dark Night of the Soul.  This is probably because I recently wrote a new English translation of the famous treatise of that name by the sixteenth century Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, and they thought I would find it interesting.

<><>    I do.  Not only interesting, but comforting.  If such a great being as Mother Teresa spent her life wrestling with inner aridity and radical unkowing, there is hope for me.  As a trained philosopher and the daughter of secular Jews who rejected organized religion, I have a tendency to question everything, including – maybe especially – my own spiritual experience.  As a lifelong lover of the Great Mystery sometimes known as God, I am driven by an ineffable yearning for connection with the Divine.

<><>    This tension does not bother me.  The dance between doubt and faith invigorates my spiritual life on a daily basis.  The questioning prevents me from slipping into “magical thinking,” and the longing fills my heart with love.  I too began my spiritual quest as a young woman ablaze with the presence of God.  Over the years, the flames cooled and the certainty they had given me began to fade.  I continued to cultivate a daily discipline of contemplative practice, because the stillness made my life better, but I no longer experienced the spiritual fireworks that dazzled me and launched me on my path.  Dramatic inner states have been gradually replaced by a quiet surrender to All That Is.

John of the Cross’ mentor, Teresa of Avila, whose work I have also translated, describes the soul as a kingdom within.  The task of life, she teaches, is to make the journey through this interior castle to the center of our souls, where the Beloved dwells, and unite with him there.  This is not a linear process, but a matter of circling again and again to the center of our own beings, touching the source of love, and returning to the world with the cup of grace refilled.  Once we have tasted that exquisite union of love, the only thing that makes sense, according to Teresa of Avila, is to be of service.

I think the twentieth century sage, Mother Teresa, knew this too.  Driven by an initial impulse of divine purpose rooted in devotion to Christ, she did not require continuous religious inspiration to fulfill what she knew to be his desire for her: to serve the “poorest of the poor.”  The darkness of personal faith she endured did not deter her from carrying out this sacred mission.

I remember reading a short story by Miguel de Unamuno many years ago about a priest who did not believe in God.  And yet this man was adored by his community and he inspired faith in the hearts of everyone he touched.  He remained silent about his own tortured doubts.  I recall being thrilled by this story, because it touched a deep place inside me that secretly grappled with passionate love for a God I was not sure I even believed in.

In his refreshingly heretical look at our preconceptions of God, Rev. Bob Thompson invites us into an authentic dialog about faith and mystery.  I am honored to participate in the conversation.

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