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.