December 2. First Monday of Advent. The beginning of the "first lunation" of the 2014 lunar Calendar. My 39th birthday.
For me, after an intense series of recent episodes, today has been one of relative reflection and calm, the nearly perfect time to begin the season of deepening that has been calling to me for months now.
The past five years, and it's extreme lessons, gifts and insights, have been the most pivotal of my life. But now I must begin to review the relevance of this season against a larger framework. It's time to renew (or discard) piece by piece, branch by branch, the vows I took upon entering this life...
...soul agreements, promises made to be unkept, decisions made by circumstances rather than by direct choice, paradigms shaped by fear rather than creativity and love; and in the midst of doubt, bonds that can only be strengthened by time and chance, and will never fail in spite of doubt...
There is so much, yet so little to see, to hold--to know as it exists for me in this short span called life. So, there are times of necessary withdrawal, still seasons of reflection, so that what lingers hidden and deep within has time for it's presence to lift up to the surface of our being.
Now is such a time in my life.
So, today, in order to open to and consecrate this time of renewal, this desire for what's hidden deep inside to rise, I turned to a Christian Contemplative practice--Centering Prayer.
In this daily time of meditation, one seeks to enter the inner chamber of the soul and sit with God as "He" exists in that sacred space. Though similar to Buddhist practice, Centering Prayer is not a meditative emptying out of thoughts in order to reach a state of detachment from internal, and subsequently external stimuli.
Instead, in Centering Prayer, one offers to God the inner turmoil of the heart and, minute by minute, second by second, milisecond by milisecond, one's inner intention remains to open to the presence of God despite any inner or outer distractions.
For me, centering prayer is a ritual that allows me a few precious minutes each day to just sit and behold the only Sacredness my heart recognizes as such.
There are "guidelines" to the practice, though, and every time in the past that attempted to stay within those perimeters, I wound up getting distracted and feeling unable to keep to that intended shape. But the times I've shown up to the prayer within my own framework of understanding, I have felt it's power and guidance.
So I've chosen today to confront that lack of consistency--by returning to Centering Prayer while making the practice my own.
Besides, The Eternal Beloved knows me and I know Him--there's no need for any pretense.
So, this morning, I perused my bookcases looking for an appropriate passage/meditation in order to commence this offering. Though I have several Advent-themed resources, they didn't feel exactly appropriate. I am hardly traditional in anything I do, much less how I contemplate and renew faith in my heart and hands. I needed something that would speak to the doubts and tensions threatening to rage out of control in the deeps surrounding my inner kingdom. I needed something that would renew within me the sacred words of my heart and quest.
The Soul Aflame, a modern book of hours found it's way into my hand. Turning to Monday morning's Terce meditation, I read the following passages:
"All night I could not sleep Because of the moonlight on my bed. I kept hearing a voice calling: Out of Nowhere, Nothing answered, 'yes.'" (Zi Ye/Tzu Yeh)
"After the final no there comes a yes, And on that yes the future world depends." (Wallace Stevens)
"...and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms aroud him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and hs heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes." (James Joyce)
Upon reading these lines lifted from songs, poems and novels, my soul stirred within me. I could not help saying, "Yes. Yes."
(Pride & Prejudice 2005 movie screenshot courtesy of Fanpop.com)
Pride & Prejudice has long been a favorite novel--with the unfoldment of Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship being of particular appeal given the process of sharpening and refining each character separately went through before coming to the point of being able to behold and cherish the other.
But during my morning meditation, it was the gentle and gracious yielding of Jane Bennett (portrayed by actress Rosamund Pike in the 2005 movie adaptation of the Austen novel) that came to mind.
Throughout the novel (and movie) there was little doubt of Jane and Bingley's affection for each other; in fact, had it not been for the machinations of Bingley's sisters (and even Darcy's behind the scenes manipulation of his friend) these two lovers would surely have come to a point of agreement sooner.
But later (which of course turned out to be the most appropriate hour for all involved) with the moment of proposal upon her, Jane's response revealed the depth and magnititude of her secret wish and prayer.
"Yes. A thousand times, yes,” she cried.
(photo courtesy of Christine Kay)
This line from the movie entered my mind several times during my prayer session. It is advised that practicioners let go of any and all thoughts arising in the stillness and the silence of the meditation (and I attempted to not mentally clutch the phrase during the meditation time); still, afterwards, I knew I wanted to carry that message and the morning's quotations with me through the day for deeper reflection.
"And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." Hebrews 11:6 (RSV)
For me both God and faith have long been inextricably bound up with loneliness and longing for love.
When I look back over my life I don't see any striking handicap or misfortune defining my existence, save perhaps one: a deep sensitivity to the interior realms, the lairs of emotion and spirit not easily seen by those who lead more surface lives.
While not a hardship per se, my young life did have a lot of friction and tensions that weren't easily explained or expressed to onlookers. So, perhaps I spent too much time retreating to those subtle realms as a means of escaping external dilemmas, (thereby creating further isolation and tension in my eternal life.)
Then again, an inner orientation towards the spiritual deeps was ever-present in me, even as a small girl. And, in the surface world, there was much I didn't have the framework to understand, as kids often don't.
So I took for granted that, for instance, while it wasn't exactly a normal experience for a daughter to be forced at four or five years old to call "Sandra," the woman who gave her birth, "mom", neither was it necessarily a normal dysfunction.
But is there such a thing as a normal dysfunction? Though my earliest memories are of my father, I don't remember my mother not being somewhere there. She wasn't absent in body, at least. But her mind and heart was elsewhere, it would learly seem--her first-born, daughter, a perpetual nuisance, always in the way.
I grew up enduring seemingly random blows for anything from backtalk to clutzy mistakes to philosphical debate. Switches, belts, extension cords... At that time, many parents believed that if they spared the rod their children would roam wild and uncontrollable. But, of course, there's a fine line between corporal punishment and abuse;and ABC After-School Specials only emphasized the physical abuses that left visible bruises--cigarette burns on pale arms and legs--and not welts left on clothed, dark skin that wouldn't easily be seen if they weren't covered anyway.
And those tv shows never explored the scars beneath the skin. The long silences juxtaposed with the random verbal assaults--that led to me to stifle my tears, and any emotional expression, as over time I began to feel the experience of having my pain mocked was worse than having it ignored completely.
Regardless, I didn't grow up believing myself an abused child, though it took some long adult years for me to understand and begin to recover from unhealthy coping tendencies affecting my relationships that led directly back to those earlier experiences with my mother.
There was yet another layer to the mother-daughter dysfunction that developed in adolescence. I was a dumpy, overweight girl. My fat suit of flesh served to protect me, I realize now. It also served to feed my thin mom's addiction as she carted me off to the "fat doctor" to get extra diet pills for herself.
Why did I even agree to such shameful exploitation, some might ask? Wasm't I old enough at that time to know there was something wholly wrong about such a request? Yes, I knew it felt wrong inside my bones, inside my gut. But nearly everything about the life I led forced me into agreement with things that did not either suit or serve my inner self. I didn't know to interpret that persistent, acute inner ache, that it was a sign that I was acting against my soul.
In this particular instance, after that first shameful experience, when my mother asked me to return to the clinic, I shied away and she, fully aware of her transgression, never asked about it again. But there was even shame for me in that mild refusal.
The offering of my fat flesh on her altar of addiction was an ironic act of love, as I understood it then, because I blamed myself for the distance between my mother and me. I wanted to please her.
It should come as no surprise that the connection I have shared with her for most of my life has been very much bound up with guilt and a lack of physical and emotional boundaries.
As if this wasn't enough turmoil, additionally, as a multigenerational mixture of races and cultures, I grew up with full awareness of black and Indian ancestors. This insight instilled in me a deep conviction that I could be "related to anyone."
Yet, a daughter of the Deep South, I attended private Catholic schools as one of about twenty non-white students; and I was ostracized by nearly everyone--white, black and in between-- for reasons I have yet to fully understand. But, in the deep Coastal South of my childhood, racial lines were patroled on all sides and crossing wires, even mentally, was forbidden. Both of my parents tacitly agreed. "That girl was born white and she'll die white," my father once said, after yet another row over issues of race.
So in nearly all ways from early beginnings onward--racially, socially, mentally, emotionally, physically--I was struggling and, very clearly, out of bounds.
(Nonconformist by Mr. Fish, courtesy of Truthdig)
Once I asked a college friend if he thought of me as a nonconformist. He replied, "Quite frankly, I don't know anything you do conform to. To be your race, your gender, your age, you are nothing that society expects of you."
The reason I even asked the question: I hated my nonconformity. I had always been reluctantly different from others. All I really wanted was a normal, functional life. In spite of the various phases I went through growing up, pretending not to care, pretending even to own my own trademark quirkiness, I was haunted by my inability to be my race, my gender, my age and belong absolutely nowhere-- and to no one.
Of course my connection to God and to the eternal realms was very much affected by all of my frustrations. As a young girl, I was able to see with more clarity, in spite of difficulties. But as I aged, those periods of insight became clogged, then overrun by some very confused, even counter-intuitive efforts to make some kind of sense of my life.
Finally, I turned to dogma in an effort to settle the matter, once and for all. I was finally going to belong to God on terms that I, or at least, the world around me, could understand and accept. Finally, I was going to be acceptable, redeemable...to everyone else at least.
Inevitably, sadly, the God of my childhood got cut, severed by my own hands--and was replaced by fundamentalism.
While perhaps part of some Eternal Master Plan, that decision didn't directly turn out according to my plan--what I thought I needed and was pledging my life to at the time. Then again, given my history, how could there have been any real homecoming in, always and again, becoming one of a very few non-white converts to a Southern Baptist heritage and belief system very much bound up with racial segregation, emotional and spiritual separation, and the supremacy of the southern white model of purity which would always exclude me?
Also, in choosing a fundamentalist view of God and faith, though my intent really was sincere, I factored in every judgement, every opinion and idea about God that had been spoon-fed to me; and I forgot everything I ever believed about God in my own heart space, which, incidentally, I learned as a Southern Baptist to completely distrust.)
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
Finally, in my early thirties, after a series of relationship losses (some personal, others connected with the church and with spiritual friends I had turned to for refuge) I finally accepted responsibility for my restlessness and dissatisfaction with my life. In doing so, I inadvertently found the power, the inner authority, to finally say no.
No to my mother's enmeshed concept of mother-daughter relationship. No to the racial, social and emotional codes that would never define me, no matter how badly I wanted to squeeze myself into a box with a label.
And, perhaps most significantly at the time: no to the false god I turned to in an hour of desperation; and no to a religious viewpoint that made deities out of social mores, and suppressed authenticity and vulnerability in order to maintain its rigid cultural order.
At that time I didn't realize what a powerful word no actually was. I was just so weary of being beaten down by all of these unruly influences that I had allowed to control my life.
However, I have since learned from spiritual teacher David Spangler that, as spiritual beings, if we do not have the authority to say no to anything in our lives, be it physical or spiritual, then we also lack the ability to say yes and truly be in agreement with anything and anyone in our lives.
So, in learning to say no, I was one step closer to the holy yes. But another looming mountain awaited, and yet another heartbreaking fall.
After several more years of intense inner work, a rite of passage preparation and ceremony, and an exodus from traditional faith (made very public after the fact!) I found--or thought I found--the answer I'd been seeking my entire life.
I found love.
Of course nowhere was my turmoil more pronounced to me than in the romantic rejections I'd long experienced and the emotional isolation I felt when pondering future relationships. I secretly wanted to be married. I secretly wanted to be wanted by somebody who wouldn't hurt me in the process of loving me. And I wanted it to be okay that I secretly wanted this experience--because given my background and too few even pseudo-romantic connections...well, marriage and partnership was "normal" anyway, and thus not for me a reasonable expectation.
And this I knew.
Though hopeful that one day I might find and experience a true romantic partnership, I lived my life resigned to singleness. But shortly after my right of passage/vision fast, at a time in my life when I was, in fact, the most open and at peace that I has ever been, lightning struck--and I met Ed.
By the end of our third date I knew, beyond doubt, that I had met the man I wanted to spend my life with, the man that I could trust with all of me. Ed, remarkably self-possessed and deeply connected to his own internal compass, valued insight and freedom. Yet he was remarkably kind and open, even matter-of-fact, about everything.
Thirteen years older, Ed hadn't been planning on finding me either, but when he did, he made space. And it was good.
It was so good.
"What do you do when you finally find the thing you'd been looking for all your life," I told Ed. He said several times that I was the love of his life. And once, when Ed told me that I was his home, finally, after so many years of longing, I felt that sense of knowing that I, too, had finally come home.
In Ed's face I beheld the entire universe in a seed and finally I was beginning to learn how to love. I was finally learning what trust meant, what showing up daily to the awkwardness and tensions and desires of two becoming one meant. It felt like being carved open much of the time. It was a spiritual discipline and practice all by itself, but I was finally ready.
In my fragile body, I held--finally--a love without shame.
It was meant to be, but not for long enough. We'd been together for half a year when Ed died in a climbing accident, falling nearly sixty feet and crashing into brutal rock head first. My entire life crashed around me.
Yet I coudn't even grieve in accordance with expectation. Though Ed's family was very kind, and our friends supportive, it is true that we'd been together for so short a time that some people doubted the depth of our connection--and diminished the impact of his death.
Oh, we were still in the honeymoon phase, they'd remark. Not that it doesn't hurt, of course. But I was still so young. I'd find someone else and move on. I'd get over it, they'd say, not realizing how belittling and dismissive such statements were.
As if my grief even needed to be analyzed and held up to a measure--as if such a loss could ever be quantifiable. At this point in my life, however, I didn't need anyone else's permission to accept how I felt--I was utterly devastated.
Bidden or unbidden, God is present.
Ed's death, just over five years ago, ushered me into my life's defining hour--a season filled with unimaginable pain and the alchemical process of deep, inexhaustible loss. And, ironically, strangely given my strained relationship with God after finally leaving the church, in this dark season I did rediscover my faith--but not as I once had it in Sunday School or religion classes. Nor did it return to its more recent shape of rote regurgitation of religious platitudes.
It wasn't a faith rehearsed or even expected. I didn't call upon God to save Ed or to save me from the experience of losing Ed. Even standing at the threshold of Ed's death was a most sacred privilege that I valued as essential to my life as his love.
But it was at this threshold that God renewed his vow with me. At the hour of hope crossing despair, I became reacquainted with the God I regularly sought as a child:
As a child I believed in the orderliness of God more so than in his Goodness; I watched as the sky twisted itself from light to dark, from shape to void; that’s where God lives, I told myself, before he formed universe.
My child’s mind never thought to look for God inside my young life; he existed beyond the repugnancy of dawn and sunsets; outside of storm and insomniac dreams. Outside of time, where matter had not yet been forced into cruel shapes it didn’t matter what love was and where it could not be found no matter how hard I concentrated my focus.
With my childhood sky I had an Infinity that had not yet taken on names. With my childhood faith I had God unstaged.
(from The Heart Has It's Reasons © 2007 )
What I could not understand, either as a child playing a mystic's game or as a younger adult looking back upon that experience of seeking God in the skies above the Gulf through jaded lenses-- was that the act of even attempting to peer into the unrehearsed space where God exists beyond time was by itself an invitation to seek out the Holy One, beyond and eternal,
yet knowable and longing Himself to be known.
The unfoldment of this unique quest, an invitation to experience the Beloved through the lens of loss, began with gratitude. So grateful I was for every blessing during the days of loss--the full support and acceptance of Ed's family, the relative ease of so many tasks and duties that could easily have proven difficult, the outpouring of support from close friends...in spite of pain, I literally felt sustained, even cocooned, by guidance and support. This Grace, as I began referring to it, revealed itself not as concept, but as abiding Presence.
Over the course of weeks and months, this Cocoon of Presence ushered me forward in many ways, so gently. And then it happened--
For decades it has been my habit to begin the day with a quiet hour of tea and journal writing, with meditative music playing softly in the background. In the month's following Ed's death, this ritual took on even deeper tones. One particular morning, with tea in hand, I knelt on the floor to turn on the stereo and decided to sit there quietly for a few moments, just silently listening, feeling into the moment.
It was a somber morning, as most were at that time. I wasn't expecting anything out of the ordinary, but suddenly, for a moment--a few seconds, I felt arms wrap themselves around me. It wasn't something I was imagining happening to me--I felt myself in the embrace of the most comforting Presence--with arms like wings. They were Invisible, but firm, close.
I was being held in Everlasting Arms. I was stunned. I cried. I felt intensely, insanely beheld.
"You had an awakening", a friend later said to me. I didn't know what language to call it, but later on, after instigating my own quest to find out more about those Arms Like Wings, I was reminded of a similar experience described by Martha Beck in Expecting Adam.
"What I remember most about that moment was a sense of letting go. For the first time, I prayed without trying to control whatever the answer might be. I was just too tired to hang on, to control anything. It was almost like getting out of the driver's seat of a car and handing someone else the keys: 'Hey, I'm sozzled.' I had been drunk for years, on the illusions I had thought meant happiness. I had drunk myself into oblivion on prestige and intellect and praise. I was in no shape to be driving my own life.
At the moment when I stopped fighting for control of my little universe, I noticed something that had been there all along, except that I hadn't seen it. It was slightly to the left of me, maybe eighteen inches off the floor. It was a person--or rather, a person's feet. That was all I saw--a pair of bare feet, standing in the air, with the hem of a robe falling around the ankles.
I didn't even bother to look up at the person's body or face. Some of the few people I told about this experience asked me why not. All I can say is that when you are reunited with the love of your life, you don't hold yourself at arm's length. This being was not unfamiliar to me at all. I wasn't surprised or stunned or frightened. I felt that the natural order of the universe had been restored, not disturbed, and I was immensely, overwhelmingly relieved. And so I simply learned forward, letting my forehead rest against those suspended feet, and began to cry like a child who had been found after being lost in a storm.
'I've waited so long,' I sobbed. 'I've waited so long.'
..."I don't know how long it lasted; maybe thirty seconds, maybe ten minutes. Not more than that. Whatever it was, my entire existence hinges still hinges on that brief encounter. It is the center point for me, the single event that divides my life into Before and After."
Similarly, the gentle sip of tangible Grace I experienced that morning in quiet reflection became for me a life altering tryst.
It felt like Ed was somehow part of the experience, yet also it felt so Other, so Beyond anything I ever expected to ever experience. This sacred moment became, for me, became the archway over a spiral, a labyrinth leading to sacred space defined by the love and loss of Ed.
That way I could continue exploring this deepening relationship with Spirit while always keep Ed, and our time together, close.
After that angelic moment, I began exploring energy medicine (reiki, deeksha)and other more mystical avenues seeking clues and deeper insight into the experience I'd had; then, I began following a trail of bread crumbs dropped by my psyche, as I started having very surreal dreams by night and synchronistic encounters by day.
There have been far too many occurrences to recount here, but suffice it to say--the journey has been provocative, challenging, and deeply soul-stirring; and while it didn't lessen my grief, it gave me some energy to try facing the future with. And regardless of the acute pain and severance of loss, regardless even of how I still sometimes felt, I knew without question, beyond doubt, that I was no longer Alone--and had never been Alone my entire life, even during those times when I felt nothing sacred and real ever existed for me at all.
What truly awaits me in the center of this Sacred Spiral, though, I have yet to discover. This path to the center of beingness, where God, the angels, and Ed surely exist and are ever present with me even as I seek the bearings to find them, is ever-unfolding, part of the life experience.
Still, though the energetic connection has not diminished, over the past year, the synchronicities and dreams have ebbed, or are accompanied by emotions I haven't yet learned how to re-integrate. It's been a strange season of renewal, of longing for quiet enough to return to that still center, and inquire:
Where to next?
Which is why today's meditation on the holy yes was so significant to me personally.
This morning I thought about the Blessed Mother consenting to bear in her womb a Messiah.By saying yes to Gabriel, she agreed, to the witness of angelic presence, to take upon herself the potential scorn of her betrothed; the shame and indignity of a humble birthing; the rearing of a child set apart from all of his siblings and acquaintances, and even at some point, from her; and his inevitable fate, a cruel, public death.
Moreso, I reflected upon Mary Magdalene, She who loved the Christ and by loving him accepted unto herself false identities after centuries of patriarchal slander. She is the sinner who loved much, the harlot redeemed, recognized as a beloved of Christ, yet denied a time-honored role in the shaping of His Church.
But perhaps more so than all of that, for me, at least--she is a woman who dared to love and be loved by a man who also happened to be a God.
The idea of Jesus, son of God, as a man in love with a woman does not diminish his spiritual authority in my eyes. Yet it doesn't matter to me whether or not Jesus and Mary Magdalene ever married and had an heir. It doesn't matter if she knew Jesus as divine lover or as spiritual teacher or as holy friend. It only matters that she said yes to love as it came to her. The expression of that love is as much the wounding and the scars as the coronation and anointing.
It's all consummation of Presence, of something extraordinary, something Beyond...something very holy, very excruciating, yet clearly destined--and divine.
Saying yes to the pain that accompanies the Presence of God is the lesson of this day for me.
But also, saying yes to the life that holds the pain.
"In my beginning is my end," writes T.S. Elliot, in his opening to East Coker. Taking into consideration the most recent stirrings of my life, it seems that now I must extend an invitation for God, faith, this Presence within my own soul to move far beyond the threshold and into into the past, into my fragile beginning, into my childhood pain.
I must learn to say yes to those old wounds, greeting them with reverence, with wonder, and with awe that out of the fires of trauma, pain and confusion, there was a meaning, a purpose--a life of significance being forged all along.
My friend Barbara recently gifted me a poem by Ellen Bass that speaks to this powerful need:
The Thing Is
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
It's not just the beloved of Ed that must say yes to the Everlasting Arms of God. It is also the reluctant nonconformist, the homely, displaced girl I once was who must also say yes.To bring the sacred yes full circle, I must reconnect with all of the places where I have continued saying no.
Ah, spiritual work seems endless! And yet, and yet--to be able to one day say, "Yes. A thousand times yes," to my life, what might such an encounter with Soul feel like?
Today's message is one I've been waiting for all my life.
(background photo by Lee Horbachewski, image courtesy of Orian Mountain Dreamer)