It happened three weeks ago in North Carolina, in the wee hours of the morning.
“This is the kind of Friend You are - Without making me realize My soul's anguished history, You slip into my house at night, And while I am sleeping, You silently carry off All my suffering and sordid past In Your beautiful Hands.”
My husband Jimmy and I (we hail from Chattanooga, TN, incidentally) were on a weekend getaway in Ashville, having driven there directly (or, rather, indirectly thanks to swollen creeks and mud slides) from Sewanee, TN. In Sewanee, we’d spent the night at St. Mary’s - aka the Ayers Center for Spiritual Development - for a one-day silent retreat (my first in a long time), followed by a one-day workshop on Centering Prayer.
While my personal retreat was a mixed bag (hey, it’s been a long time), the workshop itself was a revelation. I’ve described myself as having had a contemplative practice for years now (perhaps because the description felt right, instinctively) without knowing precisely what that meant. But in listening to Episcopal priest Tom Ward describe Centering Prayer, it felt as if I was listening to someone precisely and sophisticatedly describe a path I’d discovered and traversed on my own, years before I knew any such discipline existed. Proof, I thought, that there are indeed mile markers and guide posts on this journey toward interior transformation. (More on those later.)
As part of a formal centering prayer practice, one chooses a word to return to, again and again, as thoughts arise. I chose the word “Friend,” precisely because while my faith in the Absolute is, well, absolute, it’s been years since I’ve experienced Divinity in a deeply personal way. Ever since I let go of the concept of Daddy God in college (painful, but necessary) my faith has felt most closely akin to Albert Einstein’s. “Behind all the discernible concatenations,” he once said, “there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.”
I’m quite happy with that definition, on the one hand, likely because any description of the Divine that includes the words “beyond anything we can comprehend” is at least on the right foot, so far as I can tell. On the other hand, I have missed - at times very profoundly - the God-as-Friend that Hafiz writes about so eloquently.
In any case, on that particular morning in North Carolina, having abandoned the too-soft bed for the floor in those early morning hours, I picked up Thomas Keating’s Open Mind, Open Heart, having finally bought it at the workshop, and read the following: “Visions, locutions, or ecstasies are frosting on the cake. The substance of the journey is pure faith.” Again and again, Keating reminds us, tangible gifts of the Spirit are not the point. If we do receive such gifts, we should acknowledge them (or not) and keep moving.
This idea, frankly, is new to me. Proof positive of my neophyte status as a centering prayer practitioner. Yet somehow, this gentle council seems like a spiritual gift in and of itself. There are no special mystics in this mystical world of ours, I think with a smile. I put down the book and close my eyes to (hopefully) sleep more.
I lie there on the floor just long enough to deeply relax, and suddenly feel Jimmy’s hands on my feet, gently and directly, which is odd because I have socks on. I start to open my eyes when I realize, in time to keep them closed, that the hands on my feet are a little girl’s hands. I feel a sense of overwhelming peace flow from her small, powerful hands up my legs and into my body. It’s a very tangible feeling, actually – tingly and blissful – or something like that, and I realize that God-as-Friend has come to call. That she has come in the form of a little girl is such a profound act of kindness - gentle, friendly, non-threatening – that I am undone. I bask in this feeling for the few seconds it lasts, and then it’s over.
It’s hard to ascribe words to the experience, which lingers in the form of elation (I confess) all morning. I hold it as lightly as I can because the real gift, I now know, lies in the realization that, lovely as these experiences are, they are not the point. And if they are not the point of a Still practice, what is? The answer, I suspect, lives somewhere in this line of questioning:
Is my practice regular?
No. I'm lucky if I practice once every other day, at this point.
Am I kinder? More loving?
No. Am still ranting about the state of the world, loudly and regularly. “We burn with righteous anger,” says Julie Polter, “but also love beyond understanding. We are not consumed.” Love beyond understanding eludes me and, frankly, every time I read the news I am consumed by rage. Burning with righteous anger, while loving beyond understanding, is a pitch perfect definition of the WILD in STILL/WILD, but I’m not there now. Not even close.
And so we take these spiritual consolations as they come, if they come (more often than not, they don’t), while carrying on with the real work.
I, for one, have much work to do.