Deep thanks to each of you who shared reflections on your own experiences of grief and transformation in response to my maiden blog voyage. Your accounts and your willingness to show up so fully for the journey are powerfully inspirational to me. I look forward to hearing more Tales from the Road!
There are two mystics whose teachings closely mirror my own path of suffering and transformation: the sixteenth century Spanish monk, John of the Cross, and his mentor, Teresa of Avila. I had already been swimming in their poetry and prose for years, but after my daughter’s death I completely submerged myself. It was in that descent that I learned how to breathe under water.
John of the Cross, known for introducing the term dark night of the soul into the vernacular, was referring to the kind of spiritual crisis that squeezes every drop of devotional succulence from our senses and entirely dismantles the edifice of our religious concepts. In the throes of the dark night, we cannot feel the presence of the sacred anymore, no matter how many tricks we use to conjure up old feelings of connectedness. We can no longer even conceive of such a notion as God, which has become a mere word, devoid of meaning.
While this ordeal carries an intense emotional charge, it is not primarily a psychological experience. The catalyst for entering these depths may be a disaster – the ending of a marriage, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or a home or a community – but the mystical darkness John speaks of transcends trauma. It is deeper than depression. It is a dissolving of the separate self into the blinding light of love. Yet the divine radiance only becomes visible when our old eyes have been utterly consumed. This annihilation is excruciating.
Teresa of Avila speaks about the beautiful wound of longing for union with God. The soul that has tasted even a fleeting sip of his love will catch on fire and only absolute union with him will end her terrible suffering. She will be unable to speak of this agony, and yet silence melts her bones. In the very depths of this predicament lies the solution. Our yearning for connection with our divine source is in itself the divine response. The call and the answer are reciprocal. Only the empty cup can be filled.
Both of these mystics testify to the necessity of enduring the profound pain of separation on our path home to God. Both remind us that the divine dwelling place lies inside ourselves, and is in fact none other than the truth of who we are. Both reveal that the joy and peace that lie on the other side of our shattering so far exceed any pleasure we have ever imagined that it would be like comparing the light of a candle to the blazing of a ten thousand suns.
Finally, both John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila teach us that the only real purpose of the mystical experience is to be of simple service once we have returned from that garden of blending with the absolute to the relative desert of our ordinary consciousness. We are back, but we are different. Transfigured by the encounter. Disabused of our illusions. Divested of a false sense of separation and rooted in the certainty of interconnectedness. Once we have witnessed everything we ever believed to be true go up in flames, we have trouble ever again identifying with the story of our own thoughts.
When Jenny died, I became fearless. The worst thing I could imagine had happened. What did I have left to be afraid of? And with that loss of fear came a desire to give comfort, to give sanctuary, to call out to my companions drowning in the darkness: look for the treasure that lies only at the bottom of the well of grief. And, when you have found it – and you will, I promise, you will — bring it back.
If we can collectively recognize the gifts that lie in the stripping away of all our false constructs, and, as a human collective, surrender to knowing nothing, we can reap the fruits of this transformation and get on with the task of feeding each other, both spiritually and materially. The dark night of global crisis will reveal itself as a state of pure luminescence, where nothing is at we thought it was, and the only possible response is compassionate action, rooted in shattering sorrow and blossoming in radiant joy.