A short post, on barrenness and the wilderness experience.

I had a whole draft written last night…and then my oldest friend, my creative inspiration and a woman who has no idea how amazing she is, phoned me. I failed to hit “save”. Small price to pay for a conversation with one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. (Hey, Bean!)

What I had written about, though, was the experience of the spiritual barrenness I’ve been experiencing. Intellectual richness; a spiritual void. Wilderness.

And here’s the thing. Wilderness is ok. Not great, but ok, and probably necessary. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness. For millennia, people have been withdrawing to the wilderness – because they find God there. In the starkness, the inhospitable aridity, the desolation – there God dwells, just as much as in the lush richness of nurturing forest.

It’s just less comfortable.

 

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Sleep, trust, and the faith of friendship.

Ask anyone living with PTSD about sleep and I would imagine that you’ll get pretty much the same response: it’s difficult. You either can’t sleep, or you do nothing but. You’re either wrapped in uncaring lethargy, or you’re so anxious and agitated that you can’t contain the jittery nagging of every nerve you have. Sleep, when it comes, brings nightmares, or blessed relief from the vicissitudes of an unpredictable neurological and psychological condition.

Once you’ve finished talking about sleep, then ask them about war-zone instincts. This is the over-delveoped sense of danger which causes every fibre of your being to scream fear at you when a door slams, or when you’re faced with an angry male who you know intellectually will never hurt you, or when you do something which once resulted in punishment (spilling a drink, choosing a table in a cafe rather than allowing the choice to be dictated to you, entering a conversation without invitation, dropping a book…), or any one of a thousand other apparently inconsequential things which trigger a reaction of disproportionate terror. The flip side, of course, is that the war-zone instincts can be useful: you learn to trust those instincts as a matter of life and death, and there may be another time that my acute sensitivity to anyone behind me, or the potential threats that surround me, save my life once more.

Putting these two things together, though, means that it’s virtually impossible to sleep in front of people. I can doze off on a train, but it’s always with one hand on my bag and my war-zone instincts quivering around me, attuned to the sound of movement, the whisper of threat. The idea of abandoning myself to sleep and the mercies of those around me is something akin to the idea of reading a book in the middle of a three-lane highway. Possible, but dangerous.

Today, though, I spent the afternoon with three friends, watching a film. Well, they watched a film (apparently it was very good); I fell asleep. From what I could work out based on their synopsis of the story, I fell asleep about twenty minutes in, and therefore slept for about an hour and a half. I vaguely remember coming to consciousness several times: at a sense of movement around me, or at my friends’ voices in comment; at one point I raised my head at a bang that no one else seemed alarmed by and which I therefore assumed was part of the film. But I slept deeply and comfortably there in a corner of my friend’s couch, and my war-zone instincts – utterly damaged by ten years’ worth of battles – remained quiet.

For as long as humanity has been alive, it has been an act of trust to sleep in front of another: physically, a person cannot be more vulnerable than in the utter helplessness of sleep, something my ex knew only too well – I’ve been slammed out of sleep with a slap or worse too many times to be comfortable exposing myself to the potential for such treatment again. And yet today, my battered and over-sensitive nerves trusted my three friends to allow me to sleep in their presence, in the simple faith of friendship.

I’m bummed I missed the film though. It sounded as though it would have been good.

Spirituality, singing, and being a musical cripple.

I’ve realised in the last little while that my intellectual life is rich and varied – and my spiritual life is barren, a void. Howling winds was the image that came to mind when I was asked to describe my spiritual life as a landscape: cold and searing and bleak; un-nourishing. 

So this is something I’ve been focusing on: learning to feed my spirituality, become one with it, allow it to feed me. Learn to live the fact that I dwell within the love of the divine Creator. Learn to flourish in that, to allow that knowledge to permeate my very being; Learn to face the Source of love, vulnerable and hurting, without cringing away from the compassion It cannot help but offer.

It’s funny, because singing is such a huge part of my life, that I’ve never really acknowledged singing as an activity of spirituality. I’ve never really owned to myself just how great a portion of my spirituality comes from my singing – and therefore just how great a grief it is that singing is so hard, so debilitatingly painful, right now. But I think that, until I do own up to that, I’ll never work through that grief. I’ll never work through that difficulty, that pain, my body and mind’s uncontrollable response to the trauma I’ve experienced – a response which is now triggered, horribly, by the very beauty of the music I sing every week.

I don’t know what to do about it, but I think that all I can do is remind myself that I dwell within the love of God in everything I do. I am held by a compassion so great, and so kind, that I cannot possibly understand it, cannot possibly withstand it, but must open myself to it in tremulous trust that I will not be swept away and destroyed by it.

And my singing is part of that. As I open myself to the Creator, to the Source of my being Which is closer to me than my own breath, I hope that the peace of the Origin of peace will flow through me into the music I sing. I hope that the great and gentle Mystery in which I dwell will become manifest in music, in the movement of air through lungs and larynx to become pure and beautiful sound, merging with the voices of others in harmonies I can’t begin to describe.

One day, I want to be able to sing the mystery of the Mass. One day, I want to be able to sing the reality I’m only just beginning to discover, to explore, to trust. One day, I want to live it.

For now, though, I’ll settle for not being a musical cripple. That’ll do nicely, to start with.

 

The flip side of the dark side of gratitude.

I wrote a while ago about the dark side of gratitude: about how, despite being able to fill pages and pages with things for which I’m grateful (choir, a job, clean water, the love of friends, family who stick by me, the list is literally endless), there are times I still feel like shit. Sometimes the most comprehensive gratitude list in the world just feels like a reason I should feel guilty for not feeling grateful enough.

Because sometimes all the things for which we’re grateful, all the things which flood our lives with meaning, which enriched us beyond what we’d ever hoped for, aren’t enough. They don’t lighten the darkness the way we wish they would. They don’t fill the void that we desperately try to avoid looking at so that we don’t have to acknowledge it. Sometimes, the most vibrant shower of blessings mean nothing in the face of the bleakness of life. And then, just to add to our burden, we then get to feel guilty for being an ungrateful little shit who needs a good slap and a wake-up call.

But this is what John Main has to say about the issue: although life can be enriched by “gold veins of clarity and joy” – relationships, or creativity, or fulfilling work – there will always be fragmentation if these veins are not integrated into the deeper mystery of God. If I am not unified as a whole person, creature carried in the soul of my Creator, then I will never be anything other than broken, disjointed, incomplete. I will never truly be at peace, no matter how rich the veins of gold are.

I can only be made whole if I dwell, fully, in the wholeness of the Source of my being. If I am fully inserted into the Origin of my life. If I am fully open and present to the Force of compassion.

Then I will be one in Oneness with the Divine, and those shards of my life – richness and bleakness together – will also be one. And I will continue to be grateful for my blessings, and I will continue to rage against and mourn the darkness, but I will be at peace carried in and carrying the Origin of my very being.

And that will be nice.

Fifteen minutes of music.

I’m feeling tired, and flat, and uninspired and uninspiring. Tonight there is nothing in my head worth sharing; and even if there was, I probably couldn’t string a reasonable sentence together about it anyway. I’m even splitting my infinitives.

So I will share not my own thoughts, but somebody else’s: this is my favourite Mary Oliver poem.

Freshen the flowers, she said

So I put them in the sink, for the cool porcelain
was tender,
and took out the tattered and cut each stem
on a slant,
trimmed the black and daggy leaves, and set them all –
roses, delphiniums, daisies, iris, lilies –
and more whose names I don’t know, in bright new water –
gave them

a bounce upward at the end to let them take
their own choice of position, the wheels, the spurs,
the little sheds of the buds. It took, to do this,
perhaps fifteen minutes.
Fifteen minutes of music
with nothing playing.

~

May we all know the blessing of small moments of beauty in the everyday.

Who’s afraid of non-being? Actually, maybe I am.

Who’s afraid of non-being? I’m not, I say boldly.

I am not afraid of going home, of relinquishing my self to be absorbed into the Source of my self. But this is what a big part of me is afraid of: I’m afraid of feeling. I’m afraid of compassion. I’m afraid of mercy, and I’m afraid of love.

Pretty gutless, really – but true. The reality is that it’s easier to sit in darkness than it is to face myself in the light; it’s easier to ignore the scars than it is to face the reality of what caused them; it’s less painful to turn away from the Creator of love than it is to acknowledge the vulnerability that comes with being loved, and being known. Because – and I’ve said this before – being loved involves being touched, and allowing love in, and acknowledging just how much it all hurts at times.

And to be honest, it’s simpler to take a beating than it is to face the consequences of ten years’ worth of beatings and abuse.

That’s what’s stopped me from opening myself to the Source of compassion: the fact that in opening myself to compassion, I will face compassion. I will be seared to the bone by compassion, and I will be vulnerable and frightened in that, and that I will start to cry and won’t be able to stop, and I’ll be overwhelmed by the horribleness of everything that happened to me, and deluged by the shame and guilt and grief and fear and anger – engulfed by darkness  and swept away (ahem) into non-being.

Not non-being because I’ve been absorbed into my true Being, the Origin of my life and the Ground of my being. But non-being because I’ve been submerged in darkness, losing my self in guilt and grief and the best definition I’ve come across of hell: the absence of God.

I can’t let that stop me, though. I have to trust that this is a fear that won’t be realised. That there is no absence of God, no matter how it feels. That the darkness cannot possibly overcome the light, no matter how determined the forces of darkness are: that darkness and light are one, and that nothing can separate me from oneness with the Creator which is closer to me than my own breath.

It will hurt, and whether I like it or not, it’s a pain I have to go through. I’d like to avoid it and it’s not fair that I have to experience it but I don’t get a choice. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles, and it crumbles a lot worse for some other people. Toughen up, princess. Game on.

So I’ll keep trying to meditate, and I’ll keep using the rosary, and I’ll keep being brave enough to open myself to the God of vulnerability in the vulnerability of prayer. Because God is vulnerable in that too. And because in opening myself to God, I’m opening myself to love, and that can only be a good thing.

Non-being, everything, and happily ever after.

I’m reading a book on meditation and contemplative prayer, by a Benedictine monk named John Main. It’s brilliant, and it’s taking me ages to read (well, ages by my standards, anyway – I’m usually a pretty quick reader) because I’m stopping to make notes at almost every page. He talks about the importance of meditation, silence and stillness as being the way to open oneself up to the Creator and Source of life: something I’ve been seeking a way to do for some time now.

One of the things he has written (and this is not a direct quote because I’m too lazy to walk across the room, collect the book, find the particular passage, and then walk back to my computer: it’s late, and I’m tired) is that one of the greatest barriers to people when they meditate is “the fear of slipping into non-being”.

I’ve been thinking about that for a couple of days now. And I’ve decided: that’s not my barrier to contemplative prayer, to spending time in silence and allowing the Origin of us all to open me and to touch and hold and nurture my soul. I’m not frightened of slipping into non-being. The more I think about it, the more I challenge my own assertion of fearlessness – is it delusion? bravado? lack of understanding? – the more I’m sure that I am in fact being honest. Non-being is not something that frightens me.

Non-being is not destruction. It’s not annihilation, eradication. It’s not being erased. It’s not destruction. It’s not a bad thing, a fearful thing. Non-being is everything. It is beyond what we can see and touch and measure and experience. It’s beyond what we can grasp. But it’s not nothing. It is everything. It is all.

And slipping into non-being, or everything, is not an unattractive prospect. Like the droplet of water which, when subsumed into the ocean, ceases to be a droplet, I will one day return to my Source. I will go home, be absorbed into the oneness of the whole. It will be gentle, and right.

I don’t believe that I will be absorbed into everything through the process of opening myself up to the Divine in prayer. I’m trusting that through the grace of Spirit I will experience a glimpse of that oneness, that connection, that foretaste of the home I will one day find.

So no, it’s not “slipping into non-being” that I fear, the loss of ego, of identity. Slipping into non-being, or everything: that’s the end of the story; that’s the happily ever after.