This is the second of two posts containing my application to the School of the Spirit for its program On Being a Spiritual Nurturer. The first post, and a fuller introduction, can be found here.
A well-chosen question can have quite an impact. Several years after moving to the Blue Ridge Mountains, I was gifted with such a question. It was posed by Douglas, the same friend whose birthday would later coincide with the Testing the Water retreat in Roanoke.
It was a sunny afternoon at Light Morning. We were sitting on a grassy knoll called Temple Hill, close to where Douglas now lies buried. High above us, a raven traced a lazy circle in the sky.
“So why did your Virginia Beach guidance,” Doug asked, “say that the Essenes were to serve as a model for your community?”
His question was perfectly timed. The community had become better at growing gardens, canning fruits and vegetables, building simple shelters, splitting firewood, and hauling water from the well. Douglas, who lived a mile down the road, felt that my primary attention should now shift away from what he considered to be surface concerns and focus instead on Light Morning’s core intent.
I could have quoted from memory the few places where our guidance had mentioned the Essenes, a reclusive monastic community of Jews at the dawn of the Christian era. I could have talked about what the Dead Sea Scrolls were revealing about their lives and beliefs. But deep down I knew that I had no answer to Doug’s simple yet hardly casual question. I also felt compelled to find one.
My search took me back to a pivotal dream that had come during the first night we spent on the newly purchased land. It was the middle of winter, the eve of Saint Valentines Day. We had pitched our tents and snow was expected. While drifting off to sleep, I raised a seed-like question: “What have we come here to do? What is Light Morning?”
The dawn brought swirling snowflakes and the memory of a brief but intense dream.
I am sitting with a few friends in a small outdoor theater. Someone shows me a tiny sculpture. It has been carved out of wax and is fastened to one end of a piece of copper wire. Looking more closely, I see that there are actually two figures, standing back to back.
Both of them depict Jesus. In one representation his right hand is uplifted, the first two fingers raised and the others folded into the palm of his hand. The second shows him with his arms crossed over his chest, as though in a gesture of surrender. Given their small size, the wax statues are surprisingly detailed. The workmanship is exquisite.
Then the scene shifts and someone is passing me a grapefruit. It shifts again and I’m watching a vendor at a fair, standing intently over his machine, making cotton candy. This scene, too, fades away and I awake.
The dream images were strong and evocative, and somehow seemed to answer the question I had raided before sleep. At the time, however, I was unable to decipher them. That would only come later.
Solving Doug’s riddle about the relevance of the Essenes to Light Morning became a strange compulsion which finally goaded me into tapping an inner source of guidance. The sessions in Virginia Beach, I realized, had been a priceless parable. For each of us has the latent ability to internalize the three complementary roles of conductor, source, and circle of support.
My ripening willingness to turn to an internalized source of guidance led to a year-long series of discursive meditations. These spontaneous insights were interwoven with the strong dreams of other community members and the seasonal celebrations of the solar year to eventually become a second book. Wax Statues, Cotton Candy, and the Second Coming was a belated response to Douglas’s well-aimed question about why the Essenes had been offered as a model for Light Morning.
The Vipassana Experience
Because of our unwillingness to understand, one teacher tells us, the spirit is forced to use trickery. My first Vipassana meditation course illustrates this teaching. Had I known beforehand what would happen, I would have run full speed in the opposite direction. Instead, I had to be tricked into catharsis by the alluring fantasy of ten days of monastic solitude – no phones, books, or writing materials; no talking with my fellow students; simply sitting on a cushion for ten hours a day learning an ancient meditation technique.
The trickery was helped along by having seen Vipassana save my friend Terrell’s life. Terrell had been teetering on the edge of an abyss. He was about to lose his health, his marriage, and his sanity to a downward spiral of drug abuse, alcohol, and infidelity. Then someone told him about Vipassana.
“I’m desperate,” Terrell said. “I’ll try anything.”
He came back from his first ten-day course a changed man.
Later my wife Joyce attended her first course. She, too, experienced startling benefits. As Terrell had done earlier, Joyce returned home and took up the recommended practice of sitting two hours a day. Filled with admiration and curiosity, I was primed to find out what this was all about.
So in December of 1995, a friend and I drove to the Vipassana Meditation Center in western Massachusetts. The first week was hard but wonderful work. I was living my monastic fantasy. On Day 8, however, after an especially grueling “sit of strong determination,” something primal was apparently triggered. I stopped eating and drinking and just barely made it through the final two days.
By the morning of Day 11 I was desperately anxious to get away from V.M.C. As we started the long drive home through a blinding nor’easter blizzard, my friend asked how my course was.
“I don’t want to hear one thing about that fat S.O.B. from India,” I growled. “And if you even mention the word Vipassana, I’m going to puke right here on the floor of your truck.”
“Oh,” he said, glancing over at me. “Okay.”
Then he quickly changed the subject.
We finally arrived at Light Morning at 3 a.m. I walked through deep snow to our cabin in the woods. Joyce woke up when she heard the door open. In a sleepy voice, she asked about my course. Joyce had been sitting two hours a day for the past six months and she was looking forward to having a shared practice.
“I hated it,” I replied. “I’m never going back.”
“Oh,” she said, in a quiet voice.
Over the next two weeks – despite being quite a stable guy – I had what is sometimes called a nervous breakdown. Midway through this profoundly disorienting catharsis, I was struck by a lightening-like bolt of illumination. I suddenly saw that a subliminal, long-festering agony from the first nine months of my life had surged up from the depths to be dealt with on Day 8. I understood why Vipassana is called a path of purification. I understood why our teacher, S.N. Goenka (“that fat S.O.B. from India”), had said that taking a 10-day Vipassana course is like undergoing deep psychic surgery of the mind.
I now knew that the roots of discontentedness reach down into murky places. These gnarly old roots affect our health and vitality, our ability to give and receive love, and even our spiritual aspirations. Uprooting hidden complexes, I had found, can be painful and pricey. But refusing to do so is even pricier.
A Personal God
Over twenty years later, in the autumn of 2017, I sat a 20-day Vipassana course in Georgia. I had been maintaining my daily practice, but this was my first “long course” in quite a while. It stirred up questions that helped set the stage for this application. I had been wrestling, as mentioned earlier, with the seeming incompatibility between Vipassana meditation and religious devotion. More precisely, I was caught between the Buddhist doctrine of anatta – no self, no soul, no god – and the biblical promise of a personal relationship with a living god.
Two priests had become my “wrestling coaches.” Gerard Manley Hopkins was a nineteenth century English priest and also a closet poet. He knew hard times and dark places. “Oh the mind,” he once wrote, “mind has mountains; cliffs of fall frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap may who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small durance deal with that steep or deep.”
In another poem he refers to “that night, that year of now done darkness [when] I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”
In a third poem, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” Hopkins plumbs the mystery of how a personal self can co-exist with a Christcentric cosmology. I have been been ruminating on this poem for years.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
John O’Donohue, a more contemporary Irish priest, plowed a similar field. Having ordained at a young age, he left the priesthood after nineteen years to pursue philosophy, poetry, and writing. In 2008, just after his fifty-second birthday, he died in his sleep.
O’Donohue’s first book is called Anam Cara, which is Gaelic for “soul friend.” I am increasingly drawn to this phrasing. It takes the depth, caring, and guidance associated with terms such as spiritual director, spiritual mentor, and spiritual nurturer, and leavens them with numinous strands of reciprocity, mutuality, and friendship.
In one of the last interviews he gave before his untimely death, O’Donohue observes that “one of the reasons that so many people turn away from religion in our times is that the God question has died for them, because the question has been framed in such repetitive dead language. And I think it’s the exciting question, once you awaken to the presence of God.”
He goes on to say that “…even though I love Buddhism as a methodology to clean up the mind and get you into purity of presence, what I love is that at the heart of Christianity you have this idea of intimacy; which is true belonging; being seen. The ultimate home of individuation; the ultimate source of it; and the homecoming.”
I resonate with this heartfelt blending of East and West; of purity of presence and intimacy; of cleaning up the mind and experiencing a homecoming.
In the same interview, John O’Donohue quotes one of his favorite writers, Meister Eckhart, as saying that “God becomes and God un-becomes.” The late Irish priest and poet unpacks the original German to mean that “God is only our name for it, and the closer we get to it, the more it ceases to be God. So then you are on a real safari, with the wildness and danger and otherness of God. And I think when you begin to get a sense of the depth that is there, then your whole heart opens up.”
My personal hope and intuitive expectation is that On Being a Spiritual Nurturer
will support such a safari and serve as a catalyst for such an opening.
Testing the Water
Before attending the one-day School of the Spirit retreat at the Roanoke Friends Meeting, I keep an early morning vigil with my friend Sue at the Roanoke Memorial Hospital. It’s the last time I will see her alive, as cancer will claim her that afternoon. We had shared an interest in the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Both of us had Christian roots and we each practiced Buddhist meditation. Merton had been attempting to integrate East and West when he died in Thailand on his way to a deep encounter with Buddhist monasticism.
Sue isn’t consciously aware that I’m with her; she is clearly on her way out. Yet we share a surprisingly intimate communion. Her breathing is soft, slow, rhythmical. Sitting by her bedside, meditating, my breathing effortlessly synchronizes with hers. It feels as though we are both releasing something. Letting something go. Getting ready to move on.
As it comes time to leave, I wish Sue safe passage. Then I drive across town to the Meetinghouse. Today has become more than a simple one-day exploration of my Quaker heritage. I will instead be trying to discern whether to apply to the School of the Spirit for its eighteen-month program on spiritual nurturing, including seasonal residencies at a Franciscan center outside of Philadelphia. I’m aware of a call to do so, but I need confirmation for that call. As the title of the event suggests, I will be Testing the Water.
The confirmation comes as soon as we sit down. The facilitators hand out a page of queries for listening and speaking. Most Quakers love queries, and these are especially evocative. There are five questions for the listener, such as, “Do I offer an attentive, prayerful and quiet presence while a person is speaking?” And, “Am I open to what is unfolding, letting go of my own ideas of what should happen?” The five queries for the speaker include, “Do I accept those who are listening, even if they do not listen or respond as I might wish?” And, “Do I allow the expression of my whole self – body, mind, and heart – rather than limiting my expression to information and ideas?”
I am, at times, a gifted conversationalist. Yet reading these queries makes me feel like a long-distance hiker at the crest of a hill who sees an alluring range of higher hills come into view. It inspires me to go ahead and apply for the course, despite all the wild impracticalities of doing so.
Speaking and listening are the fundamental components of conversation, a human activity so ubiquitous that it’s seldom recognized as an art-form. Whenever two or more people are talking together, there’s an improvisational dance going on between story-telling, listening, asking questions, and responding to questions. We can learn to move back and forth among these four quadrants, nudged by the shifting needs of the conversation and by the promptings of spirit.
All conversations are bidirectional. We may be talking with friends or conversing with the Mystery. These two modes are synergistic. Everything learned in one arena can be applied to the other. It’s a feedback loop.
That’s why seeing those queries – just as the Testing the Water retreat at the Roanoke Meetinghouse was getting under way – confirmed that the School of the Spirit offers me an unusual opportunity to deepen my practice of both inner and outer conversation. I hope I will be able to take advantage of this opportunity.