When I shared the current iteration of the book I am finishing – it seems I'll never be done – I was disappointed by the strong reaction of a friend to the first chapter entitled "Pain as teacher." I had struggled with that title and it, finally, seemed such an apt fit. "I'd choose another word, people don't want to read that. I know I don't want to think about the pain of chemo again," she told me.
I stopped in my tracks and yet I've had to consider her suggestion because I value her experience and opinion. In sitting with that episode, I have realized that I probably can't change the title because it has been my reality.
Then, last night in desperation to get to sleep and away from my non-drowsy ten-year-old, I picked up a book from the spirituality pile sitting on my bedside table. It was Henry Nouwen's Reaching Out: Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. I have no idea how it came to be there; it's not my book. Anyway, he, too, gets right to the heart of matters in addressing the uinversally individual condition of loneliness, suggesting that one can not be engaged in a spiritual life without recognizing the poles between which we vacillate. The first movement is loneliness and solitude and our constant movement between them is our spiritual life.
In that loneliness lives the pain that no one cares for or understands us. Pain, he calls it. Pain.
It's pain our culture anesthetizes and that we personally avoid by busying ourselves. I know that it calls to us anyway and, when unaddressed, clamors for our attention. And there's really only one way to deal with it: dead on by looking deeply into ourselves. I don't doubt that anyone goes there unless forced. No one else can do this work for us. Nouwen calls that the "false expectation that we are called to take each other's lon[e]liness away ... by burdening others with these divine expectations ... we inhibit the expression of free friendship and love and evoke instead feelings of inadequacy and weakness."
He's not messing around here. However, he does offer a path: "find the courage to enter into the desert of our lon[e]liness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude."
When I muster that courage, I have been gracefully rewarded. Two weeks ago, during Quaker worship, I was able to sink pretty deeply pretty quickly, which is not always the case. I was so rooted, I had a waking dream of Jesus standing behind me moving me with love, not words, toward an ancient, stone wash basin. It was a baptism: a cleansing of my heart of all that is not love. An act I did for myself motivated by love: from Jesus, for me, from me and for all others.
"The real spiritual guide," according to Nouwen, "is the one who, instead of advising us what to do or to whom to go, offers us a chance to stay alone and take the risk of entering into our own experience. He makes us see that pouring little bits of water on our dry land does not help, but that we will find a living well if we reach deep enough under the surface of our complaints.
I recently found my well. I pray I have the courage and trust to return.
• When have I felt lonely?
• What does it feel like, exactly?
• What happens when I open to it?
• How does it direct me spiritually?
• How have I experienced my inner well?
hurrying off to worship
probably a cross word or two
muttered to the kids in the car
... opening the large
and something begins to happen
I feel my heart again
its beat vibrates more strongly
as I sense the presence of others
soon, I'm not there anymore
but in a room of stone
Jesus, moving me forward
to an ancient basin,
where I cleanse my heart,
leaving room only for