Monday, June 6, 2011

Watering the desert of loneliness

Listen to this post:

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
wood-and-glass doors
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
without words

to an ancient basin,
where I cleanse my heart,
leaving room only for


  1. Touched by an Angel by Maya Angelou

    We, unaccustomed to courage
    exiles from delight
    live coiled in the shells of loneliness
    until love leaves it high holy temple
    and comes into out sight
    to liberate us into life.

    Love arrives
    and in its train come ecstasies
    old memories of pleasure
    ancient histories of pain
    Yet if we are bold,
    love strikes away the chains of fear
    from our souls.

    We are weaned from our timidiy
    in the flush of love's light
    we dare be brave
    and suddenly we see
    that love costs all that we are and will ever be
    Yet it is only love which sets us free.

    1. Jill, I'm glad you commented, because it made me re-read this and consider/remember it all over again. Thank YOU.

  2. Stunningly beautiful and how true. Thank you for sharing this; it very much speaks to my condition.

  3. I love your blogpost, Cathy. I am blessed to know you, and you ARE understood. And I love this poem by Maya Angelou. I could have written it myself...

  4. Jennifer, I am so grateful to know you and am honored you read this. I do know you understand me as do others ... well, I have to remind myself sometimes, at any rate. That poem IS amazing!

  5. interesting blog/how did you embed the audio?

  6. thanks, Ann for reading; my husband googled how to load an mp3 file to a blog, copied the code and pasted it in.

  7. Nice post! I also believe that pain *is* the best teacher whether it is emotional, spiritual or physical. Pain is experiential and if we *experience* it in the moment, the lessons will arise from a deep, deep place within... God, a higher self, an intuitive knowing, the inner Light. The Human Condition attaches *thinking* to our painful experiences and then we attach storylines and judgment. Often stories about what "should" have been or not been and what we "should" have done or not done. Reexperiencing that experience with storylines is not a teacher... it is a lens of perspective. Pema Chodron refers to "positive groundlessness"... times when we choose a "fresh alternative" and in doing so, we feel groundless because we are not following "patterns" that are comfortable and secure. It is "positive" because the new emerges from the emptiness. For me, nothing gets my attention like pain does :)

  8. Amazing, Sharon, and much to digest. I love the idea of positive groundlessness. I'm going to miss your physical presence, but know we are connected in other ways (spiritually, inet).

  9. Mmm...this drew me in from the declaration that "Pain is the teacher". I recently parted ways with a longtime spiritual mentor - it felt like time to really learn to trust myself - so Henry Neuwan's assertion that the true spiritual guide allows us to stay alone and risk entering into our own experience is really resonating with me.

  10. Nouwen's pretty powerful truth. Glad he caught your attention as well. Do you know his book "The Wounded Healer?" It's wonderful. Thanks for reading and commenting Seth. Blessings on your path, wherever it leads.

  11. Whoops...sorry for the misspelling of "Nouwen"; I guess that's what I get for indulging in late-night blog reading! Blessings to you too, Cathy.

  12. not an everyday name anyway ... thanks