holding ourselves lightly

Sunday morning I had coffee with a friend who asked me how I was doing. I responded to her that I didn’t really know. I said that I was aware there was some kind of movement in my depths but that I didn’t have language or images to put with that movement. What I didn’t know until I said it out loud was that I don’t feel anxious about not knowing what changes are occurring within me. On the contrary, it feels right not to know, as if the state of not knowing is, in this moment, the freest and most honest place from which to speak and live.

During our long retreat several us in the monastic community began gathering for 50 minutes of centering prayer before vespers. I’ve practiced centering prayer for nearly 10 years, but never for 50 minutes at the time and never consistently in a group. The experience has been powerful. Physical and mental twitches still vie for attention. But I’m aware as never before that while my mind is engaged in thinking and letting go of thought, the Spirit is hovering over the waters of my soul. I suppose it’s no coincidence that as my practice of centering prayer is deepening, so is my comfort with the mystery of not knowing.

In fact, it’s not only that my comfort with not knowing is growing. Rather, I’m reveling in the darkness, the void, and the mystery. It feels spacious and gentle. As anyone who has seen my resume can attest, I have spent my entire life achieving, articulating, and striving. I have come to a point where that kind of grasping effort feels utterly exhausting. In that exhaustion, I can also see how violent the effort toward understanding, articulation, and achievement can be.

Particularly at this time of intense anxiety in our society, when the fear of what is happening in our political and national life is so present to so many of us, I feel a bit out of sync with the rest of the culture. I’m not unaware of the dangers of nationalism or the lessons of history, nor am I unconcerned at the vitriol and the violent rhetoric we hear more of each day. But I don’t think that living from fear will help us any. If we are to respond to violence with non-violence, we first have to move into a place of non-violent relationship with ourselves. I don’t quite know how that happens. But I do believe that that kind of relationship rests, first and foremost, on a reverent not-knowing, at least not-fully-knowing who we are and what God is up to within us.

Now more than ever we need to learn the spacious, non-violent acceptance of the mystery of who we are. Only when we hold ourselves and our experiences lightly can we allow God to bring something new to birth within us, in God’s own time and in God’s own way. Such holding, though, requires trust that even when we cannot see or feel it, God is at work. So, I suppose, the first step to non-violent relationship, then, is to ask ourselves how much we really do trust that God is God.


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10 thoughts on “holding ourselves lightly

  1. So much this stirs up: how, during a period in my life when I somehow regularly wound up deeper in meditation than any time before or since, the best I could describe the experience was “the gold-tinged darkness” (the Cloud of Unknowing became especially dear to me at that time); also, one of my favorite passages from my guide and rock, Julian of Norwich, came to me as I read your piece: “Peace and love always exist and work in us, though we are not always in peace and love, but he would have us remember this: that he is the ground of all our life in love;” and lastly, de Caussade’s image of the sculptor: how the material being sculpted must feel the pain of the chiseling and does not know or understand what is happening, but the sculptor knows. That is an awful lot to be stirred up by one shirt blog post!

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    1. Thanks for the article, and also for the images and quotation. I’ve never actually read the Cloud of Unknowing, but I think it’s time now. I love that–the gold-tinged darkness. It reminds me also of Simone Weil.

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      1. My mother adored Simone Weil. I heard about her from Mom long before I read anything of hers, and, perhaps because of that, I remember her story better than what I’very read by her (which isn’the a lot). Julian is my go-to person/book, though. I’ve read her in three or four different translations, and multiple times in both my favorite translation and in the original Middle English. She is my dessert-island (if-you-could-only-bring-one) book, not the Bible. I have drawn so much strength and comfort from her over the years.

        Definitely do read Cloud, though — as someone who practimes centering prayer, you will find some familiar things!

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  2. So beautifully written, Br. Aidan. Accepting the mystery and total trust is such a powerful gift of the Holy Spirit. It has enveloped me for a very long time, a total gift! Words fail me when talking to others about it. No matter how I express it, it seems to confound people. I plan to share your insightful post with others. I think it may penetrate a little opening in their hearts and grow with the Spirit’s help.

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    1. Thanks, Cathy. I’m having a similar experience designing a retreat I’m leading later this month. The last session is on contemplation, and I can’t think of any images to use. It hit me this morning–it’s because there aren’t any! Sometimes you have to have had the experience to recognize it. For those deepest experiences, there really isn’t language.

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