Showing Up

May 17, 2012

Last weekend I led a retreat in Durango, CO, for a community that has been slammed by a siege of tragic losses over the past year. Sponsored by Mercy Regional Medical Center—an extraordinary new facility with soaring architectural elements, natural rock fountains and sculpture gardens, a meditation labyrinth and a free therapeutic touch service—our “day of reflection for those who have been touched by loss” gathered a balance of caregivers and bereaved loved ones.

We spent our time together building a container vast enough and holy enough to hold the full array of grief and loss. We did this through mindfulness practice and sitting in the fire of silence, lyrical readings from the mystics on the connection between the death of a loved one and longing for the Divine, and deep dialog about the sacred moments we have tasted when tragedy tears the veils from our hearts and an ineffable grace spills in. As always seems to happen when we make room for radical truth-telling, an unaccountable joy bubbled up and a room full of grieving people moved seamlessly between weeping and laughter.

My own heart had been heavy before I drove across that mountain pass between the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and the San Juan National Forest with my brilliant and incredibly supportive intern, Kelsey. One of my closest friends, Fr. Bill McNichols, the iconographer with whom I had collaborated on Mother of God, Similar to Fire, and the only other person besides immediate family and my best friend Jenny Bird listed on the “favorites” section of my cell phone, was in a coma in the hospital. I had gotten the news while on my book tour in NY, and the shock made me feel as if the foundation of my world was collapsing. Fr. Bill has been my intimate soul friend for the past eleven years. Our dangling spiritual conversation has been essential—feeding me on levels no other connection could provide. I like to think its mutual, yet Fr. Bill is a saint, and I… am not.

As the days passed, and Fr. Bill’s condition shifted and shifted again between healing and dying, slipping away and returning, my heart had practice in letting go. My prayer moved from fury at the universe for taking him from me, begging God to give him back, and finally, exhausted by my efforts to direct the cosmos, surrendering to the mystery of love. My only prayer became, “I love you.” And now Fr. Bill is awake and breathing on his own, speaking and eating and walking a little, slowly re-entering the stream of life. I know he will be forever changed by his face-to-face encounter with death—he told me so in a dream a couple of nights ago—and so will I. This is what I tell my students about the path of conscious grief: it is not so much about consolation as transformation.

I am grateful not to be grieving my friend’s death, but soon to be welcoming him home. It could have gone either way. And either way comes with secret gifts, discovered only in showing up—with curiosity and tenderness–for What Is.