“A saint’s heart melts like butter.  No, it melts even more than butter.  Butter only melts when you put it near the fire, but a saint’s heart melts when anyone else’s heart comes near the fire.” –  Neem Karoli Baba

Okay, so you know how I’m always inviting you to sit in the fire of grief and allow it to transfigure you.  How I dare to suggest that it is only by yielding to our shattering that the cup of our hearts can be filled with divine love.  That the feeling that we are dying when someone we love very much has died is accurate: who we used to be is annihilated by the power of loss, so that a new, broken-open self might gradually emerge from the ashes.  That by being stripped naked it is possible to have a direct encounter with the sacred.

I did not come up with this.  Mystical teachings of all flavors have been offering this paradoxical guidance forever.  I simply dipped deep into that well when my own most significant loss brought me, desperate, to its lip.

Recently I have had the good fortune to hang out with some professional religious leaders and explore the wisdom of St. John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul and St. Teresa of Avila’s beautiful wound.  It is a privilege beyond measure to bear witness when people who are in charge of the spiritual lives of others feel safe enough to admit that their own faith is undergoing (or has undergone) seismic shifts, opening up vast and terrifying new regions.  The groups did not seem to flinch when I suggested that these spiritual meltdowns were a cause for celebration.  According to the mystics, they are evidence of the weaning of the soul from dependency on the divine breast – signs that the Holy One feels we are ready to stand on our own two spiritual feet.

In the onset of the dark nights of our souls, according to John of the Cross, we find our sensory attachments drying up and dropping into emptiness.  The way we been accustomed to feeling the presence of God begins to shift, and the change tastes strange and bitter to our undeveloped spiritual palette.  If we can rest in that emptiness, we might progress to the next stage: conceptual unraveling.  In this night, all our ideas about God and the spiritual path come undone.  We can no longer think our way to the Divine.  Religious concepts become meaningless, even offensive.  This is our opportunity for the radical surrender the mystics say is a prerequisite for meeting the Holy One face-to-face.  It is the unutterable radiance that our undeveloped eyes mistake for darkness.

When we finally do let ourselves down into the arms of unknowing, according to Teresa of Avila, we access a powerful longing that has been hidden in our hearts, obscured by the previously reliable yet ultimately erroneous feelings and ideas we had used as props to hold up the Mystery.  Once these constructs are dismantled, we are reconnected with our true selves, who want only one thing: union with the Divine.  We come to experience this yearning as an exquisite thing, a beautiful wound.  By fully showing up for the experience of spiritual suffering, our emptiness is filled with the answering response of love…. which intensifies the burning.  Our buttery hearts soften and their boundaries dissolve.

Who wouldn’t want a taste of that?

It fills me with hope to see religious leaders not only willing but eager to explore the places where they do not know, where they are not in charge, where they loosen their grip on the dogmas and practices they were taught – and on which they have relied for guiding the souls of others – and invite the mystery to change them from the inside.

These transformational dark nights are not limited to professional religious, of course.  All seekers of truth find themselves at the brink of the holy abyss at different times along the journey.  It may be an experience of dramatic loss that brings us to this place, or it may be an inner crisis of faith, invisible to anyone else.  Either way, our task is to become as still and quiet as we can and let the Holy One take over.

So, my response to the question of what to do in the face of a spiritual meltdown is this: melt.  In melting, we may yet merge with the object of our heart’s deepest desire.



Saying Yes

July 22, 2009

Mystics of all faiths celebrate the fire that clears the landscape of the soul, preparing it for a direct encounter with divine love.  Spiritual seekers have embraced contemplative disciplines for millennia in the hope of finding a small glimpse of the emptiness that is plenitude, a single moment of the ego-melting that leads to union with the absolute.  Prior to the death of my daughter Jenny in 2001, I had spent decades in pursuit of that spiritual nakedness.

I have never encountered a more direct path to the undifferentiated awareness the mystics speak about than the journey of grief and loss.  Tragedy and sorrow can accomplish in a single moment what years of sitting on a meditation cushion may never yield: an unequivocal surrendering into the arms of the mystery.  There is no other place to go.

I am not unique.  In the years since Jenny died, I have encountered hundreds of people who have experienced the inexplicable gifts of grief and loss, and have dedicated themselves to cultivating, harvesting, and giving away that bounty.  This is the grace of radical unknowing the mystics speak about.  The terrible initiation of darkness and despair that strips our souls of everything that stands between us and the sacred.  The dying that happens when someone we love dies, shattering the container of our hearts.  The boundless love and gratitude that comes pouring into and through that broken open container.

I would never have willingly agreed to exchange the life of my daughter for the transformational grace that has come in the wake of her death.  I would gladly relinquish every shred of the increased aliveness and childlike wonder with which her death has filled my life, if it meant I could cuddle her close and sing her to sleep one more time.  At some point every day, I still hate that Jenny is dead.

Yet, I cannot deny the gift of being emptied and scrubbed and filled with the light the sages of every tradition throughout the ages have spoken of.  The boundless love expressed best in poetry and song.  The longing that takes away your breath only to fill you with a never-imagined vitality.  But only after you have surrendered completely to the darkness, to the fire, to the unraveling of all you ever thought you knew.  I have understood almost from the beginning that my only task is to say YES to that.

In this blog I will explore, through my own and others’ stories, how the journey of grief and loss can fill our lives with ever-expanding awareness, radiant vitality and unimagined joy.