It is the whole of nature, extending from the beginning to the end that constitutes the one image of God Who Is.
St Gregory of Nyssa, On the creation of Man
The language of God is life itself, and I live with the unquenchable need to take my life in my hands and try to read the divine alphabet written upon it.
(from Firstlight, Sue Monk Kidd, cited in The Gift of Wonder, Christine Aroney-Sine (97))
How does hearing play a part in knowingdarkly? I hear God speak to me, though rarely with some ghostly disembodied voice. God speaks to me through the natural world around me. God speaks to me through the Bible when I hear a ‘word’ distilled through the practice of Lectio and Visio Divina. God speaks to me through other people, as likely to be someone in the corner shop as someone in a pulpit.
I do have a few beloveds who are my ‘kitchen table church’ (though we have never gathered together in one place at one time), whom I trust implicitly to speak to me of what they see God doing in my life, as I speak of where God is in theirs.
Yet, all the things I hear ‘God’ say, have to be sifted in my heart. They have to be checked and tested to ensure they are full of truth; that they are not the latest list of ‘oughts, musts, shoulds’ from my depressed mind, dressed up in so-called spiritual language.
darkling I listen*
Knowingdarkly trusts that these sifted ‘hearings’ or shewings (as Julian of Norwich might describe them) are revelations of the Holy breaking into my here and my now. It is not a question of believing God speaks, but rather of risking what might happen if I listen.
Sit in stillness and listen to what your heart prays.
The truth of what we call our knowing is both light and dark. Men are always dying and waking. The rhythm between we call life … I walk in the dark feeling darkness on my skin. Dawn always begins in the bones.
‘Hymn to Ra’, The Egyptian Book of the Dead
As I am beginning to discover, knowingdarkly is not about what knowledge my mind may have learned, or what stories my mind tells me about myself. So I wonder if knowingdarkly really begins in my body? In what I call the ‘wisdom of the gut’?
When I pause long enough allow myself to see a little more clearly, I realise I am an ‘expert patient’. Nobody knows better than me, how illness affects my body – and so how my mind, heart and spirit is affected as well. So nobody knows, better than me, how God-is-with-me, either.
Knowingdarkly is about taking the risk to trust that, somehow, in someway I may never be able to understand or express, I do know something of God. Knowingdarkly is trusting that I do know a part of God, a part of Love. Knowingdarkly is risking looking for a glimpse of the hope of wholeness flickering somewhere deep within my bones.
knowing that we are not separate
When I see you coming toward me, and I know that you are going to offer help, or do something for me, if I am attached and clinging, I brace myself and prepare to say “No, I can do this myself.” I hang on to my pride and I push you away. If I surrender, I look in your eyes and feel your kindness and I melt a bit and say to myself, “let yourself be loved.” I say to you, “thank you.” And once I get over any lingering shame, I feel grateful. The surrendering is hard, but I am discovering that vulnerability is like a muscle that can be strengthened with practice.
So, what is the surrendering to? It is to us; to knowing that we are not separate – that I am you and you are me. It is surrendering to the ever-present force of love and grace that surrounds us all the time like the currents of a river to which we spend most of our time blind and oblivious. We are surrounded by love and kindness and by the Great Spirit, always – this I am discovering. All that is required is to open and say Yes. …
Other times I find myself alone and lost, and caught by suffering: physical pain, emotional despair, or mental anguish. When I have enough awareness to notice this state, my big question is: If I am not just this physical, emotional, or mental stuff, then who am I? What is the part of me that is NOT that? The part that knows joy and transcendence, that knows love? Where is that part?
I close my eyes, and enter what seems like a very dark basement with only a flashlight and I begin to search around. Mostly, I encounter the elements of my suffering; my physical discomfort, emotional pain, and my mental maze. So, I keep searching. At some point, I can suddenly see a glimmer of light in some corner and I move toward it. I discover something that is NOT suffering, but is another part of me. I breathe into it and shine my light there. I try to open the crack more. As I do, I find that the light gets brighter and the space gets larger, and if I persist it becomes bright enough to remind me that I am also Spirit and Life and Light. I let that awareness grow until it seems to have the upper hand. The suffering is still present, but no longer “has me.” Instead I am guided by a more essential love-based me that also brings along some suffering – a very different proposition.
from Surrender: The Art of Living, Loving, and Dying Without Training Wheels, Art Shirk
vulnerability is a muscle which glimmers. (iPhone image)
Something has reached out and taken in the beams of my eyes.
There is a longing, it is for his body, for every hair of that dark body.
All I was doing was being, and the Dancing Energy came by my house.
His face looks curiously like the moon, I saw it from the side, smiling.
My family says: “Don’t ever see him again!” And implies things in a low voice.
But my eyes have their own life; they laugh at rules, and know whose they are.
I believe I can bear on my shoulders whatever you want to say of me.
Mira says: Without the energy that lifts mountains, how am I to live?
‘All I was Doing Was Breathing’
Mirabai (16th. century Hindu mystic poet), translated by Robert Bly
It is one thing to try to convince my mind to change the scripts it keeps repeating to me; it is quite another to wade into the unknown depths of my heart, when I don’t know whether it can speak, let alone what it might say. For ‘heart-knowing’ is very difficult for me, as I have a highly calibrated sense of not being able to trust myself. That is, not just feeling I cannot trust what my mind tells me, as it twists and turns the messages of pain and depression and religion around into bizarre distortions which can make me act in strange ways. It is that as a whole person I do not trust myself to do ‘the right thing’. I do not trust myself not self-sabotage my healing journey. Some days, I do not trust that I can ever be whole.
Knowingdarkly is about developing this ‘heart knowing’: creating a space within for not knowing, for not even asking any questions, but for listening, for just being. Knowingdarkly is about being prepared to quiet my mind so I might descend to the ‘eye of my heart’, where I might glimpse the Dancing Energy in the dark, where all I need do is be and breathe.
If I am able to loose my controlling hold, I might be able to hear my heart-instinct quiet the head-voice that tells me I am untrustworthy. Then it just might be possible to hear how to maintain that small connection with the Hope enshrined in knowingdarkly, which I described in yesterday’s reflection. Once again,
you are a story. You are not merely the possessor and teller of a number of stories; you are a well-written intentional story that is authored by the greatest Writer of all time, and even before time and after time. The weight of those words, if you believe them even for brief snippets of time, can change the trajectory of your life.
You cannot heal a heart
with one that has not been pierced.
You cannot see the Truth
with eyes that have not wept.
You cannot touch a soul
with one that has not known the darkness of night.
You cannot mop a brow
with a cloth that has not bandaged a wound.
You cannot hold a hand
with one not shaped by love.
You cannot carry a burden
with a back not already broken with a load.
You cannot rise
unless you fall;
You cannot see
unless you are blind;
You cannot live
unless you die;
You cannot hold
unless you let go.
beginning to know my dark glistening heart. (iPhone image)
IT IS ONLY BY PUTTING IT INTO WORDS THAT I MAKE IT WHOLE.
If seeingdarkly is my shorthand for ‘for now we shall see through a glass, darkly’, then my shorthand for ‘now I know in part’ (I Corinthians 13.12 KJV) is knowingdarkly.
There are so many days when I do not know what to think of myself or of God. There are days, due to depression, when it is difficult to think at all. Clinical Depression often warps the way I see myself, distorting what I know I believe, somewhere deep-down in my core:
I am a child of God.
God loves me.
I am loveable.
I am loved.
This is what I call ‘learning to live loved’. It is the basic building block of knowingdarkly, and I try to hold onto it. As I do so, it is vital to remind myself, as Douglas Coupland did in Generation X, that ‘you are not your ego’. My ego can twist the way I see myself in relation to God and others: all those futile ‘oughts, buts, shoulds, musts’ that arise out of my need to control what happens to me; my need to prevent further pain; or to hide my past pain from others. An ego twisted by years of misinterpreting scripture and the christian faith I was taught as a child. An ego which internalised spiritualised perfectionism and the consequential necessary self-sabotage that follows. As Kurtz and Ketcham remark:
… to be human is, after all, to be other than “God”. And so it is only in the embracing of our torn self, only in the acceptance that there is nothing “wrong” with feeling torn, that one can hope for whatever healing is available and can thus become as “whole” as possible. Only those who know darkness can truly appreciate light; only those who acknowledge darkness can even see the light.
(E.Kurtz & K. Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection (61))
embracing our torn self
Changing my thinking; believing a new narrative; rewriting my script, my story. All these begin with acceptance and surrender. Even on my best days, what I know to be true about myself and my God is but a tiny part of knowingdarkly.
I recently re-found a scrap of a newspaper. On it, I had circled words Sky Hopinka said to a reporter from The Guardian newspaper. Sky Hopinka is an indigenous filmmaker from the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. Whilst he was making Jáji Approx. in 2015 about the Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Hopinka said that ‘the difference between learning and knowing is little more than asking questions without the entitlement of an answer’.
I suspect this is knowingdarkly: an action where the ego is is not in charge of directing the mind, so the Spirit has space to be in my becoming. It is an action where I am content to allow myself not to know, not to be in charge of what and how I know or believe – about either myself or my God. If I can yield control of my life so that I can ‘live the questions’, as the poet Rilke put it, then I will also be yielding to ‘asking questions without the entitlement of an answer’. My ego is what demands it is ‘entitled’ to know. Knowingdarkly is an ongoing commitment to releasing that ‘right’ to know all.
It is also about realising the difference between controlling and connecting. The more I loose my ego’s controlling hold, the more my True Self can maintain the vital connection (however small, however weak a connection that feels) with the timeless hope which is enshrined at the heart of in knowingdarkly:
You are a story. You are not merely the possessor and teller of a number of stories; you are a well-written intentional story that is authored by the greatest Writer of all time, and even before time and after time. The weight of those words, if you believe them even for brief snippets of time, can change the trajectory of your life.
But for God to reach us, we have to allow suffering to wound us. Now is no time for an academic solidarity with the world. Real solidarity needs to be felt and suffered. That’s the real meaning of the word “suffer” – to allow someone else’s pain to influence us in a real way. We need to move beyond our own personal feelings and take in the whole.
FOR NOW WE SHALL SEE THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY; BUT THEN FACE TO FACE: NOW I KNOW IN PART; BUT THEN I SHALL KNOW EVEN AS ALSO I AM KNOWN
(I CORINTHIANS 13.12 KJV)
With what – or whom – do I allow myself to come face to face? I know it is all too easy for me to hide away, making managing my health, and the needs of family and friends the focus of my world. It is also all too easy for me to become isolated and insulated from the world outside the walls of my bedroom. What do I really know of the broken communities of the world?
Yet seeingdarkly, even at my lowest moments, means that somewhere within me remains an unseen thread of connection to the eternal. And if I admit the presence of that thread in any way, then being connected to the eternal means I can become consciously welded to all those who breathe in, as I do, at this very moment – wherever, however, they are.
I learned to be a human being
from other human beings
I am who I am in this moment because of who other people are. This is the wonderful African principle of Ubuntu which Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama introduced to me in their Book of Joy:
a person is a person through other persons (60).
The connections between us are not fixed. So one of the ways the Holy makes me is through binding me to other people. If I am open to coming face-to-face with strangers, then there will be different people to whom I am bound, in the different days and seasons of my life. The more I hide from interacting with others, the less I am made into the whole woman God wants me to be. We cannot be human without each other, ‘we’re meant for a very profound complementarity … I learned to be a human being from other human beings’, says Desmond Tutu (60):
This God is community … Being created by this God, we are created in order to flourish. And we flourish in community. (62)
As Rohr notes above, I need to be connected to others by allowing their suffering to meet my own wounds. In that meeting we may all be healed. Similarly, in The Book of Joy Douglas Abrams summarises:
What does our happiness have to do with addressing the suffering of the world? In short, the more we heal our own pain, the more we can turn to the pain of others. But in a surprising way, what the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama were saying is that the way we heal our own pain is actually by turning to the pain of others. It is a virtuous circle. The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others. The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves, but as the Archbishop poetically phrased it, “to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.” … joy is contagious. As is love, compassion and generosity.“ (63)
I am a long way from being the serenity of the Archbishop’s poetry, but these reminders of the ways in which seeingdarkly can connect me with others, is a rich vein of gold I need to mine. I need to pay attention to the ways in which my ‘becoming’ – where the Maker is at work – is dependent on my encouraging the flourishing of others. Ubuntu has become a kind of shorthand of this for me in the last year.
the way we heal our own pain is actually
by turning to the pain of others
The visual elements of my pondering about Ubuntu have been influenced by the work of painter/sculptor El Anatsui. He is a Ghanaian artist best known for making textile-like hangings by joining bottle tops and milk cap foils with copper wire.* He uses recycled materials to create huge flags, sheets and drapes, which shimmer with a richness that belies the humble origins of his materials. His works are literally made out of African ‘base’ ‘gold’, and point up the fact that there are some places in the world where people have to re-use materials out of necessity, rather than as choice. Some of the materials have been made in Africa, shipped to Europe where they are consumed, and shipped back to Africa to be processed and recycled. Thus they also ‘connect’, by physical joinings, ideas of global consumerism and its historical origins, including the part played by slavery and the oppression of poverty. El Anatsui says:
I saw the bottle caps as relating to the history of Africa in the sense that when the earliest group of Europeans came to trade, they brought along rum originally from the West Indies that then went to Europe and finally to Africa as three legs of the triangular trip…The drink caps that I use are not made in Europe; they are all made in Nigeria, but they symbolize bringing together the histories of these two continents.
(The New Razzle Dazzle, Art News)
Astonishingly, the materials El Anatsui uses link together in such a way that the final whole is not a fixed, stiff item but is:
always in motion. Anytime you touch something, there is bound to be a change. The idea of a sheet that you can shape and reshape. It can be on the floor, it can be up on the ceiling, it can be up on the wall, all that fluidity is behind the concept.
(The Nomadic Aesthetic*)
I am who I am becoming because of the ways I touch others, the ways I connect with them, how I deal with their pain, how I sit next to them in their suffering.
Flexibly, through them, God makes me; flexibly, through me, God makes them.
I am moved by the Japanese art of Kintsugi, both for its own sake, and as a profound spiritual metaphor. Kintsugi is the art of repairing broken teaware, by reassembling the ceramic pieces in such a way that the broken/repaired/remade piece is perceived as being more beautiful, and as having even more value, than the original. As the artist Makoto Fujimura explains, technically, the pieces are reassembled using the ‘Urushi Japan lacquer technique’, then gold gilding is added to the filled cracks. Symbolically, spiritually, this technique is performed as an act of compassion towards the pot. Mending it reminds the mender, everything is gift; whilst the mended object re-presents beauty through brokenness. The Japanese kin stands for ‘gold’ and tsugi means ‘to reconnect’, but ‘tsugi also has, significantly, connotations of “connecting to the next generation.”’ (Fujimura, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making (43-4))
Whether of not I believe I am ‘broken’ because a religious creed tells me I am ‘sinful’, what I do believe is that the Christ in whom Christians believe came not to ‘fix’ me, nor even to ‘restore’ me; that Christ came to ‘make’ me into the whole Kate. What is staggering then, is either why God would bother; or why the making of me involves using the most costly materials of the Godself: the gold of Grace.
Yet I do not treat myself as a valuable object. I do not look for how God has seamed the Godself into me; nor do I look for the beauty of the Kintsugi Christ in others.
Now I write that sentence, I cannot for the life of me imagine why not.
But I do wonder whether my lack of appreciation for where God has been at work reseaming what humanity has broken apart In the wider world, reflects my blindness towards the places where God has polished the beauty of holiness out the dirt of my own wounds.
I lack a sense of awe for all the signs of the Kintsugi Christ at work, making in the world around me, which I miss recognising for what they are.
boundaries melt away,
Perhaps my experience just reflects what psychologists are beginning to recognise as ‘awe-deprivation’ affecting large parts of human society.* In her book Positivity Barbara Frederickson defines awe like this:
[A]we happens when you come across goodness on a grand scale. You literally feel overwhelmed by greatness. By comparison, you feel small and humble. Awe makes you stop in your tracks. You are momentarily transfixed. Boundaries melt away and you feel part of something larger than yourself. Mentally, you’re challenged to absorb and accommodate the sheer scale of what you’ve encountered… Although a form of positivity, awe at times sits so close to the edge of safety that we get a whiff of negativity as well. Awe mixes with fear… Awe, like gratitude and inspiration, is a self-transcendent emotion.
If I risk beginning to look outside myself for the signs of God’s making in my world, I will become aware I am part of the larger story of God. If I risk beginning to look inside myself for signs of the acts of making the Kintsugi Christ loves to perform, then the sense of my own brokenness may begin to fall away and be replaced with awe and gratitude and praise.
Queer people of faith are ripped apart in all directions. But it is in the delicate art of re-seaming these wounds that transcendence abounds.
Amrou, ‘The Queer Prophet’, from The Book of Queer Prophets (11)
‘the only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision’.
If I’m not careful, what I see with my eyes, and how I see it with my mind, often lead me into either/or binary: I like this/don’t like that; that’s alive/that’s dead; that’s beautiful/that’s ugly; that’s God/that’s not God.
Yet the practice of contemplative photography helps me see with all my senses, with mind, body and spirit, with heart and head. It helps me receive experience more non-judgementally and helps me discard the either/or filters and blinkers that narrow or blind my vision.
Although I act like a perfectionist in so many areas of my life, I have a few quirks which show that there are a few cracks in that totalising blindfold. For example, I have long been attracted to rust. (I distinctly remember looking through a viewfinder at rust on a railway bridge railings for a textile project when I was fourteen). It is the combination of strength and fragility, wear and tear, colour and texture that attracts me all at once. I find the infinite variety of rust stunningly beautiful.
One of the most helpful ideas I have been introduced to in the last decade is that of wabi-sabi, which helps me understand my attraction to broken, decaying, rusting things. In The Artist’s Rule Christine Valters-Paintner cites Crispin Sartwell’s definition of wabi-sabi:
Wabi as beauty is humility, asymmetry, and imperfection, a beauty of disintegration, of soil, of autumn leaves, grass in drought, crow feathers. For such reasons, an appreciation of wabi is an appreciation of the world and a certain sort of refusal of its transformation for delectation. Wabi as an aesthetic is a connection to the world in its imperfection, a way of seeing imperfection as itself embodying beauty … Sabi is a quality of stillness and solitude, a melancholy that is one of the basic human responses to and sources of beauty … Thus wabi-sabi is an aesthetic of poverty and loneliness, imperfection and austerity, affirmation and melancholy. Wabi-sabi is the beauty of the withered, weathered, tarnished, scarred, intimate, coarse, earthly, evanescent, tentative, ephemeral.
(Crispin Sartwell, Six Names of Beauty, cited in Christine Valters-Paintner The Artist’s Rule (98))
the beauty of the withered,
My imperfect vision is drawn to what is imperfect in the world. It is one thing to be tolerant of a thing or person who is somehow ‘broken’, when I compare it/them to some imagined ideal standard, it is another to hold up such imperfections as being ‘of God’. For paying attention to ‘imperfection’ in the wabi-sabi sense, names that yearning in me to see what is below the surface, the essential underneath the obvious. In my experience, that is where the holy is most often to be found. That is the sense of what I understand in this Bible passage:
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4.16-18 (NRSV))
let there be room for not knowing
There are days when I imagine my vision to be ‘broken’ either through illness, lack of imagination or of contemplative intent. There are days when others rubbish my photography for being of uninteresting subjects (often they mean uncommercial) or full of imperfect technical precision. Yet if I keep letting go of what I expect to see and be present to what is actually before me, however initially unbeautiful or imperfect it may seem, it is not long before I see how the eternal is at work in this, in me. I catch a glimpse of how the Whole is renewing me daily.
Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don’t know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don’t know.
the essential underneath the obvious. (iPhone image)
Little Kay was quite blue with cold – nearly black, in fact – but he did not notice it, for she [the Snow Queen] had kissed his shivering away, and his heart was nothing but a lump of ice. He spent his time dragging sharp, flat pieces of ice about, arranging them in all sorts of ways, trying to make something out of them – it was rather like the kind of thing we sometimes do with small flat pieces of wood when we try to make patterns from them – a Chinese puzzle they call it. Kay made patterns in the same way, most elaborate ones, a sort of intellectual ice-puzzle. In his own eyes the patterns were quite remarkable and of the utmost importance, that was what the grain of glass that was stuck in his eye did for him! He would lay out his patterns to form written words, but could never hit upon the way to lay out the word he wanted, the word ‘eternity’. The Snow Queen had said ‘If you can work out that pattern for me, you shall be your own master, and I will present you with the whole world – and a new pair of skates.’ But he could not do it.
‘The Snow Queen’, Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales (trans L.W.Kingsland)
When was the last time I heard eternity whispering to me? So often what I hear whispered in my ear are ‘the oughts, buts, musts and shoulds’ of life, which arise out of the lethal inner triumverate of my Critic, my Judge and my Commentator. Listening to those inner voices convinces me that I am ‘broken’, because I do not conform to the inherited values, or social norms, which tell what is the standard of ‘perfect’ that God wishes me to be. Listening to these ideas of what is ‘perfect’ leads me to attempt to fix my brokenness my willpower alone. A strategy that is bound to fail – as it has done, time and again without number – and yet I still keep trying to do it.
The only way to counter that perfectionism which leads me into such self-destructive, self-sabotaging patterns, is to listen to the word ‘eternal’ and to live in the middle of the eternal contradiction. Eternal life, including the ‘then’ of life after death, is all about being present to my now, so that I may encounter my God here.
Unlike seeing, where one can look away, one cannot ‘hear away’ but must listen … Hearing implies already belonging together in such a manner that one is claimed by what is being said. Hearing involves intimacies too frequently forgotten.
(Hans Georg Gadamer, cited in Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham (69-70))
I can ‘live this day’ only if I understand
it as part of my whole story
Being present in my now, as it is, not as I think it ought to be, is the very opposite of what the perfectionist wants, which is to live in everything all at once. The perfectionist has no patience with small steps, with only seeing part of the pattern at a time. Yet, if I am to be present to encounter God in my now, I must bring all of me, including all the bits I don’t want God to see, the parts about which I don’t want to hear God’s opinion. As Kurtz and Ketcham note, spirituality is a reality that must touch all of one’s life or it touches none of one’s life. The wholeness of ‘”this day” has meaning only insofar as it unites my past with my future. I can “live this day” only if I understand it as part of my whole story – the part that I can live this day, “now”.’ (Spirituality of Imperfection (153))
Part of seeingdarkly is hearing ‘darkly: a full-sensory receiving of what is given in this now.
Another part of seeingdarkly is knowing ‘darkly’, which involves accepting ‘darkly’: accepting that where the whole of God is, is in this now, is in me. God is in this moment, with me, in this here, in this now: Whole.
The Whole holies me until I am hale.
This intimate indwelling is the miracle of the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas.
“How does a person seek union with God?” the seeker asked.
“The harder you seek,” the teacher said, “the more distance you create between God and you.”
“So what does one do about the distance?”
“Understand that it isn’t there,” the teacher said.
“Does that mean God and I are one?” the seeker said.
“Not one. Not two.”
“How is that possible?” the seeker said.
“The sun and its light, the ocean and the wave, the singer and the song. Not one. Not two.”
(cited in The Rule of Benedict, Joan Chittister (81))
eternity whispering. Canon 7D. f5.6. 1/160. ISO 500.
We are afraid of emptiness. Spinoza speaks about our “horror vacui”, our horrendous fear of vacancy … It is very hard to allow emptiness to exist in our lives. Emptiness requires a willingness not to be in control, a willingness to let something new and unexpected happen. It requires trust, surrender, and openness to guidance. God wants to dwell in our emptiness.
(Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen (70))
It is hard not to see my body as broken, dysfunctional. In hospital three years ago I was awarded the dubious honour of having a ‘Functional Neurological Disorder’ (FND). It is hard not to take this label ‘disordered’ to heart, and to let it become an identity.
But I am not my illness. Nor am I just my body in isolation. The wellness of my body does not mean that I will be whole, nor does the opposite. I can only see myself ‘darkly’, patchily.
So I was struck by the parallels between this skewed seeing of myself and my common visual misperception of shadows as flat:
The actual shadow does not reside primarily on the ground; it is a voluminous being of thickness and depth, a mostly unseen presence that dwells in the air between my body and that ground. The dusky shape on the asphalt touches me only at my feet, but that is merely the outermost edge of a thick volume of shade, extending from the pavement and touching every point of my person.
(Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, David Abram)
My eyes cannot experience the whole of what a shadow is. And yet, the potential for whole seeing of the whole shadow-body remains. The sculptor Anthony Gormley has explored the ideas around ‘what makes a body’ for his whole career, using his own body as a recurring reference point. He asks:
How do we treat the body not as a given, not as appearance but as the place that each find ourselves in? … I want to use sculpture to throw us back into the world, to provide this place where the magic, the subtlety, the extraordinary nature of our firsthand experience is celebrated, enhanced, made more present.
(RA (Autumn 2019))
Recently Gormley has explored this idea of presence by showing, in a wide variety of materials and on varying scales, the ‘empty space’ his body might occupy. Once again, the theme returns: if I want to know how I am whole, I need to look at what and where I am not; I need to face the shadow, the vacuum, the emptiness.
Conversely, acknowledging my emptiness, then surrendering it to God, brings me into a place where I might reglimpse the ‘magic’ and celebrate what it is to be human: a child of God.
The ethos of L’Arche communities reflects exactly this. Designed in the 1960’s as a community where those with and without learning disabilities might live together, L’Arche is now a worldwide movement and there is a network of one hundred and fifty-three communities, in thirty-eight countries, across five continents:
Allegedly “disabled” people would teach us that we most encounter wholeness when we recognise our poverty not our capacity … The handicapped, the elderly, the marginalised, and the weak have little sense of competition. These people call the healthy and the robust to a life of sharing, where individuals are valued for themselves in their uniqueness. There is, we learn from them, no need to conform – we are already one in our fragility and in our being toward death.
(from A Blessed Weakness: The Spirit of Jean Vanier and l’Arche, Michael Downey; cited by Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (34))
“we are already one in our fragility”
Abrams, L’Arche, Gormley and seeingdarkly: all are reflecting on the fragility of my mind, body and spirit in different ways. All these point towards what many humans sense: there is such a thing as ‘a whole’; that wholeness is possible: even if it is currently beyond my sight or my understanding or my experience.
Genuine wholeness in the spiritual life … requires unflinchingly facing one’s hollowness. The harshness of the desert exacts a stripping away of every chimera and self-delusion for the sake of what is real. “Delight in the truth,” exhorts Donald Nicholl. “Truth tastes better with each illusion that evaporates.”
The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Belden C. Lane (197/8)
The traditions of ‘Desert Spirituality’ teach me that the route to wholeness in heart, body, mind and spirit can only lie through risk and loss. There are times when I feel all the losses that thirty years of chronic illness have brought are very close to my surface. I don’t have to look very hard. There are times as well when I look at the wider world and all I see is loss – loss through war, famine, violence, poverty.
Feeling such loss, and feeling so lost, does not make me inclined to risk anything. Too often I just want to hide instead. Yet spiritual teachers down the centuries all agree that ‘before we awaken to who we are we have to awaken to who we are not’ (Spiritual Intelligence, Brian Draper (63)).
I am not the woman I thought I would be. I lost sight of the Kate I wanted to be more than twenty years ago. I still miss her. Her dreams, like my dreams, seem to lie in tatters. My task now though, is to live wholeheartedly as who I am – now. I need to learn to rejoice in all the abundance of who I am; rather than living in the past – never facing what, and who, is real before me today.
No one is as whole as [the one] who has a broken heart
said Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov. I cannot be wholly who I am, as God made me, without being prepared to admit I am not God. And if I am not God, and I cannot control this world, then what becomes vital is to be who I am. This means living out the paradox that before I can be whole, I have to admit my heart is broken.
All shall be well and all shall be well
and all manner of things shall be well
and not the least thing shall be missed
Every dawn is a holy event and every day is holy
The earth is sacred and every step taken upon her is as a prayer
All things are yours, and all things are yours
and God is reconciling all things
Resonate with the prayer of all our relations
Let all that is restless and guarded in me know its own sadness
Let sadness rise up as incense to the God who sees
See the desolations God brings upon earth:
God breaks the weapons of war
abolishes all law
and liberates the heart
Be still and know
Today I break my vigils to the past
I end my vigil to the empty spaces left by my losses
They are gone and shall not return
But here am I today
My task is to live
I end my vigil of vengeance and anger over the injustices and abuses I have known
It happened and cannot be undone
only forgiven and let be
And here am I today
My task is to live
I end the vigil of silent fear of the powers that have dominated me
They ruled over me for a time
and they rule over me no more
Here I am today
My task is to live
I end the vigil I have kept to the dutiful martyr of sorrows
Weeping is for a night, but there is joy in the morning
Here am I today
My task is to live and to live joyously
I arise from the sorrows of the past
I blow out the candles and turn
I face the sun and feel the wind of the present
I put my feet down upon the rich earth of today
and she welcomes me
There is a river that flows form the being of God
and on its banks are trees of healing
It flows to the dead places
to the stuck places
to the places of rage
to the places of hurt
to the waters where nothing lives
The river of God cancels all debts and makes alive in gladness
All shall be well and all shall be well
and all manner of things shall be well
and not the least thing shall be missed
‘A liturgy of wholeness’, David Blower. Nomad Devotionals & Contemplations E92. Nomadpodcast.co.uk (David has collected a number of texts into this liturgy. They are from Julian of Norwich, The Apostle Paul, Psalm 46 and some other ‘bits and pieces’. )