For me, this inner peace in the middle of sorrow and pain has become harder, because in my early spiritual journey, I could sense the presence of Jesus in the room even when I was in physical pain or emotional turmoil. And often joy came even in pain or heartbreak. But at least those memories help me know that even when I now feel alone, I am not.
Mirabai Starr finds inspiration in mystics Julian of Norwich (1343–c. 1416) and John of the Cross (1542–1591).
“Both endured profound suffering and yet discovered a deep and Divine love in its midst. What does a religious woman who dwelt in an anchor-hold during the Middle Ages have to do with you and me today? Julian endured a long and cruel pandemic. The disease ravaged her community and carried off the people that she loved. She learned to shelter in place, focusing on cultivating her interior landscape and sharing the fruits of her wisdom through the window that opened from her cell onto the busy streets of her city (think computer screen and Zoom), where she offered counsel to visitors . . . each day.
She found solace, not in the wrathful father-god of her childhood, but in an unconditionally loving Mother-God who could not help but forgive the transgressions of each one of her darling kids. She recognized that everything that is could be contained in a hazelnut in the palm of God’s hand, and that it all endures because God adores every particle of Her creation. She also realized that, even though the night feels impenetrable now, dawn is coming, when we will see with our own eyes that not only is every little thing going to be alright, but that it has been all along.
And how could a renegade monk, who survived the Spanish Inquisition despite the Jewish and Moorish blood that flowed through his veins, have anything to teach us about flourishing in our own dark nights? John of the Cross illumines the transformational power of radical unknowing. He rekindles our latent longing for union with the Beloved and, through sublime poetry and precise prose, blows on the flames so that they dance back to life in our beleaguered hearts.
He reminds us that when everything in us wants to rush out and fix the problem of our brokenness, both individual and collective, the wisest and most loving thing to do is to be still, letting go of our attachment to the way we thought the spiritual life was supposed to feel and the sense we assumed it should make. Once we step out of our own way, into the dark and empty vessel of the soul, “an ineffable sweetness” will begin to rise, permeating and nourishing the quiet earth, uncovering a resurrection we never dreamed possible: a dazzling darkness, a radiant night, a revolutionary newness of being.
But maybe not quite yet.
We are not alone. The wise ones who walked before us have left luminous footprints for us to follow in our own apocalyptic times.”
Richard Rohr teaches that God uses love and suffering, and especially suffering, as universal paths to reach and change us.
Two universal paths of transformation have been available to every human being God has created: great love and great suffering. These are offered to all; they level the playing fields of all the world religions. Only love and suffering are strong enough to break down our usual ego defenses, crush our dualistic thinking, and open us to Mystery. In my experience, they like nothing else exert the mysterious chemistry that can transmute us from a fear-based life into a love-based life. None of us are exactly sure why. We do know that words, even good words or fine theology, cannot achieve that on their own. No surprise that the Christian icon of redemption is a man offering love from a crucified position!
Love and suffering are part of most human lives. Without any doubt, they are the primary spiritual teachers more than any Bible, church, minister, sacrament, or theologian. Wouldn’t it make sense for God to make divine truth so readily available? If the love of God is perfect and victorious, wouldn’t God offer every human being equal and universal access to the Divine as love and suffering do? This is what Paul seems to be saying to the Athenians in his brilliant sermon at the Areopagus: “All can seek the Deity, feeling their way toward God and succeeding in finding God. For God is not far from any of us, since it is in God that we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27–28). What a brilliant and needed piece of theology to this day!
Love is what we long for and were created for—in fact, love is what we are as an outpouring from God—but suffering often seems to be our opening to that need, that desire, and that identity. Love and suffering are the main portals that open the mind space and the heart space (either can come first), breaking us into breadth and depth and communion. Almost without exception, great spiritual teachers will have strong and direct guidance about love and suffering. If we never go there, we will not know these essentials. We’ll try to work it all out in our heads, but our minds alone can’t get us there. We must love “with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, and our whole strength” (Mark 12:30).
Finally, there is a straight line between love and suffering. If we love greatly, it is fairly certain we will soon suffer, because we have somehow given up control to another. That is my simple definition of suffering: whenever we are not in control.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See
Here are two quotes about spirituality that I understand from my own experience, but I see the differences as more stages of our personal journeys. And of course, I see those as varying in the order of their development for people with different inborn personality preferences. By eighty-five, I’ve gone through the scary dying to my natural strength, so I could develop my weakest side more. I’ve seen others in their senior years panic in confusion over it, not knowing it’s a natural part of our spiritual growth toward more wholeness. I know how weak spiritually I am when I don’t actively seek grace. So, when the way I’d found it since my thirties simply stopped helping, it took a while to recognize and accept that I needed to start focusing on my least developed side where I have almost no natural talents.
And while I have not become really “gifted” in that area, what has been the blessing is that I am better able to understand people who are and who have the values and limits that go with those gifts.
Cynthia Bourgeault “In terms of the spiritual journey, trying to find faith with the intellectual center is something like trying to play a violin with a saw: it’s simply the wrong tool for the job. This is one reason why all religious traditions have universally insisted that religious life cannot be done with the mind alone; that is the biggest single impediment to spiritual becoming.”
Daniel Lee “Faith has to be experiential, not just intellectual. Even if you may understand it, you may not be able to believe it. Conversely, you may not understand it fully, but you may believe it. This is the mystery of unknowing. I used to pursue only knowing by studying the Bible and theology, but once I learned about mysticism, I now understand unknowing.”
Years ago, when I taught a six weeks class on mystical experience, most of the people who came were older men whose life work had been in very concrete logical things like construction and practical engineering. And several did experience new aspects of spirituality. One left after the first two classes, but several years later came to a prayer group and told us in amazement, “I was sitting on the couch praying and suddenly there was Jesus sitting right next to me! He was as clear to me as you are.” One interesting aspect of this is that intuitive me has sensed an incredibly loving presence several times. I was sure it was Jesus, but I didn’t see him with my physical eyes. We are different from one another and even our mystical experiences won’t be exactly alike, but ours will be grace for us and can even be grace second hand for others.
This is an excerpt from an article from Dr. David P. Gushee, a leading Christian ethicist who serves as distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, chair of Christian social ethics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and senior research fellow at International Baptist Theological Study Center. It speaks to my experiences in my spiritual journey, which at eighty-five ended up focused in, but not limited to, the Presbyterian USA Christian denomination.
““There is no single version of Christianity or any religion.” Quote from Dr. Gushee.
This is the excerpt:
The debasement of U.S. right-wing Christianity is only baffling to those who have been exposed to a different understanding of what being a Christian is supposed to be about. You know, old-timers like me, who walked uninvited into a Southern Baptist church building in 1978 looking for something I did not know how to name, but whose name turned out to be Jesus Christ.
Over a four-day conversion experience, I learned enough from and through devout Christian people to be led into an encounter with Jesus himself. I was exposed to people whose demeanor was gentle, whose speech was clean and kind, whose integrity turned out to be rock solid, whose moral plumbline was the instruction offered in the New Testament, whose life purpose was to follow Jesus, and whose mission was to share the gospel with others. These were the people who led me to faith in Christ and who discipled me at the early stages of my walk with Jesus. They were not perfect. But they were recognizably and seriously Christian.
There were other versions of old-time, pre-Trump Christianity that I might not have liked as much but that were still very different from the cancerous thing that is spreading among white conservative Christians in America today. I was exposed to these other varieties as well. There was the smart, humane, post-Vatican II Catholicism in which I was raised, the charismatic Anglicanism of a girl I dated, the earnest social-service mainline Methodism of some friends of my parents, the doctrinaire Lutheranism of a few folks I knew, the passionate Black church faith of some of my friends from school.
My search brought me to study and experience many Christian denominations and even different world religions. I finally experienced a relationship with Jesus through friends who gave up their affluent life style to work in a non-denominational missionary organization, Campus Crusade for Christ. My journey has been enriched by all the sources and experiences of my search. No one has a monopoly on God and no one has “All the truth, nothing but the truth” even with the help of God. That would make us equal to God. As Paul said, “We see through the glass darkly.” And we all individually and collectively are vulnerable to the siren call of pride that blinds us to our own limits and cripples our ability to grow in love from “love your neighbor” to “love your enemy” to “love others as I have loved you.”
In my thirties while reading the book, “The Wellsprings of Life,” which described the processes of evolution from the macrocosms of the cosmos to microcosms of cells and atoms, I could see the unity within the differences that connected them all. It was a mind-blowingly beautiful picture of the oneness of everything and the awesomeness of God. I had to dance! I needed to praise with my whole self with that sense of the oneness of all in God.
I just read some insights by Episcopal Priest, Cynthia Bourgeault on Richard Rohr’s reflection site that mentioned experiences I have had tying our body to our spirituality. She says, “From ecstatic lovemaking, I learned not to fear dissolving into oneness.” I can relate to this because many years ago, my husband came home from a difficult day eager to make love. I’d had a pretty challenging day also. Good sex seems to make men feel better about themselves, but as a woman verbal and tender affirmation beforehand helps make sex ecstatic for me. So, my first thought was “Not, tonight.” But then, I thought about him needing that expression of love and decided to give him as much love as I could physically. And giving from love brought not only ecstasy, but a sudden sense of being totally one in every way with my husband and then it morphed into a sense of oneness with everything – the cosmos and even the Love that is God.
Bourgeault goes on to tell of the Russian Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom’s story about a young man who was totally disillusioned with religion, but hungry for a life of faith. The Archbishop told him to go home and make one hundred full prostrations a day for a month. That means going flat on the floor face down arms outstretched for a long in and out breath before rising slowly. The young man returned with eyes glowing with faith. From that deep gesture of bowing and letting go of self, he had connected through his body to wellsprings of faith. Bourgeault says that our bodies with their natural movements can offer us spiritual insights in a way that the mind simply cannot.
Again, I can relate to this because, one time in my Catholic years, I was in charge of recruiting Scripture readers for the Masses and putting the lists in pigeonholes for them to pick up. The current priest was a Vatican ll liberal trying to move the emphasis off a static presence of God in the tabernacle to God’s active presence in the people connecting us in worship. So, unknown to me, he added the order to not genuflect when crossing in front of the tabernacle to the pulpit to read. Older members who grew up with a very vivid sense of the awesome presence of God in the consecrated bread in the tabernacle went ballistic and blamed me. I was furious with the priest both for not understanding how this effected people and for letting me be blamed. So, though I was a liberal that had quit genuflecting, when I next was a reader, I genuflected from irritation, not a sense of awe. When my knee touched the floor and my head bowed, I was overwhelmed with the sense of the majestic and awesome presence of God. I almost couldn’t stand back up.
At eighty-five I have been through years of body limits from pain and surgeries that often leave me with a sense of alienation from my body. Now, I have been swimming to build up muscles around my knees in hopes of avoiding replacements. Recently I have the pool to myself with the trees dancing in the breeze and birds calling to one another. I began to play inspirational music on my phone and to do some ballet movements to the music. I loved ballet when young, but haven’t been able to dance that way since my forties. The support of the water allows me to do this and somehow connects me with my body in a positive way and once again with a sense of being a part of the rhythms and beauty of nature and the creator of all of it. God is so all encompassing that there are many ways to connecting with God.
One of my favorite spiritual writers, Richard Rohr wrote this. I understand his language, but I don’t speak it. Probably because I sat at the feet of an intellectual father who tried to pass down his understandings of life, science, history, literature etc. This article is about important things for all of us to understand and appreciate, but it is written in a language that probably at the most 25 % of our population could or would even try to read. What we need in our democracy is translators. It’s vitally important right now. At 85, I’m getting mentally erratic, so I doubt that I qualify, but I feel like that may be why I am still here, so I am going to try harder.
I also, have experienced praying and sharing with groups of women together who were of all denominations. We focused on the love of God expressed in Jesus and in the challenge to grow able to love as Jesus did. We can bond across our differences.
Feminine Symbols for God
“Both Scripture and Tradition offer metaphors of God as female, having feminine qualities, or fulfilling traditionally female roles. This week, we consider the implications that the Divine Feminine has in our lives. Father Richard describes Mary as a feminine symbol for the divine presence:
Although Jesus was a man, the Christ is beyond gender, so it should be expected that the Big Tradition would have found feminine ways, consciously or unconsciously, to symbolize the full Divine Incarnation and to give God a more feminine character—as the Bible itself often does.
Why did Christianity, in both the East and West, fall head over heels in love with this seemingly ordinary woman Mary, who is a minor figure in the New Testament? We gave her names like Theotokos, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, Notre Dame, La Virgen of this or that, Nuestra Señora, Our Mother of Sorrows, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and Our Lady of just about every village or shrine in Europe. We are clearly dealing not just with a single woman here but a foundational symbol—or, to borrow the language of Carl Jung (1875–1961), an “archetype”—an image that constellates a whole host of meanings that cannot be communicated logically but is grounded in our collective unconscious.
In the mythic imagination, I think Mary intuitively symbolizes the first Incarnation—or Mother Earth, if you will allow me. (I am not saying that Mary is the first Incarnation, only that she became the natural archetype and symbol for it, particularly in art.) I believe that Mary is the major feminine archetype for the Christ Mystery. This archetype had already shown herself as Sophia or Holy Wisdom (see Proverbs 8:1–3; Wisdom 7:7–14), and again in the Book of Revelation (12:1–17) in the cosmic symbol of “a woman clothed with the sun and standing on the moon.” Neither Sophia nor the woman of Revelation is precisely Mary of Nazareth, yet in so many ways, both are—and each broadens our understanding of the Divine Feminine.
Jung believed that humans produce in art the inner images the soul needs in order to see itself and to allow its own transformation. Try to count how many paintings in art museums, churches, and homes show a wonderfully dressed woman offering for your admiration—and hers—an often naked baby boy. What is the very ubiquity of this image saying on the soul level? I think it looks something like this:
The first Incarnation (creation) is symbolized by Sophia-Incarnate, a beautiful, feminine, multicolored, graceful Mary. She is invariably offering us Jesus, God incarnated into vulnerability and nakedness. Mary became the symbol of the First Universal Incarnation. She then hands the Second Incarnation on to us, while remaining in the background; the focus is always on the child. Earth Mother presenting Spiritual Son, the two first stages of the Incarnation. Feminine Receptivity, handing on the fruit of her yes. “
Eileen: I am terribly afraid that women of today in our desire for the freedom and power to use our gifts and be our personal selves in our current American culture may be losing the gifts of the Feminine. But perhaps that will free men to accept the feminine in themselves and even for our culture to accept that the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual feminine and masculine can come in either bodily incarnation.
Perfect for our times. He not only saved us from a bloody race war, he showed us how we can follow the WAY Jesus lived and died without hating or resorting to violence.
People are born different from one another. If you have several children, the odds are you recognize how very different we are when we arrive. It’s human to think our own “difference” is best. That’s part of being different, we understand and value our strength more than those that seem the opposite. The reality is that for every strength there is a corresponding weakness. To survive most of us develop minimal skills in our weaker areas. It isn’t easy and if we can, we’ll avoid things that require us to use those skills. Now, at eighty-five, I’ve realized that we are challenged sometime around the fourth quarter of our lives to develop in our weakest area. That requires a temporary loss of our greatest strength and most cherished ways of being, thinking, praying, and relating. It’s so scary that we may dig in and resist this part of the process of becoming whole. It’s a dying to self and it’s part of our spiritual journey.
If you have become aware of the growth and changes in the journey of Jesus, it helps to know that even he went through the challenges of changing his understanding of his mission and even’s God’s love. And he too struggled with it. The times of his journey were compacted, but once you look for it, it’s plain to see and a powerful challenge for us.
Many of Scripture’s dominant characters, even brothers, were obviously different and some let that difference become the root of division and evil.
One of the biggest gaps in understanding, empathy, and appreciation for those different is between theory and possibility people and the world they see and know people. That’s a major challenge in a democracy.
Another gap is between those that respond to life out of logic and those that respond from feeling values. Which is often a classic challenge in marriage.
The theory/logic people have a lot to offer, but their combination tends to exhibit a sense of superiority. A political example was Adlai Stevenson who lost in his run for president. A classic comment about him was, “He looks at people like they are side dishes he didn’t order.”
The theory people live with their noses in books of history and science and often see new ways of understanding them and making improvements. The practical people can take those theories and make them happen. It should be a perfect pairing of gifts differing.
Except it’s like the tower of Babel, because they don’t speak the same language.
Theoretical thinkers never use a one syllable word when they know a five-syllable word for the same thing. To the practical people they may as well be speaking a foreign language. This intimidates instead of communicating. It makes the “let’s just do it” people feel stupid and they shut down and turn off.
The reality is that EVERYONE is ignorant in a million more areas than they are knowledgeable. Ignorance is not stupidity. And book knowledge will never become reality without the people who can make it happen. If we work at it, we can communicate across our different areas of knowledge.
My Architect husband was very visual and practical. He wasn’t a wordsmith or a theory person. He created many very good-looking practical buildings. He spent time in offices asking the workers what would make their work easier and more efficient, in warehouses studying assembly lines, working with different denominations to design churches to suit their worship style. He cared about getting the most legal parking spaces on the lots. He battled to get small Mennonite Schools without electricity safe enough to meet fire codes. He came home from Architectural Symposiums frustrated over the new buzz words. When he wanted to get results from the American Institute of Architecture office, he got me to write the letters because I could speak their language. The “elite” Architects tend to design works of art and speak the jargon that goes with it.
In Architecture, the blueprint communicates the details of the concept to the builder, carpenter, electrician, etc. But when my husband wanted me to appreciate the details of his blueprints, I got headaches. So, I took a class in Blueprint Reading at the local vocational school. I made the best grades in class and did learn to interpret blueprints, but I couldn’t have made the leap to the actual site work. I’m a theory person who lives in my head and barely notices things around me.
When I began to study and then work with the MBTI, my husband appeared to be patiently listening to my long and enthusiastic monologues on personality types. But after several years, when we were asked to give presentations on type together, it turned out that he had been counting ceiling tiles, windows, and square feet while nodding thoughtfully during my expounding.
But, when we were challenged to get it together, we slogged our way through psychological jargon and their realities until he could express our differences with concrete examples. Since his personality type is much more predominant than mine, he was able to communicate effectively with many more people than I was.
Since he and I were the exact opposite to the extreme in every area that the MBTI measures, we made a good laboratory for understanding across the differences. But it wasn’t easy. I think our five children who are very different from one another profited from our differences, but it took understanding the differences for us to recognize that the way we each expressed love was different, so we often weren’t getting the messages.
My degree is in Psychology and I’ve accumulated enough credits in Pastoral Theology to qualify for a job that required a masters in that. My interest from the combination has been on how differences in inborn personality traits effect marriages, teaching and learning style combinations, spirituality, and business management.
Now at eighty-five, I’ve begun to focus on the many ways personality (not intelligence) creates misunderstanding and alienation in politics. I’ve recognized how important it is now that we begin to see our differences as gifts that could be working together, not dividing us.
This topic has become my theme song. The more I consider it, the more important it seems to be for our times.
Me: Hey God. God: Hello, My love. Me: The world is completely out of control. God: I know. It’s such an adventure, right? Me: No! It’s like being on a runaway train! I need to feel like I am in control of my life. God: You want to be in control? Me: Yes! God: You are living on a spinning wet rock of a planet that resides next to a constantly exploding fireball in the middle of an ever-expanding universe that is filled with mysteries beyond your wildest imagination. Me: Um, okay…. God: And on this planet that you are hurtling through the great expanse in – you are coexisting with billions of other people who have free-will and their own experiences that shape their perspectives and beliefs. Me: Yeah…? God: And while all this is going on your soul is residing in a physical body that is such a miracle of delicate engineering that at any given moment could produce its last heartbeat. Me: Right… God: What is it about your existence that you think you have any control of? Me: Um… God: Come on – you know the answer to this. What can you control? Me: How kind I am to people? God: Yep and one other thing. Me: What’s that? God: How kind you are to yourself. Aside from that – most of everything else is a bit outside of your design. Me: That’s a bit terrifying… God: All great adventures are!
Puts things in perspective, but doesn’t take away the call to learn how to love and to love effectively…..not safely from a distance, but up close and personal where we can’t ignore the nitty gritty that’s hard to love. Loving at a comfortable distance is pretending. Loving requires hearing and understanding others’ reality. It doesn’t change your own, it expands it.
More and more I realize how ignorant every single one of us is. And all put together from Einstein and the rest of us, there is more that we don’t know than our combined understanding about anything from the cosmos to our own mind and body. Nobody knows enough to feel superior. Our ignorance is to the millionth squared more than our knowledge and understanding!
I have learned more about loving from my grandchild with disabilities than anywhere else in my 85 years. And to me loving is the ultimate goal of life. And Jesus grew in understanding that took him from “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” To: “Love your enemy as I have loved you.”
“Pride goes before the fall.” Sadly, it seems we are all having to learn that the hard way.
Father Richard Rohr prioritizes putting love into concrete action while drawing on Divine Love as our Source.
Love won’t be real or tested unless we somehow live close to the disadvantaged, who frankly teach us that we know very little about love. To be honest, my male Franciscan seminary training didn’t teach me how to love. It taught me how to obey and conform, but not how to love. I’m still trying every day to learn how to love. As we endeavor to put love into action, we realize that on our own, we are unable to obey Jesus’ command, “Love one another as I have loved you.” To love as Jesus loves, we must be connected to the Source of Love.
Over decades of serving New York City’s poorest individuals, Dorothy Day (1897–1980) never lost sight of the gospel’s challenging invitation to love:
Whenever I groan within myself and think how hard it is to keep writing about love in these times of tension and strife which may at any moment become for us all a time of terror, I think to myself “What else is the world interested in?” What else do we all want, each one of us, except to love and be loved, in our families, in our work, in all our relationships. God is Love. Love casts out fear. Even the most ardent revolutionist, seeking to change the world, to overturn the tables of the money changers, is trying to make a world where it is easier for people to love, to stand in that relationship to each other. We want with all our hearts to love, to be loved. . . . It is when we love the most intensely and most humanly that we can recognize how tepid is our love for others. The keenness and intensity of love brings with it suffering, of course, but joy too because it is a foretaste of heaven. . . .
When you love people, you see all the good in them, all the Christ in them. God sees Christ, His Son, in us and loves us. And so we should see Christ in others, and nothing else, and love them. There can never be enough of it. There can never be enough thinking about it. St. John of the Cross said that where there was no love, put love and you would take out love. The principle certainly works. . . .
Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.