Michelle continues our discussion of Into the Silent Land with a reflection on a recent experience of ambush (and I remain fascinated that there seems to be a direct, albeit often obscure, pathway leading from crisis and loss to silence and contemplative prayer):
Robin writes that the penultimate chapter of Laird's book is nestled securely in her heart, as she struggles to meet grief with a "long, loving look," to be a witness to pain, not a victim of it.
The title of the chapter makes clear this way of facing the world is a practice, not a panacea. It's neither a way to get "past" grief or pain or to paste them over with platitudes. In the previous chapter (The Riddles of Distraction), Laird notes that in contemplative practice it is "precisely the meeting of chaos that is salutary, not snorting lines of euphoric peace." Robin is living daily with grief and its attendants, my life these days is much less marked by such difficulties. Yet, the end of the year chaos, quite unexpectedly, brought pain and this practice of contemplative witness into sharp focus for me.
A few days before Christmas, as the last bits of the semester swirled about like debris in a city alley stirred by a winter's wind, I curled up on the sofa late one night to finally catch up on the news. The week had been so hectic that aliens could have been discovered living on the far side of the Moon and I would not have noticed. Scanning the NY Times health and science feed I saw this article: How a torn aorta can cause lethal damage. I clicked and read.
In the 54th of his hundred chapters on prayer, Evagrius paints a vivid picture of demons huddled up trying to figure out just how to drag us away from being present to what is here and now. Images dance past and he says, "we run to see them." I suspect that the impulse that led me to click through was not so different from the ones driving the desert fathers to fantasize about great feasts.
In 1987 my first husband was pulled from the college pool suffering from what the paramedics first thought was a heart attack. I was at a faculty meeting. Things rapidly unraveled. He hadn't had a heart attack, at age 30 an in his aorta had dissected - splitting in two and rupturing into his to repair the tear and the valve followed and just after 5 in the morning, the surgeon came to talk to me. "It was like trying to sew together wet tissue paper," he said - an sentence that has stuck with me for almost 25 years.
The article in the Times quoted a surgeon using just the same image: "Sometimes it’s like you’re trying to repair wet tissue paper." And with those words, I found myself dragged back into those moments of shock and hours - running, as Evagrius would say, to replay them.
It was a sneak attack, but now I had to figure out how to respond to this sudden resurgence of grief. Among his other good suggestions, Patient Spiritual Director suggested simply sitting prayerfully and attentively with the grief. Running neither from nor toward, asmight put it. This is the practice that Laird is laying out for us here - a help for not just the major upheavals, but for the moments when the universe hiccups as well. It is, as he says in an earlier chapter, a subtle art, and one I would argue is not possible without serious dollops of grace from on high.
And so, for about 10 days, I practiced (again) with pain. I leaned on my experiences from the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises, sitting as witness to Christ's pain, hearing again the caution of my director of those days to be present to the Passion, not fall victim yourself. I let the psalms echo in my bones, "I have entered the watery depths, your torrents and waves wash over me." (Ps. 69:3)
Each time the waves of grief came, I stood, watched, and let the waves wash over me. It hurt no less, I suspect, but it did not hurt me. And in that still point, running neither toward nor away, there is a measure of peace.