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NO WOUNDING, NO BLESSING
A lingering illness nearly upset my plans to attend the 2015 Gathering of Friendly Mystics, but my prayer for healing, spoken with the fierce focus of desperation, was answered. The day before I was to travel, I woke knowing the sickness had finally run its course. I boarded my plane the next morning—groggy, slightly disoriented—a full hour earlier than I would normally be getting out of bed.
William James . . . speaks about the curing effect which occurs when he or any other patient dares to use the right name for his problem. . . . Traditionally, the way many have overcome the daimonic is by naming it. In this way, the human being forms personal meaning out of what was previously a merely threatening impersonal chaos. We need only to recall the crucial importance historically of knowing the particular name of the demon in order to expel him. . . . Names are holy. The naming gives one power over the other person or thing." (p. 167)A few pages on, he writes:
At some time, everyone must have been aware of how relieved he was when he went to the doctor with a troublesome illness and the doctor pronounced a name for it. . . . The relief . . . comes from the act of confronting the daimonic world of illness by means of the names." (pp. 172–173)These were my first clues that this naming thing was a bigger deal than I had recognized and that its power works at the level of the individual . . . one bite at a time. Later, when I went back and read sections of the Proceedings of the Second Gathering, I saw that I was a latecomer to this realization: "Though naming can appear identical to labeling, it has a Godly connotation to me," Stuart had written. Obviously, others had been there before me, and I had guides aplenty.
Once I had recognized the special qualities of naming, the subject seemed to be everywhere in my reading. The word naming jumped out at me as I read theologian John Kselman's comments about the story of Rumpelstiltskin, in which the imp-like Rumpelstiltskin agrees to let a young woman out of a bad bargain—that she made under duress—if she can guess his name:
Until the name is learned, the princess will not be released. So the name has power. Knowledge of the name gives power to the person who overhears it and is finally able to reveal the name. (pp. 294–295).Later, when I pulled up notes on two books I'd read in the 1990s when I was writing on women and aging, my eye was caught by another power-of-word statement:
That which has no name, that for which we have no words or concepts, is rendered mute and invisible: powerless to inform or transform our consciousness of our experience, our understanding, our vision; powerless to claim its own existence. . . . Across all the disciplines of social science and many of the humanities, feminist scholars are engaged in almost an archaeological endeavor—that of discovering and uncovering the actual facts of women's lives and experience, facts that have been hidden, inaccessible, suppressed, distorted, misunderstood, ignored. This is the early work of observation, naming and description that prepares the ground for theory-making. (DuBois, pp. 108–109)and
. . . when you articulate something, it then becomes part of your reality; before you articulate it, it's just confusion. (Allende, p. 167)There it was. Allende was forming meaning out of chaos, just as James had said.
I've got it. I've finally got it! Naming is not a simple label as Stuart so wisely suggested; it is power! And as DuBois pointed out, it makes the invisible visible. Thus we are never free of naming. Perhaps Rhonda's leading was a reminder to all of us to use the God-given power that belongs to everyone to change the world by pulling fragments of our growing consciousness from unformed chaos and giving it life through naming. We had even begun in this 2015 Third Gathering by naming ourselves: "I am a child of God, a mystic, and have been called to give voice to my experience."
Thoughts on Giving and Receiving
The exercise of giving and receiving blessings, which was one of the highlights of the Third Annual Gathering of Friendly Mystics, was a challenge for many of us who attended. When I began to contemplate the issue, my mind played a newsreel of my personal history of giving and receiving, a sometimes distressing and sometimes joyful journey, writing thousands of words in the process. But when I brought it to its bare essence, I was left with the simple knowledge that the shadow of pride too often accompanies my giving, and the shadow of shame too often accompanies my receiving. I offer here a few quotations I have harvested from my reading that has influenced the evolution of my thinking.
I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring you ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive. (Holy Bible, King James Version, Acts 20:35)
If you cannot receive, your giving will be a domination of the partner. (May, p. 313.)
I like very much the statement of M. Tsevat, who says that the Sabbath is the day in which he hands his life back to God every week to remember that it is not his own. That acknowledgment that we belong to a generous God changes how we live the other six days of our lives. It's necessary to stop producing and to acknowledge that our lives depend on receiving as well as asserting. (Brueggemann, pp. 14–15.)"An Anguished Time of Unknowing"
One of the points of the story [of Jacob wrestling the angel] is that you don't get the blessing without getting wounded. — Barton VisotzkyRecently, for my Sunday reading, instead of taking up the book I had begun, on impulse I plucked one from my "soon" stack, one of those with mystical in the title that I find so hard to resist. It is a collection of essays titled Ways of Knowing: Science and Mysticism Today. I was into the third essay, "Soul's Sanctuary: Mystical Experience as a Way of Knowing" by psychologist (and WCTS subscriber and contributor) Jennifer Elam, when a paragraph spoke so perfectly to my condition that I had to stop, read it over twice more, then copy it into my notes:
Steven was being opened to a new level of consciousness. Like many of us, when he was opened to a new level of consciousness and God, he was also opened to his unconscious with unresolved trauma. . . . Emotionally, he had tried all his life to please others . . . and he had failed. . . . He would come to a deeper level of knowing only by passing through an anguished time of unknowing. (pp. 62–63)Those were the words I needed, a naming of my condition at the gathering and the months leading up to it: an opening of my unconscious, "an anguished time of unknowing." I had arrived at the 2015 gathering well enough to function, able to easily make the walk from dormitory to Conference Center, aware enough to participate in worship and workshop activities; but I wasn't sleeping well at night, and afternoon naps left me groggy, sometimes functioning in a mental fog. In retrospect, I was moving about in an undercurrent, where bottom-feeding worries abound, where I met pieces of other worriers. I was physically and emotionally vulnerable—a spiritual setup!
Just like Elam's Steven, one of my lifetime insecurities that assaulted me was my deep longing to be pleasing to everyone, a yearning so deep, my father once told me, that he could never punish me because his look of disapproval, alone, would crush me. And again like Steven, my efforts to please others quite often failed, as I perceived they had at the gathering. Another long-forgotten childhood wound that was to visit me at the gathering was memories of my older sister's childishly cruel teasing about my thin, bowed legs and my stepfather's good-natured but thoughtless teasing that my back side looked like toothpicks with two butter beans attached . . . and the mean boy at school who was a tireless tease. That was so painful to my already-aroused child self that in my scattered condition, when someone at the gathering made a flattering comment about my thin frame, I reacted as if it were my long-ago sister saying it in mockery; I launched into a defensive, arrogant diatribe on the virtues of being thin. The look of startled surprise on the faces of my audience stopped me in mid sentence, catapulting me back into the present.
It is sleep, with its freedom from the day's constant doing that opens the gates of my knowing, when the loud chatter of my daily life grows quiet enough to hear God's response to my questions. Judy's spot-on comments about my first draft of this essay had set the process in motion, and I woke the next morning with a knowledge that I had been functioning with one foot in the physical world and the other in a shared unconscious. It felt familiar, and it came to me that I'd been to this place before.
It was 2009, I was with a group of four Quakers who were participating in the Senior Women's Law Camp deep in Australia's Great Sandy Desert. Law Camp is when elders take a group of young women into the bush with the intention to transmit culture to the new generation. It is a time for sacred women's ritual, dancing, singing, and story telling—a combination introductory and refresher course in Women's Law, the Tao of Native Australian Women. For the first time, outsiders were being welcomed to celebrate that which is eternal among women, as well as raise money to support Kapululangu, the women's organization that runs a safe house for women and leads community activities dedicated to the preservation of their culture.
The four-day drive up the Western Australia coast and descent deep into the remotest regions of the Northern Territory was challenging, allowing for little sleep and even less rest. I was nearly twenty years older than the next oldest in the group, and I was feeling it. I arrived exhausted and seriously sleep deprived. On the first day of activities, I yielded to sleep during a brief quiet time after lunch. Hours later, in a semi-conscious state, I heard the sounds of distant singing, and I became aware of the humid, sweltering heat in the tent. It came to me that I was hearing the sounds of the paint-up and dancing. I panicked. To come this far and then sleep through the chance of a lifetime!
I forced myself to get up and put on the long black skirt I had been instructed to bring for the dancing. Feeling not quite awake, I made my way to the dancing ground. There were two elders sitting beneath the large canopy that had been erected to provide the only shade in the Camp outside the trapped heat of our tents. The group of about eighty-five women were dancing in a line, mimicking the steps of the elder who led them. I pulled off my tee shirt and presented myself for paint up. I was in the hum of semi-wakefulness. "You still haven't returned," my painter observed.
At the 2015 gathering, as Maia delivered my blessing, she had observed, "You're very deep." Before I replayed the memory of that moment in the desert, it hadn't occurred to me that Maia, like the old woman in the desert, was my spiritual GPS. She was more aware than I that I was more present in the unconscious than in the conscious. Just as had happened in the Great Sandy Desert, I was not alone there; I was sharing the space with the unconscious of those physically closest. In the desert, I was confronted as a bludger, Australian for not doing my fair share, by someone who was discovering she had taken on too much and needed help. There were other small slights, tidbits of rudeness. A woman in our Quaker group instinctively drew near to dress my wounds as they were inflicted. Just as at our meeting of mystics, I seemed to be attracting unpleasant reactions I didn't understand.
Once back home in my apartment in Perth, I stretched out on my sofa and slept for the next two months, rising for meals, quick trips to the grocery, and Quaker meeting on Sunday. It was even longer before I returned to sleeping in my bed.
I was taught in school that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and as I bumped into others in that shared world of the unconscious, there were compensating jolts in the physical world. My apparent need to be kicked was accommodated by those needing to kick.
Over the past fifteen years, my tear ducts seem to have developed an unusually close relationship with my slightest emotional response, sometimes responding so quickly that I become aware of the tears before I become aware of the emotion. As my attempts to improve my acceptability at our mystics meeting seemed increasingly futile, I found myself making frequent trips to the restroom, where I'd sit in the stall and try to bring my tears under control, then wash my face and return to the group. I became a giant walking wound. As I later confided to a friend, I was a hot mess. I felt like caterpillar goo! In that undercurrent of wounded pieces, I recognized bits of the insecurities and struggles of others. I could see it in their eyes, but I was too involved in my own struggles to reach out with the intuitive kindness that some of my fellow mystics were extending to me. At the time, though, once settled in the depths, I was not yet able to struggle out. My confidence was shattered, and out of the wounding emerged forgotten voices from my past. I was learning what I could only learn through feeling wounded.
I am grateful now for my sensitivity that too often brings me to tears, that too often embarrasses me; it keeps me in a state of awareness during the lapse between the time an event reaches my brain and the time it makes its way to my heart. As I write of my experience of wounding, so much more intense this time, I begin for the first time to get meaning from a mangled body on a cross.
To view it is to experience guilt and shame, to experience it is to feel transformed. Jesus died for our sins; Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. died for their sins, our sins, the sins of the men who assassinated them. Child soldiers murder for us and die for us in Africa, and Palestinian children die for us in Palestine. And now the me-that-was is dying for my sins . . . the death and the resurrection. My intense, brief journey through the underground of woe was a microcosm of crucifixion, a powerful mythology, lodged in the subconscious. The very meaning of the word mythology, as Joseph Campbell taught it, is drawn into my understanding. My woundedness, like my imperfection, is universal.
Pieces of Myself
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
— Czeslau Milosz, 1968
At this Third Gathering, several women mentioned a childhood interest in becoming a nun, the icon of a holy woman. That, too, was my childhood ambition, even though I knew nothing about Catholicism, or even religion, for that matter.
I was not from a family of church goers, but I had been attending various churches on my own since I was five. We moved from California to Texas when I was eight years old, where I found a reliable Sunday ride with our widowed neighbor and her two daughters. By the time my Aunt Margaret made the shocking discovery that I was attending a church that was not Presbyterian, I had received my certificate for two years of perfect attendance at Lutheran Sunday School. For a few months, Aunt Margaret picked me up each Sunday and took me to the Presbyterian church, but when this unaccustomed regularity became too much for her, I took to walking.
Though we were not a church family, nor even a prayerful one, each year at Easter our mother made new dresses for each of us three girls, and money was found from a tight budget to get my younger brother a new pair of dress pants and a white shirt. Aunt Margaret would take us to Presbyterian Easter services in our new duds; the walk was too far for the little ones, she reasoned, and Easter was one of her regular church days anyway. Years later I asked my mother why she never went to church with us. "I didn't have anything nice enough to wear," she told me. The men in the family behaved as though church-going was a female occupation: none of them attended, not even at Easter or Christmas.
Looking back, I see Easter was a sort of resurrection and renewal for us each year. It was the only time we got new clothes—not hand-me-downs from cousins—except for Christmas when we got a nice sweater from our parents and the socks and underwear that my mother told all inquiring relatives were at the top of our Christmas lists. But nothing could compare with our completely new outfits at the birth of spring.
My interest in becoming a holy woman clashed with my other burning desire from early childhood: to become a movie star. In 1963 movie star Dolores Hart, a Catholic convert, quit at the top of her game to enter a convent. Her example, proving that what I thought to be mutually exclusive paths were actually possible, came too late to inspire me to action. By that time, I was married and the mother of a toddler.
During an astrology class some years ago, the instructor was talking about planetary patterns. She moved from one person to another, naming their pattern and giving the names of famous people who had a similar configuration. I was last. She told me that my "bundle" was a less common pattern, and the only famous examples she could bring to mind were Jesus and Hitler. The saint-to-sinner spectrum of my being seemed to be taking form! I was wanting to be very good, but not so good as to deserve the mocking of "goody two shoes" that my sister tossed at me . . . and certainly not so bad as Hitler.
The summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school, during a moment when I was thinking more like my holy-woman self than my movie-star self, I decided that I was going to spend one whole year without saying one bad word about anyone. It was challenging. I knew it would be, that's why I told myself I only had to commit to one year. I made it through the year and into the next; I had developed a new habit, a new state of mind. I don't really remember who or what it was all about, but one day, the truth of my negative feelings about someone just welled up and spewed from my mouth. My best friend was the only one to hear it, and it felt wonderful. My cooker had reached critical pressure and the vent stopper had popped open! It was such a great feeling of relief that it was years before I took up the challenge again, this time trying to concentrate more on the fire under the cooker and less on testing the strength of the vent stopper. That's when I began to ruminate over something I had observed: that so many friendships are based on hating the same people.
In June 2015, I had reached the final hour of our gathering with all these historic pieces rattling helter-skelter inside me. I was not yet done with my subterranean clashes, nor my persistent tears. Ahead of me, I still had the wait for my flight at the airport, the flight itself, and the short drive with my son from airport to home, when I would cheerfully assert, "I'm tired but I had a wonderful time." That's another part of my self–a combination of self-protection and the reflex of genteel Southern manners that President Jimmy Carter's celebrated mother, Miss Lillian, labeled "a little white lie."
These days I'm reading Kay Whitlock's and Michael Bronski's Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics. They talk about "shared humanity," reminding me of philosopher Hannah Arendt, whose work was permeated with the knowledge that we're all in this boat together, and each and every one of us has a share in society's ills, as well as its healing. And reminding me that I am not as good as I want to be or as bad as I could be. And reminding me that, while I'm still broken, God has special assignments for me, tailored to the person I am and the person I am becoming. I am a holy woman, a movie star, a wounded child, a proud mother, a doting grandmother and great grandmother, a scholar, a writer, a sinner and a seeker, a crafter of life . . . and still in pieces.
I began the process of putting the Proceedings together a few weeks after the gathering. With only eighteen participants, I had the magical notion that everyone would want to share, in written word, their experience for the document that records our passing there, even though that had not been the case for the two previous gatherings. I worried as if worrying had proven statistical significance in effecting change. As I brought the pieces together, I saw that each of the submitted documents contained the shadow voices of those who did not "write for the record." Footprints in the group heart space are not erased.
For me, the awakenings of consciousness that occur during one Gathering of Friendly Mystics build and spill into the next. I didn't see that until I began to write it all down. The more I wrote, the more that came tumbling out. I have yet to experience that slick, new feeling of the emerging butterfly, waiting for my wings to dry before I dare test them—a feeling I recall from another time when I exited the darkness. I continue to be inundated with insights that began with long-ago experiences and reached critical mass during the gathering and in the days that followed . . . much, much more than I can record here. I am Jacob, I am the angel with whom Jacob struggles. I, Janice, am a child of God, a mystic, and have been called to give voice to my experience.
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