Letting Go and Letting In: Finding One’s Self in Darkness
A brisk, early morning – the bus I had hoped to take to Eucharist drove by me as I was seconds late to the stop. I felt helpless, frustrated, bracing, and a little dizzy. My mind flashed to the constraints of a fragile body, as well as the biting cold in which I now stood, both of which had slowed me just enough to miss the bus. I thought, defiantly, despite my pain, “I’ll walk on the half mile to the train and perhaps catch it just in time.” I thought sorrowfully and helplessly about how far I live from the many places that would offer me a chance for communion (the altar being a singular identification of mine, at the moment). I thought disgustedly about this 1st world problem of mine in a city where one even has such options in the Episcopal Church! Ultimately, I made the right and humbling choice for my health. I walked home, somewhat defeated, and sat down for Morning Prayer and another period of silence.
All the thoughts of the last paragraph are exactly the stuff of Centering Prayer, the bits of entanglement one is invited to let go. I’m taught that we surrender these in order to reconfigure our attention and broaden our intention. All these I did (faithfully attempt to) let go.
Until… in a sudden, sharp wave of heaving tears a thought came from deep within. Once I had it, it was not un-have-able. It said, “I am the only Black woman in my life here. I never speak to another Black woman who knows me in my daily life.” The awareness stunned and disoriented me. I never look upon myself? All my peers, my guides – I never see myself? My therapist, spiritual director, and the person who is helping me integrate the messages of mind and body – all White men. Some of my dearest friends, monks, White men. The people I meet on retreat, those into whose hands I’ve commend my formation in this work, the people I met in monasteries and convents… Nearly all White. The authors who tell me where my kataphatic content has strayed from the true path, or who are deeply suspicious of the needs of my incarnate, fleshly body though it can bear as Mary bore, and bleed monthly, as Christ bled – all White, mostly men. Well, even the Black Lives Matter movement, of course, has been fueled by the deaths of Black men. Any womanist – like Alice Walker – will tell you that it is not the same to say Black male lives matter and Black female lives matter. Because, once the lash had been received, one could relieve that dehumanization on the body of the other, but not reciprocally… Out of the blue, in the silence, all this came up from an abyss.
At the same time as this thought, another emerged from that same hidden source, equally impossible not to have. It was Jesus, the one whose altar I did not make it to. The mind of Christ was gazing upon my frail, pained, dizzy, defeated, helpless, longing, Black woman form and it spoke of what it saw: “This is my Body. This. This. This is my Body.” The gaze offered a simple knowing – this stunned Black woman was ‘offering the Mass’ in her flesh, in her prayer room, in her silence….
Four months ago, I tried to write a poised, coherent reflection on my experience of Wisdom and contemplative practices. Then, like now, I found it was impossible to begin without beginning where I was, and where I was, was a place of bewildered, inchoate self-awareness. I’d been at a retreat on Chanting in the Heart of Sophia. The Divine Feminine had resonated in me with uncomfortable recognition. It was uncomfortable because much of what she says is not within the safe center of mainstream orthodoxy. Like beguines, Simone Weil, or Joan of Arc, this Sophia is vulnerable to attack, excommunication, and crucifixion by the very Communion she most loves. It is a Body she was born to love, and whose love she has borne, in her body. It was not a comfortable self-recognition, for example, to read these words of Russian theologian, Vladamir Soloviev:
As the living center or soul of all creatures…[Sophia] includes the manifoldness of all living souls: She is all of humanity together in one, or the Soul of the World. She is ideal humanity, containing all individual living creatures or souls and uniting them through Herself… Her task is to mediate and unify the manifoldness of living creatures, who constitute the actual content of Her life and the absolute unity of God.
I later discovered that Soloviev was, himself, held dubiously in his Orthodox Church for his love affair with Lady Wisdom and her manifestation in Blessed Mary. His words intersected with ones written from within me in the middle of the night before:
She must stay intact, in love
in quiet confidence
Worlds are passing through her
They are intermingling, marrying, intercoursing there.
As they move on, yet a fully intact seed, a holy spark, of their genome remains
on the nutrients of her soul.
The soul must remain intact, so that as all creation dies in the crucifixion of our illusions of despair,
they may again fall into the ground of her being to be reborn
in the birth pangs of love.
That retreat was immediately after the election. Many were feeling the pangs of crisis in a national way for the first time in a long while. The shadow side of many who love the world and care deeply for justice was also emerging. We who let go of our thoughts for so many minutes every day were now confronted with our own seething words about those who voted and thought differently enough to bring us (who or what do we mean by that word?) to the brink of chaos and destruction.
In the midst of all this, I could see and hear only one thing – Love – and it was not asking me to let go but to hold Its gaze. It was asking me to hold that gaze concretely. I was meant to recognize Love – and let Love into myself – in the decimation of my body by the trials of the past few years, in the levelling of any sense of certainty about vocation or purpose in the world, in the actual daily edge of OK/not OK in my financial circumstances, in the solitude of ‘failure’ and decay as others reflexively shrink back from the pain of watching the pain of a beloved.
That week after the election, I intuited strongly that the nation’s consciousness of darkness was one that I already carried in my flesh and that, this being so, my role was Love. Not so much ‘to love’ as though there were not serious concerns. My role was Being Love that looked over the tree line of all the manifest chaos into the Heart of the One beating above and within it all – an all-encompassing horizon. Consent to the Unitive is daunting and almost gruesome when to do so betrays the personal and corporate pain that one can so easily see on this level of vision and feels in the processes of her own being. Yet, as Julian of Norwich said as she wrestled with the revelation of God’s love, “This vision was revealed to my understanding,… for our Lord wants to have the soul truly converted from contemplating men’s blind judgments to the judgments, lovely and sweet, of our Lord God.”
I mention these things, so personal, and so very not theological, because they touch on the core of where Wisdom has brought me. For some years, I’ve been taught to let go of my thoughts. As a person with marginal identities in a majority culture, this has meant at once ‘not taking things so seriously’ and also allowing my real life to become an ‘issue’ or talking point of the moment. Learning stillness through a monastic context and the writings of many Cistercians, this seemed to me to suggest letting go of all attachments. Centering Prayer does seem to suggest that the reconfiguring happens without us needing to know its processes or chart its changes. That is true to my experience of the process.
But, the process has brought me to another way of being – a place of letting in. Letting in consciously and lovingly
the vile, pungent weakness of my body;
the Passion of the Christ – as He lives it in our time;
the Passion of our planet;
the voice of those whose pain was silent until this election made it impossible to ignore;
the voice of those whose lives were taken because of the violence bred in that unholy form of silence;
the humbling truth of mortality;
the piercing longing of the heart, even when it means being crucified inwardly by each seemingly ‘justified judgment’ contrary to the allegiance of Love.
Letting in the wisdom and specificity of my Black woman self – a wisdom being forged vulnerably from a need. It is the need to discover and shed forth a (my) unique, repressed voice, without which neither the Body of Christ nor the life of the world, nor the Church, nor the contemplative movement will be whole. As Soloviev wrote, “Her task is to mediate and unify the manifoldness of living creatures, who constitute the actual content of Her life and the absolute unity of God.”
The contemplative awakening of our time, it seems to me, is deeply indebted to and blessed by the distillation of some methods of prayer that were submerged for too long in the [Christian] tradition. As these practices go out into parishes and homes and the lives of individuals, it is important to me that we all remember what they are for. I am reawakening to the truth that, for me, these methods are about becoming as Christ.
I am reminded that to me Christ is always the one in the simultaneous tension of letting go and letting in. He is the one who found the beautiful transcendence of the Holy One by letting in to his being the wretched estate of the lowly ones, right up to his own torment on the last night of his life. To me, it was not just a change in consciousness, but a change in being, that Christ showed forth. His being as much as his mind showed the love of God. In me, it has become true that healing of my identity and deepening of my union with Christ, now comes at the nexus of both letting go of my expectative narratives and letting in with wide embrace both the fullness of my particular humanity and the fragile, wondrously imminent revelation of God – Creation and her creatures.
What has been the lot of marginalized people unconsciously and unjustly for so long, must be learned from by those who have not borne it in that way. It must be re-appropriated as a precious (though costly) gateway by those who have borne it. Perhaps by all of us, it must be consciously, lovingly embraced and converted if the awakening of contemplative practice is to be a vehicle of conversion for our world’s current long Dark Night. This is just an instinct of a heart, letting in more and more of Christ’s heart and its own humanity. It is an intuition about the embrace and the final letting in of the world that was Christ’s final letting go of himself. I was terrified and graced to read a similar conviction recently in the words of an article entitled “Impasse and Dark Night” by Constance Fitzgerald, OCD given to me by a dear White male friend, able to glimpse enough of my particularity to put this saving resource in my hand. I was nourished to find this conviction also in Alice Walker’s beautiful essay, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens.
For now, I sense that the growing edge of my practice of letting go is to continue to let the Spirit gently wash away all the programs that have made my ‘letting in’ a form of unconscious collusion with the patterns of oppression that fall to my various labels. I am reminded of Christ saying, “No one takes my life from me; I give it freely.” Such freedom only comes from the honest work that unmasks the ways that for women, people of color, poor folk, the chronically ill, etc., shame, passivity, and terror are inherited attachments deep in the psyche. I sit silence, knowing that I am not (just) Black, poor, broken. In the deep work of letting go, one touches ‘I Am’. It is She alone who is free enough to let her being be constituted by the manifold creatures of the world; it is He alone who can give away his life with salvific love, free.
For contemplative practice, formation and maturation as a movement, I think it is important to make space and time to allow in, articulate, and listen to the voice of darkness clearly. Each of us must let in and attend with loving consciousness to the voice of our own unique darkness. However, I think a time is coming when pride of place must be given to those voices and identities who have lived under the shroud of darkness by our inherited methods of contemplative transformation, just as they have by the inherited forms of our culture. These voices must be supported to find themselves and speak, even in a meditative climate of silence. How such people have found resilience and love has much to teach our contemplative movement, even if it comes through forms we have not inherited through ‘the Tradition.’ We need to speak. We need to hear these voices as they emerge. I say this humbly, tentatively because I am unstudied and don’t know what has already been said! I also say it instinctively, urgently, as one grappling with a desire *not* to speak at a time when the voice that comes from my experience of life in all its complexity seems to draw forth something important in myself and the practice of those around me. Is this struggle of mine to accept the way I am made just about me? (Is it ever just about any one of us?) Is it about broadening our openness to the Spirit’s evolution of our understanding of this movement and its practices? Is it about discovering together how letting in all we are, and all that Is, will allow the true conversion of the world into the unfolding Unity of God? Whatever it is, my focus turns always again to the practice right in front of me – for now, an experimental dance of silence and voice, of letting go in mind and letting in of heart.
posted October 2, 2017 by Adwoa Lewis-Wilson
Adwoa Lewis-Wilson is a woman in her latter thirties, who has felt sought by Wisdom in many ways, primarily anchored in the Judeo-Christian tradition. With six years vowed as an oblate of a contemplative monastic order, she has explored living this path of contemplative practice as well as leadership roles in parish and monastic settings.
Adwoa is actively listening for how the Spirit of abundance and unity is manifested in places of personal and corporate poverty. She is discerning how to respond to an inner conviction that contemplative presence to self and others, through the path of darkness, is necessary to the transfiguration of our times and the manifestation of the unitive among us. Adwoa is grateful to have participated in four Wisdom offerings at Hallelujah Farm since the fall of 2016, and attended the Wisdom Ingathering Stonington, Maine, 2017.
all images courtesy of wikimedia commons unless otherwise marked; stone photos Laura Ruth