By Christine Valters Paintner
We live in an era of unraveling: wars, financial breakdown, gun violence, unemployment, mass migration, racial discrimination, gender inequality, poverty rising, and the poisoning of our ecosystems. Even as I write this litany, I am sure I have forgotten other concerns; and certainly there are the smaller issues of daily life wherever we live—the uncertainties of money, health, and love; trust broken; decisions based on the bottom line rather than human dignity.
If our spirits are not being challenged, undone, or unraveled, then we are not paying attention.
Sometimes I click on my Facebook newsfeed, and there, sitting mockingly among the YouTube videos and the advertisements, images of children torn to pieces by war in remote places stare out at me, and I just sob. I am mocked by the dissonance, the absurdity, and my own sense of helplessness. How do I go to the farmer’s market each Saturday and roast my free-range chicken with organic broccoli? How do I lie down in my comfortable bed at night in my quiet home free from violence and the ravages of war?
We do what people who search and seek have been doing for thousands of years: we find new ways to live. We awaken from the numbness; we challenge the status quo. We do it right in our little corners of the world.
While awareness is important, the invitation of these times is not just to post one more insightful commentary or share one more petition. These things are, of course, good and necessary, but they are never enough. In the ancient biblical tradition, the heart is the center of our consciousness; it is the place of our most profound awareness of our inner movements. Our call is to always return to the heart in the midst of our undoing.
Every time tragedy strikes, my Facebook newsfeed fills with commentary. The multitude of responses overwhelms me. Everyone seems to have something to say; everyone is posting more and more words to fill the great mystery of whatever is happening.
We don’t come to understand the great suffering of the world by thinking our way through it. Discussion is good, and conversations and reflection are worthy. Certainly analysis is often necessary. And yet, what nourishes the heart most are the moments of radical humility when we step beyond words and into the space between. We listen. We tend. We wait.
Our desire for more news and more information often signifies a desire for control. We live under the illusion that knowing every detail about something far away will help us to understand the course of events. But most often the heart comes to understanding in the womb of silent reflection. When we offer ourselves space to simply be before we jump to doing.
One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, “You have not understood it.” Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, “How would you explain this saying?” and he replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Anthony said, “Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: ‘I do not know.’”1
This is certainly a phrase to live by in times of uncertainty: “Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: ‘I do not know.’” The paradox of the spiritual life is that we find the way once we release the path. Whatever we think the right choices are—the right thoughts, the right relationships or commitments—we have to truly descend into the darkness of unknowing to find the way.
Consider the possibility that the next time you feel absolutely certain about something, you will whisper the possibility that “I don’t know” and see what happens when you open to something bigger than your own imagining, a vision that moves beyond tension and holds the fullness of things.
Stability and patience call us to stay with our experience, to be fully present to whatever is happening within us. Moving about from place to place can be a form of distraction that displaces our energies, setting them outside of ourselves. We move about in our minds as well. Even when the body is still, we let our minds carry us far back into the past or into the future. My own inclination is to live in the future, to always be planning ahead. My organized self loves calendars and to-do lists. While these play a role in my work, they can also become a way of avoiding my own experience in this moment, right now. I find myself sometimes so focused on checking items off my list or figuring things out that I abandon myself in this moment by not staying present. Amma Syncletica offers this wisdom story:
Amma Mother said, “If you find yourself in a monastery do not go to another place, for that will harm you a great deal. Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching, so the monk or the nun grows cold and their faith dies when they go from one place to another.”2
The desert elders call us to deepen our commitment to sitting in silence with whatever rises up. Sometimes that time is filled with abiding stillness, and more often there are waves of emotion rising. Sometimes those feelings are unexpected, ones we weren’t anticipating and would rather not experience. The emotions build a bridge between our minds and bodies. When we feel sad or angry, we experience it both as a thought and as an experience in our bodies. Often we allow our thoughts to carry us far away from our actual experience and avoid feeling deeply what is happening in the body.
Consider entering your silent prayer through your breath and then gently calling to mind and heart this image of the bird who must stay with the eggs for them to hatch. Can you stay with your own experience and not abandon yourself?
Another story from the desert mothers, this time Amma Theodora:
Let us strive to enter by the narrow gate. Just as the trees, if they have not stood before the winter’s storms cannot bear fruit, so it is with us; this present age is a storm and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.3
Near Tucson in the U.S. desert Southwest, there is a biosphere built twenty years ago and filled with trees and plants. Being sealed from the outside atmosphere, it is sheltered entirely from wind. The trees inside have grown weak and spindly. In a natural setting wind creates strength in the trees as they resist it; and wind helps to spread the seeds.
When we stay with what comes to us or where we are, we grow only stronger rather than weaker. Endurance asks us to stay put in the face of great struggle: it is the wind strengthening our foundation. Endurance means we have looked suffering in the eye and not run away. We might take consolation in knowing the storms fortify us for what is ahead.
Another ancient wisdom saying from the desert fathers advises, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.”4 We need to stop feeding the consumer machine, which tells us our worth according to the newest gadget we have purchased (while we throw the last one in an ever-growing landfill). We need to stop perpetuating the cycles of violence by denouncing war while we still relentlessly judge ourselves and the people we encounter every day.
We need to go off to our metaphorical desert or wilderness to reevaluate our priorities. More than likely this is an oasis of silent moments in the midst of a day full of competing priorities. We are called to remember what it is that really nourishes our hearts. What comes to mind when you ponder that question? What makes you feel nourished, fed, and alive?
Never underestimate the power of small kindnesses in daily life to transform our corner of the world. Instead of moving through our days with gruffness and anger, we can commit to treating each person who crosses our path with respect and dignity. The grocery clerk, the bank teller, and our own holy selves will thrive under this loving gaze. These are some concrete ways we can respond to the devastation we see reported on the news in places faraway, by remembering the love we can offer right here and now. The doorway of the heart is open.
A beautiful German film by director Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire, tells the story of two angels who act as witnesses to humanity and long for the experience of being embodied. They talk about how it would be to feed the cat and get newsprint on their fingers, to feel the glorious weight of being in a body.
The heart does not desire to transcend this moment into some ethereal lightness but to be immersed in the weight and messiness of life. Ultimately we do not seek to be untouched by the great sorrows of the world but to be moved immeasurably, to wrestle with these seasons as Jacob wrestled with the angel and to walk away wounded but still walking.
Staying with the suffering of the world inevitably leads to grief. We need to rage together, to lament the terrible losses of lives and dignity, of our own sense of security. Rather than numb ourselves or busy ourselves against the onslaught of despair, we can recognize tears as the way toward softening our heart.
Tears remind us of our vulnerability. They call us to yield our desire to control things, and, instead, to be with what is. The desert elders saw tears as a gift and a grace. Tears were a sign of beginning to come undone, which meant that the divine had room to enter.
Lament is a form of truth telling. When we cry out we say that something is not as it should be. This is a powerful act.
In that place of lament, of unraveling and undoing, our hearts can become more tender and vulnerable, more open and spacious. We can choose to respond out of cynicism and harden ourselves toward love and affection, or we can choose otherwise.
Years ago I heard Michael J. Meade, Northwest American storyteller and mythologist, at a workshop. He said something that has stayed with me and rises up in times like these: “We must continue to work for love, act with love, even in the face of all other evidence.” We can never know whether our efforts make any difference, and yet we must act as if, to continue to make the choice out of love each time, to let cynicism shrivel, even as the world continues to crumble all around us.
We nourish ourselves by finding others who also want to live on the wild edges of the empire—the dominant consciousness—and imagine something different together. This tribe includes kindred spirits, maybe even just one or two soul friends, along with our spiritual ancestors, the desert mothers and fathers and the mystics and monks who said there is a better way.
When we get overwhelmed, our urge may be to withdraw into solitude. And while silence is definitely required for our nourishment, ultimately it is meant to lead us back into connection with others. The mystic knows that in true solitude we discover just how intimately we are bound up with one another.
Many of us live in fear of the cultural breakdown happening right before our eyes, and yet in some ways, what we most need is a breaking apart before a coming together can happen.
In such a dark time we might remember that this is also the place to dare the unimaginable. When everything else seems lost or hopeless, why not risk all for love? Why not release our grasp on what we think will bring security and embrace the thing that makes us tremble?
It can be hard to remember that goodness exists in the world, that love is the foundational impulse. But together, we must let ourselves unravel, feel the breaking down of everything, stay present, lament, and then imagine. We must act as if, gathered in our little tribes of kindness, showing love to our corner of the world. We must become outposts of generosity.
Let the heart be nourished first and see what happens. Nourish the heart and see what happens. We may long to resist the great unraveling within, but this breaking down and breaking through opens us to possibilities we have not imagined.
The author observes that “the very disintegration we resist may be the necessary first step toward a renewed vision.” Have you known a time of unraveling? Where did it—or might it—lead?
From “The Unraveling Toward Love” by Christine Valters Paintner. Published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, August/September/October 2016, Vol. 31, No. 4. Copyright © 2016 by The Upper Room.
1 Anthony the Great, 17, in Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 1975), 4.
2 Syncletica, 6, in Ward, Sayings, 231.
3 Theodora, 2, in Ward, Sayings, 83.
4 Poemen, 80, in Ward, Sayings, 178.
Photography by Joanna Huang / Unsplash