Photo credit: Greg Suryn
“The gate of heaven is everywhere”
-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1968)
In Doorways to the Sacred, I explored the transformative spiritual potential of three major life events – major loss, giving birth (for women), and traditional male rites of passage (for men). Each of these major events features a significant dislocation of the ordinary psyche, and opens the doorway for unknowing, surrender, and deeper encounter with the presence of God. These powerful events can serve to re-orient our lives and forever change our sense of reality. After experiencing a ‘great surrender’, we can never believe our own agenda quite as rigidly as we had before, even if our ordinary, egoic consciousness re-asserts itself as the director of our lives.
Yet, these major events are relatively rare occurrences, and can’t possibly make up the foundation of our daily spiritual lives. They are hugely significant, but what about the rest of life? I believe that the same opportunity presented in the peak experiences of major loss, birth, and rites of passage can occur many times each day in a smaller, more subtle form. Every time our egoic self runs into conflict with reality, we have the opportunity to let go, consent, and drop the egoic agenda in that moment. Each time we do this, a little crack is created for the life of the spirit to shine through into our consciousness. Over a lifetime of conscious surrender of our will, the crack may expand into an open portal, and the light of Christ may come to shine forth in our minds and hearts as our new foundation of our reality.
Similar to the three major ‘doorways’ of major loss, rites of passage, and giving birth, I believe there are three kinds of everyday surrender that mirror, in microcosm, the three major ‘doorways’: Accepting disappointment, enduring hardship, and trusting inner wisdom.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things -I Corinthians 13:7
Whenever something happens that we didn’t want to happen, or something didn’t happen that we wanted to happen, we experience disappointment. It’s a micro-tragedy to the ego. The whole game of the ego is to helps us to get what we want – so when we don’t get what we want (or get what we don’t want), the ego is threatened. In small scale, everyday occurrences, it’s usually not experienced as a major threat. We might feel some slight irritation or complain in our thoughts, but we get on with our day. However, if we’re diligent in observing our inner state, we will notice that we’re presented with the same opportunity that comes with major loss. We can chose to let go of our agenda, surrender to the reality of the present moment, and open to a deeper rest that is found in God beyond any conditions of our outer world. Every time we do this, we experience a small re-orientation from ‘ego as identity’ to resting in God. It’s a micro-death. Over time, our regular daily surrender can break open a new way of relating to God and to life that parallels the unique grace present after a great personal loss.
I’ve observed that it’s the degree of our surrender and acceptance, rather than the scale of the loss, that seems to determine the spiritual benefit of accepting disappointment. I first experienced this in my late teens. I went to the dentist, and he discovered a couple of cavities, then drilled and filled them. While it was uncomfortable, it wasn’t that big of a hardship. Yet on my way out of the office, I felt a deep awareness that my body was mortal, and that it would one day die and decay – and that this was entirely OK and natural. It was probably the first time I became soulfully aware of my mortality. With my acceptance of that thought, I immediately felt a profound sense of peace, tenderness, and love for the sacred beauty of this life. I was a bit perplexed at the time – how was I having a spiritual experience by getting a couple of teeth filled? In retrospect, this was a revelation that it’s the surrender of our internal resistance to what is, rather than the intensity of the loss, that proves spiritually fruitful. Great loss requires a greater surrender, yet every surrender bears spiritual fruit.
The Welcoming Prayer method as taught by Contemplative Outreach is a practice designed to support daily consent to life as it is.
Bear your share of hardship with the strength that comes from God - II Timothy 1:8
In traditional male rites of passage, initiates are tasked with enduring great hardships that deeply challenge them. Through these ordeals, the initiates learn to relativize their identification with their own comfort, bodily needs, and agendas in order to re-orient themselves to serve a higher reality. Outside of the great ordeals of initiation, anyone can practice this same principle of consciously enduring hardship to purify our spiritual intentions. This is the realm of asceticism. We can chose to fast and endure hunger, take cold showers, give up a food or habit we’re attached to, or forgo sleep for a prayer vigil. There are countless ways to voluntarily endure hardship for spiritual purposes. In each case, we actively chose to do things that are unpleasant to our lower desires (both the ego and the survival impulses of the body) in order to awaken or serve higher desires (spiritual alertness and focus). By regularly adopting conscious discipline, we mimic the teaching of the classic rite of initiation – that our lower desires do not get to rule our lives, and that there are higher realities that are worth sacrificing for. As we regularly sublimate our more primitive and instinctual energies for higher spiritual awareness, our hearts and minds increasingly stabilize in a more mature spiritual mode of being in the world.
Trusting Inner Wisdom
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? - I Corinthians 6:19
In birth, women are called to open to mighty powers at work within their bodies and entire beings. The birth happens through surrender to these powers, as the woman allows new life to literally flow from within her body into the outer world. This is a mystery that many of us will never experience in this most embodied fashion. Yet a parallel process can take place in prayer and meditation, when we learn to soften our will, listen carefully, and open to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit that emerges in times of stillness and receptivity to God. There is a way in which a regular practice of silent prayer invites the ‘gestation’ and birth of God’s wisdom, emerging not from our thinking and reflection but from the hidden depths of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In silent prayer, we learn not only to let go of our own superficial thoughts and desires, but also to allow, welcome, trust and surrender to the life and the power of God at work within the depths of our being. This practice of silent receptivity is a sort of ‘giving birth’ in microcosm, where we learn to bring forth the treasures of God that are given to us in the hidden recesses of our hearts.
In the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, pusillanimity is described as the sin of ‘’shrinking from great things out of littleness of soul’. It’s the refusal of the power and life of God dwelling within us. It’s opposing virtue is magnanimity, which is to open to the greatness of God within our soul. Trusting inner wisdom is an exercise in magnanimity. By doing so, we give glory to God as God brings life and spirit through our soul. We share in Mary’s song in Luke’s Gospel, the Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” (Lk 1:46-47)
The Acceptable Time
“Behold, now is a very acceptable time: behold, now is the day of salvation.”
-II Corinthians 6:2
A danger in pondering the great soul openings that can occur in major loss, giving birth, and male initiation is that we can slip into thinking that these events are the only way to crack open our egoic limitations and fall into the arms of the living God. While these major events can be incredibly powerful doorways into deeper life in God, we have opportunities to open every single day of our lives. Every time we accept disappointment, undergo hardship for the sake of the gospel, and trust inner wisdom, a doorway opens into the life of the spirit. We taste a moment of God’s eternity breaking into our consciousness. By learning to recognize these everyday portals, we are never far from a potential ‘initiatory moment’. Today is always the day of salvation, because God is always present, here and now.
The traditional ‘prayer vigil’ is an extended period of intense prayer conducted through the night. In contemporary culture, ‘prayer vigil’ typically refers to praying for a particular cause such as a social effort or in response to a tragic death.
Of course, not every insight that emerges ‘from within’ is from the Holy Spirit. Discernment of spirits is an essential spiritual discipline.
Really enjoyed this, so well articulated. This definitely speaks to me personally, accepting disappointment has been the key theme for me this past year. It's been such a wondrous process, seeing as I'm in such a better place now than I would have been if I'd gotten my own way.
Thank you Mark, this was gently persuasive and soothingly reassuring. It is much appreciated and very timely.