“We had the experience but missed the meaning, / And approach to the meaning restores the experience / In a different form, beyond any meaning / We can assign to happiness” – T.S. Eliot
For a few days, I watched the sun descend over the Point Loma Cliffs. Each day, roughly 30 minutes before sunset, I set out from the house on an orange bike with a white basket. I brought a journal and a book, and rarely opened either one once I arrived on the sand. I secured my bike to a lamppost or other inanimate object and walked toward the water, my bare feet met by the cool, soft movement of the sand beneath.
I found a place along the shoreline where I could quietly sit and observe, where I could be still. Stillness became my meditation while I was away, a time that followed a month of heartache, confusion and pain.
I tried desperately to avoid the pain by filling my time with fruitless attachments, seeking comfort in unhealthy ways. I sought confirmation in my relationships. I grasped for connection to the life I once lived. I pined for affirmation through social media. I craved physical and emotional consolation. I was caught up in trying to ease and contain my grief with the ways of this world. My sense of the divine was rocky, shaky at best. I knew that if I didn’t spend some time diving deep into the wounds, I could easily loose the entirety of my faith. I was, at the same time, surrounded by people and activity, and lonelier than I had ever been.
The cure for my loneliness – and the only possibility of moving toward acceptance – was solitude.
Solitude in today’s digital, ever-connected society requires intention. I logged out of all social media channels, turned off notifications, and went so far as to move all of the icons that could tempt me toward distraction to the third, fourth and fifth screens of my phone. Up until that moment, I regularly sought answers in that handheld device. I thought the next text message, email, Facebook post, Tweet, etc. was going to answer the questions of my pain and provide some sort of resolution. This was the bargaining stage at its highest – in its most recent incarnation in the digital world. Surely, the device that could answer any Google query, could also answer the query of my heart.
Before sunrise on the fifth Tuesday, I boarded a plane headed west.
The subsequent days confronted my every thought, desire and intention. I entered a time of solitude and contemplation, accompanied by two books and a rediscovered affection for time on my own. It turns out I actually enjoy disconnecting from social media, slightly ironic given my current occupation. When the question becomes digital connection at the expense of mindfulness in the present moment, something must change. I traded superficial, momentary satisfaction for reflections that called out my flaws, my ego and my pride. I gave up what I sought as “comfort” for the very things that would challenge every notion of comfort I previously held.
I entered those days with very little hope and much less faith. It was well past the halfway mark of Lent and, in the weeks prior, I barely made it to church on Sundays. I didn’t want to hear what God had to say. I didn’t want to know what he was trying to teach me in this grieving process. I didn’t understand any of it – the how, the why, the bigger picture. Nothing made sense. I wasn’t ready for it to make sense.
Before I got off the plane, I made a promise to go to Mass every morning. The first morning came, my alarm went off, I resisted and resisted and resisted. But I made it. The message that morning – “God never abandons his children.” Right, I thought, not sure if I believed that for a second. The second morning came a little easier, as did the third, fourth and fifth.
The message that Sunday, to borrow Richard Rohr’s phrase from “Falling Upward” (one of the books I had with me), was about shadow work: “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24). My preoccupations, my definition of self, my resistance to the meaning behind the experience, my shadows, were “grains of wheat” and, unless they died, I would be incapable of producing fruit in my life and in the lives of others.
In the grieving process, I was quick to put God in a box. I expected him to solve every problem and to make the pain disappear. But the pain is exactly what I needed to experience before I could see the change he was calling me to. I had stopped thriving; I was barely surviving. And it was, in large part, my own choice.
God opened a door amidst the heartache and gave me an opportunity to invest in happiness. He shed light in the dark spaces of my heart. He called me to greater love and greater intention in how I spend my time and who I spend my time with. He invited me to participate at a deeper level in this mystical existence he so beautifully created.
During Lent this year, I cannot say that I intentionally gave up anything, nor can I say I made any particular promises. Yet, the 40 days may well be one of the most transformative experiences in my life of faith. This Easter season will be one that not only calls for a celebration of the beginnings of springtime growth in an earthly sense, but one that begs an immense gratitude for growth in a spiritual sense.
The clouds lifted for the final sunset. I began to see the individual shapes of the trees. The colors shone brilliantly across the sky. I watched from the west end of the beach, where dogs ran off-leash. There was a sense of playfulness in the water and on the sand. The waves grew bigger, the tide came in.
The waves will grow bigger many more times in my life. The tide will continue to come in. Pain, confusion and heartache will be the necessary elements of a life of happiness, growth and intention. The cure for loneliness might actually be a little bit of solitude, stillness and shadow work. In the words of Thomas Merton: “Be still: / There is no longer any need of comment. / It was a lucky wind / That blew away his halo with his cares…”
It was a lucky wind that transformed an experience of great loss. It was a lucky wind that pushed self-awareness beyond what I knew – or thought I wanted to know. It was a lucky wind that illuminated a profound sense of gratitude. It was a lucky wind that reinvigorated the desire to live life abundantly, with passion and purpose, intention and adventure, with a greater understanding of divine guidance.
Perhaps it wasn’t luck after all.