Her linen blouse fluttered in the warm breeze of an early May evening, as she sat at an outdoor table of the restaurant waiting for me to arrive. I drew near and put my arms around her for the first time in six months. Her skin was warm. Our embrace was full of love. She has been fully occupied with the care of her partner and the running of her business to support them for several years. Finally, things are better and she can begin to exhale, as well as find some time to be with friends like me.
We began with the usual pleasantries, asking about how things are going. The perky, young waiter kept returning to serve us water, take our orders, bring our food, and check on us. We did not meet to just catch up on the facts of our lives, or to share a good meal, but it’s kind of how you start after a long separation. You both know deeper things are coming.
We have both been through that place with loved ones where humans become suspended in the country of despair, of absolute giving up, and then found ourselves falling out on the other side. We have both come to discover, completely outside of our own capabilities, that there is something after despair. We learned that after going through the full brunt of no-hope-left, one can be shown a quiet place in the soul called joy.
My friend waited, willing to bide her time through the waiter’s interruptions, until the moment was right to share how a terrible, sacred moment had grown her roots deep into the well-spring of holy love. I wished for a more quiet place than a busy sidewalk to hear such sacredness. I wished to suspend the moment in time as I realized the power of her journey into the depths of vulnerability. But right there, with a hundred strangers passing by, her terrible story of complete brokenness and discovered depths of loving wholeness tumbled out.
She told of an arrogant doctor who was performing a horrible medical procedure on her partner as a last ditch effort to save her. She spoke of her own courage in speaking up to confront his absence of basic humanity after he made a joke about the patient to his interns as she lay there in only a hospital gown. And she told of coming to the end of what any physician had to offer.
She also shared what it was like for her to move down into acceptance of the impending end of her partner’s life. Such a courageous stance was partly based in her willingness to face reality, and to let her heart be broken open until there was nothing left but the experience of being held in God.
This is exactly what it is like to live as a contemplative in the world. We move through all the experiences life has to offer as vulnerable as a newborn kitten, our hearts wide open, our will set to encounter both the terror and the wonder of being human. We take what comes. We practice simplicity, openness, willingness, honesty, humility, and live from our desire for union. We give up running from suffering and stand ready to embrace it in ourselves and each other, at least in our better moments.
As my friend shared more, a deep spiritual lesson was unfolding. Her partner had come to the end, near death. The original physician humbly admitted he had nothing else to offer. She remembered a particular day when she was lying down with her partner lying across her chest, and she could not get up. Her partner was too weak to move, and so was she. Quietly in her heart and mind and will she surrendered her partner into the care of God. There was nothing left, except for a gentle light shining in her own inner being called love, or maybe even joy. Two weak, broken women were lying there in nothing but love. What a profound lesson. After everything else falls away, enough sustenance arises from within.
My friend remembered what it was like to realize she had nothing left to give, and yet she was watching herself be a vessel of divine compassion pouring through her. She was amazed that she was able to stay, to just be there with nothing else to offer, and was quite surprised to find herself capable of such character. She had come to know oneness with the divine by simply deciding to stay and let love flow through her. After plenty of moments of feeling abandoned by God, she learned that the very love for her partner that kept washing over and through her was, in fact, God.
My friend is a bona fide contemplative, one who has known union with God by practicing the presence of God, even in a terrible, sacred moment. Her experience is a testimony to all of us who will enter the country of despair sooner or later. Even though we would rather run, we can actually be in despair, give up, surrender, and yet find in the depths a quiet light in the soul called joy, or love, waiting on the other side.
Her story kind of makes you want to finally commit to practicing the presence of God each day doesn’t it. Maybe then the reservoir of presence will rise up to sustain us too as we come across a terrible, sacred moment.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture, and watch for The Gate of Heaven Is Everywhere (when I locate the right publisher).