On our five day centering prayer retreat I slowly became aware of a tiredness, a sadness, and a kind of compassion fatigue that was lingering under my usual awareness. Over the days of practicing the inner stillness in the centering community, I discovered a paradox that stunned me. My many years of finding joy in the multitude of contemplative groups we have been forming through our School has not dismissed the effects of decades of sorrows from my wife’s health problems. Rather, the joy has been serving as a kind of blanket hiding the sadness underneath.
Truth be told, I believe I have been unconsciously using my involvement in all of these groups to protect me from the ongoing sadness, tiredness, and compassion fatigue. How weird is that, using a great thing to protect me from something I had not wanted to face. Down below the surface layer, where I have actually been feeling immensely fulfilled so much of the time, there has been another layer forming, another story evolving, another me experiencing things I did not know how to handle.
So now I am facing some things I had lost touch with over the course of years. It’s a bit like looking in the mirror and also having a side mirror from a medicine cabinet turned toward you, so that you can see the back side of your own head. What I was seeing on the back side was like the rest of the story, the part I must have been repressing into the psyche’s unconscious realm. Now it was becoming clear that I would feel my feelings for a bit and then dance on past them, side-step them, and apparently I was practicing that ineffective thing we Americans call “moving on” too fast. When we try this and say we are “getting over” something and “going forward,” I now see that we are really just suppressing and repressing what we have trouble handling.
When I told my spiritual director, Sister Jane, about this unfolding discovery she was delighted. Now that might seem like the wrong response to uncovering a layer of sadness and incapacity to love. But because she wants to join God in looking for my growth she saw this discovery as a wonderful opportunity for growth. From her perspective, God is all about bringing our struggles into awareness so God can help us integrate and heal all that is in us. And this rising to consciousness was like a breakthrough, a wounded place which could now be placed in God’s care. Jane was really happy to see me awakening to my own layer of sorrow.
I have to admit that was not my response to these emotions as they bubbled up into consciousness during the retreat. I had been experiencing several days of fullness and spiritual vitality during the centering prayer hours of the retreat. So the paradox of beginning to see the other side of that mirror was disturbing. I told Jane that my attachment to the times of joy in the groups was beginning to look more like an addiction, something used to numb or avoid the other feelings. Again she smiled broadly.
Jane said God allows new awareness to arise when we are ready to grow. And as we talked I began to see that my own wholeness was asking me to stay more in touch with all of my feelings, not just the joyful ones. I need to learn to bring my incapacity to handle all of these health problems to God, to practice admitting I need help, to trust the Invisible for aid, instead of just pushing the hard stuff out of awareness. What I need more of is needing. I simply have become out of balance with my giving and my own needing and receiving. That’s where compassion fatigue comes from.
So thirty one years into this particular need for help in facing a string of health problems which might be here for good, it seems time to just say “help.” It seems like needing and asking might be the prayer practice I most need at this time. This doesn’t dismiss the actual joy I feel in coming to the center of my being in the company of other contemplatives. It doesn’t mean that’s not real. It just means I have other layers of me, and all the layers belong in God’s care.
This is my growing edge in prayer: actually touching the sadness and asking for help, letting the joy I feel penetrate the sadness, and allowing the Giver of joy to help me find the healing I need for the compassion fatigue. It’s a bit like those first three steps in Twelve Step Spirituality: “I can’t. You can. I think I’ll let you.”
Here is my advice, you know the kind you haven’t even asked for but might really need. If you identify with this story, if it even seems a little familiar, join me in one of the oldest of all prayers, which was probably spoken by the first humans, and together let’s just say it: “Help!”
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture, also available as a Kindle book.