Dearest monks and artists,
A few days ago I received an email from a woman who is writing her dissertation and asked me to respond to the question: "If you had to choose one spiritual practice that is a non-negotiable for spiritual growth in the 21st century, what would it be and why?" My answer was supposed to be short and succinct.
Here was my reply: "I would choose hospitality, both inner and outer, because I believe the welcoming in of all of the exiled pieces of ourselves to be essential for the healing of the world." Of course, it is one of the principles of the Monk Manifesto, and feels like a necessary gateway to silence or hesychia, which the ancient desert monks described as a deep inner stillness.
As I was thinking about writing this love note, I realized Valentine's Day is coming, which for many of us is a holiday that only serves to make us feel inadequate, as all highly commercialized things do. And yet the message of love is worth repeating if we can look beneath the chocolate hearts and flowers and the expectation that we all be in a significant relationship or be lacking.
When I read the question posed above, I did not hesitate in my response, because I find that this is the heart of our work – creating a safe space where monks can begin welcoming back in the stranger within and in the process discover the hidden wholeness of which Thomas Merton wrote. Over the years, I have come to realize, that more than anything else I do, this work of healing is most essential. The Abbey, too, strives to be a safe place where a diversity of people with a wide range of beliefs and convictions can gather. I love that people show up each with their own longings.
Maybe there is a deep loneliness as this holiday of roses and Hallmark approaches. What would it be like to welcome in that lonely part of yourself and to love him, to trust that she has a place in you? Maybe there is self-judgment and criticism that you try to push away. What would it be like to make space to sit with these difficult parts with compassion and listen to what they really want to tell you? This would be a generous act of loving.
This radical hospitality is a lifelong journey. We are always discovering new aspects of our inner world which we reject or resist and need love and care. And in the process of welcoming them in, we perhaps begin to discover that others don't annoy us quite so much. As we grow more intimate with our own places of exile and woundedness, we discover a deep well of compassion for the strangeness of others. As we come to know our own compulsions and places of grasping, we can offer more love to those in our lives struggling with addictions and other places where freedom has been lost.
For the last few months I have signed this love note "With great and growing love" but never explained the choice I made. I started after finding some old letters written by my mother and father to one another in the early days of their marriage. I had forgotten that one of their terms of endearment for one another was "GGL" which stood for "great and growing love." These missives all began and ended with those three letters.
Even though my parents' wounds eventually led them to separation and my father to rejecting much of the love offered to him toward the end of his life, I still treasure this image. I cherish knowing that there was this sense of love abiding between them, growing slowly. Rather than feeling despair or cynicism, I actually feel a great tenderness to know of all the places love plants her seeds.
I love each of you, my dear monks, I don't think the intensity of this work is sustainable without that kind of love. I love your seeking hearts. I love your desire to find a more compassionate way to be in this life and on this earth.
As I continue to offer love to myself through acts of trust in my body's wisdom and welcoming in the less flattering parts of myself, the love grows.
My beloved husband John will often say "I love you more," and I respond by asking "More than what?" And his reply is "More than yesterday." We have been blessed with 25 years of growing love.
My invitation to you, as Valentine's Day approaches, is to consider whether your love for your own beautiful self grows each day, knowing that there will be days of such self-disdain it might not be possible, and then you welcome in that small and wounded place and discover a hidden fountain of love beneath. Once we begin welcoming in the places we resist, we find that the deep peace of silence can be ours.
This week, let your prayer be "welcome" to every stranger arriving at the inner door and an act of trust in the wholeness that you are.
And know of my love for you, which is always growing.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner