So don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don’t know what work they are accomplishing within you?
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Dearest monks and artists,
Starting on January 4th we are offering our very popular online course – A Midwinter God – in a community format. This program is also being fully revised and expanded with lots of new additions to the self-study version including scripture reflections from John Valters Paintner, guest reflections from some of our Wisdom Council members, and movement practices from Dr. Jamie Marich, founder of Moving Mindfulness. I will also be leading a live webinar session each week and there will be a facilitated small group option.
In these challenging times, as the northern hemisphere enters the heart of winter, it feels like the perfect moment to be expanding these materials and offering them again to our community. There is so much rich wisdom from our tradition that we can draw upon as resource and guide including the Dark Night of the Soul, Mary’s Lament, the Desert Way, as well as from other traditions like the Descent of Persephone. We are in need of ways to be fully present as possible when everything feels like it is coming undone. We need to rethink our relationship to the dark and see in it a profoundly creative place that demands first, our complete letting go.
This is a short excerpt from the introduction to the retreat, I hope you might consider joining us for this journey of descent and initiation into deeper mysteries.
We are crossing a threshold together, entering into a liminal space. The time of winter and darkness does not follow a linear path. I won’t be offering you a 1-2-3 step plan for getting through the dark. I will be offering you questions and invitations, wisdom from many of those who have made the journey before, practices that embrace unknowing and imperfection.
Darkness is an uncomfortable and uneasy place, but also a place of profound incubation and gestation, a source of tremendous and hard-wrought wisdom. If you feel a little bit of fear and trembling, this is a healthy response to this kind of holy encounter.
Before my mother died in 2003, I had many invitations into the dark night experience. Through my diagnosis at age 21 with a serious autoimmune illness that had wreaked havoc on my mother’s body and a rupture in my relationship with my father, followed by his death soon after, when my mother died I was really thrust into darkness as a conscious journey (rather than the previous painful periods I was desperately trying to flee). This is where the image of the Midwinter God first emerged for me — on long walks among bare branches through those cold winter months following my mother’s death. I found the spareness of winter a comfort and source of solace. Among the trees I didn’t have to pretend I was doing okay, I didn’t have to take care of others who couldn’t stand to be around my grief. I wailed in sorrow at the loss of my mother. I railed in anger at the betrayals of my father.
As I moved through fall and into winter I discovered that the world around me was mirroring something about my grief back to me. When I walked I felt like the trees I love so much in our neighborhood park were bearing witness to the journey of release, of stripping away, and of moving deep into a place of barrenness and solitude that I was experiencing as a part of my own grieving journey.
We live in a very summer-oriented culture. We value perpetual productivity and fruitfulness. And yet living this kind of energy all year drives us to burnout and deplete our bodies. Winter offers an invitation into a space of contemplation and rest, of incubation and mystery.
In my own process of healing from grief I discovered the wisdom and depth of winter. I have learned to love it on its own terms – not just as a preparation and precursor for spring’s blooming – but for all the ways it calls me deeper into unknowing. Being fully awake and conscious in the dark days of winter can be challenging. Unknowing and mystery are often uncomfortable experiences. We have all had winter seasons in our lives when what was familiar is stripped away and we have to hold grief and open ourselves to the grace of being rather than doing. Winter calls us to trust that fallowness and hibernation are essential to our own wholeness.
For me, the spiritual journey is not about growing more certain about the world, but embracing more and more the mystery at the heart of everything. In a world where so many people are so very certain about the nature of things, especially in religious circles about who God includes and excludes, I believe unknowing calls us to a radical humility. As we mature, we must engage with what our own mortality means for us, knowing that we one day enter what I call the Great Unknowing. The season of winter helps us to practice for this. A year ago I was confronted with this knowledge that I will one day die in a very immediate way – I had a pulmonary embolism while traveling abroad. There were so many layers to this experience, but ultimately it thrust me into the essence of what is important in my life, and also calls me to release any hubris I have over how things work in the world. Winter invites holding this paradox of the clarity that comes with seeing what is most important in your life and the unknowing that comes with engaging deeply with mystery.
When we gather in community, when we have wise elders and mentors to guide us on the way, when we allow those traveling through the darkness to be seen and heard and witnessed, these passages can become holy ways.
With great and growing love,
PS – Last week I shared that I was shortlisted for the Bangor Poetry Competition. If you haven’t yet, would you please go to this link and vote for my poem (#15 Field Notes on Being an Orphan.) It is a poem quite close to my heart and many of you will recognize pieces of my journey in it. You have to vote for your first, second, and third choices for your vote to count and there are several wonderful poems there. Pour some tea and give yourself a few minutes to read through the finalists (you have to scroll down to read them all). Thank you!!!