What follows is the introduction to a book that James Finley is currently writing on the spirituality of healing. We are deeply grateful to him for sharing these rich words with us, describing an intimate and vulnerable journey towards healing. Dr. Finley will join our Living Journal webinar on January 13, 2021 to discuss our innate capacity to be more attentive, present, engaged and tender hearted. We hope you will join us.
These reflections mark out a path, a way of life, in which we as human beings are healed from all that hinders us from experiencing the steady, strong currents of divinity that flow on and on in the bitter-sweet alchemy of daily living. The surprising thing is that the intimate healing spirituality brings into our lives is often hidden in the muck and mire of the very things about ourselves we wish were not true. The secret opening through which we pass into wholeness is hidden in the center the wound we do not want to go near. The door that grants access to boundaryless fulfillment is hidden in the unfinished business of our lives; the things we do not want to get vulnerable about, the things we tend not to sit with and listen to—the sometimes sad, sometimes tender, sometimes disarmingly simple, sometimes joyful things that make up the intimate substance of who we deep down really are and are called to be.
I am writing this introduction immersed in these intimate depths, sitting here with my beloved wife Maureen as she lays here next to me dying in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. I am grateful for the in-house hospice program that that provided the hospital bed in which Maureen is now lying unconscious as I sit next to her.
Even though she is unconscious and cannot open her eyes to look at me I believe she can hear me as I speak to her from my heart in whispered words. I just now told her that the waves of unbearable pain and crying that from time to time overtake me in being unable to imagine living without her seem to soften at least a little as I am learning to be more accepting of the immensity and mystery of her death that has from the beginning been woven into immensity and mystery of our years together.
The slowness with which she is gently fading away from me seems to be continuous with the slowness of the sun that is setting out over the ocean just beyond this darkening room where Maureen and I have lived and shared so much over the past thirty years.
I just told her that my suffering is eased in sensing that her soul has already begun to pass over into God, leaving but a long vapor trail of itself in which she is still but barely tethered to her body in her breathing. I suppose this is why deep meditation practice so often seeks to ground us in our breathing as the gate of heaven.
Over the years Maureen and I would share insights that came to us in our mornings sitting here together in what we called monastic silence. From time to time, she would share a passage in one of her favorite writings, perhaps the chapter in Thomas Merton’s Disputed Questions titled A Philosophy of Solitude or that lucid little commentary on Meister Eckhart, The Way of Paradox. I would share a passage from the text of a mystic in which I was immersed at the time. Then we would return to our shared silent reading. Such a sweet and subtle way to be so unexplainably one with each other in the presence of God. I suppose that I am sitting here now saying these things to her, knowing in my heart that she is present to me here, listening from a depth of presence that I can but scarcely imagine. I suppose too that I am sharing this with you as a way of inviting you to join Maureen and I in these words, which are becoming our point of entry into the healing path this book explores.
I just now shared with Maureen a memory that I have shared with her many times over our years. The memory is how deeply affected I was by something Thomas Merton said to the novices not long after I had entered the cloistered Trappist monastery of the Abby of Gethsemane in Kentucky, where I was a novice under Merton’s guidance in his role as master of novices. Merton was speaking to us about an old lay brother who had just died. Merton encouraged us to realize that when we die we do not go anywhere. We do not orbit the earth a few times and go to God in some far-off celestial realm. For as scripture tells us, “In God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). All the angels along with all the blessed who have crossed over into God are here with us in the vast interiority of God in whom we subsist as one as light subsists in flame.
But we tend not to see the deathless presence of God in whom we are so unexplainably one with the angels and the dead. Nor do we see the deathless presence of ourselves subsisting in God, breath by breath, heartbeat by heartbeat. I think this is what Jesus meant in telling us that “You have eyes to see and do not see.” (Mark 8:18). There is our God-given capacity to see our God given Godly nature that shimmers and shines in the gift and miracle of our bodies, in our minds and hearts and in each passing moment of our lives in our nothingness without God. But we do not see the deathless mystery of ourselves, others and all things that alone is real. Hence our fear and confusion in which as human beings lose our way in our own life. It is in this traumatized capacity to abide in this all-pervasive oneness that we act out the traumatizing things we do to ourselves, to others and to the earth that sustains us all. It is in this experiential self-knowledge that our prayer becomes, “Lord that I might see” (cf Mark 8:22-25) you in this and each passing moment of our lives.
As I write these words, I know that the depth of presence and love they express is all encompassing, vast and true. But here is the painful, intimate thing. The density and intensity of the dread I feel in not knowing how I am going to be able to survive without Maureen being here with me day by day closes off my ability to experience the consoling truths these words embody. It is in moments such as these that I have come to understand God as a Presence that protects us from nothing even as we are unexplainably sustained in all things. And sitting here next to Maureen renews and deepens my empathy with all those who, in having to endure the loss of their beloved are unable to find within themselves the faith-based reassurance that makes unbearable loss bearable.
For several months now I have been stuck in not knowing how to begin the introduction to these reflections on the spirituality of healing. I had no way of knowing that I would begin in this way, sitting next to Maureen as she lay dying. But now it seems providentially appropriate that I would begin by including you in this intimate exchange between Maureen, God and myself.
This is so because for the past thirty years Maureen and I have been aware of how deeply our relationship with each other has included our relationships with the men and women who have come to us for psychotherapy and spiritual direction. In endlessly varied ways our interactions with each other as husband and wife and with those coming to us for help have moved in and out of moments in which love, death and God merge in the bittersweet alchemy of daily living. And so I am writing these reflections in concert with my long standing resonance with Maureen in the hope that all that I am sharing with you in these reflections will help you find your way through the mysterious realms in which sorrow and joy merge with God’s presence carrying you forward into all your unknown tomorrows.
Of course, attempting to communicate such delicate matters in a book is not the same as sitting together in a face-to-face encounter in which you could share your own experiences, ask questions and share your insights with me. But being with each other in the pages of this book has the advantage of allowing you to read in the same careful, attentive manner in which I am writing these words to you. Insofar as this occurs, I hope and trust that you might find here words of reassurance and guidance in your ongoing healing journey.
Know that the kinds of things I have been saying to Maureen embody the spiritual worldview of contemplative Christianity in which I was immersed in the nearly six years I lived in monastery. During those years it was my good fortune to have Thomas Merton as my guide in the gentle art of contemplative living. It was from Thomas Merton that I discovered that the mystical foundations of healing that contemplative living brings into our lives consists of learning from God how to seek and find and give myself to God, who is wholly given to us in each passing moment of our lives.
When I left the monastery, I began to lead weekend contemplative retreats in the United States and Canada in which I spoke from my heart in attempting to share with those present, as I will be sharing with you, ways that we can realize that we do not have to live in a monastery to find our way into the wisdom of deep healing and liberation that monastic life nurtures and protects. For this wisdom is present in the hidden recesses of our bodies, and our minds and hearts, waiting to be recognized, cultivated and shared with others day by day. As we move in toward the center of this book several chapters will consist of conferences I have given on these retreats that attempt to bear witness to this healing wisdom in which we learn to see our life through Christ’s eyes.
Know too, that while I will be turning primarily to passages in the writings of Thomas Merton and related sources in the mystical lineage of my own Christian tradition, I will also be weaving in ways I learned from Thomas Merton that this timeless wisdom is present in the contemplative traditions of all the world’s great religions as well as in some poets, artists, philosophers, those who serve the poor. And beyond that in the souls men and women too numerous to mention who seek to live in obediential fidelity the unseen light that sustains and guides them in the midst of the circumstances in which they find themselves. And I should add, as well, that this timeless healing wisdom is present to some degree in you as well as evidenced by the very fact that you are drawn to read a book such as this in which you are hoping for words of reassurance and guidance as you continue to find your way along the healing path you are learning to follow.
The light that shines out from the spiritual worldview of the wisdom traditions illumines the path of our life up to this very moment in which I am writing, and you are reading these words. To clarify what I mean, I invite you to look back at your life up till now through all its twists and turns to, trying to discern how it come to pass that you have come to this point at which you able to recognize and care about the subtle, interior dimensions of healing that we are exploring in these reflections.
Seeing our life in this way allows us to appreciate how mysteriously we have been led, perhaps through many setbacks and confusing moments, along a providential path not of our own making.
To help you see your own life up till now from this luminous point of view I will lead the way by sharing with a kind of teaching memoir in which I trace out the lessons I have learned in my own passage through time. I will begin with my experiences of being repeatedly traumatized in my childhood and adolescence by my father’s explosive rage fueled with alcohol. I will share how my trauma was the opening through which God accessed me, sustaining me and letting me know I was not alone in the midst of my difficulties. I will share how these graced visitations in the midst my ongoing trauma led me, upon graduating from high school, to enter the monastery, where I was radicalized forever in the intimately realized divinity of our ourselves, others and all things in our nothingness without God. I will share how the trauma I experienced in the monastery sent me back out here into the world to follow the winding path that prompted me to begin leading contemplative retreats in which I met Maureen and in which our life together has led me up to this very moment in which I am writing this book. As I share my passage through time with you in this way, I will be suggesting ways that you can look back at your life in this same reflective manner noting the lessons healing and transformation that you have learned along the way.
I can move in closer the formative energies that led directly to writing this book by sharing with you a long-standing pattern that began emerging in my life with Maureen. Every other Friday Maureen would drive me to the airport where I would fly out to lead a silent contemplative retreat most often at a Catholic retreat house somewhere in the United States or Canada. I felt that those who came to these retreats were drawn to attend in knowing the retreat would be in silence. Meaning that the meals would be eaten in silence and all would be encouraged to maintain a spirit of silence throughout the weekend. They were drawn to the retreats knowing there would twenty-minute sessions of shared silent meditation and prayer before each conference. And knowing I would be sharing insights from the writings of Thomas Merton or Saint Theresa of Avila or Meister Eckhart, Christian and non-Christian mystic teachers, to help us find our way to the intimacy with God they speak of with such eloquence. More succinctly still, I sensed they were drawn to attend the retreats by unconsummated longings they did not understand, for a union with God they did not understand, but which they knew was real and true because that were graced with moments in which that union was momentarily realized.
Then on Sunday I would leave the communal silence and serenity of the retreat to fly back here to Los Angeles, where on Monday morning Maureen and I would go to our two office suite in which we would sit with the men and women coming to us for psychotherapy. Many of those who came to us for therapy were trauma survivors who wanted their spirituality to be a resource in their therapy. When they came in to see me, they would not simply tell me about their trauma. They would show it to me. For I could see their trauma in face and in their eyes as they spoke. They would share their trauma with me. For as they spoke, I could feel in my body the places that corresponded to places in their body where the trauma had settled into them and from which it was staking out its claim on their life.
What most surprised me as I went back and forth between these polar opposite realms of trauma and transcendence was that many of those coming to the retreats and those coming to me for therapy were the same people and I was one of them! For I was a contemplative seeker going through my own therapy for the long term, internalized effects of the trauma I had to endure in my childhood and adolescence. And I was a traumatized person who tasted traces of healing and liberation welling up from the wounded preciousness in the presence of God.
A great deal of the insights and suggested guidelines for healing offered here gravitates around the ways in which each of us is a unique edition of the universal story of being a human being. And among the themes or plotlines that runs through our lives are the endlessly varied ways in which we seek to be healed from all that hinders us from finding our way through the risky and transformative paths in which birth and death, sorrow and endless liberation are ribboned through all our days.
As I move toward bringing this introduction to a close, I encourage you to be patient with me. For I am but a seventy-six-year-old man, hoping to pass on a few things I have found helpful before I disappear. I encourage you as well to be patient with yourself. For patience ripens into humility in which the healing path we are attempting to explore unfolds.
Know that as we go through these reflections there are two realms in which I will try to practice restraint in all that I am sharing here. Restraint first with respect to the contemplative, mystical dimensions of healing path we will frequently be alluding to in these reflections. For while we will frequently allude to the mystical depths that shine out from the simple depths of our moment’s spiritual awakening, I will not in these reflections be going into those depths with the careful attention they deserve. Know that at the conclusion of this book I will be sharing numerous resources that offer trustworthy guidance in learning to discern invitational stirrings of mystical longings that can tug at our heart.
Secondly, know that I will be practicing restraint in our careful explorations of healing from the destructive effects of trauma. For while we will be paying close attention to ways our spirituality can enhance the often challenging process of healing from trauma, I will not in these reflections be going into the specifics of the process of drawing on spiritual resources as healing occurs. Know that at the conclusion of this book numerous resources with be provided that suggested guidelines that are more directly related to the contemplative dimensions of the healing encounter as it occurs in therapy.
Know, too, that in the context of this twofold restraint I hope provide here a more modest but, nevertheless essential and often overlooked intention: How can each of us learn to be healed from all that hinders us from being an ever more attentive, present, engaged tenderhearted person? How can each of us learn to discover in all sorts of surprising ways that we are learning to be a healing presence in an all too often traumatized and traumatizing world? How can each of us learn to be someone, who, by virtue our own healing journey is becoming someone in which presence others are better able to be healed from all that hinders them from discovering how invincibly precious they are in the midst of the unresolved matters of their minds and hearts, so that they, in turn, can pass the contagious energies of healing on to others? It is in the context of learning to be sensitive with such concerns that we can see how the light that shines out from the spiritual worldview of the contemplative traditions not only illumines the providential twists and turns of our life up to this moment, but also illumines, with equal clarity, the foundational attitudes that will carry us forward, sustaining us and guiding us as find our way into all our unknown tomorrows.
As a way to bring this introduction to a close, I will share a story that I hope will help orientate you to the intimate nature of the spiritual dimensions of healing that we are now beginning to explore. This story was told to me some years ago by Sister Mary Luke Toben who was mother superior of the Sisters of Loretto and a longtime friend of Thomas Merton. The story is taken from the tradition of the desert fathers and mothers who in the first centuries of the church went into the desert to undergo an interior martyrdom of dying to all that hindered them from experiencing the interior mystical dimensions of the promises of Christ. The men and women living in those times would go out into the desert asking these solitary seekers to give them a word. Meaning a word, in the hearing of which their heart would be awakened to a deeper realization of God’s presence in their lives.
This story is of one these early Christian hermits who heard a knock at his door of his hermitage. When he opened the door, he saw a mother and father and their young daughter. The parents apologized for intruding on the hermit’s solitude but said they came asking for the hermit to pray over their daughter. For they said, “As you can plainly see an evil wizard has turned our daughter into a donkey.” “Yes. I see”, said the hermit as he invited them to come in.
The hermit asked the parents to sit off to one side as he asked the little girl if she was hungry and would like something to eat. When she said she would like that, the hermit talked to her as he prepared her a meal. Then, as she ate, he talked to her, asking her questions about things that mattered to her.
When the parents saw the love with which the hermit prepared their daughter some food and the sincere affection in which he spoke with her, their eyes were opened. They suddenly realized that the wizard had not cast a spell on their daughter turning her into a donkey. Rather, the wizard had cast a spell on them, leading them to believe their daughter was a donkey. In seeing their daughter was the little girl they loved, they were filled with joy. They tearfully embraced her.
As the parents left with their daughter, they expressed how grateful they were for what had just happened. And their daughter was grateful as well. For it hard being a little girl when your parents think you are a donkey. It is especially hard when you fall into the suffering that flows on and on in the shame-based ways until you start believing that you are the donkey your parents believe you to be. The deep healing that little girl and parents experienced in this story bears witness to the deep healing this book explores.
I hope that reading these reflections in a sincere and heartfelt manner helps you to find your way yet further along this healing path you are already on. I hope that as you continue on in this way that you will continue to discover in all sorts of unexpected ways that you are becoming a healing presence in an all too often traumatized and traumatizing world. By that I mean you will continue to be graced with realizations that you are becoming someone in whose presence others are better able to experience the gift and miracle of who they deep down really are and are called to be, so that they in turn can pass on the contagious energy of healing to others.
Amen. So be it.