From Caroline’s 2014 Salon
The other evening I was visiting a friend at her new restaurant. While seated at her gorgeous bar enjoying a late afternoon cappuccino, I had the opportunity to chat with some of the other people who had come in to relax at the end of the day. It was one of those cold, grey, ice-raining Midwestern days that actually brings out warm conversation in people.
I credit the atmosphere of the holiday season – dare I say the advent of the season – for allowing the conversation to take an upward turn toward the celestial realm that evening. Holidays – and holy days – have that effect on people. Before I share some of that conversation, let me just set up a bit of a reading atmosphere. Somewhere within all of us is a thread, however worn that might be, that attaches us to the invisible, imaginary, indescribable, seductive, chaotic, calming, terrifying, enchanting, miraculous and mysterious domain of the sacred. Tug at the thread and something indeed tugs back.
I’ve encountered my share of atheists and agnostics along the way. I can totally appreciate how a person concludes that the god created by religions does not exist. I don’t believe most of that myself. The mythical stories of ancient times are rich blends of power tales, legends, a dab of history, and moral lessons. Discerning anything literal is a dicey game; yet, out of all the sacred paperwork are jewels of truth that speak to the ongoing human journey of life. Human nature is remarkably consistent all through the ages. We don’t really vary in our needs, our appetites, our behaviors, our dark sides, and our predatory cravings. We are what we are.
We also do not deviate from a compelling need to encounter the sacred. Some are comfortable walking directly into the gravity field of the holy, openly seeking enlightenment and willing to forego everything and anything of the physical path that presents as an obstacle to that goal.
More often than not, however, people let life itself serve as their teacher, learning the nature of how to cooperate with the governing laws of balance and power through everyday life experiences. These eternal cosmic lessons are woven into the fabric of every detail of life. A private thought, seemingly out of nowhere, can set off an emotional rumble within a person, upsetting the balance of power within that individual’s mind and heart for days or even weeks. We embody the paradox of strength and fragility, often held in check by a single word or thought. Life is this endless learning of regrouping our balance. Sometimes we are aware that we must regain a foothold and other times we are at the mercy of chaos, because we have become mindless about the need for balance.
We make our choices and live the consequences. We set forces into motion with every choice we make. The problem is we are unaware of how many choices we make or that every choice matters. And we all too often think we can reorganize the operating system of the universe to suit our idea of how things should be – or how we want them to be. These days it is more popular to support the existence of “good” and to deny the existence of “evil”. It’s an intellectual preference to be sure, one based on a society that has gone mad with science and a love of the rational mind for far too long. But hasn’t such a view produced a world gone mad with darkness? There is evil. It is as real as a force of good, which brings me back to the conversation at the bar the other night.
Half for fun and half for curiosity, I asked three people this question, “If you had the chance to ask an angel one question, what would that be?”
I’ve presented that challenge to workshop participants many times – and that question is a challenge, though you might think otherwise. Sometimes participants look at me as if I had the authority to bring an angel into the workshop room, as if that’s possible. But such a question represents a tug at that thread that connects us to the sacred. An immediate gut reaction comes through the facial expressions and body language of people, telling me that they felt that “tug” in the DNA of their soul. People wonder, “What should I ask?” and “What if an angel is actually listening?” and “What if my life actually changes because of the question that I ask?”
Believe it or not, most people end up saying that they have no idea what they would ask at a personal level; that is, about matters relating to their direct personal crises or life mysteries. That is very revealing. Is it that they do not want heaven to add to their problems? Do they unconsciously think the forces of the celestial world will punish them for questioning anything at all? An almost childlike fear seems to sprinkle the fairy dust of confusion over the minds of so many people at the thought of asking a question to even the idea of a presence that represents celestial power.
One can surmise by this reaction that we are born with a gut knowing that some power greater than ourselves is “out there” somewhere. How it interacts with us is a matter of speculation for each one of us to decide.
Now, back at this restaurant, I posed that question to three people who were obviously not workshop participants. They had never heard me lecture; in fact, they knew nothing about me. The first person to respond was a young man who said, “I would ask to know which way I could be of service to people. I really want to be helpful in this lifetime. I want to help make the lives of other people better.”
That was a wow for me. How lovely was that answer? I noticed that he didn’t have to think about his question at all. He had already decided who he was, the quality of his values, and what he needed to do in order to feel fulfilled in this life.
The second person was a woman who said she would ask, “What is heaven like?” This was an impersonal question, far more typical of the types of questions that people ask in workshops. What is heaven like? Do we meet our loved ones after we die? Is there reincarnation?
I asked her if she would really – really – want to know that. A look of panic crossed over her face for a moment, and then she asked, “Why? Is there something wrong with wanting to know about heaven?”
“No, of course not,” I said. “But I want on to confuse the issue a bit by asking, what do you imagine heaven to be?”
“I have no idea but it’s got to be better than life on Earth, that’s for sure.”
Then I asked her, “Let’s say you got your wish but the way such an answer would be given to you would have to be experiential. In other words, heaven is not a place that can be described in words. You need to experience the nature of heaven. People who have near-death experiences, for example, are revived from heart attacks or accidents after “dying” for a minute or so. Upon returning to life, they report profound encounters with a tunnel of conscious Light that pours into their soul, communicating to them, but not with words. Many go through a type of life review in which they see the choices they have made compared to the choices they could have made had they been more loving or more generous.”
I told her that I’ve known many, many people who have had near-death experiences and without exception, every one of them in some way shed the skin of their old life and aimed their life path in a direction that put spiritual values on lead. The active realm of the spiritual becomes as real a domain of life for “near-deathers”, as they refer to themselves, as does their life in the physical world.
This woman found everything I had to say intriguing. Of course she did, because everything about the experiences of near-deathers is absolutely fascinating. They traveled to that sacred place and came back with reports that everything the mystics and others have always said about the afterlife was true and real. And they had details. Loved ones were present. And the atmosphere of love in which a soul is greeted is indescribable.
So what’s the problem with having that question answered?
Living with the answer afterwards, I said.
One of the greatest inner pains for someone who has “been to the mountain and come back” is being with people who tell that person there is no mountain at all.
“Wow,” she said, “I would have never thought about that.”
But it’s the truth and it’s a great, big, huge truth – truth being the operative word. When any person is given, shown, or discovers within him or herself a deep truth, the power of that discovery changes the whole of that individual’s life. Truth is power. Show me heaven. Well, okay then. And how will you survive dwelling among nonbelievers? Or doubters? Do you have the stamina for that? Maybe you do and you can maintain your inner mystical knowledge safe within your soul and leave others to their own path. But if you can’t, that knowledge will create more suffering than you will ever know.
This truth is a type of mystical paradox in that we often chose to keep ourselves in the dark because we find the power of the Light – the Truth – too much to carry by ourselves. A British man in a workshop framed this “truth” with a very grounded example during a workshop a few years ago.
He said, “I have come to the inner realization that being a forgiving and compassionate person is the only way of truly ending the fire of rage and anger in me. And I know that forgiveness is really not about telling another person that it is okay to get away with hurting or cheating me. Forgiveness is about realizing I have the same negative rage in me that the other person has and I can be just as cruel or just as angry in my own way. I know I am on the verge of really, truly understanding that in my heart and soul and the power of that will change me forever. But I am not ready for that profound change to pour into me. I don’t want it yet. I still need my anger. I still need to be able to not forgive in order to survive with the people I live with. I can’t be all forgiving and they not give me the same love. I need to protect myself. So this is as far as I can afford to go with my spiritual path. I have to stop until they catch up. It’s just too painful to keep going alone.”
This man had a glimpse of the power of heaven in his own way, the power of forgiveness, and at the time I met him, he felt that it was just too much for him to carry. But I knew that grace would take over in some way. I didn’t know how or when, but I knew he would be just fine.
“Maybe I should rethink this question, huh?”
“Not at all,” I laughed. “Go for it.”
The third person was a man who asked yet another question that comes up all too frequently at workshops, “Why is there so much evil in the world?”
That he was speaking from personal experience was obvious. The pain was in his voice and his eyes. He had a history that included those types of prayers said with many tears and a heart beating from panic and sorrow. Discussions about good and evil are delicate business. And fear makes human beings negotiate chips of their heart and soul for safety all the time. Evil thrives off of such negotiations. I recall the nuns warning us to never, “Sell our soul to the devil.” As kids, we thought that a devil would actually show up and offer us money for our soul. As an adult, I see people with vacant eyes and no moral compass and it makes me think of that warning all over again.
Thankfully, this man was not someone with vacant eyes – hardly. He had come a distance and held on to his humanity. He wanted to know why people had to suffer so much to make their lives work. Others, it seemed, never see a way out of that suffering.
I said that I would love for his angel to keep him company with the Book of Wisdom some night. Perhaps the questions burning in his soul would be healed instead of just answered.
The Mystical Thread and Spiritual Direction
I walked home that evening wishing I could continue my conversations with each of those people, but not in the usual chit-chat way. I believe that every person has a mystical thread in them. It presents itself as life questions, as your mysteries or your inner struggles or the spiritual experiences you’ve had that you need to weave into your ordinary life. Such a thread also presents as on-going guidance and a need to get clarity on what is emerging in your soul.
Every one needs spiritual direction, someone to ask the right questions and lead you through your inner mysteries. I have had a spiritual director for fifteen years. I know exactly how precious and essential such a constant form of conversation is in my life, just as I saw the sparkle with three people that evening when I asked a seemingly playful question, but out came the soul. The truth is we will use any and every opportunity to enter into the deep waters of our inner nature. Indeed, we long to feel the tug of that mystical thread. We are just uncertain as to what to do on our end when we feel that pull.
In my work, I frequently find myself saying, “If I were your spiritual director, I would ask you to explore this or to reflect on that part of your life,” or similar comments. I have followed spiritual directives like this for more than twenty-five years. I have learned that what we often look upon as problems are not; they are invitations to examine how we think, what we are feeling, why we feel what we do, and how to see things in very different ways. New perspectives can be introduced into our thinking and belief systems.
We discover again and again that what we thought were impossible situations are not that at all; we simply lacked the ability to think through the situation we were in. Or we needed to ask a question a different way. Or we needed to examine our fear of the answer, not unlike the man who realized he was about to become too forgiving and too compassionate. How then would he cope with living among those who believed in vengeance?
Let me leave you with this November exercise: If you had an opportunity to ask God one question that you knew would be answered immediately, what would that be?
I hope all of you have a lovely Thanksgiving.