Thursday, August 31, 2006

Whatever Gets You Through The [Dark]Night

[I submitted this to Rev. Sean, who is hosting this month's carnival. I think it's okay to post it here, too. But what I really want to say is that although my religious faith and practices are very important for getting through the hardest times, my sister and my mom and my friends and family are more important than any prayers. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Heaven winds up being a long phone conversation with my sister where, even though I start out the conversation a total mess, I wind up even being able to laugh a little bit and I know that I'm going to be okay forever and ever.- P.B.]

The UU Blog Carnival topic for this month asks us to reflect on what, religiously-speaking, gets us through the hard nights.

As a light sleeper with high anxiety, I tend to have my "hard nights" literally at night.
More than once I have referred to the lines of the old psalm and reassured myself that "weeping may endureth for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."

When I was in divinity school, a friend told me that 3 AM is the mystic's hour. I wasn't sure what she meant by that, but I had been waking up at just that time on a regular basis and feeling a creepy, haunted kind of pulse in the air. Maybe it wasn't creepy after all. Maybe I don't have quite the words to describe what it was. Thick. Charged. Slightly dangerous, as though the veil between the worlds might lift any moment and I might see things that my heart couldn't endure and my mind couldn't handle.

I don't wake up at 3 AM very often any more, but I certainly do have my dark nights of the soul, both on my own behalf and as a result of having soaked up too much suffering and fear from life in ministry. Sometimes I've just been dancing too frequently with Lady Death in my work lately and we need to have a few quiet nights awake together while I sit up against the pillows struggling to breathe deeply and she knits in the rocking chair next to me. I look over at her and think of those wonderful lyrics, "ole rocking chair's gonna get me." But not tonight, I tell myself. Tonight is not my night.

I have a very small bag of tricks from my religious life that work the miracle of getting me through the dark nights of the soul. The first is an ancient prayer that contains the line, "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." This is my regular incantation and has been a mantra for several years now. It has taken me probably fifteen years of serious work with this prayer to own it and to allow it to own me. I know that whenever I recite the words of this prayer, and in whatever condition, someone else on this planet is reciting it along with me. Maybe they need my prayer for them even more than I need it. I pray it for us both.

I have prayed the Lord's Prayer in dreams when I was being pursued by demons who had my immortal soul in their teeth. This prayer is fierce! It works in dreams and it works in waking life.
For me, it works best slow, with especially long pauses where you might need them most that day or that hour.

I have a second prayer, even more ancient and more favorite than the first, that starts, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." This is the psalm I speak to myself as I walk down the corridor of the hospital, or as I ready myself for a funeral, or as I steady my nerves during take-off from the airport, or when I decide at 11:30 on a Saturday night that I HATE my sermon and I hate myself, etc., insecurity spin-out, so on. Not only is it one of the most beautiful literary pieces ever written in English (what does it sound like in the original? I have to believe I would love it just as much), it is, to me, the best spiritual trip you can take in about 24 lines.
"S/he makes me lie down in green pastures." Oh man, I can see that. It reminds me of a spring day when my mom and I were lying in the grass with sprigs of lilac over our faces at Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Maryland. My God MAKES me lie down in green pastures. For someone with anxiety issues, this is such a deal, let me tell you.

How dark can a dark night of the soul get?
As most of us know, very dark. No amount of faith can spare us some of those.
For those times, and God grant that they may be few or none at all, there is that commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." It occurred to me quite suddenly and recently that when we pray, "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil," it is not only our outward-directed hatred and rage that can harm us. Here endeth the lesson.

What else? Love of the community. Understanding my place in the interdependent web of who we are, and trying to be accountable to it even in diminished condition. Accepting strength from those who freely offer it, acknowledging that living in covenant has a serious existential consequence in this lifetime, and even, if one of my dearest Universalist friends is correct, in the next. Rational thought and "heeding the guidance of reason," (in this context, making an appointment with a doctor if necessary, considering all avenues of help and aid, ruling nothing out).

In the end, it is salvific for me that Unitarian Universalism does not require or expect of its members a pious demeanor or humble mien. It requires honesty, intellectual rigor, compassion and acts of service. In my darkest hours when I rail against life and cynically declare that there is no meaning in any of this bleak exercise, I have the comfort of knowing, courtesy of my tradition, that my rage and my cynicism do not offend a judging God but are the legitimate rantings of a suffering human being who is, in some mysterious way beyond my comprehension, still held in the essence of love.


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