Who Shall I Fear | January 30, 2022 by Dr. Kathryn Benton
The opening music is from the Taizé community, a spiritual community that originated in France in 1940. This music reminds us that even within the darkest night…there is a spiritual fire burning. It is a message of hope in dark times. We can go back to this message in times of darkness…much like are described below:
There comes a time when both body and soul enter into such a vast darkness that one loses light and consciousness and knows nothing more of God’s intimacy. At such a time when the light in the lantern burns out the beauty of the lantern can no longer be seen. With longing and distress, we are reminded of our nothingness.
These words are from Mechtild of Magdeburg, a thirteenth century Beguine, a mystic who lived in a spiritual community. Mechtild’s description of the “time when both body and soul enter a vast darkness” where we know “nothing more of God’s intimacy” spoke to an experience shared by so many people I have encountered this week. So many are experiencing an experience of vast darkness…of meaninglessness…of nothingness. Nothingness scares us, says Thich Nhat Hanh. He says that, “Out greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing.” But he knew that darkness accompanies light…that “upon the night view of the world, a day view must follow” as Thurman often pointed out. He says that we need to rid ourselves of the notion that there is existence and nothingness…we must let go of our dualism…our separation of the world and see it as one. He has a beautiful illustration of this oneness, when he spoke of the wave…
What is the home of the wave? The home of the wave is all the other waves, and the home of the wave is water. If the wave is capable of touching herself and the other waves very deeply, she will realize that she is made of water. Being aware that she is water, she transcends all discrimination, sorrows, and fear.
This is a beautiful image…the wave becoming aware that she is water! Could we also have a realization that we are living beings in a living universe? Could we become aware that we are also water…in a way that can transcend discrimination, sorrows and fear?
Listen to Sweet Honey in the Rock:
I have recently been reading a series of books about plants and animals…about our own relatedness to them and about the complexity of their existence. We are indeed related most intimately to the trees, the grasses, the flowers, the mosses and fungus, the birds and the fish, the mammals and the reptiles. We have been reminded recently that we are profoundly related and influenced by viruses, arguably not living creatures, but clearly a part of our existence. Meditation, according to Thich Nhat Hanh means, “…to be invited on a journey of looking deeply in order to touch our true nature and to recognize that nothing is lost.” In all his meditations, he uses nature…all our relations as symbols and metaphors for our own spiritual journeys, mainly because he believes in the oneness of all life.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s view of meditation is simple, though not easy. He states that we are constantly busy getting lost in the past and projecting our thoughts to the future, when we should become “At home in the present moment.” Here is one breathing prayer he offered to bring us back to the present moment:
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
Breathing in, I see myself as a flower
Breathing out, I feel fresh
Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain
Breathing out, I feel solid
Breathing in, I see myself as still water
Breathing out, I reflect all that is.
Breathing in, I see myself as space.
Breathing out, I feel free.
This is a much more complete vision of our existence and it roots us in the earth…in our environment. We become part of the water all around us…we are held by life in a compassionate embrace…we are supported by life in a way that is natural, necessary and healing if we are to withstand, and even flourish in those moments of darkness.
Back to Mechtild. She spoke to her own experience of this darkness…this lack of faith in God…this loss of light and consciousness…the time when we are reminded of our nothingness…the time when the light in the lantern goes out. She says at this time she prays to God:
“Lord, this burden is too heavy for me!”
And God replies: “I will take this burden first
and clasp it close to Myself
and that way you may more easily bear it.”
Notice she says that God will share the burden with us, so as to make it easier to bear. Our burden is not removed. Our burden is a messenger, come to teach us life’s lessons. Instead of seeing darkness…burdens…suffering as something separate and apart from life, we are then able to see it as part of life…an integral part of life that we do not have to endure alone. No…we do not ever have to endure it alone, though often we feel as if we are alone.
One of the people that I met with this week has been caring for her mother for the past several years. Before that she cared for her father as well, until he died last year. She is a person who has been able to be open to the lessons that loss, suffering and death have to teach us. Through her ability to be present for her parents at this time, she has often felt like she was alone. Other family members stayed away or criticized her for the imperfect care she gave her parents. She continued to care lovingly for her mother and is now coming to the end of the journey. She has been able to experience beautiful, deep emotions toward her mother that were not present before. She is now able to react to family members in love and understanding and this is bearing fruit. Her family members are also better able to understand their relatedness to all that is…they are all better able to understand that they are water…just like all others, and that their shared experience is not only sad, but also beautiful.
I met with many others in varying stages of this realization, as we all are. It reminds me of the deep expanse of our spiritual experience of life…of the non-duality of existence and was reminded of another German mystic of the thirteenth century, Meister Eckhart. Like Mechtild of Magdeburg and later Thich Nhat Hanh, Meister Eckhart says we must let go of our need to separate and says that we must “rid ourselves of God”. He says:
Love God as God is – a not-God, not-mind, not-person, not-image – even more, as God is a pure, clear One, separate from all twoness.
Getting rid of our definitions and thoughts about God frees us, says Eckhart to regain our intimate relationship with the divine. It gives us, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, the space for freedom…breathing in and breathing out we are indeed free! Free to seek the light and darkness of our being…the light and darkness of the divine presence within and our relatedness to all things. May we remain open to both the light and the dark…may we envision a world where the flame of the all-pervading presence shines through all life…day and night, no need to be afraid.
Kindle thy light within us, O God, that Thy glow may be spread over all of our lives; yea indeed, that Thy glow may be spread over all of our lives. More and more, may Thy light give radiance to our flickering candle, fresh vigor to our struggling intent, and renewal to our flagging spirits. Without Thy light within us, we must spend our years fumbling in our darkness.
Kindle Thy light within us, O God!