Need a refresher before you read Chapter 4? Read Chapter 3 first, and then click “Next” at the bottom of it. Or get started right away on Chapter 4 below!
I step out of the elevator, expecting the lobby to be empty in the minutes before dawn.
Instead, I find the desk clerk—a heavy-set, black woman—on her hands and knees, sweating and cursing quietly under her breath, as she cleans up a puddle of vomit. Beer cans populate every table top and litter the floor. The mess is clearly the result of drunkenness, not illness.
I’m tempted to bypass her and find a relatively clean and quiet corner of the lobby in which to read and pray, but it is still preternaturally quiet within me—still quiet enough to hear the Whisper from the wings.
“If I am in you, then I am in her. Being with her is being with me. You came here to pray. Helping her is praying.”
Catholic monk Thomas Merton wrote of his awakening:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world…
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.
On this morning, I have received the gift. And this woman is shining like the sun. So I crouch down, which, I’m learning, is what love is always wanting to do—to put itself on the same level as everyone else. I offer to help. Her eyes go from blazing to grateful. She declines my offer with regret—hotel employees aren’t allowed to be helped in that way.
So I retreat to a quiet corner of the lobby—still under the assumption that I’m here to quietly pray and meditate by myself. I’ve just closed my eyes when I hear moaning. I open them.
A young woman has entered the lobby from outside, holding her abdomen, clearly in distress. The desk clerk lumbers to her feet, taking the woman’s arm, and helping her toward the elevator. A day ago, I might have resented the fresh interruption. Now I find myself on my feet again. It’s not an interruption to resist, it’s an aroma to float toward—the aroma is, strangely enough, the pain of this woman, and the floating is compassion.
I take the woman’s other arm, and together we lead her to the elevator. After the elevator doors close, the desk clerk answers the question in my eyes. The woman and her husband are moving off base and the evening before he’d forced her to pack their entire moving truck on her own. In the middle of the night she’d woken with bleeding. The desk clerk had called her a cab and she’d gone to the emergency room, where she’d miscarried her baby.
The Whisper from the wings again: “Sometimes you’ll find me in prayer and sometimes you’ll find me in pain. Sometimes they are the same thing.”
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, simply, “We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” The illusion is wobbling for me. Teetering, but not yet toppled.
I return to my quiet corner. I close my eyes. I listen. And within moments, I hear a voice. But this time it’s not coming from within me. It’s coming from outside of me. I open my eyes again.
Sitting in front of me is a young boy with the biggest, bluest eyes I’ve ever seen,
I feel a hint of my former annoyance, but I fake polite, and I ask him how he’s doing. I expect him to say something meaningless. His reply undoes me for good. He says his father recently died in combat and he’s heartbroken because it’s his first Father’s Day without a dad. And just like that, I know why I’m really here in this lobby.
I’m here to be the Whisper from the wings, for this little boy.
I set my book aside for good, and I invite him to become an open book. We talk. He cries. We talk some more. He laughs. The day has dawned outside, and a different kind of light is dawning in me.
The lobby is clean now and it’s filling with people in search of a free continental breakfast. Most of them are seniors, and friendly. Several of them join our conversation, and by the time I leave the lobby to take a walk, he has a couple of surrogate grandfathers on this Father’s Day morning. I step outside, into the sun, and I’m shining like the sun.
I am unrecognizable to myself.
I shine like that for the rest of the day. The rest of the month. Indeed, for the rest of the summer. It makes me wonder if I might just shine like that forever.
No one does. Everyone who has a mountaintop experience has to, eventually, come back down from the mountain. The clouds eventually pass back over the sun. The ego eventually reasserts itself. And then one day you wake up, very much recognizable to yourself, and you look around. You see prison bars and you’re on the inside of them again. The door, you know, is unlocked, and you can walk out of it whenever you want to, but for some reason you don’t want to. You could shine again, but a part of you wants to stay behind the clouds.
You’re getting your first glimpse of your inner gathering…
New here? You can read this serial book, The Inner Gathering: A Guided Encounter with Your Original Self and Its Three Protectors, from the beginning, starting with the back cover.
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Playing catch-up today and dern it, Kelly, you made me cry again! (You're SO good at that!)
The Merton quote got me first, and then of course the boy in the lobby. But the Merton reminded me of the one mystical/spiritual experience I've had, which I may have alluded to on a podcast with you. I was so grateful to have had the time that day to write it all down afterwards, but the short version was this: I could see how we're each a tiny spark of the massive creative spark that created us all—the same life force that makes the trees bloom and the grass grow—and that we're most alive when we're connected with that same life force and using it to bring our own creations to life. It was the most amazing thing I've ever experienced.
One of my friends, hearing me talk about it afterwards, said, "I didn't think you believed in God, but now I think maybe you do!" I'm not much of one for religion, though I've always suspected there's something else out there... and while I would never even want to try to put a name on something so much bigger than me, I can't deny her underlying point.
This happened two and a half years ago, and it has certainly faded. It's not something I think about all that often anymore. I do occasionally remember, and pull out that journal, and re-read it, and when I do, it comes back for a few minutes... and then it fades away again. Maybe it'll return again in a bigger or different way someday. Maybe it won't. But at least it happened once. And it's still in there, if quieter, fueling my fundamental belief that connecting with our creative selves is the fastest and easiest way to bring ourselves to life. :)
1. Prison bars...Knowing I have them, that there’s a choice to step in or out, that the choice is mine - for me, that’s really, really rough.
I like how you take the reader along with you on your journey to seeing your prison bars. I like that you don’t start at the mountaintop and “preach.” I realized as I read that you don’t have to preach; you’re telling an “I” story, not a “we” story.
2. I was raised Catholic and through the age of seventeen aspired to become a nun. I won’t get into my path away from that, but it left a gaping distance between myself and God.
Your relationship with God is fundamental to your experience. What I enjoy about your writing is that your experience doesn’t feel like it excludes mine. It feels like two people walking side by side, having a conversation; you’re not ahead of me, calling back over your shoulder, waiting for me to catch up. How magical, I thought, that I can join the fold of your story without having to suspend my own.
3. I notice I feel inspired to think and consider. To challenge myself because I am drawn to, not because I’m told to.