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Introduction (Chapter 4)
The three people who toppled my illusion
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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