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Grace in the Struggle

Today’s post is by Carl McColman

I have a confession to make. I’m a natural-born kicker and a screamer.

“Some people embrace the spiritual life with grace and ease,” my first spiritual director, Lin Ludy, told me one day in the mid-1980s. “Others, however, are dragged into heaven kicking and screaming. You, Carl, are a kicker and a screamer.”

She said it with a twinkle in her eyes, a smile on her face, and love soaked into her words. We both laughed. I had been unloading my monthly build-up of spiritual angst on her, fretting over this theological issue or that social concern or whatever personal matter was weighing heavily on my mind.

Lin wasn’t trying to criticize me or silence me. She simply wanted me to take a step back from the sturm und drang of my interior drama. She was gently reminding me that I could let go of my inner turmoil whenever I wanted.

Thirty years later, I still smile when I recall that playful moment in our director-directee relationship. But my smile is a bit rueful, because, well, three decades on, I’m still kickin’ and screamin’.

I love Winnie the Pooh, and when I read Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh I immediately recognized Pooh as a Taoist master. But we are not all Poohs. I’m afraid I’m more of a cross between Eeyore and Piglet, with a dash of Rabbit thrown in. Part pessimist, part scaredy-cat, and all amped up to a breakneck speed. Kicking and screaming. I’m one of those folks who started meditating mainly because I was so eager to find some inner peace. Of course, what I found at first was the monkey mind. But I’ve learned to recognize the luminous glimpses of silent serenity, in between the monkey’s screeches.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offer such a lovely insight into the gift of silence:

1. And now the teaching on yoga begins.
2. Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.
3. When the mind has settled, we are
established in our essential nature, which
is unbounded consciousness.
4. Our essential nature is usually overshadowed
by the activity of the mind.

(from the Alistair Shearer translation)

“The activity of the mind” — call it the monkey mind, or the “cocktail party” as Martin Laird does, or simply T.S. Eliot’s “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Kenneth Leech noted that contemplatives “explore the waste of their own being,” which takes place “in the midst of chaos and crisis.” Hmmm, perhaps we are all kickers and screamers, on some level?

But there is grace in the struggle — that’s the “unbounded consciousness” that rests within the very heart of our mental and emotional activity. God’s silence is not foreign to us; it indeed is what we are mostly made of. If you could expand an atom to the size of a cathedral, the component parts of the atom — the protons, electrons, and so forth — would be like butterflies dancing in the vast open space of the cathedral’s nave. If a single atom is mostly empty — mostly openness and silence — then that’s true of our bodies, our hearts, our minds and spirits as a whole. We are creatures of stardust and silence, and contemplative practice is simply a way of remembering who we truly are.

Thirty years on, I keep kicking and screaming. The issues may be different, but the angst is the same. Maybe the one thing that has changed is that I no longer need Lin, rest her soul, to point it out to me; I can notice it myself. And when I do notice it, I try to smile, and recall Pooh and Patanjali, and gently remember to look for the grace in the midst of it all. It’s always there, thanks be to God.

2 responses to “Grace in the Struggle”

  1. Wonderful reflection. Thank you!!!

  2. Thank you for this fine reflection. I was especially touched by your remembrance of Lin Ludy. How
    I loved interacting with her at Shalem retreats! Lin, of Blessed Memory!

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