Archive for Death

On Joy, Pain & Divine Laughter

Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful – his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of his goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying. -St. Theresa of Avila

This piece of sculpture and St. Theresa’s vision had a profound effect on me when I visited Rome in my early twenties. When you see the piece, it is as if it is floating on air, the marble is to thin in places that it seem transfused with light. Both the sculpture and the vision are a paradox. The sculpture is both heavy stone and ethereal light, the vision is joy and pain captured in the same moment.

I have been wondering about pain and joy over the last several days. I’m beginning to feel I too serious. I think maybe the Divine does not expect us to be so solemn. As usual, I’m thinking about making art and about the emptiness and silence it requires, the pain and suffering it can bring up. I discussed fear and pain on numerous occasions, but never joy and I have to ask myself why.

St. Theresa’s vision shows us that pain and joy can coexist. The pain implicit in having a physical form need not stamp out the joy of our connection to the Divine. In fact, in St. Theresa’s vision, her joy is felt physically as well as spiritually. She describe pleasure, the vision is almost sexual in nature. When I discuss and think about Divine creativity, I always feel very serious and solemn. I’m sure I take myself much too seriously! I’ve been rereading Wendy Beckett’s The Mystical Now, Art and the Sacred and I came upon this quote:

If we confuse ‘the sacred’ and ‘the solemn’, we are only allowing God to come to us from one direction. (p. 34)

What if I allowed that the possibility of joy while creating is equal to the possibility of pain? What if I embrace art as play with the Divine? Could I capture the abandon of a child at play as well as the meditative silence of a monk at prayer? I think I do when I work. Making art is definitely a form of play, but my mind is more sensitized to the suffering and difficulties. Would a small shift in perception change my whole experience of creating?

In his book Coming Home: The Experience of Enlightenment in Sacred Traditions, Lex Hixon has an essay entitled The Landscape that laughs: Jewish Soul Masters of the Hassidic Way. This essay is all about the experience of joy and laughter as a direct experience of the Divine. It’s an amazing essay with so much to quote, but this passage really struck me:

Awakening to our own Divine Nature is not achieved automatically by going through certain steps in a sacred system, by prayers or meditations or rituals, no matter how sincere we may be. Ecstasy must first burn away these efforts of grasping God, leaving us with only apparent nonsense…Whatever bizarre or sublime form the holy presence may choose to assume and speak through, It redirects us to our original home, to the priceless spark of our intrinsic nature.

…Elie Wiesel writes about these stories of Rebe Nachman: “Laughter occupies an astonishingly important place in his work. Here and there, one meets a man who laughs and does nothing else. Also a landscape that laughs.” We encounter the same holy laughter in an account of kensho, or Enlightenment by a contemporary Japanese [Zen] practitioner: “At midnight I abruptly awakened. At first my mind was foggy, then suddenly that quotation flashed into my consciousness: “I came to realize clearly that Mind is no other than mountains, rivers, and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.’ …Instantaneously, like surging waves, a tremendous delight welled up in me, a veritable hurricane of delight, as I laughed loudly and wildly: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! The empty sky split in two, then opened it’s enormous mouth and began to laugh uproariously: Ha, ha, ha!'” Rebbe Nochman and this contemporary Japanese Buddhist both encounter a landscape that laughs. There is no fundamental cultural separation: ecstasy is ecstasy, fire is fire. (p. 121-122)

I have had two experiences with Divine Laughter, both around death. The first was with Lex Hixon himself. I was blessed to spend some time with him during college. Many years later I was told that he had died of cancer a number of years earlier. I was very sad and immediately said a prayer for him. Suddenly I heard him laughing and laughing with his distinctive voice as if he were in the room. There was such joy in his voice. My second experience was during the death of friends husband. I received a call from my friend that her husband had been taken to the hospital. She lived an hour away and I jumped in the car and drove to meet her. The whole way I was busy worrying and praying for her. When I was just about there, I suddenly realized I should be praying for him as well. It was as if the thought had been inserted into my head. Instantly I heard him laughing and laughing as if he were in the room. His laughter filled he car, there was such freedom and abandon in it. He suffered from severe depression so it was quite shocking to hear. When I arrived at the hospital I found that he had died at the exact time I had heard his laughter. I always felt that his laughter was a message for my friend, but now I see it was a message for me too. There is joy to be had here in this physical form.

I feel liberated, as if I am starting out on a new journey. I will keep you posted on my progress!

Dreaming of Death: When Art Changes Life

To what shore would you cross, O my heart? there is no traveler
before you, there is no road:
Where is the movement, where is the rest, on that shore?
There is no water; no boat, no boatman, is there;
There is not so much as a rope to tow the boat, nor a man to draw
No earth, no sky, no time, no thing, is there: no shore, no ford!
There, there is neither body nor mind: and where is the place
that shall still the thirst of the soul? You shall find naught
in that emptiness.
Be strong, and enter into your own body: for there your foothold
is firm. Consider it well, O my heart! go not elsewhere,
Kabîr says: “Put all imaginations away, and stand fast in that
which you are.”
Songs of Kabir Vol. II: XX

It has been quite a while since I have written here. The spiritual changes that took place during my trip to St. Thomas have sent a tidal wave through my life and art work. Perhaps I should say, instead, that the act of making art in St. Thomas, my complete surrender to my process without control has transformed my life dramatically. It seems to be my path that everything that happens in my life is dramatic and I am beginning to make peace with that and enjoy it.

I will take me several posts to explain why my life has peeled apart like an onion, but let me start at the beginning with dreaming of death. (Don’t worry, my health is better than it has been in years.)

Shortly after my return I had 3 dreams:

1) I was in a large stone church. It was just at dawn and cool and damp inside. In front of me was a heavy stone door. I was told that if I opened the door I would die. I can still here the grinding of stone door against stone floor. I turned away without opening the door and entered into a large room with an open hole in the roof (like the Palladium in Rome). I was told I could go that way too (through the hole) and I hid. When I awoke I was scared.
2) A couple weeks later, I dreamed I was racing up, up into the sky, faster and faster. The stars became more and more intense and beautiful. Finally the beauty and speed was so overwhelming I became tearful. Then an opening in the shape of a door appeared in the sky. It was an intense white light against the dark, bejeweled sky. I said to myself, “Ah, I know what that is, but not yet…” Then I slowed down and returned to earth. This time I awoke feeling great with no fear.
3) A man whose face I couldn’t see handed me a pocket watch. I looked the face and it was so beautiful, it seemed to encompass the whole sky I had seen in my other dream. I began to get choked up. He said, “You can stay or go, it’s your choice, but I think you should stay and enjoy yourself.” So, I did.

From these dreams, I understand that it is my choice to be here and, more importantly, that I have accomplished everything I need to in this life. The keys words are everything “I need” to accomplish. There maybe more for me to do here, but these tasks will come through guidance, not will.

When I allowed my art to lead me completely on St. Thomas, I opened my body to the Divine in a way I never had before. I emptied myself of the need to control. This created vacuum which filled me with Self. Although I have had direct experience of Divine love, most of my connection to God has existed outside of my physical body. Now my connection is integrated into my body and my life. I don’t need anything, I am simply waiting and listening for direction.

It is surprising how effective waiting and listening can be. Our culture tells us to go out and push make things happen, “be a go getter”, etc. I am astounded how much more effective listening without an agenda can be.

In one short month, the Universe aligned such that my family & I are moving to Florida, we received an offer on our house and secured a new home down south. In my next post I’ll talk more about the ease and grace we have felt during this process and how it was that my life began to peal apart like an onion in the first place. Now that I truly understand surrender and am learning trust. I’ll also have so new pictures of artwork to post.

3 things I’m grateful for today: My garden, the hot day, some time to myself.