In the cool air of a post-rain afternoon, there is little room to wonder about the presence of the Divine in our lives. Too much life is filtering in through cracked windows. A gentle, fragrant mist cycles in and out of the lungs. Crickets chirp contentedly and birds call casually as they glide through the air. The clouds part, just slightly, maintaining a gentle white ceiling but inviting sun to alight the damp grass.
In times, such as these, the courtesy of nature abounds. It infuses our bones and dissolves the distinctions between the physical and energetic body. It might be called grace.
Alternately, there is a Tom Waits song, “Georgia Lee.” In it, the old crooner tells the tragedy of a young girl found dead in the woods. He posits the questions, “why wasn’t God watching, why wasn’t God listening, why wasn’t God there for Georgia Lee?”
Indeed, many ask at times of inexplicable grief, “where is God in that!?” Hollywood likes to use the question as a means for one character to express their disillusionment. Often, it’s directed to a man or woman of faith, who might smile calmly and place a gentle hand on their shoulder. Where is God, indeed!
Trying to locate “God” in moments of crisis is to evoke the appearance of separation. In other words, it is the question itself that creates the need for it to be asked at all. Asking stands in the way of seeing and receiving God’s Presence.
The answer to the question “where is God?” is invariable, regardless of circumstance. It is always simply “there.” Presence may be silent, may be invisible, but there, whether it is the blissful peace after a rainstorm or a gentle hand from a loving mentor. Each present moment is an invitation back to wholeness. Taking the time to ask “where is God” is a waste, a move out of Presence and away from connection to the Divine.
There is no room to contemplate God when we are fully saturated by divine Grace. The mind runs blank and smooth like a lake at night. Neither do we bother to look for love and light when our heart fills so completely with grief that we have no will to continue. But neither situation changes the Reality in which we exist at every moment.
The pleasant air after a summer rain is the same as losing a child in that each is filled with so much of God’s loving gifts that it is impossible to comprehend. The poet and the mystic are overwhelmed by each. Tears flow in equal measure. Love to all is the only logical response.
If the “spiritual path” leads somewhere, it is to a place where all moments have the power to overwhelm mind, body, and emotion. Every experience is so full of God that questions and separation cannot find a place to sit. Each step becomes so soaked in the Grace of God that we must surrender to the muck beneath our feet, lay down and stare up at the heavens in awe-filled gratitude. In the process, our tears add to the cosmic soup in which our bodies drown. There is no room left to think or make distinctions or complain about being dirty and wet. We are overwhelmed, overcome, and in complete and utter bliss. We can only cry and laugh and sing and dance.
If there is no distinction between two extremes, there is no middle ground either. The “mundane” or “small” moments hold the same power as the “enchanting” or “big” ones. Each subtle act of the world around us is more beautiful than the greatest poem or love ballad. And yet, the experience of these too is elevated beyond words from our place in the muck.
Of course, there are occasions, experiences, that we don’t want. It would be unbearable to find a beloved daughter dead in the woods, for instance. And so, we deny its purpose, its divinity. “This, surely, cannot be the work of a loving God.” From that place, there are seemingly only two explanations. Either there is no loving God, or he’s taken a holiday. One is disheartening, the other implausible. But there is a third option that is less about God and more about our own, for lack of a better word, shit.
We don’t want to accept all the parts of life – it’s pains, tragedies, and impossible griefs. And so, we cannot accept all the parts of ourselves, let alone God. To deny the divinity of one thing is to deny the divinity of all things. As long as we play the game of deciding what God is involved in and not, we are stranded in perpetual misery, prone to wonder why we’ve been “abandoned.” In truth, we’ve abandoned aspects of ourselves, which has opened the door to the sensation of separation.
The rejected parts of ourselves, we carry as weights wrapped around our neck. People ask, “what’s wrong?” We answer, “I don’t know” or blame some external predicament that has not gone according to plan – a rainy birthday, the death of a loved one, some annoyance at work. But these are all just excuses to avoid the source of the problem.
There is one main cause of suffering – whether we suffer directly or through the burden of witnessing tragedy happen to someone else, empathetically. It is the refusal to accept (and often even look at) our own shadow. For example, we might feel guilt when something bad happens to someone we care about. But the guilt is not what plagues us. It is our inability to face our guilt with honesty and directness.
Waits’ song about Georgia Lee recounts the helplessness of those she left behind to have prevented her brutal demise. Some invisible force drove Georgia down a self-destructive path. In truth, Waits is not saying God wasn’t “there” on the day she died; God seemed absent to the whole journey that brought her to that point. Ida, some vague guardian of Georgia Lee, says “I was doing the best that I could.” She soothes herself to assuage her guilt because, to face it, would be too overwhelming.
We live in a culture that soothes as the natural response to grief. But this is a denial of the parts of us that cannot be soothed. Counterintuitively, the path through guilt and grief is to face it fully, integrate it and accept it as part of us. Ida needed to acknowledge her role in Georgia’s death, even if the impulse of her and everyone around her was to say something like ‘it’s not your fault’ or ‘there was nothing you could do.’ These words may seem like kindness, a means to keep the weight of guilt from crushing poor Ida. But they are just a bit of paint on a dilapidated barn that’s liable to crumble to the ground at any moment.
Now, as I like to say, two things can be true. Ida might be right that she “did the best that she could.” But, unless she wants to suffer eternally, she needs to also face the voice in her head, the one she’s trying to ignore, which says “your best was not good enough.”
In separating the parts of herself, Ida is ensuring she will never be at peace. The caretaking effort she put into, for instance, keeping Georgia “from dropping out of school,” she’s labeled acceptable. The part of her that failed to prevent her from dropping out, she does not accept. Breathing life into one aspect of herself and denying oxygen to another is the source of her continuing discontent.
Ida decided that one piece of her is “good,” the other is “bad” and needs to be ignored so she can live with herself. But, while she may live, it’s only a half-life. Until she faces and embraces both – the calm after the storm and the murder in the woods – she will be unwholly. She will continue to have to ask the question, well “why wasn’t God watching?” I, after all, “was doing the best that I could!” In doing so, she feeds the apparent separation between herself and God. She will always be in a state of war, in turmoil and sorrow. The alternative is to push through the painfulness of her own perceived failures back to wholeness.
Once, when I was maybe six years old, I climbed a tree in front of my family home. My young bones leapt down to ease the painful experience of a bark-laden descent. I landed on a board with a nail jutting out. It sank into the rubber of my shoe but not deep enough to penetrate sock and skin.
To appreciate this, we need some quick backstory. A few years prior, I’d stepped on a hive of ground bees and nearly died. From that moment on, I had to wear shoes anytime I was outside. Where was God that a little boy suffered and nearly died, as his mother looked on in horror, traumatized? There.
I hate shoes now – and socks for that matter. They constrain the free expression of my feet. I’ve often called socks, in particular, “oppressive.” There is a story that they separate me from a connection to the Earth and, by extension, to God. What a rube I turn out to be!
One question remains. Which aspect(s) of this anecdote is a metaphor for the question that leads to apparent separation? That, I’ll leave you to contemplate for the rest of the month.
Until we meet again dear friends.