” Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”- 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Today will be difficult so I am writing. It’s my drug of choice in times of strong emotion and particularly soothing right now with a cup of hot green tea at hand, in the quiet of the earliest morning before sunrise.
Later today we will bury Harrison. His obituary says: “He passed peacefully in the arms of his family after a beautiful and unforgettable hour. His life was a brief gift to all that loved him and he will never be forgotten.” Harrison was the newborn son of my nephew Patrick and his partner Diana.
When Patrick was born 28 years ago, my brother (his father) and sister-in-law let me come into the delivery room with them. Patrick came forth after the normal struggle of childbirth and we laughed that he was a “conehead” because his pointy head had been squished in the birth canal during his entrance.
Patrick grew up to be a fine man. I served as Patrick’s godmother as he entered the Greek Orthodox faith through baptism and chrismation. He became a church altar boy and made the family proud with his sweet and gentle demeanor. I still see the faces of Patrick and my son Clint in altar boy robes as they flanked the casket of my father at his memorial service, tears streaming down their young boy faces in the light of the candles they held.
Patrick and Diana made a family with Diana’s young daughter Mya, and their son Lincoln who will be 2 this year. They were delighted to learn Diana was pregnant again but their joy soon turned to shock and sorrow when they learned their infant had Trisomy 18, a life threatening genetic disorder that causes devastating medical issues and often death. Undeterred, they named their in utero baby boy and we all became acquainted with Harrison.
From the moment they named him, Harrison became a person. A person who was a member of our family, and for whom we began to pray and worry. Patrick and Diana started a gofundme account to help with the inevitable medical expenses and the cost of sole provider Patrick’s projected absence from his job as a chef near their home in Northern Iowa. Their page kept us all posted on Harrison’s developments.
From the beginning the young parents were committed to seeing Harrison all the way through his birth. Abortion was mentioned by well meaning relatives, but they were champions of life from the get go. After all, this was not just a fetus; it was Harrison. As a pro choice individual I have to admit, Harrison brought me to a new understanding of life and I am more conflicted than before about this delicate issue.
Harrison’s parents sought the best medical treatment for his imminent arrival. They were connected to a hospital well versed in Trisomy 18 and the doctors were strong partners in their quest to spare no effort in helping Harrison. The ultrasound confirmed abnormalities would be life threatening once he breathed his first breath. They were encouraged with small bits of hopefulness such as the determination that despite other challenges, his heart was strong and mighty.
Spiritual support came forth. A Greek Orthodox monk friend saw Patrick’s Facebook post and rallied the monks at his monastery. “We are praying for Patrick, Diana, Mya, Lincoln and Harrison each specifically and by name,” he reported. Graciously they also volunteered a burial plot at the monastery for Harrison should it be needed. Being covered in prayer, the family felt supported in ways beyond the reach of a gofundme page.
At 33 weeks, “Harrison took things into his own hands,” stated Patrick’s Facebook post and Diana went into labor. An unusually fierce snowstorm had struck and they were unable to make it to the hospital that was awaiting Harrison’s arrival. Instead a nearby hospital would have to do, and Diana gracefully demanded a C-Section when the staff who were not as familiar with Harrison’s medical condition tried to get her to have a vaginal birth. Harrison’s siblings Maya and Lincoln were along too since the grandmothers could not make it through the storm in time to babysit while mom and dad went to the hospital.
The obituary had it right.Harrison lived an hour. He was surrounded by his family. His medical conditions were too substantial to sustain life. Even the more elaborate hospital couldn’t have helped. A professional photographer came in to take his baby pictures. He was wrapped in a blanket and stocking cap, showing only his perfectly formed, beautiful angelic face. When Patrick sent me the picture all I could say was “There’s Harrison!” as though I had known him my whole life.
“I don’t want to say goodbye to him,” Patrick texted yesterday when he and Diana were on their way to the mortuary to see their son for the last time. Harrison is coming home to be buried in the same cemetery as my father. To conserve funds, Patrick will drive his son in his tiny casket from the mortuary three hours to the grave site in West Des Moines. “I’m leaving soon to get my boy,” he texted me moments ago. He is bringing his son home. Harrison will be buried in the “Garden of the Innocent” not far from the mausoleum where my dad rests, and amidst other babies who have died.
Later today, our immediate family will gather at the gravesite, along with our monk friend and our Greek Orthodox priest. On St. Patrick’s Day we will bury Patrick’s son, our beloved Harrison. He is every bit as cherished a member of our family as the old grandparents we have buried before him. It’s hard to explain how one can feel so connected to a spirit who only passed through so briefly. It’s something I have never experienced before in my life, and has been quite unexpected. I like to envision my father holding his great grandson Harrison in his arms with a big smile, like I saw him hold my three adult children when they were infants.
Harrison’s innocence, his courage, his radiance, the devotion of his parents, his reminder to all of us that life is fragile and every moment matters, and his valiant struggle to breathe in this beautiful gift of life for even only an hour has profoundly changed us. Godspeed my great nephew.
We love you Harrison.
O Lord Who watches over children in the present life and in the world to come because of their simplicity and innocence of mind, abundantly satisfying them with a place in Abraham’s bosom, bringing them to live in radiantly shining places where the spirits of the righteous dwell: receive in peace the soul of Your little servant Harrison, for You Yourself have said, “Let the little children come to Me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Amen.
“Why are you cast down O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?”-Psalm 42:5
Several months ago I went through a rough time and I didn’t know if it qualified as depression. I’d suffered from a massive depression 35 years prior in law school that left me catatonic and treating with a psychiatrist. There had been hard days when the kids were little, a sad time after my divorce, and “the blues” triggered by menopause hormones but nothing that didn’t ultimately pass through. This time seemed different.
My brother had been diagnosed with cancer and it was a dark and lonely trek walking alongside him. My “rock” bolted in the middle of it, unable to handle my constant sadness and emotional exhaustion. Incidents with a few close friends made me realize that I’d misjudged the depth of our friendship. I felt alone and my usual comfort from my relationship with God wasn’t coming through.
I started to see a compassionate therapist and brought him up to speed on my circumstances. He pronounced my “downer” the result of grief and loss of epic proportions. It was helpful talking to him and we agreed to meet once a month to touch in. I’d find myself driving to his office wondering what in the world I would talk about for an hour and then getting there talking so fast I couldn’t stop even as time ran out. Yet therapy still didn’t satisfy my aching heart and soul which only seemed to get worse.
One of my stalwart girlfriends is a spiritual warrior. “Dark night of the soul,” she pronounced, and I wondered if there was such a thing, and how it differed from depression. I took to reading about the subject and hearing from people who had endured one.
Named after the poem by Roman Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross, a “dark night of the soul” is a period in which you feel overwhelming despair, and during which God is purportedly taking you deeper into new realms of spiritual experience even though it seems like he has disappeared. A big part of the experience is to let go of ego, surrender to the situation, and recognize that through courage and perseverance you are being groomed for greater love and awareness.
I don’t know about you, but my idea of a deepening spiritual experience would be an outstanding dream during which answers automatically fall out of a cloud like mystical raindrops quenching the dryness of a stagnant, sad period of life. Or maybe a walk in nature during which an incredible download of clarity drops on your head and you have a new wealth of inspiration and zest for life. Sitting in an empty abyss of nothingness didn’t exactly seem like fertile ground for getting jazzed with God and his grace. And did I forget to mention that during the dark night there is an increased temptation to engage in destructive behavior?
The Dark Night isn’t a purely spiritual crisis and it’s not a purely psychological one. It’s the best of both meaning it can’t be “therapized” away and can’t be prayed away either. I had the psychological angle covered with the therapist but I couldn’t find spiritual comfort with God. He’d gone silent. King David spoke of this in Psalm 13:1,”How long Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
Waiting out the dark night is often all that can be done, but during the process it is helpful to pray for revelation of what God is trying to “burn off” from you. Often it’s a need to let go of control, recognize the impermanence of much of life, and surrender to trust and acceptance of things that cause you fear. The ego loves control and fearfulness; the dark night is in battle with the ego. It’s like there is a spiritual wrestling match between ego and surrender and the dark night had to come to provide a venue for the show down.
The more you resist the process, the longer it lasts and the more likely you are to have to go through it more than once. If the process is fully embraced there are things that “die” (usually things of the flesh, control and the comfortable life) leaving behind a path of love, compassion, understanding and spiritual awakening of the essence of the most important things in life.
Unlike depression which can leave you unable to function, those in a dark night are often able to continue with their work and acts of compassion. The spirit stays strong and belief strengthens even though it seems like there is good reason to abandon faith. Thoughts of self loathing or self harm present in depression don’t appear in the dark night.
Even Mother Theresa suffered from a dark night of the soul as evidenced by the writings she left behind. “I am told God lives in me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul,” she wrote in 1957. Many were astonished that she would have had these thoughts, but those who know about the dark night aren’t surprised.
I know that all suffering transforms us. Having moved through my “dark night” I have more clarity and passion for my purpose, a new appreciation for the strong relationships in my life (including a beautiful new one), and a renewed spiritual strength.
Everywhere I turn I’m hearing about meditation. There are meditation retreats, podcasts, books and people pitching its benefits. I’m noticing a divide beginning: either you meditate or you don’t. Some with other traditional spiritual practices incorrectly dismiss meditation as being affiliated with a specific religion, usually Buddhism.
I studied Transcendental Meditation in the 1970’s with meditators who set up shop in a big musty house near the Drake University campus. I was in high school and my ultra hip boyfriend at the time convinced me to take the training. We were each assigned a mantra, and we started a mediation practice that didn’t endure. I’m not convinced I really understood the premise as a teenager, pursuing the practice mostly to prove to my boyfriend that I was “avant garde.”
I have had a beautiful spiritual practice that has endured for me, and it’s PRAYER, based on my Christian faith.
I learned to pray as a child in the Methodist church Sunday school classroom, praying simple table grace and prayers before bed. At age 12, my family returned to the Greek Orthodox Church and I was exposed to long, poetic prayers in both Greek and English. The prayers of the church were drafted for us by saints and holy people, and we were taught it was safest to pray those specific prayers so that you were sure to approach God with reverence.
For years I’ve loved Orthodox prayer especially because it requires my full attention and the prayers are all encompassing. As a young wife and mother I set up a home altar facing east with incense, a candle (representing the light of Christ) religious icons and my prayer book and would pray as the sun came up knowing that the sunrise offers promise and is a masterpiece of God. Praying first thing in the morning grounds me, keeps my mind clear, makes me have a better day. I’ve even traveled to local monasteries to be among the prayer warriors.
The Greek Orthodox use prostrations during prayer. We may simply bend down and sweep the back of our hand to the floor before doing the sign of the cross across our bodies. During the spiritual boot camp of Lent, we get on the floor on all fours and bend our bodies down, praying a special prayer asking God to help us make powerful transformative changes in our lives. We are encouraged to pray at sunrise, sunset and “the hours” marking times of events such as the hour the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost and the hour Christ was nailed to the cross.
I’ve recently broadened my prayer life with influence from Protestant literature. I read “Let Prayer Change Your Life,” a book that encourages journaling your prayers; nirvana for someone who loves to write. Once I began the journaling practice my heart opened up immeasurably and my prayers became more personal. In times of distress my prayers seem as powerful as those of the psalmists. I now use my Orthodox prayers along with prayers that I journal.
I love reading in the Bible about Jesus’ prayer life: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”– Luke 5:16
In the New Testament the action would be heating up and the disciples would basically say, “Hey where did Jesus go?” Low and behold they would figure out he was off praying somewhere. He wasn’t a fan of theatrical public prayer even calling out the “holy people” as hypocrites in Matthew 6:5 because “they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”
Instead, Jesus instructed us “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:6
Prayer is very personal. I choose to believe that God is just grateful that we are trying to make a divine connection, in any way that is authentic to us. Author Anne Lamott defines prayer as “anything you say to God from your heart.” She wrote a book distilling most prayer to the words “Help, Thanks, Wow.”
As a lawyer and mediator (careful, meditate and mediate can get confusing!) I enjoy praying for clients. On rare occasions I do this with them, but most often it is done silently after they leave my office or before we enter into court or mediation. In “Praying for Strangers” the author decided to find a person in her path every day and to offer to pray for them. She chronicles the stories of the people she touched through this practice and the conclusion is an obvious one: we can all use prayer.
Prayer and meditation aren’t mutually exclusive. If there were a “mantra” from the Bible it would come from Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about (or in some translations, MEDITATE ON) such things.” For me that means watching the news less, and meditating on these things more.
The Bible also gives us meditation direction in Joshua 1:8 “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” Just as many meditators focus on the breath, those who use the Bible focus on specific verses sometimes reading them over a few times, slowly emphasizing different words. Through prayer we add the next step, asking God “What does this say to me?” “How do I apply this to my life?” “What are you equipping me to do through this passage?”
Like meditation, prayer doesn’t come easily and to receive the full benefit it must be a consistent practice. Praying to God in the car or when you think of it is great but that type of “prayer on the run” might be similar to meditation on on the run. When my prayer life is disciplined and rich I have much more clarity, serenity and focus.
I’m convinced meditation and prayer can live in tandem in my spiritual life and I’m choosing not to get bogged down in semantics. Recently I gathered a group of lawyer colleagues to meet weekly and study “The Anxious Lawyer” , a book for lawyers that provides instruction on how to meditate.
A solid spiritual practice can bring richness to our lives. Whether it is solitude, nature, prayer, meditation, creativity or something else, we can each choose a method that resonates with us.