“I want to write about faith,” is the first line of one my favorite poems by David Whyte. He continues, “but I have no faith myself…but let this then, my small poem…be the first prayer that opens me to faith.”
I have always loved this poem because from my experience, it describes the process of faith so honestly.
Recently a client asked me, “Wendy, do you pray?” She is in the midst of her own struggles with faith. “Yes I pray,” I said, “and prayer for me seems to have seasons.” The answer came out without thought. And I was pleased with it. I have spent many years trying to ‘install’ a prayer practice in my life. I memorized “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace, where there is hatred let me sow love…etc.” I learned ancient chants in odd languages, repetitive songs in Portuguese and most recently prayer beads each morning at the edge of the ocean.
During the Pandemic something changed. The tremendous longing I felt to reach God — to feel some sort of communion— not to feel so alone, diminished.
Friends are experimenting with drugs to help them feel closer to God. Especially of interest to me is one nicknamed ‘the God Molecule’. “Take it and you instantly know the face of God,” they say. Other friends invite us to join a church with them. My husband Tom answers, “We are the church.” And I know what he means in all humility. At some point we have wrangled with faith and prayer long enough to have what Sharon Saltzberg calls ‘Abiding Faith’.
We have been through the other stages of faith that Saltzberg maps. The faith she calls ‘Bright Faith’ — the exciting time when we discovered a spiritual path and it felt like this is it! I will follow it and all its dogma, ritual and conventions. Here I turned my faith over to a charismatic guru. He had what we needed if we followed him. Recently this man died and I think over my relationship with him throughout the years. Sometimes I would ask him to help me with my faith and he would give me one of his favorite books to read. It was a personal and meaningful gesture to me — thumbing through his book, the worn pages—but the words were esoteric to me. I could not connect to them. It left me feeling more alone.
Other stages of faith must include doubt and the right to question. I remember sitting in a circle with a renowned spiritual leader a few years ago and we all talked about faith. I was the only one in the circle that named doubt as a key ingredient to my faith. It felt good to give voice to doubt — for me it is what grounds faith. Doubt comes when you actually begin to ‘live with faith’ and the first thing to run into is doubt. It feels inextricably bound to faith. Two sides of the same coin.
The opposite of faith is fear. Being together so much during the pandemic I experience a connection with my husband that is a salve to my deepest longing. I say something obscure or half thought out and he is right there with me, understanding, filling in the unformed parts like a miracle. Over time the miracle has transformed into the everyday pleasure of ‘us’ and my seemingly unquenchable need for God has disappeared. I hear friends, reaching, searching, experimenting with changing states of consciousness and I think, “Oh that used to be me.” And I am startled. So much alchemy happened and I am just now noticing!
The next moment I feel crushing fear…and I may lose my husband, either through my death or his. Or fear says,” even worse, either of us may have some debilitating illness and the loss will be gradual and so painful.” With this fear I can run many scenarios of dread. Intense love, intense fear right on it’s coattails — my dualistic human self will drum it up immediately.
However, recently I worked with a young couple facing a terminal diagnosis. I was so moved by their faith. Their resolute commitment to each other and the apparent difficult path they had chosen together. The session was about one of them taking in that the other was fully ‘in it’ with them. They were not alone. It was like life shrunk to one essential thing, that connection. I went straight afterwards to a body worker I see frequently. But something extraordinary happened there. The energy in my body became animated with intense pleasure. Time slowed down to a standstill. I could feel warmth slowly seeping into the bottom of my feet in ecstasy. All day this feeling persisted. Swimming, my body moving through the water, the sunlight shimmering. This was a shift in consciousness. I imagined this was what Echardt Tolle walked around feeling all the time, awakened. I felt all my body tension and holding patterns which have braced me against fear loosened. I could be in life free of fear and all the musculature in my body that defends against it. Life shimmered with energy and possibility inside and outside of me.
Gradually, it dissipated. I went back to the body worker this week and tried to describe what happened. “I know,” he said. “I felt it too.”
On Valentines Day last month I was at the gym working out and listening to my playlist. Landslide by Stevie Nicks came on. And these words that she wrote when she was 27 years old felt that they were meant for me as I approach 70.