The fog loomed so thick I could barely detect the street signs when I left for my weekly morning retreat of solitude and prayer by the Des Moines river. In spite of the blurred visibility, I kept on driving, confident the heavy mist would soon lift. It didn’t. By the time I arrived and parked my car facing the water, I could only see a white blanket of film in front of me. From past experience I knew the thick woods existed on the opposite bank and the attentive blue herons would be sitting on the branches waiting to snatch their breakfast. And so I sat there, enveloped in a world of indistinguishable reality, knowing I could do nothing to alter the landscape. I could only enter into it and wait silently for the obscure view to change.
Ever so slowly the dense fog dissipated. Gradually the objects of the Cottonwood Recreation area took on shape and color. First, I dimly glimpsed the rapidly moving water, then the blurry outline of the trees on the opposite bank, and finally the herons patiently perched on the branches. As the air cleared, white terns flying low over the water and an eagle sitting on a rock surprised me with their presence.
When I drove away several hours later, I left with a new awareness of the dense fog being a powerful portrayal for the spiritual experience of losing a sense of relationship with the Holy One during difficult times of transition. As with physical fog, when our inner world is clouded, we can only perceive what we know of that relationship from past experience and wait with hope for what will be revealed. Like the unanticipated terns over the water and the eagle on the rock, positive surprises often reveal themselves when our inner sky finally clears.
Our prayer life is bound to be affected by what happens in our outer life. Events such as medical emergencies, divorce and other relationship breakages, death of a loved one, loss of home or work, accidents resulting in ongoing disability, serious mistakes that harm self or others, clinical depression, illnesses that refuse a diagnosis, debilitating aging, and many other unwanted experiences all affect our inner world in some way. Even events that seem positive can shift our inner landscape significantly, such as retirement, the last child leaving home, a new position at work, or a move to another city. Loss of any kind pulls us inward and often takes away our secure history of relating to the Holy One.
Undesired transitions elicit all sorts of unexpected emotional and mental responses. Anxious, uncertain, angry, bleak, boring, blaming, resentful, confused, doubtful, questioning, hopeless—these and a multitude of similar words describe the undesired developments that take over the sacred space we once regarded as a tender joining of our heart to the one heart.
If we do not resist the process, these transitional occurrences that conceal our mental vision and block our emotional connection with the Holy One serve to release our inner world of its egoic security and lessen our tight grasp on our supposed treasures.
During my thirty-five years as a spiritual director, one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of this ministry has been to witness the profound movement of spiritual growth that takes place when a person openly enters an uncomfortable period of uncertainty, a stage that leads eventually to discovering and accepting a deeper, broader, and oftentimes, quite different way of being in relationship with self, God, others, and the larger world.
Not being able to identify where we are or how we are interiorly is particularly disconcerting to the person who embraces a daily spiritual practice and yearns for union with the beloved. When foggy times arrive, instead of sensing this former state of consolation, an inability to do so emerges and with it a certain powerlessness to sense anything but an inaudible void. No striving, pushing, shoving, enticing, coercing, promising, crying out, resisting, insisting—nothing a person attempts— changes the dulled landscape of the heart.
I first came across the phrase “don’t know” and the necessity of this experience for spiritual growth in Stephen Levine’s Healing into Life and Death. Levine quotes a Korean Zen master telling students to “trust that don’t know.” Levine then develops the significance of this teaching:
It is the space in which all wisdom arises, in which alternatives are to be discovered. “Don’t know” is without all previous opinion; it does not perceive from old points of view, it is open to the many possibilities inherent in the moment. It doesn’t force conclusions, it allows the healing in…the difference between confusion and “don’t know” is that confusion can only see one way out and that way is blocked, while “don’t know” is open to miracles and insights.
This “not knowing” period finds its way into most everyone’s experience during difficult changes. It has been given a variety of names and metaphors. Liminality is one of the terms psychology uses to designate this transitional “don’t know” phase of personal growth. A “limen” consists of the threshold or in-between space in a doorway, thus liminality suggests the place where one is neither in nor out. It contains the ambiguity that develops when we are standing in the middle of a juncture of significant change. Liminality implies a disoriented vagueness in which we wander about, searching for what seems out of reach. We lose a sense of clear identity, question what seems to be a dissolving relationship with what we once believed or experienced, and doubt the nearness of divine presence. All of which leads to a painful or uncomfortable review of the values and beliefs that have given our life meaning and direction.
My liminal times have been many and varied. Usually some unexpected and unwanted development shoves me on the threshold of uncertainty. Something as devastating as the sudden death of my twenty-three-year-old brother sucked me into a bleak cave of sorrow where I could neither pray nor find any sort of consolation. Something as deliberate as moving from a beloved home where I lived for twenty years took my spiritual breath away and left me weary with the reality of impermanence. In each of my liminal times, I have rarely lost a belief that what I was going through was necessary for my ongoing spiritual transformation even though I could not find my way spiritually.
One of my experiences of this foggy spiritual realm occurred when I entered my early fifties. I had meditated with Scripture for thirty years, usually taking as my source the liturgical readings of the day. This form of meditation provided both insight and inspiration. Gradually, Scripture no longer worked as a source for meditation. I felt more and more distant and disjointed in prayer. No matter how persistent I was, I could not force even a remnant of satisfaction.
Over a year later my restless fog lifted when an intuitive spiritual director suggested I stop struggling to pray as I did in the past and be open to another way. With some fear and trepidation, I stepped across the threshold and went toward the unknown. Gradually, I discovered contemplative prayer, a silent meditation without words or deliberate thoughts. Slowly the fog lifted, and I began to sense again the one I trusted to always be with me, albeit now in a quieter way.