Julian is not alone in believing that we come into union with God by discovering union with ourselves. All the mystics are in agreement that the way to God is through the self, and this is something that those who are awakened to the Wound of Divine Love understand that those who are awakened to the Revelation of Divine Beauty might not grasp. For those of us, myself included, who first experienced the divine in an epiphany that was without context and denuded of story, it is easy to believe that epiphany is a release from self, rather than a invitation to enter more deeply into the self. When I was seventeen and standing on that hillside in the John Muir Woods, I didn’t like myself very much. When the moment of awakening ended, what I most wanted was simply to return to it. I spent the next three years trying to devise ways of doing that. I practiced Zen and Transcendental meditation. I drove around the country, visiting national parks and climbing every mountain I could find. And I dropped acid, ate shrooms, smoked pot, all in an attempt to take me out of myself and return me to the bliss of my awakening. None of these things worked, and the mystics, if I had known of the mystics and been in conversation with them, would have advised against some of these attempts. You are trying to design shortcuts to God, they would have said. God gave you a moment of grace, a vision of divinity that you can, indeed, return to. But the path back into that vision must go through your own soul. It will require moments of lacerating honesty, tears of deep contrition, a frightful willingness to forgive, and an acceptance of God’s deep love for you. Unlike Julian, I didn’t know to ask for these things, and so I wandered, unexplained, my life a mystery to myself, a mystery that I wanted to ignore.
In the midst of those years of wandering, I did have an experience that was as close as I could come to awakening to the Wound of Divine Love. The spiritual dissonance I felt arose out of my own yearning, and the work I’d been doing at a homeless shelter in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I’d taken a year off from college, and was living with my parents, who had moved to a new city where I knew no one. My days were spent in loneliness, and my nights were spent at the shelter, in the role of Night Supervisor. It was a family shelter, each family in occupying a room on the second floor of a building that had once been a middle school. During that year, I got to know and love many struggling people, some of whom I admired a great deal as I participated in their lives and came to understand, albeit at one remove, the effects of involuntary poverty on the human soul. One of my friends from that time, Tim, gave voice to a truth that has become ingrained in my understanding of myself. “I mistake every emotion I have for anger,” he said. This small piece of wisdom has helped me keep watch over and examine my own anger for thirty years.
The shelter was run by very devout evangelical Christians, and when a crisis occurred, I found myself envying their faith. One night, one of the mothers in the shelter came to the office and told me that her husband had locked himself in the bathroom with a teenage girl from one of the other families. I called the police, and her husband was arrested for attempted rape. For weeks after, I struggled with the ethics of this decision. The safety of the child was of tantamount importance, but I also knew that the arrested man’s wife, who hadn’t quite realized what would happen when she came to complain to me, now faced an even more economically perilous future for herself and her children. I was called to testify at her husband’s bail hearing, and I went over the events of that night again and again in my head, doubting every choice I made, wondering if there hadn’t been some element of self-righteousness in the way I took command of the situation, knowing that, at twenty-one, I hadn’t had a chance to earn any kind of authority in anyone’s life, including my own, and because I hadn’t earned authority, my only recourse was to exercise the authority of my position as supervisor, which I didn’t know how to be comfortable with.
Rocked by these uncertainties and the underlying anxiety of contact with the criminal justice system, I went to the courthouse for his hearing and found one of my coworkers there, also waiting to testify. She and I sat next to each other on a bench in the hallway, and she quietly read a devotional and moved her lips in prayer. I realized that she was just as anxious and afraid as I was, that she probably harbored the same self-doubts, but she had somewhere to go with those feelings. She had a relationship with God, who didn’t expect her to be perfect, or even know what to do. But she seemed to have a sense that God honored her willingness to do right, even if it was hard to find any morally pure expression of that willingness. I watched her pray and wondered at her faith, and wished I had some of my own.
At the end of the year, I resigned from the shelter and drove around the country in a red pick-up truck, going to every National Park I could find. I was still yearning after transcendence and wanting to recreate my experience in the John Muir Woods. My faith in myself, and in other people, had been shaken. Once I had idealized poor people without knowing any of them. Now I knew some of them, and accepted their full humanity, the good and the bad, and I was glad that I did, but it had been easier to hold them at one remove and insist that they were paragons of goodness and righteousness. Once I could daydream about myself as a hero, someone who could involve himself whole-heartedly in the lives of others and make things right for them. Now I knew that one part of me would stand in reserve, watching the world and my own interactions with it, and that I had no innate ability to save or even to protect. I knew, now, that any time I tried to engage I would find myself trying to balance good and bad choices, without truly being able to understand what made a choice either good or bad within a given moment. I had a very strong sense of the woundedness of both myself and the world, and a small hint of the love of God, but I still rejected the Christian story world and hoped that I could return to the experience of transcendence without having to come to terms with myself.
One day I found myself driving through Nevada. The truck had no air-conditioning, and it was a hundred degrees outside. Periodically I’d reach back through the cab window and take ice out of the cooler in the truck bed and tuck it under my bandana so that it could melt against my scalp. I had exactly four cassette tapes that I played over and over again, and a large sense of sadness as the highway sped by.
At the end of the day, I drove into the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the temperature began to cool. I followed a sign to a state park, and it led me along a dirt road to a campsite, which was empty except for three other people. No sooner had I parked than a man approached my truck and introduced himself. His name was Victor, and he was camping and fishing with his brother Pablo and his sister-in-law, Rose. I remember their names even after thirty years, because their love and kindness towards me gave me my first awakening to the Wound of Divine Love.
Victor told me that I should come join them for dinner, and that I should bring my guitar. So, after setting up my tent, I walked over to them. They gave me a drink and fed me, talking and laughing amidst the scent of spruce trees and the sound of the nearby river. After we ate, they asked me to play a song for them, and I did. They were very polite about it, but then Pablo asked if he might see my guitar. It turned out that he and Victor played together in a band in Bakersfield, and he began to play and sing in Spanish. He looked at his wife who was sitting across from him, and Victor translated the words he sang. “My wife, she is like a rose…” I sat back and stared up through the trees at the large sky overhead, and felt a different kind of awakening. Not into transcendence and the flaming beauty at the heart of the universe, but into immanence, the goodness of humanity, the possibility of deep love in our relations with each other. I left the Sierra Nevadas with a different kind of yearning. Not for mountaintops and flaming bushes, but for love and community, and confirmation that human beings could be good in an uncomplicated and easy way.
I don’t know if Victor, Pablo, and Rose were Christians. Jesus never came up in our conversation. It matters not at all. They provided an example of God’s love that contrasted sharply with my sense of the world’s woundedness, and in the dissonance of the attempt to hold these two things in balance within me, I began, slowly, to awaken again.