Self-Simplication & Catherine of Siena

Stages of Spiritual Development

What tastes, likes, dislikes, ways of being, are getting in the way of you hearing the sound of the genuine within yourself? What is keeping you from ordering your loves so that you can truly know God? Why is it so hard to become still enough to name these things, still enough to look deeply into yourself? Try this. Make a list of the roles you play in the lives of the people around you. What are your responsibilities? Which of them are chosen, and which were imposed on you? What would be the cost of letting them go? 

We live busy lives, full of responsibilities, and our self-image gets caught up in the expectations of others.  Self-simplification isn’t just about deciding that we can have fewer pairs of pants, or cleaning out the basement. It’s about removing interior clutter, which includes a fearless inventory of the tasks we undertake and the roles that we play, and some honesty about whether they actually bring us closer to God or not. For a good ten years of my life, I wanted to be a fiction writer. I was terrible at it, but I persisted, going to my desk every morning to write at least 500 words. I didn’t actually like writing fiction, but I had an image of myself as a successful and admired author, and I wasn’t willing to let that image die. Yet when I did, I found that time at my desk every morning could be used for prayer. My life deepened, I became less compulsive and driven, I grew happier and more content when I stopped trying to become something I wasn’t meant to be. Self-simplification is, in part, about letting illusions die, and discovering the things that are born as a result.

Surrendering an image of myself as a novelist was relatively easy, but there are other roles that it is much harder to surrender. Parenthood brings many responsibilities, and a lot of social scrutiny, with all sorts of helpful people just waiting to tell you whether you’re doing it right. But parenthood is also an act of continual surrender, because as our children grow and change, they need different things from us as parents, and as soon as we’ve figured out who we are as the parents of five year olds, we have to give up that knowledge and those roles to become the parents of six year olds. To simplify as a parent is to say, “I don’t know everything I’m supposed to be doing, but I do know how to love my child, and I’ll stay attentive to that love.” The same is true in our occupations. Our jobs are constantly changing, and the only way to negotiate that change well is to give up on the illusion of isolated and all-knowing expertise and come to rely on the ideas, innovations, and wisdom of the people around us. Self-simplification in work simply comes from saying “I love the work and the good it does more than I love promotions, status, and people kowtowing to my expertise. So I’m going to ignore those things and work in the way that’s most loving.”

One of the great theologians of the church, Catherine of Siena, had much to say about how we learn to self-simplify and align ourselves with love. For Catherine, the purification of the self can be a form of charity. She didn’t see any difference between the inner and outer person. Someone who tries to do many good works in the world, but is full of anger and harsh criticisms for the people who surround her, is not practicing real charity, and her works won’t have any lasting effects. In order to truly be charitable, one has to cultivate virtue. We do this by learning to be humble and by learning to order our disordered loves. In order to learn either of these things, we must truly come to know ourselves. We must discern, bravely and honestly, all that is good and all that is bad within ourselves.*

When our inner selves are aligned with God’s love, we will be able to enact that love in the world. But Catherine says that even this interior work of ordering our disordered loves is a form of action. Even when we’re doing nothing but struggling with ourselves in the depth of our souls, that struggle has a reverberating effect. Because as we grow in grace and love, we contribute more and more to the atmosphere of grace. Think of grace as an environment that we all live and act in. Like our world’s environment, this environment of grace can be hurt by our selfishness, our unthinking waste, our belief that we can dominate it and don’t need to cooperate with it. But we are like trees (and indeed, a tree is one of Catherine’s favorite metaphors), and our interior processes release oxygen into this environment of grace, so that other creatures, other people, can dwell within it in fullness and joy.

So you see, self-simplification is really not about you. It’s about God’s love, acting through you so that it can be expressed as love for neighbor. For Catherine, and for the other mystics, self-simplication is about clearing the blockages that get in the way of God’s love. In order to know which parts of ourselves are getting in the way, we have to know ourselves deeply and honesty. And so we are led, by love, back to the challenging work of discernment. Let’s have Catherine have the last word, for now, about discernment:

Discernment is that light which dissolves all darkness, dissipates ignorance, and seasons every virtue and virtuous deed. It has a prudence that cannot be deceived, a strength that is invincible, a constancy right up to the end, reaching as it does from heaven to earth, that is, from the knowledge of me to the knowledge of oneself, from love of me to love of one’s neighbors. Discernment’s truly humble prudence evades every devilish and creaturely snare, and with unarmed hand — that is, through suffering — it overcomes the devil and the flesh. By this gentle glorious light the soul sees and rightly despises her own weakness; and by so making a fool of herself she gains mastery of the world [the small self], treading it underfoot with her love, scorning it as worthless.

Catherine, ., & Noffke, S. (1980). Catherine of Siena: The dialogue. New York: Paulist Press.

* My tendency is to try to ignore or sidestep a call to such discernment by working at things that don’t really matter, drinking too much, and giving myself over to entertainments that distract but don’t give any real joy. To stay within such discernment is hard for me, so I wrote a small prayer that I say when I’m tempted to hide or run away. It helps me a great deal. Perhaps it will help you as well.

Wander with me, Beloved, into the cave of myself, into the desert of my heart, onto an ocean of memory in a rudderless boat. Allow me to love myself, my chief neighbor. Allow shame to abrade me and make me humble. Allow me to hear myself, for I am a word that you speak, for I am your echo, and the answer to a question that you ask. Ask your question within me. Help me to question myself. Although in a cave, I cannot hide. Although in a desert, I am not alone. Although I am rudderless, I am guided by you. For you are a question, and you are an answer, and you are the emptiness before the next question.

Self-Simplication, Detachment, and Mortification

Stages of Spiritual Development

Evelyn Underhill calls the journey in pursuit of stillness “the costly ordering of disordered loves.” We love so many things, and it’s fine to love many things. The taste of chocolate is good and beautiful, and a glass of wine can bring a sense of ease and joy. Sex, dancing, dressing up, participating in the carnival of life — these are all good things, and nothing to be ashamed of. We don’t need to renounce any of these things and banish them from our lives. We just need to order them correctly, to bring them into alignment with the visions of love that we participated in when we were awakened. But because we’ve fallen into the habit of giving many of these things the wrong sense of priority, and have come to think that our everyday compulsions are constitutive of who we are, the effort to put them in their proper place is going to be arduous. We will have to face the ways in which we turn good things into evil things by forcing them to serve ourselves, when they’re meant to serve everybody, and above all to serve God. And sometimes, in order to return to a proper relationship with them, we’ll need to sever them from our lives for awhile. 

To Underhill’s thinking, there are three main ways of doing this: self-simplification, detachment, and mortification. Twenty-first century American culture tends to favor the first, think of the second as good but exotic, and dismiss the third as a thing of the past. Self-help gurus teach us how to simplify our lives, clean out the clutter, discover life hacks. Meditation and mindfulness practices, drawn primarily from Buddhism, teach us how to live in the present moment and cultivate a sense of peace about the future. Mortification still exists in our world, but we are wary of it in its religious sense. We have no trouble dieting or working out or finding other ways to align our bodies to a certain goal, but when we think of mortification and its uses in the pursuit of religious goals, images of self-flagellation and hair shirts come to mind.

Understandings of the Self

Stages of Spiritual Development

The reason why I couldn’t recreate my own transcendent awakening was that I was trying to return to it by the wrong road. If only I had been able to skip over the self, how much easier things would have seemed. Yet, surprisingly, God didn’t seem to want my self-obliteration. If myself, my personhood, was a gangrenous limb, God didn’t want to amputate it. Rather, God wanted to heal it. I could, and did, resist this healing. But God is a patient nurse, and was unwilling to let me lay in the sick bed of the soul forever.

The mystics all agree that the road to God leads through the self, but before we can set out on that road, let’s spend a moment considering what the self is. If we are created in the image of God, then the self is creative because God is creative, the self is active because God is active, the self is good because God is good, and the self is mysterious because God is mysterious. Yet we all know that there are many times when all of us are destructive, passive, evil, and certain that we know everything about God and God’s creation. Obviously, there is something that gets in the way of our being what God created us to be. This something has been given many names. The Apostle Paul called it the flesh. Thomas Merton called it the false self. Others have called it our sinful human nature, the small self, the ego, human brokenness. There are so many ways of talking about it. Basically, the thing that gets in the way is that part of ourselves that is fearful, is angry because of that fear, and decides to try to dominate and control other people and the world as a whole in response to that fear. Fortunately, even in the midst of this domination and control, we are still troubled by a sense of our created nature. We know that we weren’t meant for fear and dominance, but for love and beauty. The journey through the self involves release from smallness, brokenness, and falsity, and growth in largeness, health, and truth. In this journey, soullessness is abandoned beside the road, and soulfulness is found.

Teresa of Avila, of whom you’ll hear more in a little bit, wrote that “the fact that the soul is made in God’s image means that it is impossible for us to understand her sublime dignity and loveliness.” I find this deeply reassuring when I engage seriously in practices that lead me through my selfhood toward God. Yes, the self I find on that journey will be small and broken in some ways, but it’s created nature is sublimely dignified and lovely. But also as mysterious as God and impossible to entirely understand. So I will make many discoveries on this journey, but the great discovery of who I really am will only come when I have discovered who God really is, and that can only happen when God reaches out to me with grace and reveals divinity to me. My own effort on this journey will only get me so far, yet I will have to embark on it, and there will be many delights, and many moments of sorrow, along the way.

Let’s return for a moment to Howard Thurman. In 1980, when Thurman delivered the commencement address at Spelman College, he used a wonderful metaphor for soulfulness. He called it the “sound of the genuine” within oneself.

“There is in every person something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in herself. . . . There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again—you are the only one. And if you miss the sound of the genuine in you, you will be a cripple all the rest of your life. Because you will never be able to get a scent on who you are.

Do you remember in the Book, Jesus and his disciples were going through the hills and there appeared in the turn of the road a man who was possessed of devils as they thought. In the full moon when the great tidal waves of energy swept through his organism and he became as ten men . . . screaming through the hills like an animal in pain and then he met Jesus on the road. And Jesus asked him one question: “Who are you; what’s your name?” and for a moment his tilted mind righted itself and he said, “That’s it, I don’t know, there are legions of me. And they riot in my streets. If I only knew, then I would be whole.”  So the burden of what I have to say to you is, “What is your name— who are you—and can you find a way to hear the sound of the genuine in yourself?” There are so many noises going on inside of you, so many echoes of all sorts, so many internalizing of the rumble and the traffic, the confusions, the disorders by which your environment is peopled that I wonder if you can get still enough—not quiet enough—still enough to hear rumbling up from your unique and essential idiom the sound of the genuine in you. I don’t know if you can. But this is your assignment.”

How do we get still enough to hear the sound of the genuine within ourselves? Well, if we have awakened into a sense of spiritual dissonance we will come to truly see God’s love for the world and understand the inadequacy, even the cruelty, of many of our responses to that love. We will understand that we have to change our ways of being in the world. Stillness isn’t just about sitting without moving. Our yearnings, our inordinate wants and desires, need to be stilled. And we learn this stillness through the practices of renunciation, purgation, purification. This is what purification is – learning how to hold certain habits at one remove so that we can consider what effects they’re having on our lives.

To read about another way of understanding the self, click this link.


Stages of Spiritual Development

But before I delve into the next steps in this journey towards God, I want to pause for a moment to talk about initiation. I was baptized as an infant, and confirmed, very unwillingly, at fifteen, a few years before I felt God’s playful beckoning in a Wisconsin field and in the John Muir Woods, and five years before I became intentional in my responses to it. I am not opposed to infant baptism. When my own daughter was born, we decided to have her baptized during her first year of life, and we did so because we wanted the community of the church to stand up and say that they would support her in her relationship with God. Such a baptism presumes that Christian life will be a sort of ongoing initiation — that experience will initiate the person being baptized again and again and again. 

Historically, infant baptism developed out of a fear of hell. The thinking was that we needed to be baptized to get into heaven, and since babies died with great frequency in the Medieval world, we needed to make sure that they were baptized as soon as possible. But because we wanted them to enter into a life of faith with a great deal of intent if they made it through their precarious childhoods, we created a separate rite of confirmation, and set the age for it at that moment when one was assumed to be an adult, which at the time was somewhere between twelve and fifteen.

All this is a far cry from the early church, when adults were baptized after a rigorous period of preparation. And it’s a far cry from Barbara Holmes description of initiation rites taking place in a focused spiritual environment. Contemporary American Christianity doesn’t usually link baptism or confirmation to the creation of focused spiritual environments which initiates can enter and which separate them from their usual communities, life patterns, and self-understandings. I am less interested in mourning this fact than looking at some of the ways in which we’ve created focused spiritual environments that do, in effect, the work that baptismal preparation used to do.

I don’t think that such initiations only exist in the church, or even within the context of religion. In college, I was initiated into a co-ed social group during an elaborately designed weekend (we called it “heaven weekend” to distinguish it from the “hell week” of the fraternities). I’m not sure that it changed me in any deep way, but it did invite a depth of community that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. I’ve also participated in writing workshops and improv comedy retreats that have had something of the flavor of initiation — unique collections of people coming together in places that are set apart for focused practices that, hopefully, mold and inform their regular work. What’s missing from these experiences, of course, is spirituality. These experiences can’t properly be called initiations because they don’t evoke the spirit world, or lead participants into the realm of mystery.

Within Christianity, retreats, pilgrimages, and designed experiences such as Cursillo and the Walk to Emmaus have become prime ways in which we create focused spiritual environments. Small communities form within places and times that are set aside for the purpose of inviting mystery and the possibility of spiritual change. Sometimes community can be reduced to nothing more than a retreatant and a spiritual director.

The story of my own awakening can’t be told without reverence to one of these initiation experiences. I was in seminary, and was required to take a silent retreat. Having been raised in a Christian tradition that didn’t have much interest in spiritual directors or retreats, I resisted this requirement, and when I couldn’t resist any longer without endangering my grade point average, made sure to find a way of going on retreat that wouldn’t inconvenience me. Living in Chicago, I discovered that the Cenacle Sisters in Lincoln Park offered directed retreats, and I signed up, taking the El a mere ten or so stops to arrive at the Cenacle Center. The sisters are Jesuits, and the nun who directed my retreat met with me twice a day. In the morning, she would assign scriptures for me to meditate on, and in the afternoon we would discuss the content of my meditation.

At the time, a 1970s decorative scheme still clung to the Center, and I found myself trying, and failing, to meditate on shag carpeting. So I left the Center to go and wander through Lincoln Park, reasoning that as long as I stayed silent, I wasn’t really breaking any rules. I soon found my way to the zoo and conservatory, and sat in the orchid room, a bible open in my lap, surrounded by the scent of growing things on a cold March day. That weekend I was struggling with a deep sense of unease. My experiences in the John Muir Woods and the Sierra Nevada mountains had convinced me that God was real, and that people could be good. But I didn’t think that I was any good. I was still looking to my faith to give me a short cut around myself, so that I would never have to travel through all the brokenness and sorrow of my selfhood. And the nun kept insisting that I read the Parable of the Prodigal Son and understand that my own brokenness had a place in God’s story.

My wandering through the park brought me, eventually, to the Great Ape House, and I sat inside it, on the tiered benches looking into the gorilla enclosure. The room was dark and mostly empty, silent except for the occasional interruption of a school tour passing through. A silverback came to lounge against the enclosure’s class, eating something slowly and staring out at me. Our gazes met. I saw tremendous beauty in his eyes, and was overcome by a sense of deep relief. If God made the silverback beautiful, then why not I? Was the gorilla seeing a similar beauty in me? And was God peeking out from its face, saying, yes, you are no different from the rest of creation, which I have made large and introspective and strangely gorgeous?

An initiation, of sorts, and an awakening to something. And it was followed by many others. At a campus ministry retreat, students from the University of Cincinnati interrupted a hike to sing. Sandstone cliffs rose up on either side, striated by the lapping waves of an ocean that disappeared millennia ago. Thin trees clung to them, and when the wind blew yellow leaves shook loose and scattered like the rain that was occasionally falling. A thin waterfall trickled down at the trail’s edge, and small fish darted in the shallow pool at its base. And the song reverberated through all of this, as other members of our group arrived at the big rock where the students were perching, and joined them in singing. At a retreat in Chicago, worshippers improvised tunes and sung psalms to them in the midst of communion, their voices rising and blending together in a conference room of the Chicago Youth Hostel. Again and again my life has been blessed by those who have set out to create focused spiritual environments, and lead me into a greater understanding of myself, God, and the possibilities of beauty in this world. These experiences have been both transcendent and immanent, full of a divine blessedness that comes from somewhere beyond ourselves, and a divine woundedness and healing that leads us more deeply into ourselves. 

All of these ways of awakening present the awakened person with some profound questions. What comes next? Something has changed. A new world, a new way of being, has become visible. God is discovered to be present in the beauty of nature and in the pain and glory of humanity. We feel called to respond to this revelation, and unable to retreat from it. But how should we respond?

Crisis Contemplation

Stages of Spiritual Development

Sometimes it’s the actions of others, and not our own yearning and brokenness, that awaken us to the Wound of Divine Love. Years ago, a friend’s husband suddenly left her. As she struggled through the pain of abandonment, she began to experience powerful moments of otherworldly love and reassurance. Until that point, she hadn’t been particularly religious, nor particularly exposed to the world’s pain. The pain her husband caused her was sudden, not something that had been building over time. He imposed a moment of crisis on her, and it lead to her awakening.

Barbara Holmes calls this awakening crisis contemplation, a term redolent with the pain and suffering of the stolen Africans who were brought to the Americas as slaves. Holmes points out that

“centering moments accessed in safety are an expected luxury in our era. During slavery, however, crisis contemplation became a refuge, a wellspring of discernment in a suddenly disordered life space, and a geo-spiritual anvil for forging a new identity.”

To use the language of story world, these traumatized people were violently ripped from the stories, customs, dances, birth rites, ancestral narratives, food ways, hierarchies, games, funeral rites, and even languages of their homes. In the holds of the slave ships, surrounded by strangers from different tribes and cultures, they had to try to become a new people, with new stories that could give them a new sense of self. As Holmes writes:

Together they wept and moaned in a forced community that cut across tribal and cultural lines. They were a people who had not been a people, even though they shared similar cosmologies. On the continent, they revered ancestors who were born and reborn into the lives of future generations. Spirits, good and bad, permeated the everyday world and opened the vistas of the natural world in ways that sensitized them to the life energy in the entire universe. These life forces were necessary for daily sustenance and spiritual well-being…Now each chained African wondered whether he or she had fallen through the spiritual safety net provided by spirits and ancestors into the stifling ship’s hold.

One of the great cruelties of their capture and exile was that awakening to a Revelation of Divine Beauty became exponentially harder for them. In Africa, they had related to natural beauty through their understanding of the spirit world. To be removed from their homeland and the cosmologies of the spirit world was to see the natural world go gray, no longer inhabited by the sense of being that their understanding of the spirits had given them. There, in the holds of the slave ships, and later on the auction blocks and in the cruel fields where they labored, they had to come to a new understanding of the divine, and a new way to worship the divine in community.

Holmes writes that these new understandings and communities began with a moan. As the slaves lay bound together, their moans had to serve as a prayer, a description of their predicament, and a common language. But there was power in those moans — they gave voice to woundedness and joined the slaves’ voices with the chorus of woundedness that resounds around the world. More than that, their moans began to create a new world for them.

The moan as it emerges during the Middle Passage is also a generative sound. One imagines the Spirit moaning as it hovered over the deep during the Genesis account of creation. Here, the moan stitches horror and survival instincts into a creation narrative, a tapestry of historical memory that marks the creation of community. On the slave ships, the moan became the language of stolen strangers, the sound of unspeakable fears, the percursor to joy yet unknown. The moan is a birthing sound, the first movement toward a creative response to oppression, the entry into the heart of contemplation through the crucible of crisis.

Holmes, Barbara A. 2017. Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church – Second Edition. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press.

Can this even be called an awakening to the Wound of Divine Love? Stripped of everything but a moan, the souls on the slave ships didn’t have a context, an ideology, a story world that could help inform their awakening. Some were Muslims, many belonged to various tribal religions, but together they were without context. God’s love for them, so horrifically dissonant with their suffering, couldn’t be conveyed to them through the understanding of a faith. Yet, eventually, after years of tortured meaning-making, they came to a faith that could explain their own experiences, and those of their ancestors.

Given the tragedy and cruelty of the slave trade and its aftermath, it’s amazing that Homes titled her book Joy Unspeakable. When I mentioned this to my friend Cherie, she said, “Yes, but that’s because we know what it’s like to rely only on God, and when you do that you know that you’re loved completely.” Howard Thurman said something similar in his book Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman, one of the 20th century’s greatest mystics, was partially raised by his grandmother, who was born a slave and told him stories of the men and women who became prophets and ministers among the slave communities, and who assured those communities that, despite what the white ministers said, they were beloved children of God. When he grew up, Thurman was ordained as a Baptist minister and became the dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University and part of the faculty there. He mentored many of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. 

He wrote Jesus and the Disinherited after falling into conversation with the principal of the Law College of the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka. The principal was a Hindu, and he couldn’t understand why Thurman, an African-American, had chosen to become a Christian. “More than three hundred years ago your forefathers were taken from the Western coat of Africa as slaves. The people who dealt in the slave traffic were Christians…The name of one of the famous British slave vessels was ‘Jesus.’ The men who bought the slaves were Christians. Christian ministers, quoting the apostle Paul, gave the sanction of religion to the system of slavery.” Thurman was deeply moved by these questions, he pondered them in his heart, and then he answered them in his book.

Jesus and the Disinherited is more than willing to criticize the story world of Christianity. In a way, Thurman says, large parts of the Christian story world got Jesus deeply wrong. The forces of empire were able to subvert the stories, to distort them so that they could be used by the powerful in a way that made a mockery of the life of Jesus and the call to the spirit that is present in the Gospels. But when the disinherited read scripture, Thurman says, they were able to recover the original story, and then build their own Christian story world from it. This was an act of profound resistance. And it came out of the awakening of crisis contemplation, out of the moans uttered in the holds of the slave ships, out of dancing and praying in secret places on the plantation, out of the way that enslaved ministers insisted that they and their church were loved by God. The corrupted story world of white power, which still tries to subvert Christianity today, and is just as powerful now as it was during slavery, reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement, cannot silence the story world of resistance and hope that belongs to the disinherited. It fails, because it has not awoken to the Wound of Divine Love. It fails because it is uninterested in spirituality, in mysticism, in truly growing close to God. Thurman writes:

“The awareness that a man is a child of the God of religion, who is at one and the same time the God of life, creates a profound faith in life that nothing can destroy…Nothing less than a great daring in the face of overwhelming odds can achieve the inner security in which fear cannot possibly survive. It is true that a man cannot be serene unless he possesses something about which to be serene. Here we reach the high-water mark of prophetic religion, and it is of the essence of the religion of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course God cares for the grass of the field, which lives a day and is no more, or the sparrow that falls unnoticed by the wayside. He also holds the stars in their appointed places, leaves his mark in every living thing. And he cares for me! To be assured of this becomes the answer to the threat of violence — yea, to violence itself. To the degree to which a man knows this, he is unconquerable from within and without.

Thurman, H. (1984). Jesus and the disinherited. Richmond, Ind: Friends United Press.

The Christian mystical life is about coming to truly know this. In it, God leads us, slowly, and with many pauses to allow us to rebel, adjust, and delight, into union with the perfect love that casts out all fear. Awakening is merely the first step along this path.

The Wound of Divine Love: A Personal Story

Stages of Spiritual Development

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.

The Mood of Awakening, Part Two

Stages of Spiritual Development

When Blaise Pascal experienced spiritual awakening, he was already immersed in the Christian story world. But there were other story worlds that had a claim on him. Born in 1623, Pascal was the very model of an enlightenment person. A child prodigy, he discovered for himself the first thirty-two propositions of Euclid at the age of twelve, and started working on one of the world’s first mechanical calculators when he was a teenager. As a young adult, he proved the existence of the vacuum. A little later in life, he set-up the world’s first public transportation system by having public carriages follow a set route through the streets of Paris. His genius made him internationally famous, and he was swept up into the gambling and drinking life of high society. He couldn’t let any experience go to waste, even the experience of becoming a high-society party person. He formulated the theory of probability as he watched his friends gamble. He was a Roman Catholic and he participated in the rituals and customs of the church, but his attention was elsewhere.

At the same time that he was achieving fame and status, his close-knit family was becoming more and more religious. His father, Etienne, had a fall and was taken care of by two pious bonesetters who brought the family into contact with the Jansenists of Port Royal. The contact with the Jansenists transformed Blaise into a fervent Christian. His prayer life deepened, he went on a retreat, and then, on November 23, 1654, when he was thirty-one years old, he experienced spiritual awakening. Being a scientist, he took out his watch as the moment of awakening descended upon him, and noted the time. When it was over, he quickly wrote down notes about what he had experienced. He never shared these notes with anyone. Instead, he sewed them into the lining of his clothing, and they were discovered after he died. This is what he wrote:

The year of grace 1654,
Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology.
Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.
From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day's exercise on the earth.
May I not forget your words. Amen.

He begins by acknowledging his place in a world where the lives of saints were very important — where saints’ feast days were noted and their stories brought to mind daily. He steps into his moment of awakening by evoking communion with these saints, by inviting them to move with him through his experience. For two hours, his primary experience is FIRE. Maybe he wrote the next lines in the midst of this fire, maybe just after. But the word, FIRE, stands starkly alone, the only word he can summon to describe the power of the experience. It is not, he acknowledges, an experience that is brought about by, or can even be understood by, philosophy or learning. It resembles the experiences of the patriarchs in Genesis, and brings him into community with them. More, it brings him into deep relationship with Jesus Christ. He can inventory the state of his soul, the certitude, the joy, the peace, and he finds himself reflected in this experience, understands that it elevates him, but also elevates all of humanity, for it is wondrous that human beings are capable of experiencing this grandeur. Yet at the same time we are afraid to embrace these awakenings, afraid that we will be abandoned by the God who gave them to us, afraid that our small souls will reject and run away from them. The only solution is renunciation, a willful setting aside of the small and broken part of our natures, and submission to something higher, to the health and reckless love of our large souls.

I think it’s safe to say that Pascal’s revelation was wounded. He understood that he had wounded Jesus through his actions, and in wounding Jesus he had also wounded himself. Yet he also understood how deeply loved and forgiven he was. “I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.” He sees himself as one of the disciples who fled from the crucifixion, who could not make themselves stay and watch Jesus suffer. Yet he has been accepted back into the love of Christ and the community of discipleship, and he never wants his own actions to separate him again. Pascal’s Memoriam beautifully illustrates what Evelyn Underhill means by the Wound of Divine Love. We understand our own suffering in the light of Christ’s suffering. We understand that we have caused ourselves, our neighbors, and God, to suffer. We want this cycle of suffering to end, and we are assured that it will end, yet we have our fears, our doubts. It’s in our fears and doubts that the wound resides.

For my last example of this understanding of awakening, I will lead you even further back in time, to the fourteenth century anchorite Julian of Norwich. Unlike Kamienska or Pascal, Julian’s story world was Christian to the core. She lived surrounded by the legends, feasts, festivals, art, and music of the church. She was an anchorite, which meant that she lived inside the wall of a church, so there was little that she could see from her window that could distract her from the Christian story. When she experienced her awakening, it was entirely in the context of the church, and she wrote about it so vividly that people have turned to her ever since to understand what it means to be awake.

Suffering was a large part of her world. During her life, the Black Death ravished Europe, and she lived through three successive waves of the pandemic. The first wave arrived in England when she was a small child, and the suffering she witnessed led her to ask God for three things, which she called gifts, but which many of us might have trouble understanding in that way. She asked to participate in Christ’s passion, to experience a life-threatening illness, and to be given the triple-wound of contrition, compassion, and unbearable yearning. These gifts didn’t arrive until May 8, 1373, when she was thirty years old. At that time, she experienced the life-threatening illness that she’d asked for in her youth. For five days, she lay dying. A priest administered last rites. During this time of great suffering, her thoughts were on God.

“I would have liked to live longer simply so that I could have learned to love God better.” The people who were nursing her propped her up in bed “so that I could align my heart to God’s will and so that I could more easily think of God as my life ebbed away.”

The priest held a crucifix in front of her face and she stared at it to the exclusion of all else. She asked God to allow her to participate in Christ’s passion.

“I did not desire any kind of physical vision or revelation from God. All I wanted was the kind of compassion that naturally flows into the soul in response to the suffering of our Lord, who for the sake of love agreed to incarnate as a mortal man. I wished to suffer along with him, inside my own human body, if God would only give me the grace to do so.”

The crucifix began to bleed, and Julian’s heart filled with joy.  She received a vision of Christ’s simple loving.

“I saw that he is everything that is good for us, everything that soothes and helps us. He is our clothing; he wraps himself around us, enfolding us in his love. His tender love is our shelter; he will never leave us.”

And then Christ showed her “a small thing, the size of a hazelnut,” and when she asked what it was, she heard him say, “it is all that is created.” In her own words, she understood that

“it lasts, and will last forever, because God loves it. Everything that is has its being through the love of God.”

When she wrote about this experience later on, she described it as a number of “showings” by which she came to understand both God and herself. The third gift she asked for, the triple-wound of contrition, compassion, and unbearable yearning, is woven throughout these showings. She came to understand how personal suffering can transmute into compassion for others. She investigated the myriad ways in which we resist suffering and compassion, and try to twist away from God so that our small, egoistic selves won’t have to die with Christ on the cross. And she came to understand that we can engage with grace and experience union with God, a process that she called “oneing.” 

Once we clearly see and truly know our self, we shall clearly see and know our God in the fullness of joy. And so it is bound to be that the closer we come to our ultimate bliss, the more our own nature and God’s grace fan the flame of our yearning. In this life, we can acquire knowledge of ourselves through the assistance and support of our own exalted nature. And, through mercy and grace, we can increase our self-knowledge and continue to grow. But we can never know ourselves completely until the last moment of this passing life, at which point every kind of pain and woe will come to an end. And so, both by nature and grace, we are rightfully endowed with the yearning to know ourselves will all our might. In the fulfillment of this knowledge, we shall come to clearly and truly know our God in the fullness of never-ending joy.

Julian, Mirabai Starr, and Richard Rohr. 2022. The showings of Julian of Norwich: a new translation. Newburyport: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Incorporated.

The Mood of Awakening, Part One

Stages of Spiritual Development

Again, I’ll turn to poets, artists, and saints to get a sense of what an Awakening to the Wound of Divine Love might feel like, how it might express itself within an individual soul. Let’s consider, first, this poem by Anna Kamienska, another 20th century Polish poet.

by Anna Kamienska

To be transformed
to turn yourself inside out like a glove
to spin like a planet
to thread yourself through yourself
so that each day penetrates each night
so that each word runs to the other side of truth
so that each verse comes out of itself
and gives off its own light
so that each face leaning on a hand
sweats into the skin of the palm

So that this pen
changes into pure silence
I wanted to say into love

To fall off a horse
to smear your face with dust
to be blinded
to lift yourself
and allow yourself to be led
like blind Saul
to Damascus

Kamienska became a devout Roman Catholic after the death of her husband in 1967, when she was forty-seven years old. I think it’s safe to say that there were many story worlds vying for dominance during her lifetime. She was born in 1920, when the Christian story world was still predominant in much of Europe, although it faced many challenges. As a young woman she lived through the Nazi occupation, surrounded by, and resisting, the propaganda of the fascist story world. After the war, the soviets brought their own story world to bear on the life of the Polish people, and, although the church wasn’t outlawed, there was an anti-religious campaign that tried to create an atheistic culture. Given all of this, it isn’t surprising that Kamienska’s poem doesn’t start from an understanding of Christian faith, but moves outward from a cataloging of what’s happening within her soul to a recognition that the events within her bear a great deal of similarity to Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus.

She starts by trying to find words to describe the ineffable, the task of any poet who tries to speak about a spiritual awakening. My favorite line of that first stanza is “to thread yourself through yourself,” because it speaks to the challenges to the self that awakening entails. If we take our awakening seriously, we will begin to change, and the old and the new self will engage in a dance, a dialog, a daily weaving of our sense of who we are. But all of those metaphors in the first stanza could take place in an entirely secular world, just as any awakening that arises out of natural beauty can take place in a secular world. 

A shift happens in the second stanza. All of her metaphors might end in silence, an acknowledgment of their failure to describe what she’s experienced, and this silence would be honest and hold its own truth. But she chooses instead to speak of love. She allows herself to begin making meaning of her experience, and once we begin doing that, we start to look for stories and ideas that can edify, support, and challenge the meaning that we’re trying to make. In order to make meaning, we need ideologies and stories. We need to be in conversation with something beyond ourselves that isn’t expressed as ineffable silence. We need to compare our experience with other people’s, to allow their meaning-making to influence us, knowing that all the words we use when speaking with them will never truly express the largeness of our encounter with the divine. But we need to speak those words anyway, because our minds need something to grasp and our responses need something to adhere to.

And so, in the last stanza, Kamienska enters into conversation with The Acts of the Apostles, written by the evangelist Luke, a doctor who knew and traveled with the Apostle Paul two thousand years before she was born. My experience of transformation has left me blind, she says. I don’t know who I am, or how to interact with the world. But I’m not alone in this. Other people have gone through this, too. And although it’s scary to be blind, to have my words fail, to be unable to make sense of what has happened to me, it’s deeply reassuring to know that the Apostle Paul experienced the same confusion, that there were people who took care of him in his blindness, and who eventually healed him. All the more remarkable that these people were his enemies, members of the church that he’d come to persecute in Damascus. He trusted them in his weakness, in his blindness. Might not I, Kamienska asks, also learn to trust the story world of the church in the midst of my transformation?

The Wound of Divine Love and Story Worlds

Stages of Spiritual Development

But what if it’s not an encounter with beauty that awakens us, but an encounter with dissonance? In order to feel the spiritual dissonance that leads to the awakening of the Wound of Divine Love, you have to have a profound sense of the love of God, and a deep awareness of the world’s suffering. Why, when God loves the world in a way that is palpable to you, that you experience every day, is there so much sorrow, loss, and grief?

In 2001 I found myself in real anguish. In August, my wife miscarried and we lost our first child. A few weeks later, the World Trade Center was attacked and destroyed. I was in seminary at the time, and most of my training focused on the intellect, on understanding Christian history and theology and liturgical practice. I took great solace from the realization that I’d never really be able to understand the ways of God. At the same time, I can’t honestly say that God was very present in the life of my spirit or my emotions. I was coasting on earlier experiences of awakening, living off the memory of them. Those experiences had taught me that God was real, and grace palpable, but I did not live in close relationship with the Beloved. I took comfort in understanding that God is ineffable, far beyond my own intellectual strivings, but that understanding could only take me so far along my path to awakening. I was more deeply aware of the world’s suffering than I was of the love of God.

The saints and seekers of the Christian tradition who have come awake by experiencing the Wound of Divine Love have often done so in a world and a church that are more emotive, more experiential, more attuned to the weeping and the dancing of the spirit than the 20th century world and the intellectual Episcopal church that I was formed by. In early Christianity this world was created by mystery rites in catacombs, agape love feasts, the experience of imprisonment and martyrdom, and hermits who disappeared into the desert. In medieval times, it was created by mystery plays, processions, street carnivals, pilgrimages, the viewing of relics, the stories of saint’s lives, daily devotions with illuminated breviaries, light shining through stained-glass windows, monks singing in choirs, and statues carved onto the facades of cathedrals. Since the enlightenment, Christian faith has become more private and contained within the churches. The emotive, playful, sometimes irrational world of Christian story and understanding has become reasoned, careful, and anxious to prove itself very rational indeed. The “story world” of Christianity has shrunk considerably, and with it the supporting voices that asserted, again and again and in a great choir, that the suffering you feel is real, but the love of God for all creation is equally real, is, in truth, more real.

“Story world” is a concept that my friend, Sarah Isles Johnston, introduced me to. Saying that we inhabit a story world is a little like saying that we belong to a faith or adhere to an ideology, but there’s an essential difference. Story worlds are about stories, not ideas or doctrines or dogmas. By their very nature stories are rambling, strange, fun, emotionally effective, full of familiar characters, surprises and plot twists. They don’t always tell you what you’re supposed to make of them — they leave some of the meaning making up to you. Their coherence comes from their structure and shape, and the craft of the storyteller. Theology can be systematic, a wonderful game of ideas, but one that is very concerned with getting it right. Stories aren’t concerned with getting it right, and that’s part of their power. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, very rarely will anyone die for a right idea, though for a good story someone might possibly dare to die.

As Sarah writes in her wonderful book, The Story of Myth,

“when we talk about a story world, we typically mean something that goes beyond the narratively constructed space in which a single story is set, something that constitutes a space where many stories, whether they be directly connected to each other or not, can be set and that is perceived by its audience as consistent and coherent.”

Johnston, S. I. (2019). The story of myth. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard university press.

The story world of Christianity includes stories that range across continents and eras of history, stories whose heroes are people of different genders, nationalities, ethnicities, and ages, stories that can find the deep commonality in people as different from each other as a Victorian missionary and a second century, half-naked African hermit. The coherence of this story world is found in the person of Christ, whose life on earth set the pattern for all of these other stories.

The Christian story world was and is articulated through sculpture and stained glass, sung passions and folk songs, shrines and pilgrims’ paths, plays and sermons. Some of the stories that make up the weave of this story world are fantastical, but shouldn’t be disregarded because of that. Take, for instance, this sermon story by Caesar von Heisterbach:

Not many years ago, in a certain nunnery, there lived a virgin named Beatrix. She was beautiful in form, devout in mind, and most fervent in the service of the mother of God. As often as she could offer secretly to the Virgin special prayers and supplications, she held them for her dearest delight. Indeed, having been made custodian, she did this more devoutly because more freely. 

A certain clerk, seeing and lusting after her, began to tempt her. When she spurned the words of lust, and on that account he insisted the more strenuously, the old serpent enkindled her breast so vehemently that she could not bear the flames of love. Therefore coming to the altar of the blessed Virgin, the patroness of the oratory, she spoke thus: “Mistress, I have served thee as devoutly as I could; behold, I resign thy keys to thee, I cannot longer withstand the temptations of the flesh.” And, having placed the keys on the altar, she secretly followed the clerk. 

When that wretched man had corrupted her, he abandoned her after a few days. Since she had no means of living and was ashamed to return to the convent, she became a harlot. After she had continued in that vice publicly for fifteen years, she came one day in a lay habit to the door of the monastery. She said to the doorkeeper, “Did you know Beatrix, formerly custodian of this oratory?” The latter replied, “I know her very well. For she is an honest and holy woman, and from infancy even to the present day she has remained in this monastery without fault.” When she heard the man’s words she did not understand them, and wished to go away, but the mother of mercy appeared in her well-known image and said to her, “During the fifteen years of thy absence, I have performed thy task; now return to thy place and do penance; for no one knows of thy departure.” In fact, in the form and dress of that woman, the mother of God had performed the duties of custodian. Beatrix entered at once and returned thanks as long as she lived, revealing through confession what had been done for her.

Jacques, Stephanus, Caesarius, and Dana Carleton Munro. 1901. Medieval sermon-stories. Philadelphia, Pa: The Department of history of the University of Pennsylvania.

I’ve loved this story ever since I first read it, even though the Roman Catholic world that it was told in is somewhat foreign to me. I don’t have a Catholic understanding of the Beloved Virgin Mary, yet when Mary, the mother of mercy, appears to Beatrix, I find myself deeply moved. I start thinking about all the ways that God protected my best self when my worst self was dominant. Not just in terms of reputation, but in terms of self-knowledge. When I think back upon my younger self, I see him doing many terrible and silly things. A selfish, cruel, unhappy person who could dominate my understanding of those days. Yet God was preserving the better parts of my nature, and they were making choices, too, continuing in certain disciplines of grace and generosity, preserving something for my future.

Yes, von Heisterbach’s story is fantastical, and if we were only to accept stories that stick to verifiable facts, we would have to reject it. But I hold it up as an example of the Christian story world to make the point that such a world can contain many types of stories, some historical, some well-researched, and some mythical, full of the mood and power of fable. These latter types of stories can speak to truths about ourselves, God, and the world that historical narratives and biographical veracity cannot. And part of the beauty of a story world is that it can include all types of stories, and transcend any number of limitations. It doesn’t have to be systematic. It just has to move the soul.

The Christian tradition has always understood the importance of its stories.  In the early church, much emphasis was placed on Exempla, the stories of saints, apostles, and martyrs that were read or heard by those who were preparing for baptism, with the understanding that these stories would be as formative as the ideas in a catechism, if not more so. In the thirteenth century, two writers created works that have reverberated throughout the church ever since. One was Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica probably needs no introduction, as it is still prominent enough that precocious college students quote it to win arguments. The other was Jacobus de Voragine, an Italian bishop who collected stories of the saints into a compendium called The Golden Legend. Until the sixteenth century, it was one of the most popular books in Europe, reproduced more times than the Bible. I am not trying to set up a rivalry here, since the Summa Theologica is a majestic work. But I feel a sense of loss that the Summa Theologica has persisted while The Golden Legend has not (although you can still find it in many good translations). After the enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation, the story world of Christianity faded and dimmed, while the ideology of Christianity grew and grew. We became accustomed to using only one lens when trying to read our lives and our experiences of God.

And that is why I’ve gone on this long digression, when trying to talk to you about awakening to the Wound of Divine Love. Just as awakenings to the Revelation of Divine Beauty take place in nature, or in the presence of art, or even in moments of transcendent ugliness, like in Buechner’s account, awakenings to the Wound of Divine Love take place within a story world. They take place in people who are already immersed in a certain understanding of God and the world. This is in part a theological understanding. But to a much larger degree, it’s a story world understanding. The stories of saints and martyrs, of pilgrims and hermits, of widows and orphans, of priests and parishioners tell us how the world works, and how God works, and how we might work if we are able to balance our love of God with our grieving for the brokenness of creation. Awakening to the Wound of Divine Love is like setting out on a journey at the beginning of an epic tale. When we awaken in this way, we say that we, too, want to participate in the narrative, that we’ll allow that narrative to take us to many unexpected, and sometimes undesirable, places, and that we expect to change, to become more like the Divine Lover of the World, as we travel.