“. . . alone with the deep alone, a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries.”

In the winter of 1989 I made a retreat at Holy Cross Monastery, in West Park, New York (from the Second Day of Christmas through the day after Feast of the Epiphany). A “vocational retreat,” living at the monastery and participating in the activities of the brothers (including washing dishes) in order to discover whether or not I was suited to the monastic life.

A calling to pray?

A calling to pray?

I returned to Massachusetts for the spring semester at Bunker Hill Community College and waited impatiently for the letter from the Novice Master welcoming me to my life as a monk. I knew that, as a mystic, I belonged in the monastery. In addition, the monastery needed an organist.

Finally the letter came from Brother Robert saying the monks did not believe I had a vocation for the religious life.

I was crushed.

I knew I had (have) a vocation for the religious life. I am a mystic, after all. When I told my AA group I’d received the letter and was trying to cope with rejection, one of the old timers told me I should be proud because, “You’re the only person I’ve ever known who received a message from God in a letter.” I didn’t care if she did work in Gov. Dukakis’s inner circle. She had no right to joke about my life (and death).

(I haven’t broken her anonymity. I don’t remember her name, and Dukakis hasn’t been governor since he ran for President. Think how different our history could have been. George H. W. Bush might never have been President, and George W. Bush would not have had a vendetta against Saddam Hussein for trying to assassinate his father. Who knows how much war would have been avoided?)

The monks said they thought my vocation was for teaching, not meditating, and that I needed to use my gift of playing the organ far more than I would be able to in the monastery.

I consider myself a mystic to this day.

But almost everyone with Temporal Lobe seizures considers themselves mystics.

Mysticism and me. And the great mystery of my inability to share the strength and resolve with which people “believe” in their religion.

I waver about believing in God. Most days I don’t. And then I experience something that makes me wonder. And wonder about the wonder. I’ve written about these experiences before:

As I walked [on the beach at Port Orford, Oregon] the ocean began to extend itself out to the horizon . . .  unfolded itself, rolled itself back as I watched. The undulation of the surf . . . was not, as surf had always seemed before, an unending series of discreet waves crashing offshore a few yards and the foamy edges washing up around my ankles. . . The ocean was all one. I knew the same molecules were pulsating together to make the waves, and the waves were conjoined with . . . the earth in one unbroken moving, life-filled, mass . . . including  . . . my own body, and my mind somehow made up of the elemental universe undulating as far as I could see. . .  the reality of the one water covering the face of the deep . .

This is the continuing mental/spiritual conflict of my life—of everyone’s life who is honest, I think. What is the meaning of our death? How do some people’s implacable religious fanaticism (think of President Museveni of Uganda and his American mentor, Doug Coe of “The Family.” See note below) and my enervated agnosticism exist in the same world? Is our experience of the mystery of existence the same? I answered the question for myself in my writing of November 15, 2009.

Gays must not pray.

Uganda Parliament: Gays must not pray.

And I weep this morning again for the joy I knew then and in the sorrow to know that one day I will simply be a part of the reality—not with a consciousness to love it and be sustained by it, but part only of the elemental structure.

I have grown in four years. I no longer sorrow at being simply a part of the reality. I sorrow at the knowledge my consciousness of it will end. Edward Hirsch describes that mystery better than I.

I’m Going to Start Living like a Mystic,” by Edward Hirsch 

Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater
and walking across the park in a dusky snowfall.

The trees stand like twenty-seven prophets in a field,
each a station in a pilgrimage—silent, pondering.

Blue flakes of light falling across their bodies
are the ciphers of a secret, an occultation.

I will examine their leaves as pages in a text
and consider the bookish pigeons, students of winter.

I will kneel on the track of a vanquished squirrel
and stare into a blank pond for the figure of Sophia.

I shall begin scouring the sky for signs
as if my whole future were constellated upon it.

I will walk home alone with the deep alone,
a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries.

— (Hirsch, Edward. Lay Back the Darkness. New York: Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. 2003.)

. . . the reality of the one water covering the face of the deep . . .

. . . the reality of the one water covering the face of the deep . . .








Can one be a mystic and not believe in a God (or the gods)? Is a mystical view of the world a choice or—horrors!—merely a function of seizures in the temporal lobe? Does religion have anything to do with mystical experience or is it the antithesis of mystical experience?

I’m not sure why I’ve provided links to three of my other writings about mysticism. Because I can’t avoid it. I keep “walk[ing] home alone with the deep alone a disciple of shadows, in praise [or in search] of the mysteries.” It would make much more sense if I were religious or spiritual or sensitive or artistic or brilliant. But I’m not. So I don’t know what to make of all of this. Perhaps the Holy Cross brothers were right.
“The Family is largely responsible for the medieval anti-gay laws just passed in Uganda. President Museveni of Uganda. . . spends time and “sits down for counsel”[with Doug Coe] . . . [Coe is] the leader of The Family . . . the same man who believes that ruthless dictators such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao mirror Jesus’ central message on power. . . [The Family] comprising a number of influential congressmen, senators and other people in strategic positions, works secretively to promote its political, economic and religious ideas. . .  in the United States and across the world. . . One of The Family’s central ideas . . .  is that Jesus Christ’s message was not about love, mercy, justice or forgiveness. Rather, it was about power. The group says that Jesus didn’t come to take sides, he came to take over. (“Museveni, Bahati, named in US ‘cult’.” The Observer. Observer.ug. Wednesday, 25 November 2009. Web.)
Please note this is not the British Observer. You can read a more sympathetic interview with Coe here. If you’re a Christian, make up your own mind if you think he speaks for you, or if you are an American think if you want his power influencing our government.

One Response to “. . . alone with the deep alone, a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries.”

  1. Kay Shapiro says:

    I’ll be a mystic with you, Harold. Sometimes I am dazzled by the fact that all the cells in our bodies differentiate themselves into their allotted jobs and work collectively and sequentially, in cycles of being born and dying, over the course of our allotted lifetimes so that each individual consciousness (that I believe is a spark, a piece, a temporarily isolated portion of a grand consciousness) has a place to experience both isolation and connection through the sensory input our physicality allows. And right now, writing it all out, I continue to be amazed.

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