Closer to Emily than to Billy


 I felt so exposed and vulnerable in a Yoga Teacher Training program some years ago. I wasn’t then in a lecture hall, where there’s a certain distance between Professor and students, but in a very different and (what was for me) a rather unsafe context. There were twelve of us in the Yoga intensive. We sat cross-legged in a circle. Which meant that we were, pretty well, face to face, for hours every day.  

 The personal dimension was therefore unavoidable. In such a context, there was for me a sense of peril. Which was about to increase dramatically.

 We had been studying the Bhakti Sutras, by Narada, sometimes called the Yoga of Devotion. On the theme of Divine Love, each of us was about to be asked in turn to declare what meant most to us in our relation to the Ultimate, or God.

 Which wasn’t at all like the lightly-asked everyday question: ‘Well, and just how are you today? But rather, on a far deeper, and perhaps threatening level, the question was: 'What do you care about most in your relation to God?' 

 We had been studying together where Narada states that there are at least eleven different forms of being in relation to the Divine. Among the various options: the love of worship, the love of remembering, the love of service, the love of God as a friend, the love of God as a child, the love as that of a wife, the love of self-surrender, the love of complete aborption in Him and finally, the love of the pain of separation from Him. (Narada Bhakti Sutras, or Aphorisms on the Gospel of Divine Love, by Swami Tyagisananda, p. 23)

 The question put to us precisely was: 'With which one of these statements do you identify?' 

 I sat there beginning to perspire and tremble, for I found myself identifying immediately with the last of these - the 'love of the pain of separation from Him.' 

 That I had so readily identified with the phrase “the pain of separation,’ left me feeling very defensive about possibly revealing to the others this inner state of mine that had given rise to the identification. I felt sure that if I revealed how I felt that, I’d be interpreted as bereft.  

 So I felt reluctant to share that the words pain and separation were my chosen words. I expected to be indicted and found wanting. 

 I imagined that if I were to say how I felt that everyone would be shocked and horrified to learn about the state my mind was in, especially since everyone there knew that I was a seminary graduate who had served as a Pastor for some years.

 I imagined that if I admitted my state, a look of horror would appear on someone’s face and that she might say to me: ’So you love the pain of separation from God? This is how you’ve ended up, as some sort of king of pain?’ Translation: 'You’re a colossal failure as a human being.'

 My imagined accuser continues: 'Whatever is wrong with you? What happened to you? What terrible sins did you commit? How could you have put yourself out there as some kind of spiritual leader?'

 ‘As a Pastor, is the experience of pain all you had to offer? You had no answers or comfort to give? What did you do - go around conducting seminars on seven quick, easy steps to achieve pain?’  

 'Did people come from far and wide to hear you talk about the pain you were in? Were you celebrated as someone who could take people into pain like no other?'

 Well, as I sat there in that threatening circle, I felt afraid to tell everyone that these words, pain and separation, were my chosen words. For, after all, I had been raised in the smothering atmosphere of an evangelical church where there was no talk of struggling, striving, or searching in any way. 

 There was rather an atmosphere of triumphalism as we used to sing: ‘The Lord saved me and I’m as happy as I can be.’ You were supposed to be clappy happy all the time.   

 There was no sense of mystery at all in that evangelical barn of a church, where it was assumed that all questions had been officially answered.

 Once you were saved there, usually at an early age, no questions remained, at least not that you’d admit to publicly. 

 The pressure was to act like you were truly saved and were therefore without doubts or questions. There was no sense of salvation as an ongoing process of growth. It was matter-of-factly understood that you were either saved, or damned.   

 Thus it was in that Yoga Seminar circle that, I was about to experience a pivotal moment on my spiritual journey. Would I own or disown what was happening in my heart? I felt in that hour that something inside required me to be honest.

 And thus it was that, on that momentous day, I somehow was able to declare that, though I didn’t understand it, my way of knowing God had much to do with a struggle with a sense of His absence.

 My way of knowing was somehow through a piercing sense of separation from God, coupled with a corresponding sense of longing for Him that penetrated every cell in my body. 

 That way of knowing and being has, I think, both set me apart from others and at the same time, brought me into friendships that I wouldn’t trade away for anything.

 Now, I have been learning as of late that, my way of being and understanding has been well expressed by the 19th century American poet, Emily Dickinson. A few weeks ago, somebody in my presence made the comment about Emily that 'she never went anywhere but understood everything.' I’ve been reading her poems ever since.

 For Emily Dickinson, her heightened states of consciousness, what she called her sense of transport, arose, as in my experience, through the path of loss and pain. She expressed it thus: “To learn the transport through the pain.”

 Emily's biographer, Richard B. Sewall, states that the poet could not find that sense of transport through the conventions that were available to her then and that she was especially alienated by the easy assurances and certainties of the Evangelical Calvinistic churches.

 In Emily Dickinson's evangelical surroundings, “she (therefore) steadily resisted all revivals, all spiritual exhortations, all the solicitous and charitable heat that at home, at school and at church, was steading turned on the uncommitted.”  She did not give in to these pressures. Her integrity was at state. Her strong conscience protected her.

 She lived on an entirely different level than most people and expected that almost nobody would understand that she could not do otherwise. As Sewall says about her: "She enjoyed riddles and apparently enjoyed being one." 

 "She was,” he says, "keenly aware of the dullness of the easy riddle: “The Riddle we can guess, said Emily Dickinson, "we speedily despise.” 

 Which is to say that for Emily, if there was some quick, easy answer to a riddle or question, that it wasn't worth anything. After a time, she was sure that you’d look back and hate it that you gave yourself over to the quick fix, to the superficial band-aid treatment.

 Emily was continually preoccupied, to the point of obsession with the great cosmic questions. For her, life was about living with the great questions - to constantly engage these questions with a sense of wonder, and through a process of questioning and guessing.  

 "In a life that has stopped guessing," she wrote her sister-in-law, "you and I should not feel at home.” 

 Emily was only at home when engaged in guessing, questioning, and wondering. That was her idea of spirituality. 

 But she had grown up a community and in an atmosphere in which the cosmic questions (at least officially) were all answered, and where ‘guessing was out of order.” (Northrop Frye, Fables of Identity, Studies in Poetic Mythology p. 206) 

 But that emphasis was not going to shut her down. She was driven to explore her sense of the mystery of everything. Said she: “The unknown is the largest need of the intellect, though for it, no one thinks to thank God.”

 I love that emphasis of Emily Dickinson's - to thank God for the unknown! To explore the unknown is far more motivating than to settle into some kind of unquestioning, passive state of mind. 

 Emily's way, as she expressed it as a nineteen year old was: "I pause, and ponder and ponder, and pause, and do work without knowing why.”

 With such a statement I identify. In my own words I would say that 'I, too, don’t know the why, but am driven by an inner impulse to explore and understand.’ 

 'Some answer, some why, isn’t enough. For I don’t know why, and I don’t need to know why. In fact, an emphasis on the why of things, stifles the dickens out of me.'

 'I’m not thinking about why. I’m on some other level, where the why doesn't matter at all.' 

 As Jo Campbell once put it, in so many words: 'We’re not really searching for the why of things anyway but for the experience of being alive.’ 

 So what is it, I’d like to ask, that makes you feel alive? For me, like Emily Dickinson, it’s to be in a state of wonder - to be questing, wondering and guessing.

 Hence the title of this article - that I feel closer to Emily Dickinson than to Billy Graham. My soul responds to Emily and to Billy, not so much...

 Where I feel bored and dead is when everyone around me quickly answers and tries to solve problems, instead of participating in the questions and engaging in a shared quest for understanding.

 When people like this come together and talk of a future heavenly home, my inclination is to hope that I can avoid such a fate. I’m at one with Emily when she wrote:

"I don't like Paradise -

Because it’s Sunday all the time - 

And recess - never comes.”

 But, apparently, I don’t have to worry that heaven will corrrespond to the notions of the sort of people who would have, if they could have, shut down the creative genius of an Emily Dickinson. For as our priest said last Sunday, heaven is beyond conceiving, though promised.

 Now, back to the Yoga Seminar circle.

 As I anticipated, nobody there but me identified with the part about feeling separated from God.

 Everyone, as I recall, was fairly happy and peppy.

 Then I spoke. 

 And there was silence.

 Then the teacher spoke, ever so quietly and gently: ‘Ah, she said, ‘Love of the pain of separation from Him’, “it is in the very nature of intense love that it cannot bear separation.”

 I felt so blessedly understood. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.

yourSanctuary (teresa)


Listen to your Heart, Wildlife