Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Maintain hope and let the future unfold like the rose from the blossom of the present moment.

These were the words that came to me shortly after finding out a few months ago that Richard had a very serious and rare form of malignant melanoma.  The sudden shock of this diagnosis and the experiences that we have gone through since, in addition to the continuing uncertainty about our grandchildren’s future (described in the previous two blogs) has led us even more deeply into the darkness of “not knowing.”  This is the way that we are now exploring the path of Love and Wisdom as we walk on through the darkness of life.

At this time Richard is recovering from surgery and his prognosis is good, but we realize that this is simply a temporary reprieve.  Regardless of whether the time of death is now or later, it is coming and cannot be too far off as we are in our later years.  So the sorrow of facing the ending of our mortal lives, and our physical separation in the earthly realm, remains as a poignant reminder throughout our days.  Yet we know from our long life experience that it is often in darkness and suffering that we may encounter the Presence of God most profoundly.

As self-reflective human beings we yearn to find meaning in our lives, especially when we find ourselves walking in the “valley of the shadow of death.”  But many of the common explanations for suffering that we hear, such as the belief that God is punishing us or that God will not let us suffer if He truly loves us, can bring even greater pain and alienation.  It is so important that we dispel these harmful beliefs and develop more helpful contexts for viewing suffering, interpretations that can support its transformative potential.  We are sharing our attempts to do this as we know that we are not alone on this journey; our experience is simply part of the human struggle to find our bearings when we walk in the darkness.

At this stage in our life’s journey we realize that these current challenges are calling us to deepen our practice of simple presence, to embrace the present moment as it is, not as we  would like it to be.  Part of this is to be present to all the feelings that arise – suppressing and denying nothing – but not to get caught up in thoughts about the past (what caused this?  what if we had known to go to the doctor sooner?) or the future (what if he’s permanently disabled or dies?)  It is also to be present to the deeper level of Being that holds all of our moments, including the darkest, in the Light of Love.  This is to practice the “sacrament of the present moment” as the 18th century priest, Jean-Pierre deCaussade, called the realization that “your life flows unceasingly in that unknown deep where all that is necessary is to love and accept the present moment.”

The simplicity of pure presence is marked by openness, acceptance and trust:

Openness to What Is                                                                                 

Acceptance of the Present Moment                                                                

Trust in the Process of Life

We keep learning over and over again throughout the years how crucial it is to develop this attitude.  But we certainly don’t want to give the impression that we have arrived at some rarified height of peace and serenity!  Integrating this wisdom takes a very long time, which I imagine will continue through our entire life journey.  At times of crisis like we are in now, I am especially aware of how easily my egoic mind can completely take over and try to control the process for its own purposes – to get what my “small self” desperately desires – and knocking me right out of presence.  Right now I find that long drives to numerous doctor appointments, managing the crowded schedules, and physical/emotional exhaustion pull me readily back to the turbulence of the egoic mind.  However sometimes I am able to simply be present in the moment – mindful of “what is,” centered in deeper Being.  I realize that our current trials are an opportunity for greater psychological wholeness and further spiritual unfoldment.  I try to remain open to these possibilities, knowing that they are beyond my conscious control.  For me this is now the essence of living with openness, acceptance, and trust.

Recently we have been reading from the World Wisdom Bible, edited by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, and came across this passage that has great meaning for us:

Abba Benjamin taught from his deathbed, three things will bring you salvation:

Cultivate joy regardless of the situation. 

Keep your prayers constant and undistracted.

Be grateful for all you receive, wanted and unwanted.

It’s clear that this is a very important teaching for us at this time: to cultivate joy in all of life, regardless of how we perceive the “good” and the “bad” that happens to us.  This of course is extremely difficult and often seems impossible!  But we can continue to work on the process: allowing the ego to feel all that arises – including fear and sorrow -as we simultaneously open to the divine Presence that fills us with Light and Love.  This is the source from which joy and gratitude flow into our lives always, not depending on the outer circumstances we currently find ourselves in.  As we make this transformative journey again and again throughout our lives, trusting ever more deeply in the process, we discover that suffering can open our hearts so that Love and Wisdom may flow into the world.  Kathleen Dowling Singh, in her book The Grace in Dying, points to this as a growing “awareness of the purpose of suffering endured: the transformation of ego into a vehicle for Spirit…”

The Sufi teaching “die before you die” seems to me to be another way of expressing this truth that reveals a deeper meaning to the experience of suffering.  Each time we remain open to our experience, remaining present in the moment as it is, marks a further release of the tenacious holding on of the small self.  In this way every loss that we encounter in life can lead to another small “death” of the ego.  The boundaries of the ego begin to loosen through these repeated “deaths,” allowing the powerful energy of the deeper, more expansive Self to pour into and fill our entire being.

This brings me full circle to the meaning of hope, with which I began this writing.  We certainly “maintain hope” that Richard will heal completely from his cancer surgery and need no further treatments, and that our grandchildren will experience a full recovery.  Hope is a very powerful psychological component of the healing process and is natural to our human condition, especially when we are walking through the darkness and cannot see the path before us.  But it also appears to me that with these hopes I am clinging to the egoic wish for life to be the way I would like it to be, rather than simply being with what is.  And how do we respond when our wishes are not fulfilled and all hope is gone?

Yet there seems to me to be another level of hope, as seen in the words of wisdom that were given to me at the beginning of this journey.  To let go of the need to control, to “let the future unfold… from the present moment” is to be aware of the beauty and grace that is innate within each moment, no matter what is happening.  This is the quality of hope that one sees with the eye of the heart, which allows the transformative potential of the present moment to unfold in a manner that is beyond one’s ego control.  It is the deep hope that supports the ability to trust in the process of life.  It is the sure hope that Julian of Norwich expresses in her famous statement: “All will be well, and all will be well and all manner of thing will be well.”  This is the powerful hope that gives us the courage and strength to continue our walk through the darkness of the “valley of the shadow of death” as we heed the instructions of Jean-Pierre deCaussade:

Follow your path, without a map, not knowing the way,  and all will be revealed to you.


Cynthia Avens





3 thoughts on “Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

  1. Helen

    Thank you so much Cynthia for sharing your strength and wisdom in the face of so many challenges. My heart reaches out to you, Richard and all your family 💖


  2. bluemtgrrl

    Thank you for this. We love you and hold you both in Light and Love especially these days. Every time I am able to be fully present to the moment as it is given, I am amazed at the peace which follows, even in the midst of what could be considered chaos from another perspective.


  3. Dee

    Dear Richard and Cynthia Once again many thanks for sharing your journey. Your quote from Julian of Norwich is one of my favorites. I find living in the present to be a challenge we are always sniffing out the next venture or next goal or the next brilliant idea. Yet when I am living in the present I find the things I mentioned seem to pop. I also find that in my intentional focus on the now my sense of living in a world of energy or vibration is heighten. That’s when I really sense the 2nd law– energy can neither be created or destroyed but only transformed. My love and good wishes are with you. Dee🌼🍁🍀🍂


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