I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness, in that I also saw the infinite love of God, and I had great openings.
This testimony by the founder of the Quaker movement, George Fox, which I learned from Paulette Meier in the form of a chant, has been resounding in my mind and heart these past few months. My mother died on April 9 – Maundy Thursday – which begins the darkest days in the Christian year that mark the journey to the crucifixion of Jesus. My grief over my mother’s death was intensified by the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic which meant that I could not be with her as she died or participate in the traditional mourning rituals. This year as I joined Christians around the world in our sorrowful journey with Jesus to the cross, I also felt my tears for my mother mingling with the tears of all of my fellow humans who are grieving over their losses due to this pandemic. As the chant with the words of George Fox arose in my heart, I saw the “ocean of darkness and death” that holds my personal grief lying on the surface of a much deeper collective grief of human suffering in this time of pandemic. And even deeper than this is the intense grief of the World Soul that witnesses the destruction of so many of our fellow creatures and the ecosystems of our Mother Earth.
At the same time I was also aware of “an infinite ocean of light and love” as occasional glimpses of joy illuminated the darkness of grief. Through this period of crisis the cold, dark days of winter in the southern Appalachian mountains have been transformed by the dramatic upsurge of new life in the Spring. The awe and joy that I experienced as I saw the beauty of life unfolding all around me was mixed with the fear and grief that I felt as I saw the horrific suffering throughout the world. At one point, as my heart felt torn by this conflict, I cried, “O God, how can this world be so full of beauty and so full of horror? How can there be such joy and such suffering in life? Is there truly any purpose to it all?” Then I saw an inner vision of the crucified Jesus and knew that this was the answer to my prayer: there is no “answer” to the question of why there is horror and suffering in this world, at least no answer that can truly satisfy the heart that is in anguish. But the image of the crucified Jesus answered the pleas of my anguished heart at a level much deeper than my rational mind. I realized that the deepest mysteries of life contain questions that are perhaps never meant to be fully answered in this mortal life, but simply held open as we live more deeply into them.
The work of wisdom is to accept and live the paradox that contains all the dualities of life. I felt a deepening of this inner work during this time of grief and necessary seclusion as I became increasingly aware of the painful tensions that I was experiencing between the opposites of joy and sorrow, faith and fear, light and dark, life and death. I began reading a book about Meister Eckhart, The Way of Paradox, by Cyprian Smith who affirms that “The way of opening the Wisdom-Eye is through paradox and the clash of contraries…” He says that Eckhart “sees the Reality of God as something that can be grasped only within the tension and clash of opposites. This tension has to be experienced in our daily life; this is the practice of detachment… If the Eye of the Heart were fully open, and we had attained complete Divine Knowledge, we would see that these contraries are all contained finally in an all-embracing unity; God and Man, pleasure and pain, success and failure, are ultimately all one in God. But we cannot reach this perception save in and through the tension of opposites… the Cross is the perfect symbol of the tension between opposites, and the all-embracing unity in which they are reconciled.”
As I continued to experience the paradox of our world as both beautiful and broken, so clearly seen throughout this pandemic, I perceived that Original Unity had to be “broken” in order for the world of creation to manifest. Its essential nature is thus the “clash of opposites” – the dualities that must arise when unity is fractured. Our human consciousness experiences this as the “tension of the opposites” and we devise all manner of ways to defend ourselves against the pain of holding this tension. But the conscious choice, as Cyprian Smith says, is detachment. This is the continual practice of surrender in daily life – letting go of the need to know and control – in the face of complete uncertainty and intense anxiety. This is the image of full surrender that we see in the figure of Jesus on the cross, following the anguish of his human struggle with conflicts in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The psychologist Carl Jung emphasized the crucial role of “holding the tension of the opposites” in the human psyche. When we repress and deny the painful experience of paradox, the unconscious conflicts manifest in the outer world. Synchronistically, the Covid-19 virus has seemingly erupted out of nowhere, totally unexpected, like a psychic eruption from the collective unconscious. But we have an opportunity in this crisis, as individuals and as a human community, to become more conscious. As Jung says, the tension of the opposites can only be reconciled through the uniting “transcendent function.” He believed that the crucified Christ is the supreme symbol in the Western psyche of this reconciliation. For me this is a deep meaning of the Christian belief that through the cross, Christ reconciles us to God; that we are saved through the reconciling power of the cross. The suffering of Christ on the cross is due not only to the personal pain of physical agony and betrayal by his friends, but even more to his experience of holding the pain of the entire world in his suffering and death. The graphic image of his body hung in the agonizing tension of the horizontal beam of the cross can represent for all of us the painful struggles of earthly life that we see so greatly magnified in our current pandemic. Might we, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, give our assent to the work of wisdom in our lives: “Not my will, but thine be done,” knowing that we are now consciously consenting to experience fully all the conditions of life, accepting life’s inevitable pain and suffering without denial and distraction? Might we go even further and follow Jesus to the cross, consciously experiencing being “hung on the cross of life” in our deepest darkness, torn by the tension of the opposites as our arms are stretched in agony on the beams of the cross – having no control, suspended in time, waiting in the darkness for the unknown future to unfold? But in experiencing this extreme anguish of the human condition, might we also realize that we too are supported on the vertical beam of the cross that aligns us with the unitive life of the Divine?
It is clear today that the pandemic might be seen in this way as a “global crucifixion,” as the suffering extends beyond personal, national and religious boundaries to encompass all of humanity. When we follow Jesus to the cross in the midst of global pandemic might we also participate, as one small cell in the universal Body of Christ, in holding the pain of the World Soul? Might we transcend our own personal suffering through doing our own small part in carrying the pain body of the world, in whatever way that is given to us to do? Might we join Christ on the cross in radiating love and compassion to the entire world, even through our own suffering?
And might we join together as a human family to accept the challenge of this pandemic as a call to confront the reality of darkness and death that is integral to the human condition, rather than projecting our own rejected “shadow” onto others? Might we unite in our common suffering to transform our current planetary crucifixion into a resurrection for humanity and all creation?
Malcolm Guite expresses deep hope in the power of the cross to reconcile the tension of the opposites in his sonnet “The Stations of the Cross – Crucifixion”:
See, as they strip the robe from off his back And spread his arms and nail them to the cross, The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black, And love is firmly fastened on to loss. But here a pure change happens. On this tree Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth, Here wounding heals and fastening makes free, Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth. And here we see the length, the breadth, the height, Where love and hatred meet and love stays true, Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light, We see what love can bear and be and do. And here our Saviour calls us to his side, His love is free, his arms are open wide.
Perhaps through the suffering of this pandemic we may learn how to hold this tension of the opposites so that we come to see that there is truly no separation between death and life; the crucifixion and the resurrection are one. As we live the paradox with the realization that darkness and light are always intermingled in our earthly lives, we may join George Fox in seeing “the infinite love of God” that shines through all the dualities of existence and experience the “great openings” to the reconciling power of love and wisdom that is at the heart of the cross.
Paulette Meier, “Infinite Ocean of Light and Love” from Wellsprings of Life: Quaker Wisdom in Chant, paulettemeier.bandcamp.com
Cyprian Smith, The Way of Paradox: Spiritual Life as Taught by Meister Eckhart (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987), pp. 24; 26-27.
Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Season: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2012), p. 42.
Nature photos: Richard Zelley
Crucifix art: 1) Titian 2) Dali