Naked Before the Sacred

Note: This is Part Two of a three-part series. Read Part One here.

Bodied,
one will hunger.

Bodied,
one will lie.

O you, don't you rib
and taunt me
again
for having a body:

body Thyself for once
like me and see
what happens,

O Ramanatha. ~ Devara Dasimayya[1]

Tara, You are 'Cintamayi', Full of Thought,
but do You ever give me a thought?
In name You worry for the World,
but Your behavior is something else!
At dawn You make me think of the day's troubles,
at mid-day I concentrate on my stomach,
at night, on my bed,
I worry about everything.
Speak to me, Ma; I'm always calling You:
at first I thought I had You --
the One Who Becomes What One Thinks
Who Surpasses All Thought
But then You lost all thought for Sambhucandra,
and gave him the slip.
~ Kumar Sambhucandra Ray[2]

Years ago, on the first eight-day silent retreat I had made in many years, as I was processing difficult experiences of loss and transition, my director said, "God is not a china doll. He won't break." That is, he won't break if you speak candidly or even harshly to him. Many years earlier, another director wrote to me while I was on summer experiment as a Jesuit novice, "Tell him everything."

The counsel of both directors suggested a stance of openness, honesty, and transparency before the Divine, to stand naked before God in one's deepest, most authentic human experience. And this can mean feeling—and expressing—terrible grief, sadness, anger, or confusion at times. We don't need to intellectualize or spiritualize or ultimately neutralize our lived, felt, real experience, as we cry out, "Where are you?" with pious platitudes or vapid maxims of faith. No, instead, we can, as in certain psalms attributed to David, baldly express our anguish and simply, naturally cry out. God can take it. Even Jesus, approaching his death, modeled this frank, soul-searing honesty—drawing from one of psalms himself—"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Sometimes, strange or even amusing things may happen in an authentic expression in crisis. One time, driving back to Erie from Philly for the hundredth time, bereft by my failed marriage and by a long-distance separation from my children, and burdened by mountainous debt, broken wheel joints, and an increasing financial desperation, I blurted out frantically, "God, please, I need help! I can't do this! I need some money!"

It felt strange and deeply uncomfortable to pray for money, perhaps viewing it as ultimately insignificant compared to the grand questions of liberation and certainly vastly less important than the needs of billions of persons suffering in far worse circumstances. I'm sure there was some sort of residual and misguided Platonism there for me, too, as though the real world is somehow inferior to an ideal world, or that the economies of liberation in the world's religious traditions rightly seem to minimize or diminish real-world needs or pressures. Nevertheless, it was as if those pressures twisted my arm into a half-nelson, and I finally pleaded for help. The next day, returning to my office, I received a letter from the publisher of my first book, a scholarly study of Indian philosophy. It was a royalty check. I was overjoyed as I opened the envelope. Yes! I thought, Thank you!

The check was for sixty-two dollars.

Rather than feeling crestfallen, I laughed, then whispered, "Perhaps I didn't quite make myself clear." While the check was small, that event finally wasn't about the money. My consciousness shifted; my concern, however valid, softened. Sixty-two dollars wouldn't even pay for the gas I needed on my next trip to Philly to see my kids. But the synchronicity of the check, following a heart-felt prayer, made a significant impact on me. The letter, a random note floating over the transom, felt like a little love letter from God. All will be well. Do not worry. You will get through this.

And, as a matter of fact, over the years following that day, I've slowly equilibrated my financial situation in and through much hard work and various personal and professional developments, some quite surprising and entirely unanticipated. I don't know what to make of that—or of anything good, really—in the face of immensely greater suffering in the world. But a proper response is gratitude, expressed in daily choices and gestures that reflect it. For example, registering the mysterious ways in which grace has visited us we might consider how we can offer, or even become, grace to others by what we do and by how we live.