One of the leading figures today on the topic of contemplation and Christian mysticism is world-renowned teacher and author James Finley.
He has an easy way of articulating some of these paradoxical truths and ethereal notions we encounter on the contemplative path.
Like a lot of contemplatives, though, his story starts with deep woundedness. Finley was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused in his household growing up. He came across the writings of Thomas Merton, and after High School went to Gethsemani Abbey for several years with Merton serving as his spiritual director.
He describes a profound awakening experience at the Abbey.
“Thomas Merton gave me permission to spend so many hours each day in the hayloft of an abandoned sheep barn. And one day I was up in the loft of that barn and I was reading the psalms. And the loft doors were always kept open and looked out over a meadow. And I was walking back and forth reading the psalms in this state of kind of inner emptiness that I was referring to here, this kind of unconsoled state. And all of a sudden there was this vivid realization. What all along I had thought of as the air, was literally God. That is that I was walking back and forth in God, breathing God, and the God that I was breathing knew me, like through and through and through and through and through as compassion. That was my sense of it, as compassion.”
If we map this to the movements of the contemplative path, Finley was moving through the Dark Night of the Soul – an inability to find comfort, solace, or joy in the former spiritual practices, community, or disciplines – into a sense of mystical union. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? But the story doesn’t end here.
Finley was abused by one of the monks at the abbey, sending him into a tailspin. He left the abbey, started drinking heavily, and entered into a dysfunctional marriage.
For Finley, it wasn’t until he entered into a psychology program and began looking closely at his own wounds and inner dynamics that he started to integrated his wounds and awakening against the backdrop of a nondual consciousness. He recognized at some point the relationship between the pain, the suffering, and the liberation from suffering.
This seems to be our human condition: the wound and the awakening are one. Whether its acute trauma or something more prolonged, we recognize our lives have become unmanageable. Old maps and old strategies don’t work anymore.
In fact, most of our egoic projects for happiness – the need for affirmation, the need to control, the need for attention – are ways of warding off the fear from unconsciously held wounds or pain.
We intuitively know there is some relationship between the wound, our core suffering, and growth and wisdom.
Writing about spiritual transformation and the inflection point that takes place in his practice as a therapist, Finley mentions the axial moment. That is a moment when someone moves from being, careful, defensive, defined by their pain, to open, trusting, and rooted in their deeper sense of value and significance.
And once we start down that path of integration, of letting go, of recovery, for some of us, the doors get blown off entirely, and there’s a radical awakening experience beyond the fragile ego getting some silly putty and white primer.
Our sense of self and understanding of who we are is altogether changed.
Some of us claim to have come out of a Dark Night of the Soul, which usually precedes a radical shift in our inmost being, but nothing seems to have truly changed in our ways of relating, sense of self, or worldview. We don’t yet sense an awakening into infinite love. The tattered ego is still in control.
But like Finley, this can be a seed that grows, and even if it experiences new trauma, new deprivations, or grows slowly, finally takes a mature shape. The thread between the wound and the awakening can be stretched long or wound tight, but the two are deeply connected.
That healing process, of moving from the wound to the awakening is how contemplatives understand the invitation to take up our cross and walk. It’s the Paschal Mystery, the downward way.
Finley quotes Merton as telling him about the monastic life we don't live the spiritual life to find some rarified atmosphere where we're exempt from the human condition. Rather, we live this interior life to experience the suffering of the whole human family expressing itself in the intimacy of our suffering.”
This strikes me as the ultimate calling of the contemplative, whether in or out of the monastery, whether a public teacher or a hidden mystic, to identify with the suffering of the whole human family. And by default, the selfishness of our egos prevent us from that.
It’s the wound that pierces us, that makes us aware of the ego, the false self at work that opens up the possibility of becoming a channel for this radical kind of divine love in the world.
Our free mini-course on The Christian Mystics.
Richard Rohr on The Paschal Mystery
James Finley Only Love Is Real
The Wound of Love by A Carthusian