Just for a day, I went to Bethlehem Centre, in Nanaimo, Canada.
Before bed, the first night, I wound down with my daily spiritual examen. Following the script, I became aware of God’s presence. But then I let go of the script. “Congratulations, self!” I thought. “It’s become so easy to tune into a sense of God’s infinite presence!”
So, I returned to the script. And then I spoke directly to God. “God, I grasp that you are Infinity. But you are also so much more than that. So, please show yourself to me!”
More than infinity. Did I just say that? Such a paradox. So, what does it mean?
Then, that night, I dreamed.
My husband and I live in a cluttered apartment, with books stacked everywhere. On a table, I find a Hebrew book about prayer. It’s set in two different fonts. A formal font for excerpts from the traditional prayer book. And a simpler font for commentary. Turns out, my younger brother wrote the commentary. When he was twelve years old, studying for his bar mitzvah.
Next, I’m in a single family home. Upstairs, in an empty room. The walls are white. I can see hooks and marks where things once hung on the walls. But they’re all gone, even the old mirror. “Mom!” I ask, “Why did they take everything out of my room?”
Somehow, the dream seems related to the examen. Scene one shows familiar concepts. So simple, even a child could explain them. But, in scene two, everything from childhood is gone. What will fill the room now?
After breakfast, I visited the Centre’s library, full of spiritual books. But one title jumped right out at me. The Cloud of Unknowing, a famous 14th century Christian guide to contemplation. I read the introduction by William Johnston. He highlights a few key spiritual teachings from the anonymous author.
For example: focus on a simple meditation. “I am. God is.” Sometimes, annoying thoughts will disrupt your meditation. So, choose a mantra. One word, like “God” or “Love” or something else meaningful. When the thoughts come, answer with this word. Not with the meaning of the word. Just the word. And don’t argue with the thoughts. That just helps them grow.
Yod-hey-vav-hey, God’s Ineffable Name. That’s the word I chose.
Later, I ran into Kathleen, the Centre’s Director. “Are you on silence?” she asked. “No,” I replied. “So,” she said, “come into my office and meet Dale.” (It turns out I already knew Dale; we had visited the provincial Minister of Education together to talk about inter-religious bullying.)
The three of us had a terrific conversation. Were we optimistic about inter-spirituality or not?
Kathleen was optimistic. “We are evolving into a higher unity consciousness,” she said. “More and more people are affirming the unity of all creation. As it’s expressed in Indigenous spiritualities, for example.”
Dale was pessimistic. “But in the revitalization of spirituality, I see a lot of racism,” he said. “Among Indigenous peoples, as well.”
But I took a middle ground. “There are powerful people so greedy, we can’t even imagine their inner lives,” I said. “They work hard to set us against each other, instead of against them. I don’t know if I can stop them. But, locally, I can help people to not be so divided.”
Excusing myself, I walked down the hill to Westwood Lake Park. Along the water, through the woods, up to a mossy cliff, and then back to the Centre. There, I walked the labyrinth. Winding my way into its centre, I practiced the meditation and the mantra. Winding back out, I just listened to the birds.
Pleasant, but no wows. Or so I thought.
That evening, the Centre hosted a Tibetan singing bowl meditation. Twenty people lay on yoga mats as Ben, from “Inner Attainment,” introduced the event. He would play music on bowls, gongs, and chimes. The music would stimulate our alpha (resting) and theta (dreaming) brainwaves. All we had to do was close our eyes and breathe.
So, that’s what I did. Rested in alpha, breathed, and listened to a bowl symphony. Suddenly, I shifted into a theta state. I saw Westwood Lake. Swayed in rhythm with its gentle rippling water. Back and forth, small and grand. The music swelled; it got louder, more complex. I felt myself back on the trail in the woods. Sure, the forest had sounded quiet, but my body knew differently. That afternoon, I had felt the community of trees in lively conversation.
My pleasant walk had been more than just pleasant. Actually, it had been a download of spiritual tools. Helpful mental images and full body sensations. The healing flow of the water. The family love of the trees. Now, I can tune into them as easily as I can access a feeling of God’s infinity. “God, show yourself!” I had prayed. And here were two revelations. Two more ways to feel into God’s presence. Hints of Kathleen’s unity consciousness, perhaps.
Of course, I’m not ready to give up the traditional Hebrew prayer book from my dream. So, early in the morning, I quietly sped through its words of morning prayer. As I whispered the Amidah, my mind rephrased it slightly: God, give us the ability to slip into awareness of you, let go of our illusions, and develop a peace-loving heart. Amen.