by Theresa Scherf
Human beings need deepening places, too. And far too many never have any. Think about your deepening places… —Madeleine l’Engle
In times of tragedy, crisis, or displacement, we instinctively reach down deeper toward our roots. We reach toward what secures us, what grounds us, what nourishes and sustains us. Winter is nature’s time of going deeper, when plants die back above ground and fields lie fallow under blankets of snow and animals hibernate in caves and burrows—when even human beings are drawn instinctively to home and hearth. Most religious traditions observe seasons of greater inwardness, such as the approaching season of Lent within the Christian church year.
In almost all of these things, withdrawal and coming forth, dying back and new growth, are juxtaposed with one another—are indeed a part of one another—in an intrinsic way. “Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light,” writes Theodore Roethke. And Esther de Waal:
Who would have though my shrivel’d heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
Quite underground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
Spiritual life likewise demands that we go deeper, that we reach down toward our inner roots and then go deeper still, in order to connect with and renew what is most essential to us. We need regularly, rhythmically, to find and slip into the fissures and runnels that point us toward our deepening places. “The gaps are the thing,” writes Annie Dillard. “The gaps are the spirit’s one home. The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God…. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock—more than a maple, a universe.”
Going deeper within our self and our life can feel both awesome and risky. It is awesome as we discover an inner space opening up more and more expansively before us until we begin to glimpse the vastness of that world, that universe, inside us. As spiritual teacher and poet Kabir writes: “Inside this clay jar there are canyons and pine/mountains, and the maker of canyons and pine/mountains!” Indeed poetry, with its images and metaphors, is often the language of the connecting place between our life in the outer world and the life of this inner space, helping us both to enter and to express our experience of it.
This going deeper is risky because we so often find that the path inward leads first not to terra firma but terra incognita. It may indeed demand that we leave any sort of ground whatever. Teilhard de Chardin describes it this way:
I took the lamp and, leaving the zone of everyday occupations and relationships where everything seems clear, I went down into my inmost self, to the deep abyss whence I feel dimly that my power of action emanates…. At each step of the descent a new person was disclosed within me of whose name I was no longer sure, and who no longer obeyed me. And when I had to stop my exploration because the path faded from beneath my steps, I found a bottomless abyss at my feet and out of it came—arising I know not from where—the current which I dare to call my life.
If going deeper requires us to relinquish our lesser securities and orientation points, it also brings us to something far more authentic and profound. It is, in a sense, a kind of homecoming, as Annie Dillard intimates. It leads us to discoveries of where we truly belong, of who and whose we really are. The depths within are finally a place of connection with our self, God, and others, bringing glimpses of a larger whole. “As each one of us enters into the deeper places through contemplation, we come to see ourselves in our truest being, at the Source of our being in God,” writes Basil Pennington. “We come to see ourselves each moment coming forth from our Source, and not only ourselves but all others with us.”
This is not simply solid ground, but holy ground. It calls us to take off our shoes and open our self to all that we find there. It invites us to encounter our deepest pains and joys, our passions and our desires; to come to terms with our flaws and failures; to catch glimpses of piercing beauty. It asks us to become able to pray with Dag Hammarskjold: “For all that has been, Thanks; to all that will be, Yes.” It asks us to accept our healing.
Communion at the soul level with the divine, and through it with others, brings epiphanies of transcendence and wholeness. It opens to us the awareness of the essential unity or oneness overarching and embracing all that is. It bears the discovery that God is not ‘up there’ or ‘out there’ but at the very heart and core of our being: The kingdom of God is within you. Indeed, it gradually reveals to us that this image of God that we are is the heart and core of our being. Writes mystic-poet Rumi:
Lo, I am with you always, means when you look for God,
God is in the look of your eyes,
in the thought of looking, nearer to you than your self,
or things that have happened to you.
Many currents in our outer world join with the tuggings of our inner wisdom to call us to go deeper in this time. We must not simply drift on the surface of daily routines or be swept along reflexively by world events without a sense of direction. Nor must we allow our mind and heart to be numbed by the barrage of choices and voices assailing us in our media and technology driven culture. The path toward equilibrium and meaning in our outer life draws us down into the depths of silence and stillness. This is imaged in Thomas Merton’s musings: “It seems to me that what I am made for is…silence and emptiness, to wait in darkness and receive the Word of God entirely in Oneness and not broken up into all shadows.” And, in a different vein, by some lines from May Sarton’s poem “Sabbath”:
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!
Going deeper invites us to release, rest, and be renewed and, perhaps most of all, to be loved—and to know finally Who the Beloved is.
You, O Lord, will give me all the attention I need if I would simply stop talking and start listening to you. I know that in the silence of my heart you will speak to me and show me your love. Give me, O Lord, that silence. Let me be patient and grow slowly into this silence in which I can be with you. —Henri Nouwen
Some Resources for Going Deeper
The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, Stephen Mitchell, Ed.
Ten Poems to Change Your Life, Roger Housden
Zen Art for Meditation, Holmes & Horioka
An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum
Markings, Dag Hammarskjold
The Other Side of Silence, Morton Kelsey
Befriending Our Desires, Philip Sheldrake
The Inner Voice of Love, Henri Nouwen
Intimacy with God, Thomas Keating
To Love as God Loves, Roberta Bondi
When the Well Runs Dry, Thomas H. Green
Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris