"The world's thy ship and not thy home"- Therese of Lisieux
" I have arrived, I am home" - Thich Nhat Hanh
Dukkha- The first of the 4 Noble Truths, that all human experience is transient and that suffering (ill-being) results from excessive desire and attachment.
When I was in college it happened on a particular evening, in a conversation with a friend, that I stopped believing that I, and those I loved, had an eternal soul. I was stunned. I hadn't been contemplating this point, hadn't had any doubts in the lifelong held belief that my essential distinctive self, was eternal. But in the midst of a long late-evening conversation with a friend, this belief fell away from me. I stumbled out of my friends house and went for a long walk. My dad had recently died. Suddenly I no longer had the image of him continuing in some heavenly realm to comfort me. It was a new and deep grief on top of what I felt when he died. I loved Beethoven. And I had always enjoyed the idea that I would meet him and spend time with him in the eternal realm. I stumbled back to my friend's house and knocked on the door, "but that means I won't see my dad again, he's really gone." My friend invited me in and comforted me as best he could.
Saint Therese of Lisieux was born into an idealic life of deep family love, religious devotion, and simple pleasures like pony rides, fishing with father, butterfly catching. Her mother and father were devout people. Each of them had contemplated religious life before they married. They had five daughters of whom Therese was the youngest. All five became nuns. The family adorned one another with laughter and love- and none was more pampered than Therese- whom her father called, "my queen".
When she was 4 years old Therese's mother died. The loss of her mother was an overwhelming trauma for the young and vulnerable Therese. She was cast into a deep and prolonged suffering. She became a bundle of insecurity, afraid. For the next 8 years of her life she barely functioned in the world: she struggled mightily at school, could scarcely tolerate being apart from her family, was given to fits and tremors.
As someone who has loved Therese, who has spent a lot of time contemplating Therese, her words and her life, I have formed my own impression of the meaning of her response to her mother's death. These are only my own poetic impressions, the movement of my soul in response to my contemplation over the years of Therese's life.
When we eat food enter into deep communion with what we are eating. We smell, taste, chew, swallow, digest and assimilate the food into our bodies. At the end of this process, the apple that we ate is now our flesh and blood-it is our life, our self. If , at any point in this process, there is food that we have failed to swallow (food caught in our teeth), digest (food caught in our stomach, intestines) this "unprocessed" food will make us sick.
Our spiritual Journey is about entering deeply into our experience of life, one might say living life as communion. To live life as communion is to taste, chew, swallow, digest and assimilate each experience- the joyful and the sorrowful- into the life of the heart. Every experience is food for the soul. Every experience is the real, dynamic life of the cosmos,and in our communion with life we want, above all to enter deeply into that reality and find a way to live with, affirm, and embrace it. Even the most painful of life's experiences can nourish us if we enter into them deeply, courageously, with open heart and mind and lots of loving support. It is the undigested experience which makes us ill. The painful realities that we hide from our heart, whose pain we seek to anesthetize with drink, drugs, food, religion, money, philosophy, or any of the myriad addictions which the human heart is prey to.
Therese tasted deeply of her mother's death. She let this loss penetrate into her heart and attempted to assimilate it into a reality that she could affirm as good. How could the God she loved abide the terrible suffering her mother's death brought upon her? She had accepted the teaching of the Catholic Church: death is not real, the essential self goes on and, if the soul is a faithful one, goes on in the TRUE LIFE, which follows this one- in the eternity of God's love- or heaven. In heaven, we are reunited with all that we have ever loved, and all abide in God's eternal love and presence.
Therese developed the view that this life we are living is exile- " a boat to carry us to heaven". Real life begins after we are dead. In my rich, nourishing and inspiring encounter with Therese, this is the point where my heart says, "no". I offer this in all humility as I contemplate a soul greater than my own.
To my Buddhist way of thinking, this Christian teaching, which denies the reality of death, which proposes that real life- the kingdom of God- follows this life, this teaching is the point where Therese stops processing the painful reality of death. It is the place where death catches in her mouth, her throat, her stomach. It is a teaching which prevents one from entering and staying with the deep reality of impermanence- of life and death, of the sorrow of the impermanence of all people, places and things, of all that we love; prevents us from realizing the joy of their eternal nature as part of the cosmos ceaselessly creating itself.
Several years ago, Jeannine, a beloved member of our community, was approaching death. She was a devout, but questioning Catholic. She wondered if, in the Buddhist view of things, she would again encounter her loved ones after she died. What follows is my response to her:
Thank you for the lovely reflection- very beautiful. I've been sitting with your question. It humbles me.
Death is mysterious to me. I don't know what will happen when I die. But the miraculous nature of life encourages me. I just give my body, heart and mind, my daughter, my family, my friends, my country, the earth itself, over to God, knowing all things continue in God's love.
My own experience is that I've had to walk through the door of death and let go of all persons, places and things. It has been a real and deep grief process. Somewhere down the line of that process, the grief has been replaced with a greater sense of intimacy and identification with all aspects of existence- a great sense of freedom for myself and those I love as being eternally part of that intimate, wondrous being- the Cosmos, or God, an ability to see all things in all things.
At first this "sense of oneness" might look like a little game of ideas with which we console ourselves, but the more I keep looking deeply at life, the more this oneness becomes the true reality, and all the particular relationships I have, though dear to me, are significant as manifestations of that reality. The relationship I have with my daughter Anna is precious to me. Yet our relationship has died and been reborn so many times. I still grieve the loss of my little girl-the nine year old who used to play with beanie babies with her friend Rose- but it's wonderful that she has gone on. And I see and experience that nine year old still in many children I meet.
My humble advice is to just keep walking through the reality with heart and mind as open as possible, with much loving support, let it rock you, let it break your heart, let it comfort you, and the deep beauty and wonder of that reality will reveal itself to you.