Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Divine Exchange

The candle I burn while meditating is lightly scented, something I only notice -- and then only fleetingly -- when I blow it out at the end of the meditation period.

Today, as that faint scent wafted upward, I was reminded of something Cynthia Bourgeault said during my brief time at the retreat: "What you've been given is exactly what you need to manifest the exquisite savor of divine reality that is to come forth from your being."

I like that phrase -- "the exquisite savor of divine reality." It gives me something I always seem to long for, a feeling of being special, unique. Which gets a little tricky, as she also pointed out that any attempt we make to define ourselves by our unique characteristics keeps us finite and separate -- a sad thing, when we hunger for connection and the infinite.

Perhaps it's not the sense of being special that makes this concept appealing, but rather the hope it offers, that somehow, in the challenges we face, some unique flavor of God is being made manifest; that in continuing to walk through our struggles we are serving some higher purpose.

Which is not to elevate the struggle, but rather to remove the apparent pointlessness of what can often prove to be incredibly difficult. I am reminded a bit of my husband's response to our daughters when they get into difficulties: "And what did you learn from this?" And though I suspect that the divine savor is far more complex than simply a lesson to be learned and/or shared, that can certainly be a place to start.

That said, I spent yesterday attempting to adjust my time to the needs of my dying cat. It was definitely a humbling experience: I was constantly misjudging her needs and capacities, making assumptions and mis-interpreting her responses. She, on the other hand, seemed infinitely wise and extraordinarily patient. In the end we gave up trying to put her where we thought she needed to be -- on a soft pillow, near water, near a cat box, indoors, away from the dog -- and learned to trust her to make her own decisions.

Because she is so young -- barely 4 years old -- and because this has been so sudden, I also decided to follow her around with a camera so that I might have some visible evidence of her presence in our lives up til now. I have mixed feelings about this, as I know the camera can be a way to insulate me from experience.

But in this case I think the camera functioned as way to keep me from drifting away, to keep me focused on her rather than tied to my computer or lost in a book. It gave me a chance to reflect on our life together; to see that her wise presence has been intricately woven into the fabric of our lives in this place, and to regret that I have not been more mindful of that, and of her.

It is at times like this, when the Christian concept of heaven has little to offer me in the way of comfort and reassurance, that I draw strength from the Buddhist practice of Tonglen. Because I know that I am not alone: not only do most people get subjected to the experience of losing a beloved pet, but I actually have a dear friend who is going through end-stages with her own cat, who is 17.

So with tonglen, I breathe in the pain of all who deal with imminent loss. And, having found some peace in the day, through the images of my camera and through Pippa's patience with my need to inappropriately control her environment, and, above all, through her determination to sleep with me last night, I breathe out that experience of peace, patient acceptance, and love, on behalf of all who suffer.

And as those breaths mingle, Pippa's and mine, the breath in and the breath out, it feels a bit like what Cynthia calls "The Divine Exchange", the relational energy out of which being arises; the ineffably creative lifelong process of giving and receiving in which we are called to engage. And through that exchange, like the faint scent of my candle, I imagine the exquisite savor of the Divine seeping into the world.

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