Absence: Forest of Longing – by Paula Pryce
The following is part 1 of a 2-part Holy Week reflection provided by Paula Pryce from Vancouver, Canada.
Forest of Longing
Absence mills around the body like a guard dog pacing the fence line. Rigidly keeping off the night creatures, jealously defending its property. I am within a picketed sphere of isolation. Longing, despair, confusion at the memory of the banquet torn to pieces, guests fleeing, music stopped. Not long ago the home was filled with shining lamps and food for all – now desolate in an endless stand of trees, mist creeping inward from the wetlands, penetrating the outer walls however much the dog may growl and bark.
We have little choice but to brave absence this Holy Week.
How the year has taken its toll. Perhaps at first we were secretly exhilarated to be holed up and quiet. A contemplative’s dream: the world finally sees the necessity of stillness and seclusion. We know that not everyone perceives our circumstances as vibrant potential, but nevertheless, solitude now has cachet, even nobility and valour. How curious and refreshing to be in a world that is not entirely at odds with us.
Yet the novelty has passed, as months melt one into another. Family, friends, and all of society suffer. The weight of days bears down. Anxiety rises over our vulnerabilities, collective and personal. This has become a year of letting go and hanging on in equal measure. Like an expanded Holy Week with no Easter yet in sight. We are like Mary Magdalene and the disciples, who don’t know where this is headed. Are we sensing into a mammoth shift that requires our stillness and attention – and also our loss – or are we in freefall? Is this the swamp that putrefies or purifies the water of life?
An unexpected space has shambled open at my centre, not so clearly the contemplative openness of invitation and peace, but something more like a ravening maw. However much I keep my practice of meditation and prayer, absence has begun to take me.
I am surprised. Have I not prepared for this necessary, desired dismantling? Illness and death among family and friends, research at a standstill, writing projects crumbling like ancient papyrus exposed to sun and air, unspoken tensions surreptitiously rising in households, income lost, bills unpaid, loneliness, hunger. If we who adore solitude have thus diminished, how can those who are in real need of lively, face-to-face interaction prosper in the enforced enclosure?
I hear the forest beyond the cabin walls, beyond the dog-stalked boundary. At dusk the curling mist inches along the forest floor from wetland bogs, breaching my perimeter. As I meditate, my hands sense the approach and gesture inquiry, fingers barely open like in-folded flames of delicate salmonberry buds, or in darker moments, like the spotted turquoise pincers of crayfish grasping in gravelled eddies, so eager for food to come their way.
The mist lingers and moves imperceptibly over the rippling stream. Shoots of cloudberry, sundew, and Labrador tea peek through sphagnum moss, a hint of possibility. The mist edges through the understorey at the base of greater life: salal, Douglas fir, and yellow cedar. It creeps towards me as I sit immobile, not knowing the way forward or back. The bog mist creeps over the lotus of my meditating body, toward forlorn emptiness. A gaping gash that cannot be sealed, memorialized, or lightly forgotten, but instead yawns to be filled, like Good Friday’s empty tabernacle.
Mary Magdalene didn’t know. Nor do we. This story has no dramatic irony, where the liturgical actors are comforted in their knowledge of how the rite will end. We don’t know if we will once again thrive, if our livelihoods will stabilize, if social and political institutions will ossify into harder battalions or transform for the good of all. We don’t know whether we are adequately equipped to respond and adapt to what may be a greater reckoning.
But that forbidding mist condenses into droplets that slake the thirst, leaching down into earth. The water that seems stagnant and putrid in the muck of duckweed and slime filters still and quiet, ever more deeply, through peat and mud, silt and gravel. In its own time, marsh water seeps into the torn body and unseeable depths to become a flow of pure groundwater seeking the right place to emerge. What appears putrid may be the channel of purification.
The forest sounds begin to draw us out beyond the fence: rushing wind, chortling raven, creaking branches. The aching cave of absence turns into the cave of the heart where we await the Beloved. We cannot alone heal the absence but, like Mary Magdalene, we can choose loyalty and love, and thus keep our vigil, however unsure we may be.
There is a tangle of underbrush in me: parsing the harsh reality of mourning with the responsibility of consenting to the Divine on behalf of all. I cannot pretend to understand the depth and breadth of the underground streams of the pain body that can be collectively nudged towards transformation. I cannot pretend to fully grasp the enigmatic facets of intentional suffering – an intercession of purity, spaciousness, and generosity that seeks and welcomes the Divine regardless of our pain. Humility is the best correction for my temptation to fake that knowledge (that I am beyond suffering or that I understand its purpose). Despite me, despite my lack of clarity and fortitude, the forest mist condenses, seeps, and flows while I attempt spacious, generous, and pure attentiveness in the face of world-rending absence.
A steadier time may be at hand. Steadier breath, when hands can again be put to work and eyes can again be opened and mouths can again form words. Underneath, the waiting continues. The vigil at the tomb. The longing.
I see now that the tomb is myself. My cracked centre is the fissured rock face awaiting Christ’s body. I hold the death; I throw open the gate to the forest wind and whirling mist.
Who would agree to cradle death except for the sake of love? Our only choice now is to wait at the tomb.
Maundy Thursday 2021
Part 2 forthcoming on Easter: Presence: Forest of Joy
Paula Pryce is a cultural anthropologist and writer at The University of British Columbia who studies contemplative religions and ritual aesthetics. Her latest book, The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018), includes ethnographic research with Cynthia Bourgeault and the Wisdom Christianity community. She is a board member of The Contemplative Society.
I have struggled to find connection in my practice of Lent this year so as I read this on Good Friday, and again on Easter Saturday I’m realising that absence has named my experience over this past 40 days. So being reminded of Mary’s stance to ‘…choose loyalty and love, and keep vigil, however unsure we may be..’ I am feeling the invitation to trust in the unknowing, once again.
‘We have little choice but to brave the absence this Holy Week.’
Thankyou Paula Pryce.
Yes, Linda. This has definitely been a Lent of absence for me, too. Every blessing.
Me, too, Paula, Patricia, Shelagh, I’ve read this on Holy Thursday and now Good Friday. It’s both been a relief and taken me deeper each time into mystical hope and trust in humility and patience. It is a graced continuation of my Holy Week retreat with Cynthia and Ward Bauman in 2012.
With much gratitude,
Carole in Houston
Thank you, Carole. We spent Holy Week 2012 together with Cynthia and Ward at the Episcopal House of Prayer. That was a powerful time.
Wow, Paula! Guess I had a sense that you had been there too when that part of my comment seemed to write itself. A powerful time indeed – reverberations continue . . . .
Deep Resonance with this beautiful work of expressing much of what many of us find so hard to express now. Thank you.
Thank you, Patricia.
This speaks eloquently to my condition. Not knowing the end of the story, “Despite me, despite my lack of clarity and fortitude…,” aiming for humility but much at the mercy of the lived absences. Thank you, Paula.
Thank you, Shelagh. This year has allowed us to imagine the precarity Mary Magdalene + the disciples must have experienced. Not knowing is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of our human experience, but it can be a beautiful mystery too.