Awakening can be enlightening and exhilarating, but the really shocking aspect comes from awakening to the fact that it will ultimately entail a death of some kind. Some part of the old familiar self must be given up and its abandonment can be as traumatic as death. On this Paul and the most reliable spiritual guides in the Christian tradition agree. It may be seen as the fruitful death of a grain of wheat, as Jesus put it, or as the death of the caterpillar on its way to becoming a butterfly, but shorn of the comforting metaphor the death of the old and familiar can hardly be anything but painful, confusing and instinctively resisted. What awaits on the other side, so to speak, is a radical change in our sense of identity, so that a genuine awakening can be recognized in the fact that after it has happened, one will give a different answer to the question, Who am I?The Wisdom Jesus, describes an early experience of God "in golden light" as carrying with it the discovery that, "in that moment... there was something in me that knew. It didn't know what it knew, exactly, but it knew that it knew. Deeper than all the precepts that had been drilled into me in my childhood religious training, it simply recognised the voice of truth when it heard it and let go into its presence." Bourgeault's experience came to her out of her confusion and distress at the news of the impending death of a seriously ill neighbour.
I can't really imagine that, however alienated we might be from religious expectations, however estranged from what makes us human, we may not find that our longings, our terrors, our grief, at some time bring us out beyond our own ability to cope, to comprehend, even. In that, there is prayer, impossible though it may be for some of us to name it.
In God's own self, God is. I am frail, temporary, contingent. The connecting strand is God's mercy, not any act or presumption of my own.
Thomas Merton wrote, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billion points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.
There is then something that connects us, to God and to each other, and to all of creation, that Quakers describe as "that of God in everyone." The light in the eyes of another human, in the eyes of an animal, that beauty that is there in life, and which ceases so certainly in the moment of death - that is pure gift, the creature's own entire and precious isness, a little fleck of the istigkeit of God. Perhaps there are a very few in any age who know this so perfectly that they become so caught up in that shared quality of being that they are somehow more than, and yet most fully, human. Perhaps Christ is that identity newborn, a bridge where a ferry used to be. Prayer that is the heart's true voice will cause that bridge to spring into being, the indwelling Christ born within the human heart, whatever name it might know him by.
I think that inside all true prayer there is a core of silence. We may be aware of crying out to God, railing against God, imploring or denying God; and yet deep inside there is the unknowing, the contact of the speechless with the indescribable. Maybe silence is the truest prayer. The words are just our way of telling ourselves about it, however we may intend them. If God is God, then there are no secrets between us (Romans 8.26-27), and words are in the end, mere doorways into that silence, as we see so clearly in the Jesus Prayer, or in the recitation of the Rosary.
But in prayer there is also a kind of death. True prayer involves a realisation that what we long for, what we need so desperately is in the end quite beyond us. We look to ourselves, to our training and our assumptions, and we find naught for our comfort. (Perhaps those without religious experience get here sooner, which may be the thought behind Jesus' remark that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance. (Luke 15.7)) To come to the very end of our own capacity to act or to comprehend is death indeed, and yet, as in physical death, there is more here than meets the eye.
That "point or spark" within is truly God. It goes on, indestructible and beyond time itself. In death there is nothing else, and yet nothing else is needed. To know that this, finally, is our own truest self may well be death - but in the same instant it is everlasting life, full of all the grace and joy of God, the very mercy that is indeed God. Cynthia Bourgeault again:
Mercy is the length and breadth and height and depth of what we know of God - and the light by which we know it. You might even think of it as the Being of God insofar as we can possibly penetrate into it in this life, so that it is impossible to encounter God apart from the dimension of mercy.