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Firstlight: The Early Inspirational Writings by Sue Monk Kidd

by davesandel on September 17th, 2011

Firstlight: The Early Inspirational Writings, by Sue Monk Kidd, 2006

227 pages

Much of this book was first published in Guideposts and Weavings.  In her early thirties, Sue Monk Kidd joined a creative writing class, wrote a story and sent it off for publication – an assignment the teacher gave everyone in the class.  Guideposts not only accepted this first attempt at writing for publication, but also extended to her one of fifteen invitations to a writing workshop in New York.

She said, “I barely opened my mouth the entire time.”

The Secret Life of Bees sold over six million copies.  But Sue Monk Kidd’s spiritual memoirs have opened my heart.  In this book from thirteen different directions she points me toward God.

There are short essays, short stories, and many smaller stories, snippets from her life.  She writes about her family, her retreats, the natural world around her, her friends.  She tells stories from the hospital, from when she was a nurse.  She finds words for her thoughts, and her thoughtlessness.  She is willing to tell stories on herself.

Why?  She wonders that too.  She tries to answer the question.  Essentially, Sue Monk Kidd knows herself only as she knows others, and she only knows others she knows herself.  In her writing, she shares herself so I can do something of the same.  This is a path that leads toward God, and not away.

Paul says that what can be known about God is clearly seen and understood from what has been made.  Between you and me, there is God.  Within you and me, there is God.  Here is God, there is God, everywhere is God … God.

Outline of the Book

Introduction

  1. The Crucible of Story
  2. Awareness
  3. Availability
  4. Compassion
  5. Solitude
  6. The Sacred Ordinary
  7. Simplicity of Spirit
  8. Gracious Space
  9. Severe Grace
  10. A Taste of Silence
  11. Standing Fast
  12. Letting Go
  13. Reborn to Love

 

 Quotations compiled from Firstlight

 INTRODUCTION

Thomas Merton referred to God’s presence in the soul as the pointe vierge. This French phrase refers to the “virgin point” that comes just before dawn, those ripening moments before the first ray of light flares into the darkness.  Whatever name we give this hidden incandescence, this “firstlight,” I believe it exists in all of us.  I believe, too, in the impulse to capture its flickerings through words. – p. 3

The question, “Who am I?” reverberates quietly in these pages, as does a willingness to be known.  I wonder sometimes why I chose to make my spiritual musings visible.  I want to believe it is mostly because such vulnerability creates what we might call “a soulful being together” between the reader and the author. – p. 10-11

I have come to love the following words by the French Nobel laureate, Albert Camus: “A person’s life purpose is nothing more than to rediscover, through the detours of art, or love, or passionate work, those one or two images in the presence of which his heart first opened.” – p. 11

1.             THE CRUCIBLE OF STORY

Through solitude and silence I began to find an inner music, a love song being sung in the spaces of my own heart.  In the mystery of contemplative prayer I learned to enter God’s presence within and experience myself loved beyond reason. – p. 15-16

As we are exiled from our stories and from forums where stories are told, we lose the narrative edge of our spiritual existence.  We can no longer draw on the power of metaphors, symbols and inner parables to express our faith.  When we fail to tend to our inner stories we risk creating a rift between what we believe and how we live. – p. 17

The inner story creates identity, transforming our vision of who we are … And it sustains us in the midst of suffering; it can become a holy container for confronting and overcoming pain and fear … Finally, it reorients us to new truth and insight. – p. 17-19

The word story actually means “to know.”  (From Greek historia, “a learning/knowing/seeing by inquiry, record, narrative” – dictionary.com)  – p. 19

God surprises us with glimpses and truths we did not grasp until we tried to tell the story. – p. 19

Through story we draw connections between the happenings of life and the lessons of God … Such awareness transforms life from a series of random events to the poetic realm of a sacred tale. – p. 20

I believe in stories.  The world has enough dogma.  It’s stories we need more of, stories that reverence the still, small voice that sings our life.  As Anthony de Mello observed, “The shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story.”  Jesus told stories about the most common things in the world: a lost sheep, a seed that falls on rocky ground, a woman who sweeps her house in search of a coin, a man whose son runs away from home.

All personal theology should begin with the words: Let me tell you a story.  – p. 34-35

2.             AWARENESS

Because in the beginning I forgot to remember, I used reminders.  When the clock bonged on the hour in my house, it was an invitation to be attentive.  Every time I climbed stairs, for some reason it was a cue to be attentive.  In such ways, awareness spreads out … This becomes an intentionality that penetrates other aspects of life. – p. 36-37

Someone pointed out to me that the words now, here and nowhere have the same arrangement of letters, but differ when a small space is inserted … Attentiveness is entering fully the moment you are currently in, no matter how hassling and mundane, and simply being present with it. – p. 37

I glanced at a common white lily in a vase, and honestly, the sight nearly wiped me out.  It was that impertinently gorgeous.  Out of nowhere, plain and simple objects were rising up to show off their flame … It was as if something fell from my eyes and I saw everything just as it is. – p. 42-43

I spent far more time wishing for contemplative experiences that actually having them.  It was excruciatingly easy to lose touch with the inner life of the soul … When I read that the Chinese pictograph for busyness is “heart killing,” I felt the truth of that in my bones.

In William Wordsworth’s poem “The Prelude,” he writes about “spots of time” that nourish and repair the soul … I began to search for spots of time here and there in my day.  I found them by stopping.  Just stopping … five minutes or less sitting still and receding into the quiet core of myself … Spots of time in which to be. – p. 45-46

3.            AVAILABILITY

(After ignoring a lady who looked lonely on the train, I had a dream about her.)  She sits across from me, this time in a rowboat.  Her tears gush over the tiny precipice of her eyelids like waterfalls.  The boat is filling up with this sad water, and I realize that if don’t do something, we’re going to sink.  Both of us.  I try bailing the tears, but that gets us nowhere.  She keeps crying.  Finally I stop and stare into those irrepressible eyes.  When I do, the tears start to dry up, but if I look away they start again.

The dream cracks my heart, and I wake with solemn wonder, reunited with an old truth: People with profound human needs and suffering do not, as I have half-imagined and half-wished, travel in a boat separate from mine. – p. 48-49

I begin to observe myself in the presence of others, friends and strangers alike, and I’m surprised by the (low) level of my availability.  I watch my restless heart, the mercurial way my mind sweeps from one thing to another, the way my ego holds forth, keeping me abreast of my own expectations, wants, and preoccupations, criticizing, comparing, competing, imposing views … I have attention disorder deficit of the soul. – p. 50

I decide to take up availability as a discipline, as a form of spiritual practice, like meditation, prayer, or Scripture reading … what might be called mindful availability … When you eat, just eat.  When you sit, just sit.  When you sit with a crying woman on a train, just sit with her.  Do it with all your mind and heart and soul.  Be fully present to her without other agendas going on at the sidelines … without passing judgment, without converting her to your point of view (no matter how helpful), without desiring her appreciation, without wondering what others on the train might be thinking … Do it the way Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, with an undivided heart. – p. 50-51

(I become more convicted of my) overcrowded heart … and how my fullness undermines my ability to be present.  A friendly empty space must be created within the host.  I wan to create a vessel of emptiness, a thing to hold a beautiful nothing. – p. 52-53

I discover that while I’m making progress emptying myself and making my availability more mindful, I have a whole secret ledger of restrictions concerning who’s deserving of it.  There are some folks, I realize, so ideologically and politically different from me I have no real intention of being available to them.

“Welcome all, Mechtild wrote.  All.  Jesus practiced unrestricted availability.  “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Welcome them on their own terms and not your own.

4.            COMPASSION

At the nursing home I didn’t want to visit, an ancient-looking woman looked at me, a look that pierced me to the marrow of my twelve-year-old bones.  Then she spoke the words I haven’t forgotten all these years.  “You didn’t want to come, did you, child?”

The words stunned me.  They were too painful, too powerful, too naked in their honesty.  “Oh yes, I wanted to come,” I protested.

A smile lifted one side of her mouth.  “It’s okay,” she said.  “You can’t force the heart.” – p. 68

Genuine compassion cannot be imposed from without … You don’t arbitrarily make up your mind to be compassionate so much as you choose a journey that transforms your heart into a compassionate space … Compassion happens through a process, which is how God nearly always works, by the way. – p. 69

Unraveling external selves and coming home to our real identity (our “True” Self) is the true meaning of soul work … Shifting my awareness to an Authentic I is the necessary prelude for real compassion.  It awakens me to a fresh awareness that God is the life of us all and we are one in God together. – p. 74-75

When compassion wakes up in us, we find ourselves more willing to be vulnerable, to take the risk of entering the pain of others.  We open our lives to them in a genuine willingness to be known. – p. 75

The heart cannot be forced, but it can become a womb where compassion is gestated and birthed.  There we birth God.  There we birth the name We. And with this holy name we will look with the eyes of the heart at all creatures, great and small, and walk gently upon God’s bruised planet. – p. 76

5.            SOLITUDE

Being alone in order to find the world again sounds ridiculously paradoxical. – p. 85

Left to itself, unchecked by the contemplative moment, my ego has created a small thunder of wants … I’m replete with experiences, ideas, and projects – some meaningful, some trivial. – p. 87

A person today receives more information in a single edition of The New York Times than a person who lived a hundred years ago read in an entire year.  Is it any wonder there is so little space inside me for true relating? – p. 88

Solitude brings me back to an inner poverty that I need in order to clear room inside.  It allows me to empty myself out so there is gracious space within where I can receive myself, then God, and eventually others. – p. 88

Solitude is no dainty hug.  God’s is a fierce embrace … Solitude allows me to confront my anger, hurt, greed, self-absorption, envy, apathy, hatred, busyness, cynicism – all the soul-fraying compulsions. – p. 89

Solitude is the School of Death … Go sit in it, and it will teach you everything you need to know about living the spiritual life … how to die to ego, to the patterns that keep your heart walled up, to those things inside that prevent you from planting your heart in the world. – p. 90

6.            THE SACRED ORDINARY

In my own thread of the Protestant tradition we seemed to talk a lot about the Word of God, and what to believe, and how to act – shepherding great flocks of shoulds and oughts – but to say very little about how to grow God organically in our own soul, how to incubate the divine life, and birth God. – p. 95

It was Monday.  The housekeeper’s vacuum cleaner whined loudly in the corridor off the sanctuary … What does a running vacuum cleaner have to do with God?  The question seemed important, crucial.  This incident may sound small and silly, but it was a turning point for me.  God, I realized, is not partial to stained glass. – p. 97

That same afternoon I was downtown, sitting on a bench while my son played on an old cannon in front of the courthouse.  I looked especially at one old woman who had a blue sweater on her head, buttoned under her chin like a scarf.  Sitting there enveloped in bus fumes, I somehow situated myself in the silence of my own heart, and I remember being knocked nearly breathless by the sudden love I felt welling up in me for the lady with the sweater on her head.  The whole moment was pregnant with divinity.  God was the fume-laden air, and the sun slanting off the courthouse roof, and the groan of the bus, and the old woman.  It was as if a veil had slipped off my illusions and I saw what Is.  That was the God-life breaking into the here and now.  The noise became the music. – p. 97-98

7.            SIMPLICITY OF SPIRIT

As we join the vast exodus leaving the site of soon-to-be Hurricane Floyd, everything seems heightened and lived close to the bone.  I grow aware of something unusual happening inside of me.  It’s as if I’m being pared down like a piece of fruit, stripped, peeled, distilled to a simplicity of spirit.  The events are exfoliating.  They shuck me down to some place that is thick with luminosity and resilience, an enduring inner ground.  What comes rising to my lips is the word God, and in the next breath, home.  p. 115

8.             GRACIOUS SPACE

 

Southerners often have what Wordsworth called “a wise passiveness.”  It might look like laziness but it is not.  Sometimes one makes the deepest progress sitting still. – p. 129

When Beethoven played his “Moonlight Sonata” at a house concert for the first time, someone came up afterward and asked, “What does this music mean?”

“I’ll tell you what it means,” Beethoven said.  Then he sat down and played it again. – p. 135

9.            SEVERE GRACE

I visited a woman in the hospital.  She was in a lot of pain, but she said with confounding vibrancy, “Today, I have discovered God as the awful throbbing in my joints.  God is the pitiful crying of the woman in the next bed.  God is my loneliness.  God is the angry nurse who avoids me.  I did not expect God to be these things.  But here in the hospital before all these agonies, I keep wanting to drop to my knees.  Do you think I’m strange?”

“No,” I said.  “Not strange.  Blessed.” – p. 140-141

A rabbi asked his students a question.  “When does night end and day begin?”

“Is it the moment you can see the difference between an olive tree and a fig tree?” one student asked.

“No,” said the rabbi.  “That’s not it.”

“Is it the moment you can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog?” asked another.

The rabbi shook his head.  “No, that’s not it either.  Rather, it is the moment you look at the face of a stranger and recognize that it is really the face of your brother.” – p. 155-156

10.            A TASTE OF SILENCE

Somehow, as a young woman with a husband, two children, a station wagon, a dog, a demanding career, a busy social life, and endless church activities, I stumbled headlong upon a contemplative path.  It was very disconcerting.

I embarked on my immense journey, quite timidly, hip-deep in American life.  I began to read the contemplative literature, moving through volumes of Western spiritual classics, finding particular heroes in St. Teresa, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and most especially, Thomas Merton, whose work became a wise and provocative mentor. – p. 160-161

I have a monk living inside of me.  She is the part of me that wants to come out in cataphatic celebration – dancing, writing, and painting my spiritual journey.  She is also the part of me that wants to enter the apophatic darkness of no-thing.  – p. 162

(Cataphatic: that God can be known to humans positively or affirmatively)

(Apophatic: that God can be known to humans only in terms of what He is not)

When I was four, I heard a scratching at the window.  I could have been afraid, but I was not.  I did go to tell my mother, “Mama, there is an angel scratching at my window.”

She put her blessing on my first foray into holy imaginings.  Even in her grogginess, she said, “An angel?  Wonderful.  Say hello for me.”

That small, whimsical fragment of my childhood was the beginning of an awareness that has shaped much of my life since:  Common noises are not always what they appear to be.  They can also be the eloquence of God.  It is all in the richness of listening … There is an integration in the contemplative journey when dualities collapse, when the noise and the music become one sound. – p. 163-165

11.            STANDING FAST

Enduring comes from arriving at our own earned truth, knowing it inside not because someone else tells us it is so or because we read it in a fine book, but because we have experienced it ourselves. – p. 169

My father often said, “A person must stand on his scruples.”  What I only found out later is that a scruple means “ small, sharp stone.”  To stand on your scruples derived from the idea of being bothered by a small, sharp stone in one’s shoe, but standing there anyway. Standing firm, but doing so with tender feet.  With sensitivity. – p. 170

People (like Gandhi) who are able to hold the balance between love and principle are those who carry the humbling awareness that they are capable of breaking every principle they hold.  This keeps them human and saves them from being arrogant and intractable in their righteousness.

We must stand with grit – yes, of course.  But we must do with tenderness for the smallest thing. – p. 171-172

12.            LETTING GO

(Sue’s husband Sandy saved one special piece of the house they moved from after so many years.  Months after they move into the new place, she still feels homesick for the old.  So many memories, so much time with their children) …

That evening a cold front presses down from the North Carolina mountains.  Sandy puts down his magazine and leaves the room.  He reappears with a box, a moving carton.  I groan.  “I thought we’d unpacked all those.”

“I’ve been saving this one in the garage.” He smiles.  “Open it.”

I peel back the lid.  Beneath the rustle of newspaper is a sooty, half-burned log.

A smoky scent drifts up.  “You saved the log from our old house!”

“For the first fire in our new one,” he says.

As he lays the log in the fireplace, I add some kindling and strike a match.  The old log ignites, leaping to flame, an incandescent bridge between old and new.  We sit before it on the carpet, not speaking, staring at the tendrils of fire.

I think about the unceasing migration of the human heart.  How we move not only from house to house, but from one phase of life to another, from relationship to relationship, career to career, awareness to awareness.  The saving grace in these moments is our willingness to leave the old – taking the cherished lessons and experiences with us and embracing the new with acceptance and grace. – p. 203-205

13.            REBORN TO LOVE

God can be experienced in the act of lovemaking in profound and beautiful ways, just as God can be experienced in the act of meditation … Sexuality is a sacrament.  For a woman, especially, Eros is experienced as Divine.  Lovemaking brings her into the holy experience of hieros gamos, the sacred marriage of her deep feminine and creative masculine. – p. 207-208

The spiritual life is an expanding awareness of the Divine as all in all, vividly and actually present in all external reality, without dualistic separations. – p. 208

Here is the simple truth I keep trying to own, the one that breaks the bonds of beauty: everything is in God and God is in everything. – p. 208

The human family, and indeed all creation, is fashioned something like a Russian nesting doll.  Each part is unique and independent, but nevertheless inextricably linked, every belonging to the larger whole.  We contain the other and are ourselves contained. – p. 213

I was crying in my bedroom.  I’d offered my hurt to God, but the aching hadn’t stopped yet.  That’s how my husband Sandy found me when he arrived home from work.  He didn’t say a word, but in what is surely one of the most precious moments of our marriage, he touched his finger to the tears winding down my face, then touched his wet finger to his own cheek.

His gesture went straight to my heart, saying more than words ever could.  Inexplicably, my sadness lightened, as if he had taken half of it into himself. – p. 213-214

(My daughter Ann fell in love with her new goldfish.  She watched it blow kisses at her.  Sometimes she stopped playing and just watched her friend Spanky the goldfish for a long time.)

One day her goldfish lay on his side in the water.  Small, golden, and obviously gone.

“Do fish sleep,” she asked.

Before I could answer, she ran to me and buried herself in my arms.  “Oh, Mama!”

I held her tight … I thought how innocently I’d plunged into loving my grandfather when I was her age, and how much hurt had come when he’d died.  Every experience of love had the potential of being a heart shot through with an arrow.

Ann looked at me and sniffed deeply.  “Spanky was a good fish,” she said, trying to keep her voice from trembling.

Shining in her eyes was the growth, strength and beauty that comes from having loved with one’s whole heart.  I felt then what I’d always wanted to believe.  Love is more joyful than the hurt is painful.  It’s worth the risk. – p. 215-216

An elderly African woman in Kenya was carving ebony, a beautiful black wood.  She was making a ujama.  In Swahili ujama means “community or family.”

“This is the family of Mungu.”  In Swahili, Mungu is the word for God.

Perhaps you would like to know what God’s family looks like through her eyes?  Picture a twenty-inch totem, and at the bottom, a cluster of five humans, and on top of them another cluster, and then another.  They seemed to grow out of one another – their heads joined, their faces blending, this one’s foot flowing from that one’s hand, and all their arms wrapped around one another like vines circling a great tree. – p. 219-220

God’s ujama.  The image shatters my illusion of separateness and peels open my heart.  How can I not help but twine my arms around this vast family?  How can I not know the depth of my belonging? – p. 220

Ultimately, we are reborn to love because in this expanding, gracious space within us, we arrive at the astonishing presence of God at the core of our life.  We blunder into the heart of God and find our own. – p. 227

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