February 8, 2015

For more commentary on this week's readings, see the Reflections on the Lectionary page, which includes Sawyer's current Living by the Word column as well as past magazine and blog content. For full-text access to all articles, subscribe to the Century.

I love a good mountaintop experience. It’s a moment when everything changes. Insight flares up in the mind, illuminating the moment, the experience, the problem in a whole new way. You’re never quite the same again.  

One such moment for me happened in prayer when I was on a three-day silent retreat. I was doing the kind of begging prayer that we humans can fall into sometimes, a “please, please, please” prayer in which I prayed for relief from emotional pain. Honestly, I cannot even remember what was so bad at the time, but I was definitely crying while I prayed. “Please, please take away this pain,” was the refrain of my prayer, and it went on for a long time, with a vigorous intensity.

Suddenly, different words popped into my head. It felt like a sudden piercing stream of light shone into the darkness. But it wasn’t light, it was words, spoken in my head in an exasperated tone: Let go! It didn’t feel like a thought that emerged from my own mind. Rather, I heard these words in my mind like they had been inserted there, like someone had spoken directly into my mind. 

I was so completely astonished by this experience that I stopped crying instantly and sat bolt upright. Where did those words come from? Let go. My perspective shifted from being inside my body, inside my pain, to watching myself instead.

In my mind’s eye I saw myself crying and praying with my hands clenched tight. I thought that I was offering my pain to God in prayer, but actually I was holding onto it very tightly and praying about it. I had been circling it and pointing to it from every direction, as though saying, see, God, look at my suffering! Here it is. This is what it looks like. It’s horrible. It’s awful. Look! See! And on and on I went with my prayer.

But when those other words (Let go!) shone into my mind and shocked me—not just the words themselves, but their exasperated tone—I dropped my experience of pain and had an entirely new experience, one of astonishment. I realized in that moment that I could choose how much attention to give my sorrow. I had the capacity to drop it, to let go.

Now, some people need to pay a little bit more attention to what’s happening with their emotions. Awareness is a step toward liberation. But in that moment I had the opposite problem. Sometimes I need to pay less attention to what I feel. I need to accept it and let it go, so I can move on. 

I call this experience a mountaintop experience because it was radically transformative in my life. It happened in a shadowy place in me—but when I went back down the mountain, back into daily life, I was different. I couldn’t un-see what I had seen about myself. And I didn’t want to. It made me a better person.