I was introduced to centering prayer after Laurie, my 18-year-old daughter, died from cancer. In the 24 years since then, centering prayer’s embodiment of kenosis, or self-emptying, has helped me in many ways to live with grief, especially by bringing to light one of grief’s most insidious manifestations: the creation of a false self caught up in a false drama.
In his book Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation, Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O., defined the false self as “the self-image developed to cope with the emotional trauma of early childhood, which seeks happiness in satisfying the instinctual needs of survival/security, affection/esteem, and power/control.” As adults, we continue to create false selves, especially in times of turmoil. After an emotional trauma, like the loss of a child, grieving parents struggle to live with pain, often asking, “Will I survive?” Out of our need for survival, we can create these self-images, which allow us to pick up the pieces of our lives and go on. This false self, however, winds up exacerbating the pain—at least it did in my case.
Trying to make sense of Laurie’s death, I created an image of myself as sinner. I concocted a drama about a man who sells his child’s life to the devil in order to satisfy his own lustful desires, splitting his family, pulling his daughter in two directions, causing cancer cells to develop and metastasize. I embellished the narrative, convincing myself that I had murdered my daughter. However, there was a part of me that kept saying: “Don’t be foolish. Millions of fathers are divorced from the mother of their children and the children grow up perfectly fine.”
When I first began to practice centering prayer, I tried to let go of this self-image as sinner. Then, after three years of spending 20 to 40 minutes a day trying to let go of my thoughts, I suddenly stopped censoring myself. I still remember the night I found myself saying, “O.K., I will always feel that at some level, I killed my child.” It was as if a 200-pound rock had been lifted from my shoulders. That same week, I dreamed that I was looking through my journal, in which I had written (as I actually had) about the depth of my guilt. As I turned the pages in my dream, spaced throughout—sometimes right in the middle of my own writing—were sentences written in Laurie’s tiny, circular handwriting. I finally turned a page and read her words, “I love you,” as if she, or God, had said, “O.K., you’re guilty. So what? I love you.” And in this way, I had been shown that love, not guilt, is the way my daughter continues to live.
After letting go of my sense of self as sinner, however, I began to encounter the second false self, one harder to destroy: that of bereaved parent. What makes this self-image so difficult to let go of is that parents who have lost children become completely absorbed in grief, isolated from colleagues, friends, even other family members. My wife’s two sons, for example, struggled with their stepsister’s death, not to mention their mother’s divorce and remarriage. Whenever my wife would become concerned about them, I would find a way to say, “Yes, but they’re still alive.” We become comfortable with this self-image, clinging to it and seeing it as a link to our children. We make friends with our suffering, allowing it to define who we think we are. We start becoming caught up in our own drama.
I need to distinguish here between drama and story. While a story is designed to interest, amuse or instruct the hearer or reader, drama carries with it connotations of strong emotions and the intent to act them out. In other words, a story focuses on the audience, on making my story our story, while drama, at least the way I have experienced it, focuses on the emotions of the actor or false self. Our story becomes my story, and my story becomes sadder than your story.
After Laurie died, I joined a group of bereaved parents for counseling sessions. One night I was talking about how hard Halloween had been that year, because it brought back memories of the year before in the hospital, when Laurie was sad because she could not carve a pumpkin for Halloween. “How the hell could she carve a pumpkin in the hospital, doped up on morphine?” I asked. “What are you complaining about?” the young mother beside me, who had lost a child to sudden infant death syndrome, said: “You had 18 years with your daughter. I never had 18 days!”
Later, thinking about what she had said, I realized that her words echoed my thoughts any number of times during these sessions: “My pain is worse than yours.”
I battled this attitude for years afterward. Eight years later, for example, at a Lenten retreat, when my wife shared a poem she had written the night before on Mary’s grief as she holds her son’s body after it had been taken down from the cross, I sat, enraged that she had written about my story.
During this time my centering prayer practice became like sitting at the edge of a black abyss. I think now that I was contending with what John of the Cross called “the dark night of the spirit,” and which Father Keating calls necessary if we are to slough off our false self:
When the night of spirit begins, all “felt” mystical experiences of God subside and disappear, leaving persons who have been led by the path of exuberant mysticism in a state of intense longing to have them back.... [W]ithout that purification, the consequences of the false self are not completely erased, and there is danger of falling into the spiritual archetypes that may arise out of the unconscious...prophet, wonderworker, enlightened teacher, martyr, victim, charismatic leader.
Like many grieving parents, I had fallen into seeing myself as the “martyr/victim.”
My dark night lasted through the six weeks of Lent. On Easter Sunday, I listened to a sermon focusing on the women at the empty tomb in Mark’s Gospel: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8). The priest focused on the fear that keeps us from entering into the joy of Easter, the fear of what the Resurrection means to our understanding of the way the world works, to our security, even if it is the security of our own suffering. Had I become secure, I wondered, possibly even happy in my vision of myself as a grieving parent? I realized that if I were serious about my Christian faith, I needed to stop dwelling on old memories of my daughter, and trust that she was with God.
The first step was to practice kenosis, letting go of those fears and questions about the Resurrection, and then trying to let go of the image of myself as grieving parent. The hardest part was letting go of my fear that to do so would mean I was letting go of my relationship with my daughter. I began a “fake it ’til I make it” routine, using my prayer periods to visualize my daughter’s spirit, send out my love to her and trust that she would receive it. One day, during my meditation, I felt Laurie’s arm around my shoulder. I knew that she was with me.
Whether or not my sense of Laurie was “real,” I believe it came from God. Since then, my relationship with Laurie is stronger than it was when I was mired in the false drama of myself as grieving parent. Which is what kenosis—at least as I understand it—is all about, what Jesus was trying to teach us. As Paul says to the Philippians: Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave...humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death upon the cross”(2:7–8). Jesus teaches us that pain, grief and suffering need not define who we are. God does not disappear in the presence of death or other tragedies, and neither does our True Self: our self as the image of God.
I still find it hard to consent to God, to trust in a God whose world is full of unpleasant surprises, but I have learned that while death may end a life, it does not end a relationship, a relationship that, paradoxically, grows by letting go.