Today it is two years since my mother died, and I find it delightful how the different phases of our long life together come back to me as the distance from then to now grows ever greater. Certainly, she is younger now than she was when she died – impossible, but perfectly logical in my imagination. it is as if the old woman whom I came to love has gently stepped aside to reveal the vibrant, younger woman whom I loved so desperately when I was young. I miss them both, of course, but it is the younger one who haunts my imagination.
And yet recently, the version of my mother who visits me is the one who lived through a series of painful challenges in her middle years. A seemingly minor accident not long after her fiftieth birthday had the unexpected consequence of causing one of the inter-vertebral disks in her spine to rupture, and suddenly she had begun what would be nearly a decade of lying flat in bed, usually recuperating from one surgical intervention or another, for long stretches physically unable to move and at other times able to marshall short bursts of movement – even to the extent of putting on clothes and leaving the house – on the understanding that a false step or a sharp movement might trigger the return of excruciating pain. After a number of years she began slowly to heal, and with time she became a fragile old woman rather than a dangerously ill younger one. But first, she had to get through a number of years of long days spent alone, while the rest of the family were at school or at work, with pain as her most faithful companion.
And so it was that my impetuous, funny mother began her career as a mystic. At first, it was simply a matter of getting through the day. As she began to understand the discipline that is now called ‘pain management’, she began to experiment with different kinds of meditation as a way of bringing her body’s infuriating and unpredictable nerve-circuits into some kind of alignment with her mind. But before long, she was reading everything she could find on prayer, meditation, and mysticism. With those of us who loved her, there was always a feeling that our lives were so fast and thoughtless that it was only through loyal and devoted struggle that we could catch a glimpse of what she was living with. But in books, she discovered a group of people who had lived lives very similar to her own. Soon, the lovely time after school and before making dinner became the window into the worlds my mother had visited during the day. There were medieval mystics who lived exclusively on Eucharistic wafers and saints who made long pilgrimages. What all of them had in common was a dedication to the idea of an interior journey – an imaginative adventure in which the body could be tamed and perhaps even forgotten.
Among these new friends of my mother’s, I particularly remember a fourteenth-century monk, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, whose book opened with a fierce warning that those who were not truly dedicated to the quest would come to harm if they read the book in an uncertain mind. (I still have the book, a lovely slim volume in a gold paper cover, and between the pages is one of my favourite places to tuck letters that I want to keep – but I still haven’t quite got to the point where I feel safe reading it, even if I haven’t given up on the idea that one day I will try.)
What I began to understand, over time, was that my mother had found a completely different way of reading. She had to lie flat and her arms were very weak, so she had a strange pair of spectacles made out of prisms, that allowed her to read a book that was propped on a pillow without having to raise her head. Every movement was excruciatingly slow and frustrating, so when she wanted to get the book out, or put it away, or even turn the pages she had to move carefully and deliberately. This meant that she read far more slowly than the rest of us, and more deeply.
I have also come to believe that the agonies of her way of reading brought her far closer to the way the medieval mystics whom she so loved would have read. In an era where books were hand-written and so very difficult to come by, so much of people’s access to ideas was through word of mouth – even the Bible was something that people heard read aloud in church. So for the most part, when you got a hold of a book – especially if you were a solitary monk or nun – you read it very slowly and carefully, and you would read it again and again until you had to give it back (since books were so expensive, they were mostly borrowed).
The mystical reader would often read a text again and again until they came deeper into the meaning, and the idea was to reach in so deeply that you reached the point beyond human knowledge where only the radiance of God’s love can be seen. This was what my mother, too, was looking for.
The mystic Julian of Norwich (d. ca. 1416) wrote, in her Revelations of Divine Love, of a single glimpse of this radiance which she tried over and over again to understand. Towards the end of her book, she says, she spent fifteen years trying to understand the message of her vision, and finally a voice spoke to her, saying:
Who shows it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love….God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall.
Years later, when she had been restored to health, my mother often spoke of this time of her life as a gift – something that she would not have chosen, but that enriched her life in ways that she could not have foreseen. She came to feel that it was her spiritual journey – the attempt to still her mind and heart and reach the place of deep peace – that made her physical recovery possible, and her various doctors seemed to agree, even if they talked about ‘profound relaxation techniques’ rather than meditation and prayer.
Those of us who loved her were deeply touched by my mother’s larger-than-life approach to a period of life that might have – must have – made her feel trapped. Instead, through books, she found a way to turn both outward and inward. Finally, she discovered that love can conquer anything – and that love is at the root of everything.