Excerpted from Waiting by Marya Hornbacher. She is the author of two best-selling nonfiction titles, Madness: A Bipolar Life and Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. She has also authored a recovery handbook, Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the 12 Steps and a critically acclaimed novel, The Center of Winter.
Marya Hornbacher, recognizes the struggle many non-religious people in recovery experience when it comes to the concept of a Higher Power. Using the story of her personal journey, Hornbacher offers a fresh approach to cultivating a spiritual life along one’s own chosen path.
I walked through the door of the convent. It was a silent Catholic order; no one would speak to me during the time I was going to spend there. I paused in the foyer to listen for something—nuns, God, mice—but there was no sound. The nuns, surely, were somewhere in the building; perhaps God was as well. At least, that was my hope.
The rooms were simple. In the kitchen, I found a long, rough-hewn wooden table with wooden chairs. On the table was a bowl of soup and some bread. This meal was meant for me. I sat down and ate it, after glancing around to see if there might be directions as to what one did prior to eating in a convent—presumably one might pray?—but there were no directions. So I simply ate. When I was done, I washed my bowl and spoon and set them in the rack to dry, and then went to explore the rest of the rooms.
I found a small chapel. The fading light of late day came through the stained-glass windows and cast the pews and stone floor with a bright motley of color. Beyond the chapel, I found a library: the walls were lined floor to ceiling with books, except for one long wall of windows that looked out on an orderly garden, vegetables and flowers in neat boxes and rows. Beyond the garden, there was a labyrinth, the long shadows of trees falling across it.
I scanned the books. I pulled one out, I don’t remember which one. I sat down in a chair with the book unopened on my lap. I looked out the window as the light faded and dusk fell.
I had lost, more or less, everything.
I say that in a very qualified sense: I had a place to live, food to eat. I had clothes and the usual things one needs to survive. But I had lost what was most familiar, what was safest, what I knew best: I had lost an addiction. That addiction had been the center of my existence since I was a child. It had been my guiding principle, my closest companion, the thing I turned to for comfort, for answers, for assurance that I would be all right. It had been my god.
It had nearly killed me.
I fought like hell to keep it. I kicked and screamed and swore and sobbed. I begged to be allowed to hold it just a little while longer. But in the end, I had to let it go.
And without it, I was quite lost.
I didn’t know why I had come to the convent. It was an impulse; someone had told me there was a convent in a nearby city, an order of nuns who had taken a vow of silence and who allowed guests to stay. In that moment, the idea of going somewhere to be entirely silent appealed to some part of me I couldn’t explain. Maybe I thought that if things got quiet enough, I would hear God.
Night fell over the convent. I sat there in the dark, watching the moon scatter light over the orderly garden. There was no sound except that of my own breath.
I set the book on a table, picked up my small bag, and found the stairs up to the room where I was to sleep. In this room, there was a narrow bed, a simple desk, and a prayer bench, the velvet kneeling rail well worn. I set my bag on the floor and studied the prayer bench awhile. Then I lay down on my back on the bed and stared at the ceiling.
I was at the lowest point in my life. I had lost all I thought I needed. I did not know how to go on.
It was an enormous, sudden peace.
I knew, very quietly, that I would not find God in this place. I knew it was possible I would not find God at all. And so I could not explain the overwhelming peace I felt. I could not explain how I knew, absolutely, that it would be all right.
I remembered the words of Julian of Norwich: And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
I could not have articulated it at that time, but what I felt that night is what I would now call grace. I felt faith. I heard something. Not the voice of God, not the beating wings of angels. Not the murmur of nuns at prayer, not even the scuttle of mice.
What I heard was the stirring of my own spirit coming to life.
The spirit, it seems to me, grows noisy and goes silent by turns over the course of one’s life. There are ways in which we silence it. Many of us have silenced it through addiction, but there are other ways, and many of us have used those as well. And there are ways in which we can draw the spirit out, listen for it with all the strength we’ve got.
But listening for spirit is something of a complicated process when we do not believe in a God, or do not feel a connection to what may be called a Higher Power. Many of us have been trained to think of “spirituality” as the sole provenance of religion; and if we have come to feel that the religious are not the only ones with access to a spiritual life, we may still be casting about for what, precisely, a spiritual life would be without a God, a religion, or a solid set of spiritual beliefs.
Throughout this book, I use the words spirit and spiritual often, and that may seem strange when I state my own lack of belief in a Higher Power or God. And some days it seems strange to me as well, that I am so certain of an ineffable force within me and within all of us when I doubt the presence of a metaphysical power without. But really, it isn’t contradictory. I am not speaking of metaphysics. I am speaking of the thing in ourselves that stirs.
The origin of the word spirit is Greek. It means “breath.” That which stirs within, slows or quickens, goes deep or dies out. When I speak of spirit, I am not speaking of something related to or given by a force outside ourselves. I am speaking of the force that is ourselves. The experience of living in this world, bound by a body, space, and time, woven into the fabric of human history, human connection, and human life. This is the force that feels and thinks and gives us consciousness at all; it is our awareness of presence in the world. It is the deepest, most elemental, most integral part of who we are; it is who we are.
So when I speak of spirit, I’m speaking of something that frustratingly defies articulation, because we have few words for spiritual beyond those that refer back to a God. But not believing in a God is not opposed to a belief in an aspect of the self that can be called spiritual. The latter is experienced, and defined, very personally, and is different for each individual.
I am not speaking of some universal or transcendent “Spirit” that exists outside of us; I am speaking of the human spirit that exists in each of us. I’m speaking of something that is urgently important in ourselves, the very thing that’s sent us searching, the thing that feels the longing, the thing that comes knocking on the door of our emotionally and intellectually closed lives and asks to be let in.
When we let it in, and only when we do, we begin to be integrated people. We begin to find integrity in who we are. We are not just a body, not just a mind, not just a mass of emotions, not just people dragging around the dusty bag of our pasts. We have depth and wholeness, not shattered bits of self that never seem to hold together properly. And we begin to walk a spiritual path.
This path is not toward a known entity of any kind. Rather, it is the path that leads through. And there are many points along the way where we stop, or we fumble, or we get tangled up or turned around.
And those are the places where we wait. We’re not waiting for the voice of God, or for the lightning-bolt spiritual experience. We’re not waiting to be saved or carried. We’re waiting for our own inner voice—for lack of a better word, I’m going to keep calling it spirit—to tell us where to go next.
Excerpted from Waiting by Marya Hornbacher.
A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power
Softcover, 168 pages
List Price: $14.95