It was one of the first beautiful, life-buzzing spring days of the year when I visited Omaha Reservation for the first time—the Native American tribe whose name means “against the current.” The Omaha tribe is the only Native American Nebraska tribe to have kept a part of their original land. Much of the reservation is in its original habitat—native grasses growing in polyculture spaciousness. The forested green hills run right along the Missouri River. If you’re quiet you can hear the trees talking to you. Native Nebraska birds, bison and critters of all types roam freely.
My Native friend took me to the reservation for a day of morel hunting. Morels are the treasured little mushrooms that are coveted by gourmet restaurants and were historically one of the important ingredients for the Omaha tribe’s diet. Warm sun shining, cool breeze blowing, we scoured the hills, patiently hoping to find the objects of our delight.
There was a strange but familiar peacefulness covering this land—illuminating that the meek Omaha people will inherit the earth. The Omaha tribe are a humble people and their reservation a sacred place. While there, the peacefulness swept through me, and the earth and my friend’s companionship awakened in me a greater desire for wholeness, connectedness and love. But not the human kind of love—and because of that distinction I was invited “go against the current” of society that is limited by lesser loves that come in material form. I was longing for divine love—the greatest of all loves—the kind that can only come from God directly—the all-knowing experience of the God of Love. The kind of Love that permeates my entire being, grounds me, centers me, connects me and makes me more alive. This kind of love cannot be found in human form. God only gives us glimpses and tastes of it through people and the natural world. On this particular day, I just wanted to soak it all up. I couldn’t get enough of this Love and wanted so much more of it than I’ve ever known. The object of my delight and desire was much greater and more mysterious than the small, hidden morels.
I’ve spent much of my adult life seeking out the least of these in the world—the poor, the hungry, the unloved, the oppressed. With tenderness and prophecy, my friends in poverty have a way of mirroring for me the “least of these within myself.” We are the same. We all suffer from the human condition that is separated from God and we spend our life working out our salvation—full and complete liberation and connectedness. The human journey is a journey of Love.
On this particular day on the Omaha Reservation, one of the least of these within me was awakened with its sense of isolation, separateness and anguish. When these parts of ourselves emerge, if we do not have a discerning prayer life, we will seek instant gratification or escape through someone or something.
Certainly God uses people in our life to minister God’s love, acceptance and embrace. But God also uses people in our life to awaken the parts of us that are longing to be embraced by our deepest self and the Spirit of God. The love of people can only support us for moments, perhaps seasons. But if we dare to choose at times to be alone with our longing, our pain, then we will gain deeper access to the Living Water that Jesus said would never run dry—the Life that flows against the current. It is from this deep well of Love, that we are resurrected to new life (over and over again throughout our lifetime). Deeper connections with this Love cause us to grow in greater capacity to live with, in and through the power of God that changes the world.
One of the greatest spiritual writers of our time, Henri Nouwen, offers a wise road map of sorts for this journey of Love in his book The Inner Voice of Love. When we embark on this pilgrimage of a soul, he says that we have to live through our wounds. When the emptiness inside ourselves is exposed it is an enormous grace to go deeper with God and make the journey of wholeness and union. But our usual instinct is to try and ignore, flee or sedate the agony. The life of Jesus shows us a different way. Through him we learn how to be divinely human. Jesus did not cower or flee from the agony of the cross. Rather he embraced it with all its pain and sorrow. By embracing the instrument of death he was resurrected to new, glorious, eternal life and union with God—a gift that awaits all of us during our lifetime if we are willing to embrace our crosses and die.
The courageous option is to face our own crucifixion—but not intellectually or analytically—rather through the heart. As agonizing as it may be we must embrace the pain, welcome it and let it wash over and through us. Union comes not from separating from this part of our self, but by welcoming it like you would welcome “the least of these.” Ironically Jesus identifies himself with the least of these and so when we welcome him or her in the world or within our self, we welcome Jesus.
The heart is the home of Jesus and it knows how to heal itself. We must listen to our heart. At times what our heart may say to us is that the hurting, human, disconnected part of us just needs to be heard, accepted and embraced. It is by embracing rather than separating that this part of our self is healed and we are more liberated.
For me, that meant spending hours throughout the evening and next day going deep inside my heart and letting the emotions come to the surface—without analyzing or judging them—just being with them. Compassion literally means “to suffer with.” And when a friend of ours is hurting, this is what we are invited to do—suffer with them, just be with them. Have you ever been hurting and a friend tried to dissect and analyze and judge your pain or circumstances? Did you ever say to him or her, “I don’t need you to fix this I just need you to be with me?” This is exactly what we can do for our self in those intimate moments of anguish—extend compassion to that hurting part and discover our own power to heal. The result is progression from separateness from God to greater union with God. And this is the divinely human path that will heal and reconcile our world.