Tuesday, April 28, 2020
When I am in that darkness, I do not remember anything about anything human. —Angela of Foligno (1248–1309)
After working as a physician and bioethicist for decades, Living School alumna and chair of the CAC Board LaVera Crawley became a hospital chaplain and spiritual companion for patients and their families in the liminality that often occurs between life and death. It seems to me that spiritual companionship is an art many of us are learning to practice these days, but we must be willing to be present to those in need, not just physically (or virtually), but with our whole selves. LaVera shares some of the challenges of this spiritual work and how it can be transformative for both parties.
There are likely few situations with the power to reliably propel us beyond the threshold of everyday existence and into the realm of the liminal than the way of the despair of receiving a diagnosis of a serious, life-threatening illness. It can feel like being hit by a brick or like being hurled into the dark abyss. Once there, the territory can be utterly disorienting and terribly frightening. . . .
Few know how to enter the liminal space where their loved one or patient has been forced to go, let alone how to be there should they be brave enough to dare to enter. We are uncomfortable in these kinds of liminal spaces because it is strange and unfamiliar territory, woven with the difficult feelings we’ve been taught to suppress by medicating them away, by bypassing them through platitudes . . . or denying them all together. . . .
It takes willingness, fortitude, knowledge, skill, and a deep trust in Spirit to go into these dark places as both witness and companion.
To be very clear, I am not equating darkness with something bad or negative, any more than I would consider the apophatic way  as such. There is deep beauty in the darkness, in the unknowing, in the indescribable, if only we can open ourselves to its purpose. Metaphorically, the dark emotions of grief, fear, and despair can be profound teachers and guides. . . . The primal howl of existential suffering holds within it the lesson that we all must learn at some time in our lives: To heal from our suffering—not merely to ease or palliate it, but to transform it into the source and substance of our growth and wisdom—requires a journey through it. We must listen attentively for whatever message it has for us and, according to [psychotherapist Miriam] Greenspan, find authentic ways to befriend it so that we can surrender to its transmuting power. All spiritual traditions teach some variation of this wisdom. While it may not come naturally to us to respond to suffering in this way, through practice, it can become a learned skill. . . .
The art of spiritual companionship through the realm of the liminal can be learned, whether we are accompanying others or attending to our own souls. The first step requires trusting that, in the course of time, the very healing we seek can emerge by our journeying through liminal space, listening attentively to what the liminal seeks to tell us.
 The apophatic way (or via negativa) refers to the unknowability and ineffability of God.
LaVera Crawley, “The Art of Spiritual Companionship,” “Liminal Space,” Oneing, vol. 8, no. 1 (CAC Publishing: 2020), 81, 82–83, 90.
Epigraph: The Book of the Blessed Angela of Foligno: The Memorial, chapter IX. See Angela of Foligno: Complete Works, trans. Paul Lachance (Paulist Press: 1993), 205.