I stand apart, six feet apart from anyone who passes me on the river path — in March, when purple crocuses shoot up out of thawing earth, in summer when the blackberry bushes hang heavy with fruit, in autumn when the yellow canopies of the ash trees set the still waters ablaze. Spring, summer, and autumn pass, but the long season of separation does not end. Distances endure. Not just for me but for the world; in this time of separation, of withdrawal, I strive to understand the value — yes, even the gift — of distances.
Withdrawal — Moses did it, Jesus did it, Muhammad and Bahá’u’lláh too. In Islam, khalwa is a time of withdrawal from the world, of intense prayer and meditation. In the Christian tradition, there is the spiritual retreat and vocations. Cloistered nuns. Monastic orders. And what about the Buddhist vassa — those weeks during the monsoon season when monks devote themselves to prayer? And the stepping back in time at the heart of Bahá’í pilgrimage, when the faithful pay homage to sites in northern Israel resonant with spiritual significance because of their association with the life of Bahá’u’lláh? Could we view our withdrawal from the world as a time of retreat, a spiritual sowing time? Are we already reaping the harvest when we stop and call out to someone we used to pass in silence, “How are you? Keep safe!”
In this time of distances, connection matters. We feel compelled to greet one another; no one is a stranger. In our separation, we have never felt closer. We begin to understand a simple but life-changing truth: we all inhabit the same frail body, the same fragile earth. We begin to see how completely our lives are intertwined. What one of us does affects all others. We are in this together. We are reminded of this truth with each breath. Could it be that through separation we are learning — at last — the true meaning of love?
I. The Breath of Others
My mask is my skin; it’s what keeps me in and others out, a necessary barrier between my breath and the breath of others. Once all sweetness and warmth, a reminder of the intimacy of standing close, being close, now the breath becomes a symbol of contagion, of illness, even death. I remind myself that in many spiritual traditions, the breath signals the presence of the divine, is even synonymous with spirit. In the Genesis story, it is God’s spirit-breath that moves over the waters to bring the creation into being. In the New Testament, Jesus breathes on his disciples and his breath — pneuma in Greek — becomes spirit, the holy spirit. Chi, the energy that animates the body — in Taoist philosophy it lives in the breath. For Hindus, the breath is the cosmic force of prana; and in Buddhism, the mind finds access to its true Buddha-nature by following the breath, a practice that unites mind and body and fosters vipassana, insight into the true nature of existence.
In this season of distances, what is breath to me? I explore the Latin roots of the word: inspirare, meaning to breathe or blow into. Over time, the word grew to embrace new meanings — to influence, to move, to guide. In other words, to inspire. Spirit, I learn, comes from spiritus, the Latin verb for ‘breath.’ Through the breath, we can become inspirators — people who inspire. I can become an inspiratrix, a woman who inspires.
I also want to be ‘inspirable’ — inspired by others. I want to be enveloped by the warm breath of their prayers. Breath expended in prayer is never lost; out it goes into the world, traveling to the ends of the earth. Energy! Light! Such breath radiates not only good intentions but pure love; it infuses the world with spirit. “Whoso reciteth, in the privacy of his chamber, the verses of God,” Bahá’u’lláh writes, “the scattering angels of the Almighty shall scatter abroad the fragrance of the words uttered by his mouth, and shall cause the heart of every righteous man to throb.” I ask that the breath of others expended in prayer be carried to me on the wind. I ask that it infuse me with fresh hope.
II. The Great Absence
In this time of great absences, death comes to many. Cries of lamentation can be heard in every place on earth. We weep and, as in the Psalms, God weeps with us. But what can God do in the face of our imperfect faith, as flimsy as the eggshell that promises new life? “Death where is Thy sting? Grave where is thy victory?” — as the Apostle Paul well knew when he posed them, these are rhetorical questions. We know the answer: “I have made death a messenger of joy to thee,” writes Bahá’u’lláh in The Hidden Words. Life is eternal. The breath — pneuma — the spirit goes on. And for those left behind, this great absence becomes a new kind of presence, for love doesn’t die. There is forgiveness and grace. And there is a voice that demands to be heard even in the midst of our lamentation: “Comfort one another,” it says. “Care for one another. Be as the breath of life. Be spirit.”
In this great absence I seek God’s presence. I wait to be carried by the winds of His Will. I pray that God will open to all of us the book of His purpose, so that we may read there His instructions and know how to respond to the great absence that floods the world with darkness. I ask Him to make plain the meaning of the distances we must observe; and, as the months pass, I am given to understand that the grief we share is one of the most powerful and binding forms of intimacy. From such intimacy grows solidarity, a sense that we are one in our sorrow; and so our sorrow becomes a light leading us forward on the path to a deeper sense of connection. If we can be one in our sorrow, it does not seem far-fetched to believe that we can be one in our joy.
III. Holy the Gesture
Such a belief calls for action. But what meaningful gestures can we make in this time of separation and absence, this time of distances? How to live well in a time of death? At best, our deeds — those visible emissaries of love we send out into the world — are mere gestures. Still, they are holy gestures and all we have to give. More powerful than our words, our deeds crown us with a light so intense that it radiates warmth to others. I give fresh vegetables from my garden to a neighbor. My husband writes to the engineering department at our university to urge it to turn its attention to the production of ventilators. We stay inside but step up. We bask in the warmth of our own light.
A gesture — simply understood, an action with a beginning and an end that carries a meaning. For philosopher Giovanni Maddalena, a gesture is a dense blending of phenomena — feelings, ideas, actions, habits of actions, signs, icons, indexes, and symbols — and when the blending of the phenomena and the signs is at its densest, the gesture becomes complete and gains the capacity to bring new knowledge into the world. Religious liturgies, ceremonies for affirming identity, artistic performances, and hypothesizing experiments — all are gestures.
A gesture may seem small — too small, a mere symbol. It is true: our individual gestures are not enough, but, collectively, those gestures can reverberate, send powerful energy out into the world. Together, our actions can change everything. This is divine confirmation. This is the workings of the holy spirit. And it is through the power of the spirit that our actions become holy gestures able to mend what is ailing or broken, to recover what has been lost. We are made greater by these gestures and so is the world.
What is a holy gesture but the fruit of a pure intention? What is such a gesture but an action performed without expectation of acknowledgment, thanks, or a reciprocal gesture? What is a holy gesture but an act of love performed for its own sake and not in hope of reward? So we make our holy gestures, send them out into the darkness of this great absence, confident in their power and light.
IV. Presence: A Loving Correspondence
“This is my letter to the world,/That never wrote to me,” Emily Dickinson lamented. Due to the exigencies of a sensitive nature, like us, Dickinson stood apart, at a distance from others, from the world. Hers was not the work of a poet like Mary Oliver whose mission was “loving the world” — engaging with it and celebrating it in poetry. For Dickinson to love the world, she had to stand apart. For her, there would have been no writing without standing apart, without distances.
What, then, is our task as writers, in this time of separation and absences, when we stand at a distance from the world, just watching? The world never wrote back to Emily Dickinson, but maybe the reply is not what matters? Could a loving correspondence be one way? Does such a correspondence require an answer? Shouldn’t love, the selfless kind, be given without expectation of return? And isn’t it precisely in this way that love becomes the holiest of gestures, a gesture made in love for love’s sake without any thought of love in return?
As writer of faith, I want to engage in a loving correspondence with the world. I wish — I aspire — to send my breath out into the world as a prayerful celebration of the beauty of our solidarity and the power of our resilience, of the luminescence of the soul at time when darkness floods the earth. The message of faith is always a message of hope, of courage, and, above all, of love. Let my letter to the world shine with love for those who mourn, with hope for those who are losing hope.
Let my letter become our letter — the letter we write together when we call out into the blackness of this time to say, “I see glimmerings of light!” As we wait for the dawn to break, I feel sure that our art can bring us close enough to feel the warmth of one another’s breath. As writers, as creators, let us be called to the diffusion of breath, pneuma, spirit, into the world through holy gestures — be they poems, stories, essays, or plays. And let us remember: the letter we are writing to the world will go on. Others will pick up where we leave off. Our letter to the world will not end. And as it grows in length, it will grow in spirit, until it vanquishes all absences and fills the world with its presence.