Today’s blog comes from reader, Bob Russo. Raised Catholic and bothered with a soul that is discontent, Bob has found peace in the contemplative journey and the life of a mystic. Thank you Bob for your inspiring words and humble witness. (See Bob’s personal bio below)
Where does one begin to discuss a spiritual journey that from the “outside” has no particular appearance or definition? I lead an ordinary life – going to work – doing stuff around the house – calling friends – viewing old Westerns with my wife – and watching an occasional football or baseball game. As a youth, I played a lot of baseball. Sports saved me, especially as a young boy with a lot of nervous energy.
But, behind the outer appearance has always been a soul discontent with “ordinary” reality – or a life experienced only within the confines of the ego or condition self. From an early age, I sought quiet time alone – often sitting in church after school (I attended 12 years of Catholic School), not so much to pray, but to be still and listen to my surroundings. I could hear the sparrows chirping in the distance and the peace they brought to my heart.
But, the real “kicker” began on a high school camping trip in the Sierra Nevada in 1970. One evening, I slipped away from camp alone to view the vast expanse of the starry universe. This was my first experience seeing space with such clarity – having been raised in the city. While viewing, I felt a sense of “nothingness” – that all the so-called problems of life were just insignificant compared to the vastness of life that we really are! I felt a kinship and oneness with this great universe of ours. And, I felt an immense sense of relief of having to be “somebody” to be “something”. The experience was short-lived but had a lasting impression on me. I was 16 years old at the time.
All through these early years, I was a practicing Catholic – attending Mass regularly, going to confession, etc. The Church was instrumental in laying a foundation for my spiritual life. It gave roots to this tree that would spring forth into uncharted territory.
While living in Montana in 1974, and after having read the Gospel of John, I began to develop an interest in contemplative spirituality. I felt this longing to experience God directly instead of just talking about the Divine. At the time, there was no mystical tradition available to lay Catholics. So, like many others from my generation, I sought the experience of God through Eastern mysticism, which was gaining much popularity in the West by the late 60s and early 70s.
In the winter of 1975, I decided to experiment with peyote as a means of reaching a state of altered conscious awareness. With my good friend, Carl, on a sunny Saturday winter morning in Missoula, we decided to do our peyote experiment. We took a small dose and then went for a walk through town in the fresh snow to enjoy the adventure.
Around 3 hours later, something happened to me. It was as though my internal dialogue and “ego” consciousness were placed on hold. I felt completely in the present moment with an open heart. I felt a kinship with people I would see and the mountains around me. I felt immense love for life – all was love!
After that experience, I had faith that this experience of love, brotherhood, and oneness could be found through the inner path to God – through deep prayer and meditation. And, consequently, this has been my path to this day – although it has taken various forms and stages.
It has been a path of joy and equally so a path of tears, dryness, and longing. I have had periods of deep questioning asking myself, “does God even exist and is this spiritual stuff just another big joke?” “And, what do I know about any of this spiritual stuff anyway?” The answer that came to me brought with it a sigh of relief – absolutely nothing – there is nothing to try and figure out!!
But, even during the “dark night” periods, I have felt this inner calling to continue with spiritual practice. I have learned to forget about any “goals” and just show up –whether in meditation or present to outer life! And, certainly, don’t take it all too seriously!
If I were to draw a conclusion on the contemplative life it would be that the journey is the path and destination all rolled into one. Often times, the wounds in my life have been the gateway to further insights or what Father Richard Rohr refers to as “falling upward”. It’s in those moments that the opportunity is given to let-go of the control switch and surrender to the unknown and to God. This requires tremendous courage, which I have failed to embark upon on so many occasions. But, rest assured, there is always another opportunity waiting in the “on-deck circle”!
And so, the longing continues and yet it is a welcomed sign today as opposed to something to attempt to get rid of. In the past, I often wanted a teacher, technique or practice that would make that pain subside. But perhaps the Sufis have it right in this regard – that longing is a gift that fuels us to our Beloved in the heart. And, in this longing is an unexpected gift or signature from God reminding us of an agreement we made with him or her a long time ago?
And so the journey continues ….
Bob Russo has been a student of Eastern and Western contemplative practice since 1974. He enjoys quiet time in Nature along with hiking, gardening, and an occasion day in the surf. He has been happily married to his wife, Valerie, for 31 years. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, he currently resides in Murrieta California. He has recently been influenced by the writings and Men’s Rite of Passage program of Fr. Richard Rohr and the Sufi teachings as presented by Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.