Stay With Me
"Stay with me," is the cry of a suffering soul. These words, Jesus' three words to his disciples as he entered the Garden of Gethsemane, arrived and transformed me one afternoon as I stood in a raspberry patch with my friend Brook. Brook, daughter of God, survivor of human-trafficking and so much more, and one of the most profound spiritual guides ever sent to me.
I'd brought her raspberry picking because it was a beautiful Fall day and I'd wanted to have a conversation with her about her impending homelessness. I'd traveled this path with her before and I was hoping that a more pro-active approach might ease what was already difficult.
After an hour of picking berries and Brook dodging my inquiries and invitations to explore her options, I accepted that the fruit of the day was largely contained in our little white quart baskets. Regarding the challenge at hand, we'd made absolutely no progress.
As we made our way across the berry patch to pay for what we'd picked, Brook suddenly stopped and turned to me. "I'm just so scared," she said.
"I know," I responded. "I am too." I felt the fear in my body, my powerlessness to "rescue" her, and her powerlessness. We both started to cry. I remember how huge and blue the sky felt above us, and the warmth of the sun on our shoulders. I remember feeling so very small.
"You know," she continued, "you're the only person who has ever really loved me. Everyone else has just wanted something."
I knew my own love wasn't as pure as she was making it out to be. Still, what was pure in it had clearly overwhelmed her in the best possible way. God works with our limitations like that.
"Can I ask you for something?" she questioned.
Standing before me was a 34-year old woman, trafficked since she was 16, dealing with with layers of mental illness, addiction, abuse, and impending homelessness. Her needs were legion. There were so many things she could have asked for. And there was so much I couldn't offer. At once I felt a mixture of relief and panic. She was asking for what she needed; I didn't know if I could provide it.
"Stay with me," she said.
I've tried a thousand times to describe what happened in that moment. There was so much, so instantly, and the telling always feels inadequate, but in that moment it was as though the veil that separates humanity across place and time suddenly fell to the ground. Her words moved through me like a huge, resonant wave, like the two-thousand-year-old echo that it was. In this same moment I heard Brook speaking to me and Jesus speaking to his disciples.
And then I saw the cross of Jesus and the Suffering One nailed to it---only, it wasn't Jesus, it was Brook. And there I stood at its base, like Mary or John, or like Mary and John. She looked down at me and here I received a calling so clear and mysterious I knew I'd spend the rest of my life living into it. It came out something like this: Gather them here, to be with the suffering, not to rescue, but to be transformed. Teach those who suffer and those who bear witness how to remain with one another.
"Will you stay with me?" Brook asked. With all the solemnity of one speaking a wedding vow I answered, "Yes. I'll stay with you. No matter what, I'll stay with you."
Brook died of an overdose two years ago. I wasn't with her. In fact, we'd lost touch. Looking back, I note how like Peter (Matthew 26:33) I sounded. I was passionate, committed, certain. And, like Peter, I had more to learn about staying present to the Suffering One.
Like Peter, I underestimated just what is required to stay present to suffering, my own and another's. But Brook taught me, sometimes with patience and other times with a sacred ferocity. She taught me that it is never judgment, but always compassion that allows us to remain with suffering and to be transformed by it. Her teaching has transformed, and continues to transform, my life.
What if today we all dropped, again, the mind's illusion that transformation--whether that is another's or our own--is best served by instilling shame, fear, pressure, or judgment? These practices are often effective for controlling others and ourselves, but never for freeing any of us.
Friends, this is a practice. Won't you join me in it?