In the Belly of the Whale - Reflections on Surgery and Kenosis
Part of the reason for this fall's silence was that I had bariatric (weight loss) surgery on November 26 (My birthday - happy birthday to me!) I had three days in the hospital, about three weeks mostly in bed , and two months off work, which afforded me lots of opportunity to practice solitude and silence.My journalling before the surgery was full of naive excitement around my goals for the time. I wanted to read many books. I had needle felting projects I wanted to accomplish. Have an extended spiritual retreat. Get back to my regular blogging. I thought that even though it would be time off work, that it would be a creative and productive time.Interestingly enough, what I sensed from the Lord about my surgery recovery time was that it was going to be a time of dormancy, not unlike winter hibernation. I would be like a seed going into the ground, confident that fruitfulness and growth would follow. I thought I understood what that meant, but it turns out I did not.What I did not anticipate was that going into the ground like a seed would feel like death. Upon my return from the hospital, I was not functional at all. The pain was easily managed, but I had no energy, mental focus or concentration. I slept constantly. My waking hours were pre-occupied with learning new regimes of drinking, eating, and vitamins, and managing secondary infections. I don’t have cable or netflicks, so instead of mindlessly watching hours of television, I mindlessly scrolled for hours through Facebook and online communities that focused on bariatric surgery. Prayer seemed to take mental and emotional energy that I was unable to muster. In silence I would stare blankly at the walls or window for hours on end, or just sleep. I felt vacant. Emptied out. Not what I expected at all.Once the fog began to lift, I wrote a poem about the experience.
I didn’t think it would feel like dying.
The leaf falling to the ground
Crumpled and spent
The seed falling in the ground
Cold and dark
The new life emerging
Tears me apart.
Resurrection plunges upward,
Leaving me in it’s wake.
A torn husk,
Forgotten and still.
I didn’t think it would feel like dying.
The season of dormancy ended up being just that. Dormancy. Being completely shut down, with no apparent evidence of any kind of spiritual or intellectual activity, either initiated by God or myself.I found that the book Poustinia shed some light on this dormant season. In it, Katherine Doherty says, “The only way I can describe it is to say that they are cleansed as we pass through some experience of nothingness. When we detach ourselves from our intellect and will seem for a while as if we’re totally bereft of our personality, we are as if dead.” That really is what I experienced. Nothingness. Detachment from intellect. Bereft of personality. She goes on to say, “Every Christian should be living this kenotic way of life. One cannot enter into the mystery of the Incarnation without first doing a hidden stripping of self. Then follows a lifetime of continued stripping, of emptying oneself and becoming a nonentity. You remain free, easy, direct, but especially simple.”I am not sure how I feel about this theology of Kenosis. I know that in Philippians 2 we are exhorted to have the same mindset of Christ, who embraced humility and self emptying. However it seems to me the Russian Orthodox perspective on Kenosis is somewhat extreme. I think that God has given me my intellect, my personality, my gifts, and He wants me to steward them in obedience to His leadership. Buuuuuut, what if His leadership requires I lay them down and embrace emptiness? What if He then fills me with something far greater than my own inherit capacities? I haven't sorted it out and still feel conflicted about itIn Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr also provides a framework for my experience. He talks of the “Paschal mystery”, and going inside the belly of the whale.
“Christians call it the paschal mystery, but we are all pointing to the same necessity of both descent and ascent The paschal mystery is the pattern of transformation. We are transformed through death and rising, probably many times. There seems to be no other cauldron of growth and transformation. We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast." He goes on to say, “We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the path, the periods dark path of true prayer…we avoid God, who works in the darkness - where we are not in control.” My surgery was elective, though it felt necessary due to the health challenges associated with my obesity. So in a sense I did go freely into the belly of the beast, but I really had no idea what I was signing up for.I am now almost three months past my surgery, and I feel like only in the last couple weeks that my faculties are returning to me. My preoccupation with post surgery food and life management is diminishing as my skills are improving and new behaviours are solidifying. It just doesn’t take up the same amount of brain space to manage day to day self care. Whereas before I could read online message boards devoted to bariatric recovery for hours, I now find I’m bored with them quickly, and move on. I have resumed my regular routines of spiritual reading, prayer, and meditation.Again, I’m not sure what transformation (other than physical - I’ve already lost 45 pounds since surgery) was effected through this dormant season. It’s the kind of thing that I probably will have a better perspective on several years down the road.