In the fall of 1995 I was in the first year of a Masters degree program, intending to become a Pastoral Counselor. I was in the last year of my corporate management career, and at the same time doing volunteer work for a local non-profit hospice. That’s where I met Daniel, an 8 year old boy whose mother was dying slowly and painfully.
The hospice asked me to be with Daniel on Saturdays that fall. His father was consumed by care taking for his wife and by the two jobs he held in order to make financial ends meet. Daniel was lonely, and Daniel was angry. He refused to visit his mother in the bedroom in their home where she had been confined for several months. She was near death, and Daniel would not see her. His father was in great distress over Daniel’s anger, but the social workers at the hospice counseled him to give Daniel the space he needed. I entered into this family during the worst days of their life.
Daniel wanted to do one thing: play baseball. Yes, it was November and cold and rainy but that didn’t matter to Daniel. So for six consecutive Saturdays we went to a local baseball field where I pitched and Daniel batted, and then I chased. Balls were hit into the outfield, into foul ground, under the grandstands, over the fence. It didn’t matter to Daniel where the balls ended up, as long as he could hit them as hard as he possibly could and run the bases in triumph as I ran and ran to retrieve his latest hit. He always won the race to home plate; he scored a home run with every strike of the ball.
During that same autumn I knew that I needed to spend time with my own son, who was then 11 years old. We would take long walks in a county park nearby that was left natural, deeply wooded with old growth trees, with only a few trails snaking through the countryside. On one of our walks we found an area, maybe 3 or 4 acres in size, where the old growth trees were flattened to the ground, not cut cleanly but toppled by some force of nature, as if a small tornado had touched down a powerful finger which pushed these trees flat to the ground. My son called this “the land of the fallen trees” and we enjoyed sitting there and wondering what might have happened.
One Saturday in early December I asked Daniel’s father for permission to do something different that day, to take Daniel on a long walk in these same woods. By then this family had grown to deeply trust me, and his father consented. Daniel and I hiked in the woods for an hour before coming to the land of the fallen trees, where we sat and contemplated together for a while. I told Daniel my son’s name for this area, and after a long pause he said that he didn’t think that was the actual name of this place. Rather, he said, “it’s the tree burial ground. It’s where the trees go when they die.” After a longer pause he looked up at me and said “it’s a good place, isn’t it?” I said that it was, put my arm around his shoulder, and we continued to sit together and contemplate. Then Daniel told me it was time to go, and we walked out of the deep woods and into the clearing where my car was parked, and Daniel went home. Later that day his father called to tell me that when he got home Daniel crawled into his mother’s bed, slipped beneath the covers, curled up alongside her and cried. That day was my last visit with Daniel.
I’ve thought often about this experience. It’s memory came back the other day when a dear friend talked about the word “numinous,” a word I have to admit that I do not use very often, if at all. Numinous refers to those felt experiences of “the mysterious,” experiences which inspire awe and inform us that there is more to life than just matter. A numinous experience is filled with wonder and beauty, and can fundamentally transform a person if the person is receptive and open. Numinous experiences are central to religious traditions, and can only be described with metaphor and analogy, as they are qualities rather than quantities. In the midst of this awe one realizes that separateness is an illusion, that all beings and all things are interconnected. Thomas Merton described this experience with great eloquence in his Asian Journal, when he visited the ancient Buddhist ruins at Polanaruwa barefoot and as a spiritual pilgrim (see the essay “Wanting…Needing” on this website for an excerpt of Merton’s narrative). In the midst of a numinous experience one is a witness to the grandeur and beauty of being alive.
The numinous experience that we shared that day transformed Daniel’s anger, and the terror he felt about his mother’s dying, into deep sorrow, healthy sorrow. This numinous experience also transformed me. Up until that day I thought I was “learning to do Pastoral Counseling.” But on that day I discovered that I was “becoming a Pastoral Counselor,” an entirely different idea. I learned that day that waiting and watching, in essence not-doing, can be the best things to do. I learned to just sit and be present. I learned that God is always present, if only we can prepare ourselves to be receptive. I learned how to just “be.”