Every once in a while, one becomes profoundly and spiritually bewildered. In the midst of shaping the sandcastle of your life—adding little rooms and windows with a variety of views—you suddenly scoop a little too deep, and brittle-cold sea water rushes in. It covers everything. It dulls all of your neat shovel-cut edges. Glancing up from the quotidian architecture of your life, you confront the awful expanse of the sea: its green water, its endless horizon.
Bewildered. To be led astray, to become lost in pathless places, to be confounded for want of a plain road, says the Oxford English Dictionary. To return to a wild place, become feral, uncultivated, undomesticated. To enter a desert. Not controlled by an outside force. One whose neck is not bowed under a restraint. Bewildered.
Bewilderment is not momentary confusion or uncertainty. It is to become fundamentally displaced. Trauma may bring it on—illness or the death of a parent, companion, or child. Prolonged spiritual practice may bring it on. Accumulated, unattended sorrow may bring it on.
In many religious mystical traditions, bewilderment is seen as a stage of spiritual development. Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and mystic, described one aspect of the experience in this way to his novices: "We get into total bewilderment, we lose our own hearts. They say we are no longer able to get in contact with the best of our own being." All that we thought we knew about ourselves—even all the good things we are and do—vanishes.
Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan writes in his book In Search of Hidden Treasure, "We came whirling out of nothingness scattering stars like dust. The stars made a circle and in the middle we dance. Turning, and turning it sunders all attachment. Every atom turns bewildered—and it is only God circling [her]self."
The Sufi mystics, writes Annemarie Schimmel in Mystical Dimensions of Islam, refer to experiencing the "black light. [It is] a blackout of everything until the mystic perceives that this blackness is 'in reality the very light of the Absolute.'" It is generative nothingness. The Christian Rhineland mystics also describe entering uberhelle nacht—the great bright night. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote, "I drank from God's flaming cup and lost my mind. Now like a moth I am circling around God's Sun."
"What is bewilderment?" wrote artist and mystic Azima Melita Kolin in response to my question. "In my experience, it is a state I have glimpsed in retreats when the senses are shut (if you are lucky to succeed in doing so) and the mind is redundant, lost."
ONE OF MERTON'S novices wasn't convinced that this holy bewilderment was something to be sought after. "I came [to the monastery] for personal fulfillment," Merton quotes him as saying, "and what am I getting these trials for?"
The hard answer is that suffering opens the door to bewilderment and bewilderment is the precursor to annihilation in God. "I will tell you something that has been secret," wrote Paul to Jesus' followers in Corinth, "that we are not all going to die, but we shall all be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:51). "Annihilation"—falling backwards into nothing—but "in God," the spring of everything. "Like the flame of a candle," wrote Rumi, "in the presence of the sun."
"It is very difficult for us to experience such bewilderment in our normal consciousness," Azima wrote. "But the experience is of wonder and immense joy, freedom from self. It is wonderful, and not sustainable. It is a state of grace that I suppose anyone can taste at any time if ... graced."
There are times in the human life for becoming unhinged. It's impossible to write about. Sanai, the ancestral Sufi poet, said, "First I wrote books with great painstaking care—eventually I broke my pens in complete bewilderment." In the great spiritual narrative of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, there are times when we are called, like Moses, to be liberators—and there are times when we are called to be the burning bush.
"Sell your cleverness," reminds Rumi, "and buy bewilderment."
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.