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Illustration by Whitney Dolan, 2001
Vigil is a creative
essay by Stewart Ball, who answered my request for contributions
to Lotuseaters.net. It is the first contribution to this page
by another writer, though I certainly hope not the last. In the
essay, he explores the depth psychology of the individual who
is engaged in the act of waiting for a communication from the
Divine. Stewart shows that we can enter into this wait either
deliberately by engaging in known rituals of vigil, or unintentionally
in the unconscious rituals of anxiety i.e. the sleepless night,
The piece is valuable to me and fits well on this page because Stew starts with the humble everyday experiences of human life, and then goes on to locate the depth of these experiences by showing the presence of soul and imagination within them ....
Please look forward to other pieces by Stewart appearing here on Lotuseaters.net as they are written and edited. You may write directly to Stewart by clicking on his byline below or me by clicking on my name below.
- Jim Dolan
I want to express a few thoughts about keeping vigil.
Vigil comes with sleeplessness. Or, it comes when we are awake, but would rather be asleep.
Perhaps we are awake at night to give care to someone who is ill. Perhaps we are watching over someone who is near death, and we wait for death to come. It's a tricky business . . . we know death will come, however, death has a way of defying time, logic, fact, which makes us nervous, unsure. Vigil allows us time to come to the end, to sound a death knell, the mark of passing, because death certificates and autopsies do not resolve the complex issues of the heart.
There are other times when we remain awake well into the night because we are worried. Worried about our problems, our family, our money, our jobs. We are caught up in loops of thought. What to do, what to do? How will I solve this problem? Over these thoughts we keep vigil, whether we are aware of it or not.
So, when we are unsure, when we feel stress beyond control, when we confront death, we turn to vigil. And we also keep vigil in preparation for life changes, as well as sacred events.
It is interesting that we "keep" vigil, rather than "perform" it, "render" it, or just "do" it. Sometimes we say we "maintain" vigil, which is close to keep. We keep house, keep bees, keep faith, maintain composure, maintain a machine.
"Keep" implies a possessive act. It is something we do not give to someone else to do. In a similar way "keeping house" is not cleaning house. It means more; a particular, personal order is maintained.
"Keeping bees" is interesting, too, because the very idea of keeping bees stretches and unwinds the conventional notion that "I" possess something. One doesn't exactly possess bees. The relationship between beekeeper and hive is more subtle and complex. So too, the vigilant and the watched.
tonight, through part drawn blinds, a slender rind of distant moon sheds fingers of cream and shade across your resting form
you are an atoll of peace in a tide of shadow, gathering dreams
with a shiver, i come to know this place for what it is:
an outpost for the Watcher, and the Watched
huddled here, i know what i will do --
i will watch
i will wait.
jim dolan 1980
Think of the old custom of keeping vigil before a holy day, such as Christmas or Easter. Think of the silence, the stillness of the church, lit by only a few candles. It is as though all human activity must stop; then we wait and watch for the Deity to appear. By dawn of the Holy Day the Deity has come. It is a very old idea, that we ought to prepare ourselves to confront Mystery and Divinity.
So what do we "keep" in vigil?
The first thing I think of are the little "tools" we bring with us to keep vigil. Words of some kind: a book to read, a prayer book or prayers in our mind; some type of words, some speaking of our mind. Sometimes we finger beads, to pace our recitation, to have a place to return when our thoughts wander.
Next, I think of a light, a candle or small lamp, or sometimes just the dark of the room, but always an image of light, an awareness of the light and surrounding dark. We have a place within the light, beyond that, we don't know.
I like to have a wrap about my shoulders. I don't know why this is, but it feels ancient to me; perhaps it is that there have always been special garments for prayer. The prayer shawl, the stole, priest's vestments - donning vestments readies one for the sacred.
So we keep these three types of things close at hand during vigil: words, light, vestments. Sometimes they are formal, sometimes invented or improvised or ersatz. Whatever they are, we keep them close, in a way that is intimate, in a way that signifies that intimacy is present. We fuss over them, arrange them, keep them "just so."
We may also deprive ourselves of sleep and nourishment during vigil; in fact, this is fairly common. Sometimes we do this without really being aware of it. We will fall into worry and do not eat and stay up all night. It is a common way to deal with unmanageable problems, which we all have from time-to-time. Is this vigil? I think it is, but vigil done through the back door, if you will.
Vigil is not merely wakefulness, nor outward form, nor accoutrements. We keep vigil close to the heart, close to where we feel trouble, where we feel change most deep. Vigil always moves toward inner focus; while our thoughts and emotions mull they coalesce around a locus, as fluid around a vortex. Perhaps this is better explained if we go to the Latin meaning of locus, which is hearth. By extension, we think of a fire as a place to gather, where we are at the core of life, warmth and light and thus, the normal, safe place to go.
From this, it is easy to understand that vigil also centers upon our heart, that it is the rare time when the power of the mind becomes utterly focused upon matters of the heart.
Vigil can abide this domesticity, this informality, in a way that vigil's counterpart, the sacraments, do not, for vigil is an outward turning brought about by an inward turning. Sacraments stress their structure, their ritual, their repeatable form; they are outward form placed over the spirit. Emotion is suppressed in the interest of bringing spirit under the spell of the canon and into the harbor of the community and its catholic ethos. Hidden in the strength of sacrament is the strength imparted by community.
However, it is normal for vigil to precede sacrament. Vigil before birth; vigil before death. Baptism after birth; annealing (anointing) after death. This order tells us of a regular progress in the way of things. First, the heart is prepared alone, a life change takes place and, finally, the community is normalized. Think of the church custom on the night before ordination, the deacon spends the night alone in prayer. Then the deacon is brought before the church and changed into a priest.
One Moon, Illustration by Whitney Dolan, 1997
When the heart is prepared, we adapt to change. Otherwise, change must be imposed. This is a lost truth.
I like the image of fluid or water to express something of the process or the energy of a vigil. Vigil has a kind of flow to it, as our thoughts and feelings spout, fountain like, over the course of hours. Memories resurface, mix with emotion. We have a chance to think about things and new insights come to us. We reflect, we engage in reverie. Our deep feelings come to light. And, as I mentioned earlier, this content will coalesce around the purpose of our vigil.
Here, at this vortex of thought, memory, emotion, we are in the presence of a different energy. We have stumbled into the realm of the Soul. This is the back door work of vigil, to reveal the presence of the Soul, to show, albeit indirectly, the Soul's guiding hand in the course of human affairs.
In the order of spiritual life, the Soul is much closer to everyday life than is the Deity. During vigil, Soul hovers close by and diverts the teeming, tumbling flow of our thoughts and emotions from a linear course toward the purpose of our vigil; all of this valuable inner content converges. Vigil is a good example of the way Soul brings us into contact, into communion, with something sacred. An old Scots word for this is "kyth," which meant knowing one's ken, one's family in the extended sense, and by implication, one's place in the world. In modern lexicon it has been modified by two authors I know of, Ursula Le Guin and Madeleine L'Engel, to mean communion between two people at the Soul or intuitive level.
The power of vigil is that through it we give space and time, so that the Soul may guide us. We relinquish just the mind's requirements, just the heart's desires, and prepare ourselves to be in a sacred place, to be in Grace.
The wonder is that we can choose to do this, that we know the way. Vigil is one way we can approach the Divine, by the way of our own means. It is an old way, invented thousands of years ago when the world was a watchful place and we prized our vigilance. We kept vigil over our own, over our families and kin, everything close to our hearth. Beyond the door was a wild Kingdom.
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candle photo by JRCompton