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Spiritual Vertigo

As these weeks drag on, I continue to feel off-kilter, pretty much all-day-every-day. I notice how often I search for words to describe my experience and ways to understand my disorientation. Today I have a new word to add to jitters, discombobulation, and the fertile void. Vertigo. A medical condition whereby one experiences profound dizziness.

I’ve had vertigo before. It was just a few weeks after the shingles. (This combination is not uncommon, by the way.) When I would get up out of bed, or rise from my yoga mat, suddenly my head would spin, the room around me swirling, all at once losing my bearings. Yet I’d never considered the sensation of vertigo a descriptive word for my experience of life right now.

That is until I came across the idea of vertigo while reading The Dark Night of the Soul by Gerald May. The dark night is a term devised by St. John of the Cross to describe a season in our spiritual life when God seems absent to us and our senses are incapable of finding our way “back” to God. St. John described the “spirit of vertiginis,” as a “dizzy spirit,” a spirit of confusion, sent as a messenger from God and intended to prepare us for the transformation that happens during a dark night.

May recognized it as an experience specifically designed for “people who refuse to relinquish the idea that if only I could understand things, I could make them right.” Oh, I so I resemble those people! I see it in my grasping mind, tenaciously trying to apprehend and comprehend my current experience and why it’s so dang hard!

I have felt “dizzied” by the effect of this pandemic, by social distancing and isolation. I can’t fully explain why I feel so sad, why I’m chafing inside, why my mind keeps groping in the dark for explanations and understanding. When I wrote about the pandemic being a fertile void, I referred to its definition as an experience “where meaning-making ceases and being begins.” Yet my thoughts still try to grab hold of something firm, seeking to make meaning, to explain “why” and tell me “what to do” and “how to fix it.”

But the vertigo persists, life around me swirling, all at once losing my bearings.

This week as I read about spiritual vertigo, this term pried open some space in my scrambled thoughts, allowing a ray of light, of hope into this muddled chamber. It seems that this ancient phenomenon, as St. John and May describe it, is precisely what I need because of my tendency to “lean on my own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5-6) and my own senses to find my way through this disorienting time.

May concludes, “Sooner or later, there is nothing left to do but give up. And that is precisely the point, the purpose of the ‘dizzy spirit.’ In each relinquishment, the person’s faculties are further emptied and sensitized and, more important, reliance upon God is deepened.”

As we notice the horizon of life on-slant and the typical points of navigation no longer providing for stable footing, it’s a formidable opportunity to relinquish dependence on our own faculties and perceptions, to empty, to give up, and instead rely upon God and let God lead this dance in the dark. Shall we? Let’s!

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