by Barry and Joyce Vissell
A short time ago, Joyce and I fulfilled a thirty-five year old dream of leading a retreat in Assisi, Italy. The experience went way beyond what we could have ever imagined. Early one morning we brought our group of retreat participants to the Basilica de San Francesco, the tomb of Saint Francis. It’s difficult to adequately describe the enormity of the spiritual power here where millions of pilgrims have prayed and meditated in the place where Saint Francis is buried. Likewise, we felt a deeply loving presence at the Basilica de Santa Chiara, the tomb of Francis’ soul-mate, Saint Clare. Especially early in the morning, before the throngs of tourists arrive, the very atmosphere is charged with a heavenly energy most people can feel.
I sat with the group, letting this great power wash through my being. Previous mornings in these sacred places, I had been able to sink into deeper states of meditation than I normally do at home. I felt determined to go even deeper and bask in this holy glow.
Yet try as I may, I felt more and more agitated and restless. I felt like I was fighting against a river, trying to swim upstream. I felt frustrated, then defeated, and finally a little embarrassed. I couldn’t sit there any longer. I had to get up and move around. So I did, and as soon as I was moving I felt better.
Then I looked at the members of our group, each one earnestly striving to receive the blessing of this holy place. My heart welled up with love for each of them, and I knew in that moment what I needed to do. I was being called to bless each of them, to touch each one with love, perhaps even to speak something to each person.
As I approached the first person, I had to push through that inevitable bit of resistance, a reluctance to invade another’s personal space, even the thought that I would be disturbing their spiritual reverie. But the inner prompting won out over my mind’s protests, and I reached out my hands and gently placed them upon the head before me. As I did so, a deep peace swept through me, a confirmation that I was doing the right thing. With each successive person, my heart swelled with love, my hands felt charged with energy, and sometimes comforting words would come out of my mouth.
Was I just giving love? Absolutely not. I was receiving more abundantly than I ever do, even in my deepest meditations. If I was just giving, I would have eventually felt depleted. Yet with each person I felt increasingly more energized.
Saint Francis once went up on a mountain to meditate and pray for guidance. His deep desire was to live in seclusion, absorbed in the ecstasy of communion with God. And he well understood the service in this path of the solitary hermit – the blessings that would radiate out to all beings on the planet. But in a way he didn’t completely trust himself, because his desire for divine union was still desire. So he found one of his closest companions and gave him instructions to have a group of brothers (the Friars Minor) pray for guidance for him. Should he remain in seclusion for the benefit of humanity, or should he take action, traveling the world preaching and healing? Just to make sure, he sent another brother to Clare at San Damiano, because he trusted her wisdom perhaps above all others. The answer came back as one – his path was with people, not alone on a mountain top. From that moment on, Francis traveled extensively, changing lives wherever he went. Even in his lifetime, the brothers who joined him and the sisters who joined Clare numbered in the many thousands. Did he take time to meditate and pray in solitude? Of course. His inward time was vital to him. He took many retreats, but most of his spiritual communion took place at night, while everyone else slept.
On our website (SharedHeart.org), there is an article I wrote called “Miracle on the Mountain” in which I described a life-transforming experience I had on Mount Shasta in northern California in 1977. I went up on the mountain, similar to Saint Francis, to meditate in solitude, to have a spiritual experience by myself. Just like in Assisi, I came to a peaceful state, and then couldn’t sit still any longer. But unlike my experience in Assisi, I got up from my spot, packed up and left, feeling like I had failed. On the way down the mountain, I was able to save a man’s life. Talk about being of service in the world!
In 1973, Joyce and I started traveling, seeking after spiritual teachers. It was an abrupt switch from studying medicine and then psychiatry, to studying the spiritual disciplines of the east and west. But it was still studying. One of Joyce’s relatives made a comment that struck a deep chord in us, even though it hurt at the time: “The two of you are like the Dead Sea. Rivers run into it, but nothing runs out of it, and therefore nothing can live in it. How long are you going to keep learning before you give back?”
Well, we didn’t get the message. We traveled to the French Alps to spend the summer studying with the Sufi teacher, Pir Vilayat Khan. The first day he met us, he took us aside and gave us instructions that changed our lives forever: “You two will teach a class each day on relationships. There are classes here on so many dimensions of spirituality, but nothing on relationships. Without understanding our human relationships, we can’t bring spirituality down to earth.”
“But Pir Vilayat,” we protested, “we came here to learn, not teach.”
“Nonsense,” he replied. “You’ll learn best by teaching. You’ll receive most by giving.”
And so we did. With the help of translators, we taught the class to a large group of English, German and French-speaking people.
And our lives did change. Today, my favorite prayer is the prayer of Saint Francis: “Lord make me an instrument of Thy peace.” We ask God every day to simply be of service in this world, to help people wherever we can, to bring divine love into every situation. And this is what fills us with joy.
Please don’t miss out on an opportunity to give love and bless someone’s life: placing your hand on your child’s head and giving your praise, speaking appreciation to your beloved, touching a coworker’s shoulder while you thank him or her for a job well done, hugging a parent and thanking them for their love, or being extra kind to a total stranger. Then notice how much joy this gives you.
Joyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA, who are widely regarded as among the world’s top experts on conscious relationship and personal growth. They are the authors of The Shared Heart, Models of Love, Risk To Be Healed, The Heart’s Wisdom and Meant To Be. Even one session with either or both of them (over the phone or in person) can shift your life or relationship. Call 831-684-2130.
Call Toll-Free 1-800-766-0629 (locally 831-684-2299) or write to the Shared Heart Foundation, P.O. Box 2140, Aptos, CA 95001, for free newsletter from Barry and Joyce, further information on counseling sessions by phone or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at www.sharedheart.org/ for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.