Wild Dancing: Embraced by Untamed Love
by Janice Edwards, RSM
Seacliff, NY: Brookville Books, 2012
Reviewed by Ellen Stratton
At the age of forty-three, Janice Edwards underwent surgery to remove a benign but destructive brain tumor. When she was awakened after three days of post-surgical anesthesia, her body was disabled yet her spirit soared. She was aware of communion with a sacred presence moving through the universe—an all-embracing energy that dances, livens, and leavens everything and everyone. Wild Dancing: Embraced by Untamed Love is the compelling story of Edwards’s experience of radical transformation, in which this sacred dimension of the universe whom she calls “Love,” “God,” and “Dance” opens her awareness to the grand diversity that is held as one. The Love she met was neither conventional nor predictable, and neither is her remarkable journey.
Figuring prominently into Edwards’s path to non-dualistic spirituality is Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine, USA. Here she trained her photographic lens on the beauty of the sea and the land, and in return her contemplative vision grew more expansive. The wildness of the place drew her more profoundly into communion with God and the earth’s sacred dimension. But it was the brain surgery that truly transformed her way of seeing. “While I slept,” she writes, “Love rearranged my mental apparatus” (20). The lens of her spiritual awareness was recalibrated, enabling her to perceive Love as the unifying energy in all things.
Contemplation stimulates the desire to dance to the melody of Love, and for the author contemplation is taking a long, loving look at anything or anyone. In this definition she draws on her mentor, the Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton. At some point after her surgery she returned to Merton’s writings, especially his description of le point vierge, or the diamond point of holy luminosity within all things. Contemplation is paying attention to this virgin point with physical and spiritual eyes wide open to the wonder of all created matter as well as to the pain, fear, and joy of life (72). Painfully her eyes opened to an inner darkness that descended during the years she confronted the reality of having been sexually abused as a child, yet in the midst of suffering she knew God was “staggering through hell” with her and that “great-hearted Love” was holding her in her agony (135, 136). The honesty with which Edwards writes about vulnerability and injustice reminds the reader that contemplation is not a feel-good type of prayer but a deep-rooted spiritual practice that weathers the stiffest storms, perceives in all things the presence of tender Love, and transfigures life with sure and certain hope.
In particular, for spiritual directors, Wild Dancing is about living a contemplative stance and allowing that posture to be the energizing center out of which we are present to the individuals who seek spiritual guidance. Her insights are rich in wisdom from her long ministry of teaching novice spiritual directors. Most significant is the phrase from her teacher William Connolly, SJ that the art of spiritual direction is about becoming “the servant of another’s contemplation.” This approach to spiritual direction necessitates the spiritual director’s own dedication to and cultivation of contemplative awareness. To illustrate how this works, Edwards draws on her childhood memory of swimming in the Atlantic Ocean and watching her father patiently wait for a wave that would carry him bodysurfing in to the shore. When he spotted the right one approaching he would maneuver his body in line with it, fixing his attention on the point of greatest power, and then he would leap in for the effortless ride on the crest of the wave. Edwards encourages spiritual directors to be like body surfers: watching, listening, and waiting on high alert for the aspect in the life of the spiritual directee that is most filled with Love’s presence. Then, when the movement of God is discerned, the spiritual director gently aligns with Love’s flow, keeping the words as simple as possible so as to engage the contemplative rather than the analytical part of the brain. The joy of the experience is “like union with a wave, it is oneness with God’s presence in the other that enables a spiritual director to trust her own depth, let go of techniques, and let God’s movement carry her” (68, 69).
Wild Dancing will captivate you as a refreshingly honest memoir of transformation through suffering into union with Love. It will teach you more about the fine art of spiritual direction. Most of all, it will invite you to partner with God in the jubilant Dance of the universe with ever-increasing measures of creativity, generosity, surrender, and awe.
Ellen Stratton, MDiv, is a spiritual director in Pennsylvania, USA. She is on the faculty of the Kairos School of Spiritual Formation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.