The Scent of God

Why did I reach for and buy The Scent of God, a Memoir  by Beryl Singleton Bissell (Counterpoint 2006)?

Its title. In the literature and lore of mysticism going back to very ancient times, many who have experienced union with the Divine concept they believed in spoke of the scent that accompanied that union, a wondrous scent not like any on earth, unforgettable, yet indescribable.

So, I expected mystical content, and when I saw this story involved a cloistered nun, a Poor Clare, who broadened her life experience and discovered the many aspects that love offers us in life, I was hooked.

The book is a real delight. I would be bored with a simple story of a starry eyed idealistic girl who joins a convent in her young adulthood or even earlier, and then grows into a women not suited for that life. I would be bored with such a story, but not in this case: after a few pages I was enraptured by its main character, the author. At what point did the book “hook” me to get me enthused and reading more eagerly and avidly? On page 31 when I came to this dream recounted by our young starry eyed idealist:

. . . I dreamed of an unseen but powerful hand that reached out for mine—a presence so real and encompassing that I could barely contain the pain of it. Rapture poured from that hand and engulfed me, pulling me toward it with overwhelming tenderness. I was loved. Oh, how I was loved . . . loved and accepted just as I was. Nothing was hidden from this love; all my shortcomings were known, acknowledged, and accepted. It didn't matter if I was popular or shy, smart or slow, fat or thin. I, Beryl, was beloved. Inflamed by such love, I became a bird beating its wings against too strong a wind, a string on a violin stretched to an ever higher pitch, an ember leaping toward the source of all heat. Muscles pulled from tendons, tendons from joints, joints from bones. To hold such love I knew I must die. With all my heart, I wanted to die.

For weeks, dazed by the power of this dream, I walked half in and half out of this world. . . . I didn't change much outwardly. Inwardly, however, I lived in the awareness of God's overwhelming and unconditional love.

[SEE NOTE 1, below.]

Bisselll acknowledges knowing the literature on the experiences of female Catholic mystics on page 41 where she cites the book Enduring Grace by Carol Lee Flinders as saying this about young idealistic girls:

To be idealistic and impulsively generous at that age – to think it completely reasonable that another reality should exist that is a real improvement over the one we can see and touch and smell – these almost define a particular type of teenager we have all known or even been.

How sweet is that!?

Not so sweet are pages 42-44 where Beryl confronts a fervent effort to intervene and stop Beryl's choice of a nunnery in her young adulthood rather than college. Beryl had won a scholarship and was going to let it lapse because one of her spiritual advisers told her that . . . “college was the 'graveyard of religious vocations.'”

[SEE NOTE 2, below.]

She won the argument with her parents, of course, or there would be no book. And on page 42 she reiterated her close experience of God as the reason she could resist her parents on this issue:

. . . I experienced a love more wondrous than any I would find with a man. God's presence was everywhere. In the apricot-tinged sun that dipped toward the horizon at sunset, in the almond-tinged faces of the children at play in the parks. I heard God's voice in the rustle of the palm trees, felt God in the evening breeze, found God in the fragrance of the night. Into every moment of every day I carried my search for God. The certainty that no one would ever love me as God loved me made me strong.

[SEE NOTE 1, again, below.]

How could one argue against this resolve? When a resolve is based on what is believed to be a more real than physical personal experience, it cannot be argued into non-existence. Her parents relent, and she becomes a Poor Clare, in New Jersey.

Her nun-adventures are no doubt interesting to those interested in or contemplating this lifestyle. She is merciless in exposing herself as very naïve. She entered monastic life expecting to have the spiritual revelatory experiences that would relatively quickly propel her into sainthood. Her spiritual self-expectations were colored by a naïve reading of the lives of her mystical heroine forbears.

She is surprised at her own lack of self discipline and then overcorrects. She is surprised by recognizing that in fact she is more concerned with her superior's approval rather than God's. This is probably good for her, since here superior is quite level-headed. But then she reads a famous woman mystic saying that all a nun needs to concern herself with is obedience to her superior, and all is well again.

She finally hits her stride and becomes a very productive part of her community. A community that now includes her sister. So after 12 years behind cloister walls she is asked to go home to help her mother care for her father, who has had a serious stroke and has to be helped do everything.

She is conflicted over this because she took a vow to remain behind these walls. But her Mother Superior orders it to be so, and she obeys and goes home to Puerto Rico where a whole new phase of her life begins. Actually, she (re)discovers life's multicolored and multifaceted aspects there, and discovers feelings in her that resemble love for a man, a priest, albeit in a very halting and cautious way. We are not talking breaking vows, we are talking the relationship of two people seeking mutual support in their spiritual striving.

In a very indirect way she likens her relationship with this priest to that of Clare and Francis of Assisi long ago, who were rumored to be in love, and were, but not in the way usually presumed (page 121):

For centuries, writers and historians have theorized about the relationship that bound Francis and Clare. Some have concluded that they were “in love.” Certainly Clare and Francis loved one another, but were they “in love” in the romantic way we define that terms? Clare's writings are full of her admiration and respect for the little Poor Man of Assisi, and Francis revered and cherished Clare. She was certainly not an infatuous young girl when she followed Francis into the service of the poor suffering Jesus. Having no wish to marry and become subject to the rule of a husband, she had already sold her dowry and given its proceeds to the poor, and soon would be mothering an entire community of women who followed her into religious life.

[SEE NOTE 3, below.]

Bissell then describes some of the relationships at her monastery between nuns and their male spiritual advisers and admits her naïvitee once more when she realizes that she has given this father the impression that she is much more experienced spiritually than she really knew she was, thereby making the effort unproductive.

But then came along this Puerto-Rican priest, and they became informal advisers to each other, without either pretending to be where they were not spiritually. So what do Francis and Clare have to do with this relationship? Very little. Not yet. Bisselll was just planting something in our heads to show us where this relationship was hoped to be going at this point in time. Of course one has already been manipulated by Bissell into having a subtle feeling that there are several more twists before this life settles into predictability. If it ever does so settle. (It never does.)

It takes several more self discoveries, one about anger management within herself, before she lets us know that she knows that she is in love with her favorite priest. This is at a time when there is little opportunity for the two to see each other for their discussion- sessions. But on page 156 she admits to us that in her (day)-”dreams I nourished our love.”

This is yet another turning-point in this memoir. A sharp and irreversible turn in this life's path. One can imagine some of the conflicts involved, but I had not expected them to be as complex and deep as they turned out to be. It took a very long time and many gut-wrenching twists and turns to finally bring this love to fruition, and then life, rather than religion, laid more obstacles in the way.

Beryl Singleton Bissell's life was blessed with love,both human and Divine, but it was also filled with pain and pathos. There is never anything really ordinary about this life.

I do not want to tell this story here, that is why the book exists. I do want to make just a few more out-of- context remarks about some of Bissell's more mystical observations, such as this one on page 167 where, after a classical music concert she described her experience:

My soul craved music. Music expanded within my soul until my heart could no longer bear it. There were times when I thought I would die from so much beauty-- . . . --when I would have to lie on the floor to keep from flying.

On that same page she enjoys a full-bodied hug from the love of her life, she burns with passion yet remains chaste. The following pages discuss the problem with celibacy and romantic love, they do not coexist, at least not easily. On page 175 she discusses the futility of the chaste love her lover was suggesting they could have together, she doubted they could be fully in love and at the same time love and obey (keep their vows) God. She felt this idealized view of life was a sham and a lie and wanted no part of it.

He wanted them to be like Francis and Clare, she wanted to be loved with passion even if it meant being released from their vows and callings. She planned to leave him over this issue, but if she had, there would be no book. At least not this book.

On page 194 and after the division within herself comes to a head, she analyzes the strange feeling she had that there was peace within her as long as she was engaged in prayer. When she was not engaged in prayer she felt cleft asunder by the guilt she had been taught to have over her yearning for love from her lover. Several times she observes that it seems like the feelings she receives from God, of acceptance and inner peace, were not in harmony with church dogma about sin and guilt.

They do celebrate their love at one point, but then pull back again to their chaste but loving relationship. Of course now it is much more difficult, but she makes some astute observations on page 207, such as “I knew sex wasn't proof of love.” But as they continued their now again chaste but very loving relationship something happened to her/their senses:

. . . our struggles added an edge of joy to our travels, as if our eyesight had been sharpened and our senses honed. I sometimes felt like those larks that soar over Italy in euphoric, almost drunken spirals. We laughed and cavorted like children, overwhelmed with the sheer wonder of being together in this way, and in such a place.

[SEE NOTE 4, below.]

Their next stop was Assisi, . . . “where Saint Francis and Saint Clare were born and where they jointly discovered the joy of living in total poverty for love of the 'Poor Suffering Jesus.'”

On page 230 Bissell tells of a revelation received for her by a mother superior in a nunnery she was associated with through her new work for a religious foundation. The revelation told her to return to her vows or she would suffer much. She rejected the advice. She “didn't trust the messenger.”

[SEE NOTE 5, below.]

On pages 232 and 233 Bissell discusses the idea of suffering as a way to God, something she believed in when she was younger but now was less enthusiastic about. She still accepted that suffering is useful for teaching us compassion and that no matter what happens to us, God is with us. She cites two female mystics as authorities on these points: Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich.

Several times in this life story Bissell comments on her always seeking for coincidences as signs of God's involvement in our lives. I liked it back on page 209 when she wrote:

Someone once said that synchronicity is “God's way of acting anonymously.” This little aphorism expresses what I've often considered to be one of my idiosyncrasies (which I nonetheless like to think of as biblical): the penchant to look for signs in happenstance. My rational spirit quails at this propensity, however common.

[SEE NOTE 6, below.]

Looking back on her life while writing this book she sees something new in a very important coincidence of the past (page 244):

Only now, as I write this, do I see in this amazing coincidence a laughing God. At that time I viewed this happening as yet another “sign” . . .; I grasped at it as a drowning victim might a life preserver - - with gratitude and relief; but only now do I hear divine laughter. And, now that I have heard that laughter, I shall store it at the top of my memory box where I can summon it whenever I am in need of a reminder.

To me this shows that time does indeed heal wounds of the heart. I am sure to Bissell this means she now sees evidence of God's love for her, while to me it suggests a cruel sense of humor on the part of her God.

But it is this type of retrospective, from a loftier perch built on additional life, love and suffering, that allows Bissell, at the very end of the book, to mention the scent of God as being . . .”an elusive but lovely fragrance” . . . “the persistent and unmistakable scent of a loving and infinitely patient God.” This is rather surprising coming from a woman who, at moments in the story cursed God and the church she had dedicated much of her life to.  But we all know that under severe stress we do and say things that on later reflection we regret.

NOTES:

NOTE 1: The core mystical experience is one of unity with the All, with God, with the Divine in oneself, to some degree or extent. There are a plethora of ways this unity is experienced. Claims range from dreams to visions to seemingly being dead in the body while in a state of spiritual annihilation within all consuming Divine Nature.

It is experienced in the followers of many faiths and spiritual disciplines, making it –to me- appear to be a natural endowment that comes with being human. The experience tends to confirm people in their faith, whatever that faith may be. It takes an exceptional insight to realize that this experience is a core human experience and not one that belongs to and can be dispensed by any particular faith. Bissell's experience of total love is an example of this mystical revelation. Bissell's experience seems to me to have something in common with the insights of my favorite ecstatic poet, Rumi, who also experience this total self-dissolving love and claimed it was God, and not the property of either his Muslim faith or the Christian faith. [I discuss Rumi's revelations of love, and also bring Saint Francis into the discussion, here. ]

Bissell makes it clear that she was motivated by these experiences, they fed her desire and drive to join a contemplative order. However, they did not stop her from having childish ideas and naïve motives in her search for her spiritual path. This is an important point. A revelation of this sort does not make one wise or omniscient.

NOTE 2:  I have been bothered by the idea that education kills religion.  Yet I have myself experienced this feeling of antipathy between the two.  In my days as a "true beliver" I avoided geology courses for a while because I did not want to be detracted from my personal faith-based stance against natural evolution as the origin of our species.  I was right, when I did finally embrace that theory as being supported by science's evidence, however imperfect that evidence, I was well on my way to unbelief in the dogmas of my faith but at the same time enjoyed an enhanced spirituality.  Sometimes loosening the leash of dogma can enhance the spiritual within oneself.

NOTE 3: I am one of those who suggests Francis and Clare were in love on several levels, and I conjecture that this is why Francis found it so necessary for them to keep their distance later in his life. You can read my discussion of this pair here. Bissell goes on to speak of the relationships between cloistered women and their male spiritual advisers, likewise on the same set of pages linked above that discuss Clare and Francis on this website where I also discuss other examples of love relationships between women mystics and their spiritual advisers.

NOTE 4: As an enthusiast for a strange interpretation of the power of courtly love, I was very impressed at this observation of a heightening of the senses when fully in love but keeping that tension high by also being chaste. I was also impressed that this childlike playfulness comes right along with the experience of a fulness of love. Rumi spoke of being drunk with love, Francis spoke of being fools for love. Add Bissell to that list.

NOTE 5: At just a couple of points in my decades of life as a true believer, I was also told of revelations received for me by persons of recognized spiritual renown within my faith. I trusted the messengers, but not their revelations for me. I checked with my superiors in that faith and was told that this type of very personal revelation, giving direction to help make important life decisions, cannot be received by one person for another. Everyone is entitled to receive revelation of thus type, but for themselves, not for others. I found this very wise, and if it were taken seriously it would do much to stop spiritual abuse, the abuse that comes with manipulating people do do what you want them to do by using the authority of God as your own.

NOTE 6: I got a chuckle out of this inner conflict in Bissell, looking for evidence of God's workings in chance occurrences all the while knowing intellectually that this does not make good sense. It is the age-old conflict between faith and reason playing out in one and the same person. I suffer from the same problem, perhaps magnified though: I intellectually do not believe in either a God or an afterlife. My intuitive side says: not so fast, dude, you simply can't know.

The one thing both sides of my being agree on is that the personal Gods of the religions I am most familiar with simply do not exist. I am comforted, on my intuitive side, by Rumi's observation on the chain of life that I cite elsewhere on this site, but will repeat here because it is a great way to end discussion and create silence:

(Obtain reference by clicking here.)

Everything you see has its roots in the Unseen world.
The forms may change,
yet the essence remains the same.

Every wondrous sight will vanish,
Every sweet word will fade.
But do not be disheartened,

The Source they come from is eternal -
Growing, branching out, giving new life and new joy.
Why do you weep? -

That Source is within you,
And this whole world
is springing up from it.
The Source is full,
Its waters are ever-flowing;

Do not grieve, drink your fill!
Don't think it will ever run dry -
This is the endless Ocean!

From the moment you came into this world
A ladder was placed in front of you that you might escape.

From earth you became plant,
From plant you became animal.

Afterwards you became a human being,
Endowed with knowledge, intellect, and faith.

Behold the body, born of dust - how perfect it has become!

Why should you fear its end?
When were you ever made less by dying?

When you pass beyond this human form,
No doubt you will become an angel
And soar through the heavens!

But don't stop there.
Even heavenly bodies grow old.
Pass again from the heavenly realm
and plunge into the vast ocean of Consciousness.

Let the drop of water that is in you become a hundred mighty seas.
But do not think that the drop alone
Becomes the Ocean -
the Ocean, too, becomes the drop!

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