Sunday, October 28, 2012


Yesterday, when I arrived back in New Iberia, Louisiana for my winter sojourn, I found a package of books from Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado, one of which I had ordered several weeks ago, a spiritual autobiography entitled Path of Lightning by Barbara Schmitz. The book lives up to its title as a path of lightning as the author takes readers on her zigzagging search for God that begins with her Roman Catholic childhood in Nebraska and continues into her apprenticeship with Shahabuddin Less, a Sufi teacher with the Sufi Order of the West.

Schmitz’s journey is a long, circuitous one that takes her from Naropa Institute and study with Allen Ginsburg, (who was invited there by the Tibetan Lama Chogyam Trungpa), to a Peace Vigil above the Wailing Wall in Israel, with travels along the way in Bali, India, Turkey, and Kashmir.

Schmitz, an English teacher and writer living in Norfolk, Nebraska, also studied Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Paramahansa Yogananda, made pilgrimages to sacred places around the world searching for mystical experiences, and ultimately found her place within the Sufi tradition by practicing Sohbet (spiritual discourse) with Shahabuddin, her teacher and mentor.

During her journey through “two year intensives,” and the deepening of her spiritual experiences, Schmitz began to feel despair and experienced the “dark night of the soul,” a period of boredom and aridity accompanied by stagnation of will and intelligence. She quotes from one of my favorite authors, Evelyn Underhill, the Anglican mystic who wrote the “bible” on the enhancement of consciousness, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, and who advocated that the dark night is a natural balance to the highs of spiritual exultation and the reception of the Holy Spirit. Underhill would have applauded Schmitz’s long journey as she wrote that “we are all the kindred of mystics…”

I particularly appreciated the section relating to the famous Turkish-born poet Rumi, who has gained popularity in the U.S. with the publication of his famous poem (included in Path of Lightning): “This we have now/is not imagination. /This is not/grief or joy. /not a judging state, /or an elation, /or sadness. /Those come and go. /This is the presence/that does not…”

Schmitz is a poet who has been recognized by Natalie Goldberg as someone who “endeavors to understand the mystery and beauty of being alive. I name her the Queen of Constancy for her devotion to meditation and never letting up or giving up on her spiritual journey.” One of Schmitz’s minimal poems in Path of Lightning, which she wrote on a pilgrimage to Turkey, illustrates her training in and mastery of metaphor, as well as her appreciation for the style of Sufi poet Rumi: “In Turkey/in the cemeteries/the uncut grass/on graves above/grows long/competing/with the uncut hair/beneath.”

Schmitz struggles through the four C’s on her journey: “Compare Not, Complain Not, Criticize Not, and Condemn Not” and remarks, “If I really do these, there’s not much left to talk about. I made a small sticky note with the four C’s on it and attached it to a photo on my desk at work to remind me to practice them at school. I gave it a stab – glad I didn’t have to report to anyone on how well I did them…” Those four C’s resonate throughout the Path of Lightning and are good guideposts for anyone engaged in a deeper search for spiritual enlightenment and compassionate treatment of fellow human beings.

On one of Schmitz’s trips to India, she pays loving tribute to her husband who has made his own spiritual journey alongside her to various countries and through her many illuminations. The sincerity of this passage impressed me deeply: “I sometimes don’t notice right at the moment, but Bob is as much my teacher as Shahabuddin, probably from the moment I made the decision to trust that my love for him (Bob) would lead me to God. He is always beside me, clarifying, discussing, helping, redirecting me when I get mixed up or confused…”

This is an unusual book written in a highly accessible style by a highly enlightened person who was given the name Vajra by her Sufi teacher after her first trip to India – a name that means “transformation by the lightning bolt,” and the Path of Lightning is filled with illuminating flashes that will attract readers interested in further developing their spiritual growth.

An incisive note by Schmitz on the compassion advocated throughout Path of Lightning: “Our path is to live with others, to learn to be a human being, Self analysis is looking at the self in relation to one’s family, peers, and friends…and I remember Shahabuddin teaching in one of our seminars, ‘We are sitting on a pile of gold. Why do we want to pick up rocks?’” After reading this personal odyssey about self awareness and growth toward “otherness,” we might ask, “Why indeed?!”

Available at Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.

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