The days before Christmas can be frantic. We sometimes find our tempers short, our tongues loose, and our wits frayed. We think of Christmas as something in the future, speeding toward us, that we need to hurry around and prepare for so that we can enjoy His coming. But a birthday, like Christmas, is a celebration of something that has already happened. And, in the case of Christmas, it is a celebration of a whole new world order that is here. We are His now, not just at Christmas. We need to shine with His love now and everyday. Particularly when the world is harried. We need to reflect the joy and peace that comes with knowing that love conquers all.
In 2016, Pope Francis sainted Mother Teresa. She was a beloved paragon of a selfless life, ministering to the poor and dying, shining a light on the importance of the little things and the love of family. After her death, her diaries showed her struggles with doubt. Once feeling clearly called to her mission, in the last several decades of her life she felt God’s absence. She said,
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love–and now become as the most hated one–the one–You have thrown away as unwanted–unloved. I call, I cling, I want–and there is no One to answer–no One on Whom I can cling–no, No One.–Alone … Where is my Faith–even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness–My God–how painful is this unknown pain–I have no Faith–I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart–& make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them–because of the blasphemy–If there be God –please forgive me–When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven–there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul.–I am told God loves me–and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
And on until her death, she felt God’s absence, rather than his presence. And yet she persisted doing the work to which she had been called, living a life of faith.
Some may call her a hypocrite to have an outward smile of peace and an inner crisis of faith, but isn’t her struggle every one’s struggle? Who among us doesn’t struggle with doubt? Don’t we all rely on faith when our paths grow dark and twisting?
St. Teresa of Calcutta inspires us to hang on during the dark nights of the soul, to continue to walk the walk, to be faithful and steadfast, and to shine light in the dark places. She can aptly be considered the Patron Saint of Doubters.
During dark times, it is easy to lose our way. What are some ways you have kept going even during a crisis of faith?
“In one of John Muir Laws’s books, I read something profound that changed the way my brain thinks. “As you draw the bird,” he writes, “try to feel the life within it.” So now I look at the bird before me and imagine how it senses the world, how it feels breathing cold air, how it feels to have its feathers ruffling in the wind, how it feels to always have an eye out for possible food and possible predators. The bird sees me and is a nanosecond from flying off, but it stays. Why? By imagining the life within, the bird I am drawing is alive, no longer a shape and its parts, but a thinking, sentient being, always on the brink of doing something. By feeling the life within, I am always conscious that all creatures have personalities, and so do trees and clouds and streams. To feel the life within, I now imagine myself as the bird that is looking at me. I imagine its wariness, the many ways it has almost died in its short life. I worry over its comfort and safety, and whether I will see my little companion the next day, the next year. To feel the life within is to also feel grief in the goneness of a single creature or an entire species. Imagination is where compassion grows. Let us join with children to imagine and wonder, to use curiosity as the guide to miracles in plain sight. Let us enter with them into wild wonder so that we become guardians together of all that is living and all that must be saved.”
From Orion Magazine, “The Life Within”.
I wonder if we can look at each other that way, as something vaster, as thinking sentient beings with worlds of experience, some harsh. Would that help us to treat each other better? In her book, Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean describes just this sort of thing as she works with a death row inmate, a man who admittedly committed a heinous act, seeing not just the man but also, though covered with tattoos and bathed in bravado, the little wounded child within. That empathy allowed her to see past the crimes to the human and to feel compassion for him.
Perhaps today we can look with new eyes to see each other as a composite of good and bad, but each fully human and fully deserving of respect and compassion. To paraphrase Amy Tan above, when we consider the person, can we try to picture the life within, the challenges and struggles, hopes and triumphs? Can we become, together, ‘guardians of all that is living and must be saved’ in a place where ‘compassion grows’?
So much of life feels like it is beyond our ability to understand. Philosophers and theologians can argue over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or whether our futures are predestined. Or, even, whether God is dead, or, for that matter, ever lived, or, if alive, plays any hand in the events of the day.
Where is God when we suffer or when the whole world suffers? Is there any comfort in the argument that suffering happens because God gives us free will so has to let the natural consequences of things we’ve set in motion happen? That just kind of sucks, particularly when we are the well-behaved kids kept in at recess because of the misbehavior of some lone miscreant. What kind of global sense of the divine is that? Where is the comfort?
And, yet, there are moments, aren’t there? Moments when things fall into place, and we see the interconnection of living things, and feel lost in the mystery but at home there, too? Moments that sweep us into awe and gratitude and marvel? Moments where we can see the divine in the creation? In each other? Moments when we wonder how we got so lucky to be here, now, in this place and time, with these former strangers now beloved, with this life to live and all the options that offers?
We can look back at our lives and recognize the little junction points when we took a turn or met someone who became precious to us. A coincidence that we were both there in that same place and time. A coincidence that we got to talking and felt a connection, so kept talking, until that stranger became now a friend. Or a coincidence that led us to make a choice that brought us on a path to greater insight, understanding, and communion. What explains that? Those little coincidences that led us to the lives we have?
Lenny Duncan calls those coincidences ‘God staying anonymous’, and perhaps that is comforting. Perhaps the notion of a benevolent God putting people and experiences in our path to lead us forward gives us a sense of hope. Perhaps that is God working to draw us close. Perhaps it is our job to keep those flames of hope burning.
Duncan explains: “Church, I love you because you are the answer to the question ‘Is God real?’ You are the resounding yes thundering in our hearts. You are the triumphant roar affirming that God is real, powerful, and still able to perform miracles, here and now. In this time in our history, when the world seems like it is on the precipice, you are the gentle hymn that will pull us back from the abyss. You, Church, are the resounding call the entire world is bending its ear to hear as the first straining notes float over the mountaintop. You are slowly beginning to look at these hard truths, more and more each day. You are the dance of providence that lays itself out as series of coincidences, bringing even the least likely into communion with the divine. But we know coincidences are God’s way of staying anonymous. It’s our job to point out that God is the agent of change we all experience.”
And in any crisis, there will be people who step up out of a sense of the greater good and many of those suffering will tell you that God was there with them in that suffering, not from afar as if on a cloud looking down, but right there in their very fiber, in their own breath and the beating of their heart. God with us. Emmanuel. Not just in the coincidences, though certainly there, but in it all. And even when things are well beyond our comprehension and the complexities of the universe and even our own lives confound us, that is comforting. Emmanuel.
Is your life all ups, no downs? Do you ever feel a need to make it look like it is? Maybe to pretend the rough stuff doesn’t exist or put on a big smile to cover a broken heart? Do you ever feel like there must be something wrong with your faith if your life is going badly?
Truth is, shit happens. To the best, most faithful of people. Life’s struggles can feel overwhelming. You can get to the point where you simply cannot see how someone could think and feel the way they do. You can lose hope.
At times like these you need to breathe deep and get yourself to a quiet place. And it sure would do no harm, and maybe a whole lot of good, to read a poem like this:
The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Barry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
And the good news is, you can read this poem, and your soul will calm without even being in that place where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water. The words of a good poem are like magic. They can heal you and still the churning waters of your soul. And they can help you remember the ‘day-blind stars waiting with their light’, because, yes, we cannot see the stars in the daytime, but they are there. Shining.
May you rest in the grace of the world and find peace.
In a grieving, struggling world, we pray. Full of humility, we fall to our knees. Gobsmacked by the fragility of life and the interconnectedness of all creation, we lift our eyes to the Lord and join voices around the world to offer thanks, plead for mercy, and reach for hope.
Never before has it been more obvious that we belong to each other and are all in this together.
Sometimes it is hard to know what to pray for. Things are uncertain, feelings so complex, emotions so raw. Words may fail you. But yet you yearn to reach out to God and ask for help. For you, for those you love, for the world. Please help.
It is in times like these when we don’t need words. God will hear the longing in our heart.
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” Romans 8:26.
You don’t need words. You don’t need to figure out if you’re feeling anger, grief, frustration, desperation. You just want God to keep you safe. Open your heart. God will hear its groanings.
For an inspiring prayer sung by a father-daughter duo, take a moment to savor this.
Let St. Francis of Assisi’s timeless prayer soothe your soul today:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love. Where there is offense, let me bring pardon. Where there is discord, let me bring union. Where there is error, let me bring truth. Where there is doubt, let me bring faith. Where there is despair, let me bring hope. Where there is darkness, let me bring your light. Where there is sadness, let me bring joy. O Master, let me not seek as much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love, for it is in giving that one receives, it is in self-forgetting that one finds, it is in pardoning that one is pardoned, it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life
And, for a special soul-reviving treat, listen to Sarah McLachlan as she sings these precious words. Maybe listen a few times.
May there always be work for your hands to do May your purse always hold a coin or two; May the sun always shine on your windowpane; May a rainbow be certain to follow each rain; May the hand of a friend always be near you; May God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you.
And one more for the road:
May the blessing of light be upon you, Light on the outside, Light on the inside.
With God’s sunlight shining on you, May your heart glow with warmth, Like a turf fire that welcomes friends and strangers alike.
May the light of the Lord shine from your eyes, Like a candle in the window, Welcoming the weary traveller.