As I walked out to my car this morning I noticed Venus shining brightly over the crescent moon. I was reminded of the period I lived in France. It was a difficult for me in that life circumstances had triggered a major crisis in faith.
The image of God I had had as an all-powerful Creator was shattered and I was left wondering whether I believed at all. There were a few key consolations which kept me going in those months. One of them was the morning star.
As I walked to work each morning I found myself watching Venus. It was something reasonably constant and reliable that I could cling to. The promise of the morning and the rising sun was a thread of hope.
As I pondered that memory on my drive in to work this morning – so many years later – I found myself remembering other times of darkness and confusion. It struck me that in all cases there was an orientating light. Some small sign of hope. A reassurance that I was looking in the right direction and that if I just keep going the dawn would come.
Sometimes that promise of hope is desperately fragile. Sometimes it is more robust. Always, the dawn eventually breaks.
The Stations of the Cross are particularly Roman Catholic tradition. During Lent the practice of praying through the Stations is encouraged in a number of different ways. In my own parish this Lent we chose to organise a ‘slow walk’ through the Stations. Doing the fourteen stations over four weeks with four different presenters.
This last week covered Stations 4 through 7 – Jesus meets him mother; Simon of Cyrene helps him carry the cross; Jesus meets Veronica and Jesus falling for the second time.
I confess I have never been a great fan of Stations of the Cross. Some of the devotions have no obvious root in Scripture and the brisk pace of standing, kneeling and consideration doesn’t usually do much for me. But these slower stations are getting to me.
One of closest friends is going through a tremendously difficult period at the moment. And as a result, I am trying to walk alongside her in her suffering. When asked to contemplate the fifth station – where Simon of Cyrene takes up the cross – we were encourage to recall those burdens we carry for others. It struck me, that whilst I am trying walk alongside my friend, I most certainly do not carry her burden. I hope I ease it a fraction, but I cannot offer any real relief. No one can.
For the first time, the presence of Veronica actually made sense. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. It is a tender caring action. No doubt it is appreciated. It doesn’t relieve the burden and it doesn’t change the journey, but the caring action is important nonetheless.
On a daily basis I wish I could be Simon. I wish I could shoulder some of the burden. But in this particular case my lot is to content myself with being Veronica.
Praying always for the grace of God for everyone who is touched by these particular circumstances. And in particular praying for my friend.
There has been tremendous blessing to me in coming into the world of spiritual direction at such a young age. (I was 27 when I began working full time as a spiritual director). One aspect for which I am most grateful at the moment is the friendships I have forged with people much older than myself.
I am struck in recent days by the compassion of these older friends of mine. They have encountered the challenges I am now facing in one guise or another, and they are able to affirm my journey. I trust their compassion because I know it borne of brutal experience.
There is no sugar coating here, no guarantee of a happy outcome. Rather a willingness to walk alongside. The offer of a hand, to steady over the rocky terrain.
I watched Shadowlands again a few nights ago. I was struck at the end of the film CS Lewis’s character says ‘as a boy I chose safety, as a man I chose suffering’. It is not to say that he went looking for suffering, but rather when the painful experience emerged he was willing to walk through it as a man, where as a boy he had shied away. It struck me as a worthy test of adulthood.
And yet, even as I write that, I wonder if adulthood is not a myth.
I am deeply grateful to these wise old friends of mine. They all have had the courage to walk through the purging fire of suffering and have lived to the tale. But that is not the story they tell. The story they choose to speak of is of the present challenges they face. In so doing they help me to be present to my own story, and my own challenges.
Each life stage has its own challenges. Each must be faced with whatever resources we can manage to muster at the time.
All we can do at any stage of life is to commit to showing up, to paying attention. Beyond that there seems to be a strong archetypal dynamic which we can only avoid by choosing paralysis.
For my part, I thank my elder companions. They give me the courage to choose to be present. Beyond that I trust in the grace of God.
Kay Warren, the wife of renown pastor and author Rick Warren, wrote a phenomenal Facebook post on the experience of coming up to the first anniversary of the suicide of their son. What struck me most forcibly in her message was that people were hoping that they would ‘get over’ Matthew’s death. That after enough time had passed (subtext: surely a year is enough!) that she and Rick would find a way back to life as they had known it before this most devastating event. By way of contrast she describes true friends:
True friends – unlike Job’s sorry excuse for friends – love at all times, and brothers and sisters are born to help in time of need (Prov. 17:17 LB).The truest friends and “helpers” are those who wait for the griever to emerge from the darkness that swallowed them alive without growing afraid, anxious or impatient. They don’t pressure their friend to be the old familiar person they’re used to; they’re willing to accept that things are different, embrace the now-scarred one they love, and are confident that their compassionate, non-demanding presence is the surest expression of God’s mercy to their suffering friend. They’re ok with messy and slow and few answers….and they never say “Move on.”
I find myself pausing on the words ‘they’re willing to accept that things are different, embrace the now-scarred one they love, and confident that their compassionate, non-demanding presence is the surest expression of God’s mercy to their suffering friend’
I pray that when it is required of me, that I might have the grace to be able to be this kind of friend, or sister, or daughter.
I am preparing a series of talks entitled ‘Grace, Desire and Discernment’. I began writing the first talk a few days ago. I found myself linking the grace of the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises – the grace to know myself to be a loved sinner – with the Lenten journey.
I am sure I am not the first person to make this link, but it is the first time it has occurred to me. As we begin Lent there are many blog posts, articles and sermons on the theme of how we should be observing Lent. Discussions on what ‘fasting’ means and how it should be applied. Slightly broader conversations on the purpose of the Lenten observation and what it should be.
Some have been helpful and some fairly predictable. But in the last few days I find myself wondering why it is that we focus so much on the things that we do during Lent. Why do we not actively pray for grace.
For me the grace for which I am praying is the grace of the First Week. The grace to know myself to be a loved sinner. I pray that through the observation of Lent I may become more aware of my own sinfulness; of the ways in which I now falter; of the brokenness which shapes my perception. All this against the backdrop of the unconditional love of God, looking forward to the celebration of Easter which is precisely the demonstration of this love.
Whichever theological lens we use to view the Paschal mystery the unequivocal message is the abounding love of God.
My Lenten journey this year is not so much about what I am doing (or not doing). I am still observing Lent in those ways. But, much more importantly, I am praying for grace. The grace that through this time I will come to new understanding both of my own sinfulness and of the love of God for me.
How is it possible that I have observed well over thirty Lents and have never thought of praying for grace? I guess I am grateful that God hasn’t held back on bestowing grace just because it didn’t occur to me to ask.
‘We become aware of the many gifts of God with gratitude, and gratitude is the memory of the heart. Gratitude is the process where we allow the gifts we have received to touch our hearts and transform our lives. Our transformed lives help us feel more and more the interconnectedness of all of live. Therefore, the gifts that have transformed us now flow out of us because we realize that they belong to everyone.’
Paul Coutinho SJ, Kindle location 791 (An Ignatian Pathway: Experiencing the mystical dimension of the Spiritual Exercises.)
That phrase ‘gratitude is the memory of the heart’ resonates with something deep within. I can’t quite grasp the full extent of its significance, but it seems one of those phrases that is worth writing on my white board. I feel I need to let it linger in my consciousness and see where it takes me.
Gratitude is the memory of the heart.
I had thought I would prepare a piece today on Ash Wednesday and the significance of Lent. For Lent in 2012 I posted something for which I was grateful on my Facebook page every day. Maybe the invitation is again to focus on the practice of gratitude for Lent this year.