When your waking thought is ‘I don’t want to live this day’, you know you’re off the map that this world gives, a far cry indeed from the perfection and wonder of shiny present giving and cosy family gatherings, those images that bombard us from every tv, storefront, magazine and web page at this time of year.
Sadly, you also know you’re off the map the mainstream Church provides. Even if you’ve managed to get past the heritage of English Victoriana or the bustle of Bethlehem Square and St Peter’s Square to find an ancient tradition that speaks of quiet and presence, even then, the desolate experience of emptiness remains at such odds with the insistence of Advent truths: new birth and the coming of the One who breaks in again, here and now, today.
Such desolation brings forth the loneliest wail in the universe.
I feel utterly alone, and cut off from any experience of God.
And it does not help at that moment to know that others have also woken this day with the same voice shouting in their mind.
My grief at being dragged into the pain the daylight brings is not something I thank a so-called-God for.
I am told I must get up and face this day. Quelling the rebel yell of my ‘why?’, I obey and swim to some sort of surface, direct myself towards where I am told the light is.
And I remain numb, stumbling through whatever tasks the hours ahead bring, counting down the minutes until I am ‘allowed’ to find escape into the non-being of sleep, the nearest equivalent to death I can find.
Except, of course, that sleep is an elusive gift at these times of deep sadness. And I lie awake through the long reaches of the night, unsuccessful in my attempts to quiet my sobbing brain or find a position to comfort and cocoon my searing aching body. At long last I fall into an uneasy snooze, only to be woken, not an hour later, by the same waking thought: ‘I don’t want to live this day.’
This story has characterised great swathes of my last twenty five years. This waking thought occurred to me again only yesterday.
And yet, somehow, I am still alive to write this. I am living those days, enduring, getting through, waiting them out. Why? Because, somehow, I cling to the belief that this darkness, this cold numbness, this cotton wool veil that clouds and distorts my vision, is not the whole story.
The poets, the painters, the prophets tell me so. And by an act of will that grinds itself out from the base of my being, (that I dumbly glimpse has nothing to do with my feeble strength and everything to do with Grace), I choose to believe them.
And what do they say? As if with one breath: ‘Turn: and face the darkness’. There is no escape, the pain cannot be eluded, so turn, turn and look at what it is that pursues you; and see it true, for there you will find your healing. And their next breath holds the promise: this darkness you look into will not overwhelm you; it too, is not the whole story, but this is where you need to start.
And so I begin again. Deliberately choosing to enter into the place of feeling broken, hurt and exhausted, deliberately opening myself up to exploring the sense of the absence of God, deliberately welcoming the tears as they stream, in the knowledge it is all for my healing. These tears are a gift of joy in the wilderness say the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and again, I choose to believe them, opening my heart to that possibility at the very same time my mind screams this is pure folly.
Time and again I practice: practice being present to the moment that feels like an absence – a universal hole in the fabric of time and space itself – trusting that beyond my conscious knowing, this very same moment is filled with the fragrance of holiness that ushers forth Presence.
Time and again I practice: practice being silent, enduring the silence, quieting my inner wailing, relaxing my straining muscles seeking to hear the beckoning invitation of Love, God-with-us.
Time and again I practice: leaning into the shadows because their very existence speaks paradoxically of the Light, to be revealed at a time not of my choosing, assured of its coming if I will but sit with it and wait in the darkness.
In trust, in obedience, in fear, in courage, healing will come.
This is the Light of the World: that our God desires only our full wellness and our flourishing in abundance. Knowledge of this wondrous truth brings freedom then from all of the tugging into destruction my mind can create. God longs for us to receive the gift of this freedom anew day by day.
Daily, God invites us into a relationship with darkness to find the Light. As Tom Wright says, ”Jesus invites us to walk ahead into the darkness and discover that it, too, belongs to God.”
Knowing this allows me to live with whatever forms my illness may take. Knowing this helps me live just one day more in the hope that the living Light within me will spill over towards all those I encounter this day, for their growth and healing, and mine.