As I entered into my Lenten journey, I found myself hoping for a personal crisis. I smile.
I'm 52 years old and, like every religious, have weathered many a crisis in my religious life: the garden variety of troubles typical of the formative years, more disruptive crises of serious health issues a year after profession, followed by two decades of emotional upheaval and depression as a result. Then this past year was marked by a painful self-questioning about where I was going with my life.
After this experience with darkness that, at last, is giving way to light, I can't believe I'm praying for another struggle during 2016.
Times of crisis break into each of our lives. For some of us struggles have colored much of our life; for others, less so, as the passing years seem to proceed from one blessing to another. I am a member of the first group. A stroke when I was a junior professed sister at 21 changed the direction of my life, and it was the first of a seeming unending cycle of problems.
We can encounter moments of spiritual crisis when God seems far away or life feels meaningless. Apostolic failures or misunderstandings, the "dark night of the soul" for active religious, can throw us into unexpected crisis. Failing health or an unexpected diagnosis or accident could bring us up short as we brush our own mortality. And at any time struggles can break open our relationships and our communities.
I've been trying to be more than usually watchful of my heart these days. I'm noticing the voice of the "victim" taking over when I talk about others, a red flag that tells me that I'm running from a place within myself in which Jesus wants to meet me. Running is a typically human response to the problems we experience.
Sometimes we literally run away, remove ourselves from the situation, ask for a transfer, change departments, arrange not to meet a particular person. We also "run away" by hardening ourselves. We don't see, or hear, or reach out to the other even if we need to be in their presence. We go through the motions in our relationships but we are not truly present for the other. Our minds and hearts are a thousand miles away as we analyze, and figure, and fix, and plan how things should be different.
We have a thousand ways of escaping what is real in the now, of denying the pain we feel. We abandon ourselves precisely when we need to be aware and present to what is happening. There are many ways of doing this: some watch TV and others surf the Internet; one might head for the refrigerator while another might bury herself in work. When the pain is too acute, drugs and alcohol may become a way to numb ourselves.
When I hear the "victim" in my conversations, I know I'm blaming others for a deficiency I fear in myself. Crises tend to expose these places of weakness. The victim blames and looks for pity, deflecting people's attention from herself. In reality, I also deflect my attention from myself by not turning around and facing what I'm running from.
Jesus runs after us even as we walk away from an incomprehensible impasse in our lives. I often think of the two disciples walking away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus on the morning of the resurrection. Jesus caught up with them, asking what they were talking about. He encouraged them to explain to him what was bothering them, in a sense he asked them to be present to their greatest fears: this Jesus they had believed in was gone and there was nothing left of the life they had had with him. They stopped in the middle of the road probably and blurted out, "Is it possible you are the only one in Jerusalem who doesn't know what's going on?"
Perhaps Jesus caught himself just before he broke out into a smile. Of course, he more than anyone else knew what had happened! However, by asking, "What things?" Jesus let the disciples tell him in detail what they had experienced. What was once a nebulous confused memory was now a clear articulation of what they could figure out. Instead of talking between themselves, they were now talking to him. They had gotten out "on the table" exactly what they felt.
Finally, Jesus "interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures" (Luke 24:27). He invited them to take a second look at their experience within the overall mystery of salvation history. He showed the two disciples what God was doing in the midst of the crisis, that perhaps the crisis wasn't a crisis after all.
If you find yourself in crisis you might allow Jesus to gently meet you in the same way. Here is something you could try.
- "What are you talking about as you go on your way?"
Put an image to the crisis. Would you say it is terrible as a storm or frightening as a lion? What does it feel like? Images are powerful things because they tap into the deeper emotions that you might not even be able to express to yourself. A sister I'll call Anna Marie told me she "felt bad" about a situation. When I asked her to share with me an image that expressed what "felt bad" meant, she described a puppy dog with its head down, being beaten, unable to look up, asking why she was being beaten. That image said incredibly more to me and to her than the description of "feeling bad."
- "What things?"
Pretend you're a journalist and write on a piece of paper the details of the situation or crisis. What do you observe with your eyes? Only the facts. No motivations. No judgments of yourself or others. Write down how the other person may be feeling. What do they think of the situation? How might they perceive the facts of the problem?
- Take a second look at the situation from the perspective of the Word of God.
Talk to Jesus about the situation. Perhaps bring your crisis into your lectio divina. What light do the Scriptures shed on your difficulties? Allow Jesus to speak to you through his Word and put your situation into the framework of the mystery of salvation history.
It is when we walk with the risen Master, even as we suffer through unexpected problems, that we eventually, gradually, one day find our hearts burning within us anew. Who knows if the two unnamed disciples of Emmaus would ever have found themselves to be the excited messengers of the risen Christ if they had not walked away from the crucifixion in consternation and sorrow?
I often say that the stroke I suffered the first year after my religious profession was "a blessing and a curse." From the perspective of 25 years, however, I would have to say it blessed me even as it broke me. It created who I am today more than any other event in my life after baptism and profession. The months I sat in our chapel resenting God and rejecting the cross were months of complete darkness. The years of emotional struggle and vulnerability that followed were like hell. But more than any other experience this crisis made it absolutely clear to me that God makes all things good, that no matter what happens he is there, and one day again our hearts can sing.
So yes, O God, I look forward to the way you will walk with me this Lent and through some unexpected crisis set my heart on fire anew.
[Daughter of St. Paul Sr. Kathryn James Hermes is the author of the best-selling book Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach as well as a number of other titles. Everything she does or writes has one focus: giving people the tools for joy by radically shifting their focus through presence. She works with individuals online at pauline.org/heartwork and blogs at touchingthesunrise.wordpress.org.]
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