There’s a brittle quality about us these days. We’ve had to submit to one outrage after another, week after numbing week and the intervals between gut-wrenching ordeals are getting shorter. The life-and-death, decency-shredding circumstances that we face don’t give us a break to recover ourselves; they’re coming at us like a polluted river that’s overflowed its banks.
We can exhaust our whole stockroom of resources and only come up with anger or resentment when, if we’d just had a little more rest in between, we might have been able to summon compassion and forgiveness. Only God, our dear Jesus who suffered agonies in the garden and on the cross, can make up for our shortfall of emotional capacity.
So it is more important than ever, for ourselves, our families and our society, to stay grafted tightly onto God, our faithful Father, who has His eye on us every second. Left to our own strength in this culture of continual upheaval, we are lost.
But how? World events can so easily overshadow the precious spark of faith, and make our prayers seem dry or futile, until we’re praying on fumes and wondering why God is so far away.
Here are a few ideas to wrap yourself more closely around the Rock:
1) Love the Law
Just a few weeks ago, the Church in her lectionary gave us the reading from Moses reminding us that God is not up in the sky or across the sea, but within, as near as our own breath:
“For this command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you… No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.” (Deut 30: 10-14)
We are accustomed to thinking that commands and laws are something burdensome, restrictions imposed by someone else that go against our basic desires and freedom. The modern view of freedom has been seductive, but the law of God is already part of us; to go against it is to destroy something inside ourselves. St. John Paul says: “When freedom does not have a purpose, when it does not wish to know anything about the rule of law engraved on our hearts… it turns against humanity and society.”
God’s “law” is God’s presence with us. Forget rules, regulations and restrictions; God’s law is more like lovemaking. It’s sweeter than honey (or Bärenjäger Honey Liqueur, if you like) and as delightful as cool rain in a Texas summertime.
Think of the law as a place of refreshment, an oasis where the deepest desires of your heart are nurtured and satisfied.
“If the law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.” (Psalm 119:92)
The world tempts us to find all sorts of things more glamorous and fulfilling than a life within God’s law, but when the world cracks, as it has done in recent days, where will we take refuge? In video games? In drugs or alcohol or lawless encounters? In mindless entertainments that make us forget, for a short time? None of those will hold up. God’s law is permanent and will not be shaken. It is our safety.
One good way to fall in love with the law is to meditatively read Psalm 119. It’s the longest psalm in the Scriptures because David could just not say enough about the deliciousness of God’s law!
2) Esteem the Intellect
When we just aren’t feelin’ it, we can still put our faith in the objective words of Scripture and the Liturgy. We know that our Church came from the loving hand of God twenty centuries ago and has endured for our benefit to this very moment we’re living.
The intellectual component of our faith is no less powerful than the emotional one, and it’s more reliable. It doesn’t depend on our mood or hunger or hormones, the way emotions do. We’ve fallen into the mistake of valuing our emotions over our intellect. We demand to be entertained at church, we decide questions of right and wrong based on sentiment, we have lost our appreciation for the pure, hard reality of the objective. We sorely need to rediscover it.
In C. S. Lewis’s “Great Divorce,” the grass of Heaven is like iron swords, and leaves are too heavy to be picked up, because Heaven is the ultimately “real.” In the story, Earthly things are shadowy and illusory, but Heavenly things are solid and hard, so hard that we might bark our shins on them.
When we grasp things in their objective reality and allow shadowy things, like mindless entertainments and addictive behaviors, to fall away, we are beginning to approach Heaven.
If prayer doesn’t excite, move or otherwise overwhelm our feelings, we might be tempted to lose hope and skimp on prayer. That’s precisely the time to esteem the intellect. It’s not the poor man’s substitute for emotion; it’s our capacity to digest the solid food of our faith.
We nourish our intellects by reading Scripture and spiritual writings, turning things over in our heads and integrating them in our lives with meditation and journaling, through those times when we feel like it and those we don’t.
3) Turn It Down
Seriously. Get away from email, television, iPhone, Facebook, talk radio and people who give you a lot more of their opinions than you asked for. Then turn down your own volume.
I saw in the news the other day that someone, somewhere read an offensive post on Facebook and simply moved on.
We’ve gotten very attached to our own view of things and overestimated the value of our opinions to others. Sometimes it’s good to just shut up. When Jesus said to go out and tell everyone the Good News, He didn’t necessarily mean that we have to spout off about everything!
It’s nearly impossible to find God amidst a lot of noise, both external noise, and the noise we create in our heads when we live in endless wrangling and distress. There’s a reason why those “Keep Calm” memes are so currently popular; we know instinctively that our emotional volume is too high.
When lovers want to spend time with each other, they go off by themselves. To fall in love with God, it’s necessary to “go off to a quiet place by yourself,” at least in your mind and heart.
4) Suck It Up
When I ran my first marathon, I was tired, hurting, and scared that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the finish. Spectators all along the 26-mile course held encouraging signs, but the one that lifted my heart the most and gave me my confidence back said: “It’s a marathon – it’s SUPPOSED to hurt!” Once I read that, I stopped worrying; everything I was feeling was normal for a marathon.
It’s the same with the spiritual life. One good look at a crucifix shows us that all the turmoil, aridity, or discouragement we experience in our crazy times, is normal. We follow in the footsteps of The Crucified. It’s supposed to hurt.
Why do people run marathons if it hurts? Because the rewards vastly outweigh the pain. Marathons hurt for a very short time, but the elation of victory lasts forever.
Same with the spiritual life. Why would anyone follow Christ if all you get for your trouble is execution? Because the rewards are so great, not only the ultimate victory in the next world, but in this world as well. Being at the foot of the cross, looking up into the face of suffering and vowing to not run away, is the strongest and sweetest of loves. Bringing consolation to the heart of our Savior brings consolation to our own hearts. Standing firm on the truth while storms rage round is more ultimately comforting than all the airy-fairy, cotton-candy niceties that have been invented to pet people into passivity.
Chances are, the world’s going to get worse. There are trajectories in human history, and they become hard to deflect, like a falling meteor picking up speed. The only hope of re-vectoring human history lies in saintliness, the ability to serve others before ourselves and to regard truth as non-negotiable.
We’ve just seen such a thing right here in Dallas. The trajectory of history was leading to racial warfare, as announced by the New York Post the morning after the shooting of our police officers two weeks ago. Every ingredient for a conflagration was in place. Retaliation was in the air.
The force that re-directed the flood was, chiefly, the chief of police, David Brown. Brown stood between two bodies on a collision course. As a black man and a police officer, he could have shown favor towards one party or the other, but he did not. Like many other good men, he simply did his best in the job he held, but Brown had gold in the bank that backed his verbal currency. That gold was suffering.
Brown’s son had shot and killed a police officer and another man in 2010, then was shot and killed himself. Twenty years earlier, Brown’s brother was killed by drug dealers.
The soul of David Brown has been tested and purified by fire. Because he suffered the unspeakable with grace, God was able to forge the sort of character that could stand in the breach at a critical moment in the history of Dallas and turn the tide.
That is our calling. If we suffer with grace, God can make something great out of us, a character that can divert even a terribly strong current moving at a frightening speed.
We can’t let suffering deter us; we can’t let it convince us that we should seek ease and comfort instead. We can’t get so discouraged that we don’t see any point in trying any more. As Pope Benedict once said, “You were not made for comfort; you were made for greatness.”
So suck it up, buttercup. Take heart, and be not afraid.
Sheryl Collmer, M.T.S., is Director of Outreach for TOBET in Irving, Texas.