It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This final victory lap of the book; the last touches on a manuscript that I now a bit bashfully would let other eyes see for the very first time: they were supposed to come with the peaceful satisfaction of hard-won achievement.
I had come to the monastery to write. At 4am the sanctuary bell had chimed its four-part call to morning vigil, but I had been awake to greet it. A night of tossing and turning and lonely isolation in the prism of my thoughts had given way to a rainy, overcast morning and an unshakeable fog of inner sadness, even looming despair.
Something about this morning had made me afraid to be alone with myself for fear of what I would encounter. And there it was again. Like Groundhog Day. A return, like a broken record, of the wounds from a past hurt. The emotional hurt had happened years ago, but the pain kicks up every so often, sometimes staying for days, like an arthritic knee on rainy days, only worse. Sometimes I let it overtake me; other times I seek it out or reenact it.
I always feel it in the gut, which is where I feel everything. The ancients believed the heart was located there, and I can understand why: anger and despair register as a persistent burning, hurt and sadness as a deep ache, anxiety as a painful fluttering, longing as a kind of empty hole that cannot be filled however hard I try; and I’m learning to read these internal weather signs now. On this morning the weather girl was tracking signs of a tornado. Strong wind gusts and torrents of hail.
Like the other night when my six-year-old sat was watching the local weather channel on T.V. I had asked him to keep an eye on where the red rectangle moved. If it moved over downtown Atlanta, we would run for shelter in the basement, leaving the first stirrings of dinner to wait until later. He had sat watchfully transfixed, his budding manhood ennobled by the task, every so often calling out excitedly, “Mommy, the red rectangle is moving! Look, look!”
My red rectangle hadn’t moved. It seemed stuck. A flashing red pulse. And if in the world outside these walls, I could drown it out with constant busyness, here, in the lonely solitude of a monastery where silence is the rule, it commanded full attention, like a harsh dictator.
I know what Oscar Wilde meant when he described suffering as “one very long moment:” “we cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves.”
Trauma survivors speak in similar terms. Time is circular. Past, present and future seem to be tangled up in one revolving knot of pain.
There I was this morning, my gut in knots, caught up in the tornado, when I looked again at the crucifix on the wall: it was facing the bed where I sat hunkered down waiting for something better to happen. (There are crucifixes in every room here, as unavoidable as the pain.)
And then, a small, still voice from somewhere within the red rectangle spoke: “This is why I died for you,” the voice said. “This is why I had to die.”
The pain didn’t quite go away that day, but somehow it became a bit more bearable. Christ’s sufferings for and with me meant I no longer was really alone in my affliction, and that I could ask Christ to help me stand up under it. I could even ask Jesus to hold the burden for a while- as long as I’d be willing to let Him, that is. I had asked so many times before for Christ to remove the burden, but for whatever reason He had not. This was my “thorn in the flesh”- or “briar” as a dear friend sympathetically called it. If Christ would not remove it, Christ would at least shoulder it with me. Christ would be my companion.
May your Holy Week be full of this consolation: that in every room of human affliction, there is Jesus on a cross, saying, “This is why I came. See how much I love you.” And, may the wonder of this gift fill you up with every manner of good thing, so that you, too, might endure the sufferings and struggles that are uniquely yours to be lived.