Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Every so often I pick up St. John of the Cross and read "Dark Night of the Soul", just a few paragraphs at a time. I have not yet tackled the entire book. I have Father Dubay's "The Fire Within", but haven't finished it, and here and there I come across St. Therese of Avila and references to her work. Throughout many of the writings of the saints are descriptions of "abandonment", and it gives me pause; I have to wonder what it means. The thought terrifies me. It's not that I recieve so many consolations from God, but the very thought of spiritual abandonment simply makes me quake. In reading the Saints, I realize that whether I recognize them or not, the fact that I experience consolations really means I'm just an infant in the spiritual life; and I have to admit that the thought of holiness to the degree experienced by these Saints doesn't sound like something I want to pursue.
It's not that I don't want to be holy; rather, I'm terrified of the sacrifice required in order to be like Jesus, in order to walk in the shadow of His cross, and of the rigorous training course established by God to purify our souls to such a degree.
More often than not, I read about consolations, affirmations, the comforting presence of God, knowing that He is there, recognizing His will in so many things. I read about ecstacies experienced by the Saints, their experience of God, and certainly it would be awesome indeed to attain this level of sanctity, but it does not come without a price.
And even then, after they come...there is ABANDONMENT. The sensation of abandonment; God withdraws all consolations. Such utter spiritual dryness and seeming desolation that the one affected must carry on simply as an act of the will; it is a desert, a purification. And yet, in spite of this seeming desolation, God is even closer to that particular soul; it is a special sort of suffering, beyond true description.
And it terrifies me.
This morning as I walked my dogs in the utter darkness of the early morning, shivering in the cold, dreading my workday, I considered the concept of abandonment and thanked God that I am not anywhere near that point in my spiritual life.
And then it came to me; while I have not experienced what the Saints describe, I have experienced something that gave me at least a little perspective.
My Dad passed in early January 1995, and it took me MONTHS to really grieve. I didn't know what to do, what to say, how to act, so instead, I was just angry. And sad. And desolate. All those things, and more, and yet I lived my day to day life, losing my faith along with the rest of the world.
Even though my parents had been divorced for many many years, for some reason I dreaded Christmas with a strange sense of horror. We wouldn't talk to Dad. We couldn't buy Dad gifts. Nothing was coming from Dad. It was Christmas...without Dad.
I couldn't bear to be around my family, for his absence was even more absent, and because I hadn't seen him at all since my high school graduation, about 3 1/2 years prior, my guilt just ate away at me.
I had graduated early and was working for the college that winter, so I made sure I was on the Christmas schedule. Prior to Christmas I had gone home, celebrated "Christmas", stayed overnight and then headed back to the school. It wasn't that I really wanted to be alone...I just didn't want to be around family. It was odd.
But I DID want to be alone because when I was with them, I felt even more alone; Dad's loss was that much more painful, and I couldn't handle it.
It was so painful it was like a burn; it left my nerves deadened; I was numb. It was a grief so deep I could not express it to anyone, not even to myself. So I fled civilization for the haven of the school from which I had graduated and I enclosed myself into the darkness of my grief, trying to understand.
And I've never felt so incredibly alone in my entire life.
On that Christmas Eve, I couldn't even stand the very room I was in. No one was at the college; no one was anywhere. The dorms were abandoned, the bluffs were silent.
And it was into the bluffs I fled, under the Christmas Eve stars, into the shadows of the trees and the confinement of the snowy creek banks.
I just walked, alone in that darkness, tramping through the snow, wishing I could cry, wanting to scream, wanting only relief from this terrible, terrible pain. I wondered if I was depressed? I considered that seriously, but no...I knew what depression was, I had all the symptoms indexed in my mind for professionally I had worked with truly depressed people. No; I was far too functional to be depressed. Dysthymia? Nope...not that either.
Intellectually, I knew that this was grief, I knew I was not handling it well, and whenever I confronted myself with that reality I shoved it aside in favor of wallowing within the pain, wanting to understand it, needing to purge myself of it, but not wanting to go to anyone else for help to do it. I was far too independent for my own good.
But I didn't care; I just wanted to be alone. Alone with God, seeking my faith again, seeking the God I had grown up knowing. And yet I didn't know him.
So that night as I walked, I spoke to God. I berated him for this pain, I berated him for taking my Dad away from me, and I cried out to him about my own guilt.
I remember sitting at the side of the creek, suddenly realizing that I felt completely alone; completely abandoned.
In the middle of the cold winter wildnerness, surrounded by the frozen forest, unable to even hear the waters gurgling under the ice and snow.
I was numb; I was abandoned. I cried out to God, but He did not answer me, nothing was revealed. Nothing was changed, nothing purged, nothing healed.
I realized that I had gone out to seek God because the futility of my own actions had so far gotten me nowhwere. And yet I was still rejecting the Church which had always been my solace before. Even as I sought God, I was running away from him.
I remember that terrible, terrible numbness; not just from physical cold, but this strange spiritual numbness; Abandonment.
I remember a couple of tears fell...and froze on my cheeks. Frozen just as I was inside.
Slowly, I stepped out on the ice, knowing where the little waterfall was. I knew I was being stupid for there was no one to hear my screams. I was not suicidal; far from it! Yet I almost hoped I would fall through a weak spot in the ice, to be partially submerged; water ran under that ice all winter. Even the harsh Minnesota winters would not completely freeze that rushing stream.
I didn't want to die; I only wanted to shock myself into feeling something again. Anything other than this terrible interior pain. Anything other than this hopeless feeling of complete and utter desolation;
But the ice didn't crack; even it was silent, refusing to give me the relief I so desperately craved.
I walked back to my room, to the warmth, still numb, still alone within my pain, still bereft of God.
A small miracle...I tried to go to Mass the next day, and oddly, couldn't find one! I must have gone at the wrong time, and there was no one to call to answer my questions as to WHEN!
So even when I finally went to find God, the door was closed and locked, sealing my abandonment.
I was in a ghost town, literally knocking on the door; and no one answered.
I can't remember how I got through that terrible phase in my life. Probably just fell into the routine of work, but I do know that the terrible sensation did finally ease. I do know that over time, the grief ebbed, leaving mostly only the anger...and finally, acceptance.
Grief is still painful and sometimes catches me by surprise with its razor-sharp edges, yet never since that Christmas Eve have I ever felt that terrible abandonment.
In looking back, now I see a blessing; a spiritual purging I did not understand. I chose the separation, and now now I look back and realize that it could be a shadow of what is to come. God was right there with me the entire time, likely crying the tears I could not, likely closer to me than He ever has been before or since.
For it is in our abandonment, the Saints have learned in their wisdom, that God is closer than ever, and we can't find Him or see Him because he is holding us so closely we are blinded by his love and compassion. Even in snowy, frozen bluffs of a cold Minnesota Christmas, God is there, and sometimes, when it seems like He isn't answering, it is because he is speaking so softly that it takes years to understand his words.