Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Saying of the Desert Christians: Joy 1


Amma Syncletica said, "In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and, afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to light a fire. At first they are choked with smoke and cry, until they obtain what they seek. As it is written, "Our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:24); so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work."

Some thoughts:

One might wonder why this Saying falls into the category of joy as there is a lot of language which to me does not sound pleasant, let a lone joyous. Battles, suffering, choking on smoke, tears, hard work. Whazzup with that? Who wants to deal with that?

OTOH, I can speak from personal experience that this sort of stuff does indeed come before joy. I make no bones about the fact that I have mental illness, specifically Major Depressive Disorder. I am very transparent about it and my struggles because there is still a stigma against the mentally ill in my country, the USA. Less than there was, but still enough to hinder us as unrepentant homophobia still hinders our GLBTQ sisters and brothers and as the Glass Ceiling still hinders women in the USA.

Sometime in February, 1982, I took a class at my seminary called the Spiritual Experience of the Middle Ages. When the class was proposed there was a quite a controversy since many of both faculty and student body did not believe there was any such thing as a spiritual experience since the time of Augustine until the Reformation. It was an evangelical seminary, you see. I only chose that one because I was married at the time, my husband did not want to move and that school was less than 10 miles from where we lived.

The class was taught by my parish priest, a former Benedictine monk who eventually went on to be consecrated Bishop of Bethlehem, PA. It was the very first time anyone ever exposed me to contemplation or a life centered around the Daily Offices. I wanted that more than I have ever wanted anything in my life. I wanted that incredibly intimacy and vulnerability to God. It was a ravaging hunger. It was as if I had all the most severe results of malnutrition. At the same time I felt my life had become some sort of cosmic joke because a life time of Major Depressive Disorder had robbed me, was robbing and would always rob me of that which I now knew was the real thing for which I had always searched. I was so deeply distressed.

It had been my practice to pray Morning Prayer and I added the other Daily Offices in the Book of Common Prayer. A few weeks later, still angry with God, I was sitting up in bed one Saturday morning, drinking tea, praying Morning Prayer and reading the day's lections. I remembered how many times when overcome by depression, I had begged God to hold my hand, to let me know in some tangible, sensory way that He was with me. My fury with God overwhelmed and I shrieked and screamed at him about how much I hurt because he had denied my prayer, created me in a such a way that I could never have the gift of contemplation and I wept. Oh did I ever weep.

After such intense agony, there comes a moment when one is simple too exhausted to weep any more. One lies collapsed, sniffling and maybe some gentle sighs of pain. I had such a moment. And in that exhaustion I literally heard God's voice asking me with a sort of loving laughter with a touch of frustration in His voice" Gloriamarie, how could I possibly hold your hand when I always have held you in mine?" Then I had a vision of God's hands cupped as if to receive the Eucharist and there I was, standing on those fleshy bits at the base of the fingers and peeking over the fingertips at the world in a "Kilroy was here" manner.

The joy cannot be described. Joy that even my worst struggles with depression, God's cupped hands held me, supported me and maybe even lifted up my struggles as if they were for the whole world. That God's cupped hands was the place where I lived, had always been my true home and would always be my true home. What I also discovered is that I was already a contemplative. Depression had turned me into one. That so many of the revelations I had come up with about living with depression were not the result of my intellect but were gifts from our Lord. So before I ever knew the word, God had already made me into what I most desired, He had placed the desire to be a contemplative in my heart and given me the gift long long long before I knew how to ask for it.

Now, please don't think my struggles with depression are over. They are not. Far from it. In fact, after that day I had even worse struggles so intense that eventually I had to seek disability status. Which has been another grace in my life, because freed from the worst of the stressors, I was able to hear again God's call into the vowed religious life, which I had known as a child but as adolescence, my parents' really bad marriage, my own bad marriage, so many things shouted down the voice of God. But eventually I heard.

Now, please don't think my struggles with depression are over. They are not. Far from it. I think that what Amma Syncletica writes above teaches us that these sorts of struggles and issues are never over and done with us. They are with us always and it is a cycle we repeat. But we can cooperate with the Holy Spirit. We can never obtain joy on our own. That is just gift. We can develop within our own lives the habits that make us receptive. We can learn that each and every one of us lives in God's cupped hands, our true home, and we stand their peeking over His fingertips.


  • At 12:30 PM, Blogger MikeF said…

    Oh, beautiful! Thank you so much for your courage and grace in sharing this!


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