On the pilgrim way: Experiencing helplessness
Spring seems particularly beautiful this year – masses of daffodils and magnolia to lift the spirits. But, the weeds are also flourishing, and, following minor surgery on a foot, I cannot wear a shoe to get into the garden. I long to have a bath, to get on my bike, to go for a long, country walk. I am annoyed with myself that I feel so miserable about so little.
I have recently met several friends in much darker places. Aileen has for months been dogged by ill-health. She has never been ill before, and is generally the strong one of the family. Kathleen – a strong, cheerful woman, senior in her career – quite suddenly found herself unable to go to work – a terrifying experience which has lasted for weeks. Both women know that they will never be quite the same again, and they cannot just go back to “business as usual”. Eleanor, carrying heavy burdens of care for her family, is desperately trying not to go into that dark place. She said: “I want to cry, but I am afraid that if I do, I will never be able to stop.”
I remember that dark place from more than 20 years ago. I went on retreat to a safe place and broke down. I had reached a point where I had to write a letter to the elders of the churches where I was minister to say that I could not cope, and asking them to be patient with me as I waited, in the darkness, for God to give me new strength of mind and spirit, as well as body. It was, indeed, a terrifying place because it was a place of helplessness. I was most fortunate to have loving, understanding elders – although one or two did suggest that if I prayed a bit harder I would be OK!
Looking back, it was a very important turning point in my faith journey, and I think it was necessary for me to go down into helplessness in order to be, in a kind of a way, reborn. I pray for that also to be true for Aileen and Kathleen – and for Eleanor to have the nerve to risk letting go.
Perhaps we need some form of that death and resurrection experience again and again. But no one goes voluntarily into that dark place of loss of control where the body no longer does our bidding, where events conspire against us or our loved ones, where treasured parts of our lives seem to be falling apart. We find ourselves there and often kick against life, or thrash around trying to find our own way out.
A poem by Jean M Watt compares Lent to a bare tree: “Leaving no hiding-place, only emptiness between black branches, a most precious space before the leaf … lest we should miss the stars”.
And round and around in my head go the wistful final lines of TS Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi : “I should be glad of another death.”
Sheila Maxey is book reviews editor for Reform
This is an extract from the May 2014 edition of Reform.