No safe paths

‘There are no safe paths in this part of the world.’

So says Gandalf, as he prepares to leave Bilbo and the dwarves, who are about to enter Mirkwood. Bilbo wished for another way, a way around the dark and sinister-looking forest. But even the very long way around the forest–hundreds of miles out of the way–isn’t safe. And so it seems for us,  in a time of political uncertainty, social unrest and moral conflict–not to mention the constant threat of terrorism: there are no safe paths.

So little of our world is like the Shire and so much of it is like Mirkwood. But few are the Gandalfs in our world, warning us not to leave the path. It seems to me that we have forgotten what the real dangers are. Suffering and death are not the real dangers: they will come anyway; they are a part of life. The real danger is that of spending all our time and effort in avoiding suffering and keeping death at a distance. In so doing, I think we miss so much of what life is about. Too much concern with safety and comfort is perilous.

Gandalf understood this, perhaps. Tolkien seems to have grasped it, anyway. I am afraid, however, that we who live without hunger and fear are too easily persuaded to prize safety and comfort unduly. It is hard, when we are concerned for our children and our way of life, not to believe that safety and comfort are of the utmost importance. Two things ought to be said, though. The first is that I believe in safety: I make my children sit in car seats and wear seat belts, I don’t let them wander, and I probably protect and comfort them to a fault. Even so,  I cannot protect them from skinned knees and broken bones, or from disappointments or failures. And even the comfort a mother can offer does not take the pain away. But they are remarkably resilient. They recover. And they’re not afraid of trying again when the first time was painful or even disastrous. I think of my 5-year-old daughter’s constant cartwheeling. She improves gradually. Sometimes she bangs a foot or ankle, or her arms give way and she crumples to the mat. But she gets up, always, and tries again.

So–and this is the second thing–there’s nothing wrong with valuing safety and comfort. The danger is that the concern for our own safety and comfort, so natural and understandable, begins to shape our attention to the world in ways we are no longer able to see. Then, we fail to move beyond the confines of our safe, comfortable world. We become blinded to the way in which our safety and comfort come at the expense of others’ basic needs. It doesn’t have to be so, obviously. But it’s pretty hard to know how far my comfortable life, and the products and privileges that make it so, would not be possible without the unevenness of the distribution of wealth and power that keeps millions of people in poverty. My having more than enough cannot be completely unrelated to others’ lack.

Let me be clear, though: I am not inviting you to join me on a guilt trip. I eat meat. I drive a car, even sometimes for pretty short trips. I buy snacks for the children that are packaged in too much plastic film. I don’t always recycle everything I should. I drink coffee from Starbucks and even occasionally let the kids eat McDonald’s. I live in the middle-class world and I won’t pretend I don’t like my safety and comfort as much as the next person.

What frightens me, though, is the idolization of safety and comfort. Comfort is no longer a privilege, but a right, and safety as basic a need as hunger. None of us are wholly safe, and we don’t even realize the dangers that threaten us. What we will pay for safety or false security–that worries me. And the expectation of comfort so common in the children of the middle class (like mine)–that worries me.

It’s the lights of the fire and the smell of elvish food that ultimately lure Bilbo and the dwarves from the path through Mirkwood. Were they enticed by safety and comfort? Perhaps. And they almost get eaten by spiders, and they’re captured by the elven king, and they nearly lose their way entirely. Staying on the path is hard, and you don’t even have to believe that it’s the “narrow path” of being a disciple of Jesus to know that that’s true.

Our lives are a journey. There is a path. It leads through dark forests. We will not always be safe. We will not always be comfortable. But what we need is not more cushion and more protection. We need courage. We need hope. Because, really, there are no safe paths in this part of the world.

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Wednesday of the 31st week in ordinary time

The Lord is my light and my help;
  whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
  before whom should I shrink?

I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness
  in the land of the living.
Hope in him; hold firm and take heart!
  Hope in the Lord!
                                      Ps 27 [26]

*          *         *

What if the darkness, the enemy, is not on the outside? I don’t have enemies. Nobody wants to hurt me; I don’t have anything to fear. Not really.

Probably this is the case for lots of us. I have been reading Henri Nouwen on spiritual formation, and have just finished a section on fear, and the sorts of things we fear. Loneliness, failure, and poverty seem to top the list. Mental illness, though, might figure in somewhere. Depression and dementia threaten us from the inside, as it were, robbing us not of possessions but of our very selves. About dementia, I know little. About depression, I know way more than I want to. I know how depression eats away at hope and cripples love.

Knowing that “I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living” somehow fails to lift the darkness and gloom. As surely as I know it, and as firmly as I believe it, making the step from knowledge to hope is well nigh impossible. It is as though there is a black hole where joy and peace ought to reside, swallowing every tiny ray of light that comes near it. I can stand outside myself and see that the sun is shining, that I have everything I need, that I am loved by God and by my family. All these things ought to lift the darkness. But no: the blackness eats up all the comfort that this knowledge ought to provide.

The darkness comes from the inside and works its way out–in impatience and sullen silence, in not-caring and not-doing. I can see it seeping through the cracks, however much I would prefer to keep it to myself. I ask my soul, “why are you downcast?” and “why so disquieted within me?” I say, “Hope in God, for again I shall praise him!” I know it to be true, however little consolation it brings.

I dwell sometimes in darkness. That is just the way it is. Fortunately I have been up and down enough that at the bottom I can still just remember that it isn’t always like this. For that, and for the psalms, which have been my truest companions since I was a teenager (somehow reminding me that darkness is not my only companion), I am grateful. Because of the psalms, the thought comes unbidden (or is that the Holy Spirit?): “the darkness is as light to thee.”

So I wait, brooding, for the ‘fiat lux’ and for the dawn.

Deo gratias.

Thursday of the tenth week in ordinary time

Elijah said to Ahab, ‘Go back, eat and drink; for I hear the sound of rain.’ While Ahab went back…Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel and bowed down to the earth, putting his face between his knees. ‘Now go up’, he told his servant, ‘and look out to the sea.’ He went up and looked. ‘There is nothing at all’ he said. ‘Go back seven times’ Elijah said. The seventh time, the servant said, ‘Now there is a cloud, small as a man’s hand, rising from the sea.’
                                                                                                  1 Kings 18: 41-44

.  .  .

I imagine I am not the first person to notice that Elijah says he hears the sound of rain long before the cloud appears over the horizon. Does he say he hears it because he’s confident that it will come? Or does he have super-hearing? (I admit I am thinking of the bionic woman, which dates me.)

My question is really whether Elijah hears the sound of rain by faith. I can’t think of another way to read it–though that may just be a failure of my imagination. The failure is easily explained: about to embark on a major transition (moving back to the US for a year), I yearn for some prophetic reasurrance that the promised ‘rain’ will come. The psalm set for today (at least the passage to be read in Mass) ends: ‘The hills are girded with joy.’ I want to know that the rain will come, that the hills (not that I expect to see many hills roundabout us in Indiana) will be ‘girded with joy.’

There is a kind of blankness ahead, bare hills and sky color of diffuse light, as it is well before dawn. I suppose this is what the promise looks like: a clean white page of time, waiting for its ‘potentate’ to fill it with his brightness and colors. And so I must wait, too: go back and eat and drink, and wait for the rain to fall.

Friday of the fourth week in Lent

For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, ‘Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end,
for no one has been known to return from Hades.’
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions…
Let us test him with insult and torture,
that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.
Wisdom 2: 1, 12, 19-20

The Lord is near to the broken hearted,
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Psalm 33 [34]:18
 
Hyperichus said, “The watchful monk works night and day to pray continually: but if his heart is broken and lets tears flow, that calls down God from heaven to have mercy.
 
* * *
 
I have long believed that there is the seed of another kind of preferential option here: as Jesus said, he came “not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And Psalm 51 (set for morning prayer today) reminds us that the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; God will not despise a broken and contrite heart. The passage from wisdom connects the broken spirit with Jesus, as it prophesies the passion of Christ. His spirit and body were broken: he took on our sorrows and our infirmities. God knows our suffering.
 
It is interesting that in Psalm 34, the favored of the Lord are not, as in lots of other passages, the materially poor, but the “crushed in spirit.” The recognition of our spiritual poverty, which reveals the brokenness of our hearts, makes way for contrition and reorients our desire. When we are “crushed in spirit” we cannot avoid seeing our need for God. We come to understand that we cannot depend on ourselves for fullness in spirit or lightness of heart. But seeing this helps us to identify with Jesus as he identified with us: in suffering. In our brokenness and spiritual destitution, in our sorrow and desolation, we can cry out with our Saviour, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And in sharing the prayer he prayed on the cross, we may share in the hope of the resurrection that was his.
 
The movement from desolation to hope is marked by the shift from our sorrow, which is the path to God, to a sense of joy in God’s presence. Only after calling out to God in utter desperation, do we learn to “delight [ourselves] in the Lord,” who will give us the desires of our heart. To be truly contrite, to experience without reserve the brokenness that is the meaning of sin, and which the separation from God entails, is to begin to long for the One who alone is worthy of our desire. The sorrow of Lenten discipline prepares us to receive joyfully the hope that Easter brings.