The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?
(Psalm 27:1 NIV)
About six weeks ago, I was brought to the nearest emergency room and, after a night on a stretcher, was admitted to a hospital, where I spent a few days before returning home to a time of recovery, questioning, and diagnostic procedures.
The condition I had comes on very suddenly, with no warning, and is accompanied by the kind of pain that strips you of patience and modesty, of any care of where you are and whether you’re naked and who is doing what to you, as long as they take away the pain. Its overall mortality rate seems to be something like 29% (data varies among studies), though I was lucky to have, it appears, one of the less dangerous forms.
In those first 48 hours when it was bad, on my hospital bed, I oscillated between the pain and the nauseous haze of the morphine-Dilaudid cocktail, and I analyzed nothing but the minute before me. It was afterwards, in the days and weeks filled with questions of why, and what to do, and what it means—the questions I am still pursuing—that I began to look to those 48 hours not only for symptoms and causes but for significance.
Because not all of my questions are medical. And not everything that happened six weeks ago was sad.
I have written essay upon essay about the quiet everyday ecstasy that life offers to a convert mystic. I have written about the first few months of my Christian awareness, when I walked through my days as if the ground itself were a heavenly keyboard under my feet, and with every step I made music Divine from my Beloved’s personal score, my every breath a prophetic song in unison with His voice, perfect and wordless and blessed. When I tried to share this miracle with the Sisters, they beamed and envied, they hugged me and called me “blessed”—but more often than not I heard from them a gentle, nurturing warning: “Do not be discouraged when this feeling subsides.” “Ecstasy doesn’t last forever.” “How long has it been? Six months? A year?” They’d smile. “This is your honeymoon. It will calm down. But then… Who knows?”
Anyone who’s ever been in love knows what I am talking about. We pledge our love knowing the odds. We celebrate a wedding knowing the divorce rate. We plunge, and we vow. We must believe this one is forever, or else it’s not love. Do we lie to ourselves?
I am a somewhat rational person—not totally. No one is. But a rational argument has gnawed on my mind and made me doubt the endurance of my own faith. Let’s say, I am not some freaky exception to the rule. What if I am just like everyone else? People have moments, conversion experiences, revelations, and they think their lives will never be the same, but then it wears off. Resolve fades, promises are broken. The anonymous prophet Koheleth—everyone’s favorite cynic—wrote a long time ago a well-known wisdom:
“The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.”
(Ecclesiastes 1:6 NIV)
Weeks folded into months and months into years, and I felt like nothing could touch me, break my heavenly keyboard and muffle my song. The hand of Christ Himself had reached into my heart and took away my fear, and by my side He walked now, night and morning, and whispered truths to me and showed me colors unequaled and heard my song and smiled. What had I to worry about, come illness or flood or crucifixion?
And yet, in some secret nook of some soul-space, I worried. In some place where the mind injects certainty into the heart, doubt stirred and tried to grow into fear. What would happen, I thought, when the honeymoon was over? A human being can’t live a long life on adrenaline of ecstasy and a rush of endorphins. I would become calmer with time, and the honeymoon would be over, and my life would turn into marriage—as it should. What would happen then, when, one day, illness would come or flood, or crucifixion?
I wasn’t afraid that I would lose my faith in God. Having come to a conviction about the nature of Reality, to a cosmology of a truly personal Source and Goal of the universe, Whose nature—our nature—is the unifying and flowing Love, I would be irrational to discard that conviction for a personal tragedy. Having found a place for evil in the reality of Good, I would be inconsistent to walk away from it because of the evil’s particular shape.
I wasn’t afraid that I would lose my faith. I was afraid that I could lose my joy—even to a degree. Even a little.
I was afraid that, come pain or grief or disappointed efforts, I would return to the habit of looking down at my feet and sulking, and forget to look up, and let go of His hand, and when I’d raise my eyes finally for His smile, it wouldn’t be there.
I was afraid I would stop singing to my Betrothed.
I was afraid I’d be afraid and not find Him enough of a consolation.
They say sometimes that, if you have no doubts, you have no faith. I don’t know. I think it is properly meant that you must question to find conviction, that if you don’t search you cannot find, so blind faith is no faith but simple following of someone else’s. I’ve had my doubts. I’ve had enough for several lifetimes. Couldn’t I have some really complete certainty?
I’d think this and I’d pray, throw my arms out and dance my heart out and be lost in the Infinite and Unspeakable and Named, and I’d come out utterly certain and spent and convinced. Nothing would separate us. I am for You, through fire and all… And then a day would go by, and my mind would encroach again upon my heart, and I so I waited. For this day to come. For proof.
Okay, this wasn’t really proof. This wasn’t crucifixion by a long shot. It was a lot easier, but it helped.
Interestingly—or most naturally, I suppose—I didn’t think of this at all while lying flat in a hospital, bleeding and gritting my teeth or watching the walls slide into an endless, surreal swirl, feeling the pain crouch behind my eyes, too close, ready to wake up if I moved. I didn’t pray, not once. I didn’t talk to Him, not even in my thoughts, and I forgot that it was Sunday. I didn’t think that I’d like to hear something from the Gospels or one of my “Jesus songs”—I have a large collection, usually at my fingertips.
Judging only by this, I should have been pretty upset with myself when I returned home after discharge. Except…I wasn’t. When I returned home, there He was, in all the ways I had now gotten used to, my Beloved and Conscience, my Guide, my Embrace, the Beauty Who Smiles, my tenderest Touch, the only Audience that truly matters. It was as if I hadn’t been away from Him for a minute.
And I realized then that I hadn’t.
It only then occurred to me—when I began to look to those first 48 hours for meaning—that they were bad, bad in a lot of ways except one. I was agonized and nauseated and desperate, and I was exhausted at times to the degree where taking a breath was too much work, and I was tortured in watching my mother cry, powerless to help me. I was grateful for the hands of the nurses and for the drugs and for the nearness of a hospital in this place, where I live. I was uncertain once whether I’d live or die. But I was never afraid.
It didn’t even occur to me then. It occurred to me later. I wasn’t afraid, and I was never alone. I didn’t feel alone. I didn’t need to call Jesus or even to think of Him. In the bad time, He touched me with the hands of my nurses and watched over me with the eyes of my family. He got into a car and drove 6 hours to sit by my bed, to tell me the unfunny jokes of my best friend. He built me a hospital and invented the drugs that took away my pain. I would have preferred He come up with something that didn’t cause me so much nausea and dizziness, but nothing’s perfect.
Listen. Jesus didn’t come to stand, to smile at me in the hospital. He was busy taking care of me.
Crucifixion hasn’t come to me yet, neither has the flood, but I’ve seen my share of illness and of pain, and there will be more. I’ve never been the healthiest person in the world, but I’ve managed pretty well, considering, to be active and to stay useful. I had hated my pain my whole life, and then—on the day I understood that the world was good—everything got better, including my health. This thing that happened to me six weeks ago, it’s new, and there is more, and there will be more. This one was bad. It could be worse. It might be yet.
This thing that happened and problems related to it may or may not become permanent part of my life. They may or may not play a deciding role in where, how, and with whom I spend it. They may or may not keep me from becoming a Sister.
I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know this: in some place in my soul-space where the heart injects certainty into the mind, a robust flow is going on. Whatever happens, it will be all right.
No, of course, not. But I am not alone, and I am not afraid. My faith is not just my cosmology, and it’s not just an endorphin rush. The honeymoon is over, I’m married, and this marriage cannot be dissolved. I trust Him, and so I trust myself. Whatever the particulars of my life, I will do what I can to bring some love into this world, and then I’ll see my Jesus face to face.
What in the world have I to worry about?