“Abba Markos once asked the holy Arsenios why it is that the most pious and virtuous people pass through the world with numerous sorrows and in privation.
“Sorrows, for those who accept them with forbearance,” the holy one answered, “are the salt which prevents putrefaction by sins and allows the soul to approach heaven cleansed.”
It is hard to accept any form of distress with forbearance, I find. Forbearance is not my first reaction. I am much more likely to respond along these lines ” Oh, <insert blasphemous words>, why is this happening. <insert scatological language>. I am so <insert more scatological language> sick and tired of <insert even more scatological language> like this. When will my life be normal?”
Which is the kicker because distress actually is kinda normal. It rains down upon us all from time to time. Some have it worse than others, or so it seems, because we like to pretend that if we can’t see it, then it isn’t there. We forget that there are “invisible” disabilities and handicaps.
It is what it is. When I accept that, without any judgmental or scatological language, I can examine what is going on in my life and decide how to respond to it.
I find the best response is prayer. I’ve gone through several stages in my prayer life when it comes to suffering. My first was some form of “God, please take this away. I don’t want it.” My second was “God, why didn’t you listen to me and help me.”
My third stage began in Feb, 1982. It was a watershed month for me. I was in seminary and started that term with a class taught by my rector of my parish. He called it “Spiritual Experience of the Middle Ages” which was mobbed because i went to a seminary that believed no one had any Christian spiritual experiences between Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, except for those executed as heretics by the Roman Catholics.
He started the class with the Rule of St. Benedict which had been written shortly after the Fall of Rome and hence is an Early Medieval document. One of our texts was The Love of Learning and the Desire for God by Kames LeClerque. Both hooked me. I cannot tell you how deeply they both sank into me.
The other important thing that happened to me was my psychologist referred me for the first time to a psychiatrist and I learned I could take medication to aid my struggle with Makor Depressive Disorder. Onset of this mental illness was around when I was nine, which is unusually early. What can I say, I was intellectually precocious at a time when children, especially little girls, were not believed to possess intellect.
So I had been suffering depression with dark long bouts of it for decades by the time I took this class. I read the RB, I read that textbook and within me formed a huge deep desire to be a contemplative. I wanted this more than I have ever wanted anything in my life. I cursed and ranted at God for inflicting this hideous illness on me because it hurt so much. Then the medication started to work and, instead of being grateful, I again cursed and ranted at God, thinking my life was some form of a cosmic joke because all of a sudden where was the depression and why hadn’t these pills been made available to me earlier?
Until one morning while praying Morning Prayer I was deeper in touch with my anger at God than I ever had been when my anger was interrupted by a vision and words that although I didn’t actually hear them, hit with all the authority of a spoken word. The vision was of me in the cupped hands of God, standing on the fleshy pads at the base of the fingers and peeking out at the world over God’s fingers in a “Kilroy was here” manner. The words were “I have held you in my cupped hands all your life.”
That vision and those words became the basis for my life and they still are. Because one of the many lessons is that I already was a contemplative. Suffering from depression as I had, seeking to find Jesus within that Insidious Dark, had taught me the basics of the contemplative life, which is at its simplest, looking for God in everything,
My third stage had found me. “Lord, I know you are here in the dark with me. I live my life in your cupped hands. This depression will not kill me, it brings me closer to you.” And then I endure.
Oh, not perfectly, of course, don’t ever think that. I still have plenty of blasphemous and scatological moments but they are shorter than they once were.