Meditations from the dark valley
The world has entered a valley of shadows. We don’t know where we are going or when it will end. We feel lost. I am a priest, but I am lost in this valley with you. No matter how much I have tried to gain a sense of direction over the past weeks, it keeps slipping through my fingers, leaving me more lost and confused than I was before. My parish is locked and empty. We have no collections and thus no money to pay our staff. (Most of them have now been put indefinitely on “furlough.”) I feel blessed to be healthy, to have a place to sleep and something to eat, but I don’t know what my purpose is anymore. I celebrate mass in front of a church that is empty except for some people operating a camera. I can only talk to the faithful from a distance, through a phone or other device. I thought I had become a priest to answer the world’s need, to be part of a “field hospital.” But now that the world is needier than ever, I am told the best thing I can do is stay in my room. My priesthood seems useless.
The scriptures tell us that “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15) and that God shepherds his flock “beside restful waters” so that we may not fear the dark valley. Something in me resists this invitation to spiritual rest. It doesn’t seem like enough. It seems like I must invent a new, perhaps even busier schedule, chart new goals, projects, achievements… Gain some clarity and direction. But I know this is vanity. Our Shepherd leads the way into the valley, into the rest, into the dark.
My insecurity about my purpose and my worth have been there all along, subconscious credos directing my behavior. Only now, in slowing down, have I been able to recognize them. It is disorienting, for certain. But the Shepherd leads us into the valley so that we can face our fears, sit with them, and see them for what they are: lies, phantoms, sweet little nothings, selling a false bill of goods. God wants to expose the lies so that we can see that there is nothing to be afraid of. He loves us no matter what. We can simply sit in the quiet and trust him. We have gotten so good at justifying and proving ourselves that it is hard to stop. But stop is what we must do. Stop in the name of love. Beside his still waters, we can stop avoiding him and let him love us and tell us we are okay… and more than okay, his beloved.
Let us follow our Shepherd into the dark valley and notice some of the lies we may have believed:
“I need to feel useful and be working/helping/providing”: Some of us feel worthless and lazy when we aren’t working, providing for our families, or helping others. We have become overachievers who find our worth in our ability to help, provide, and please, but inside we are missing something. We are like Martha of Bethany, whom Jesus says is “anxious and troubled” from always serving (Luke 10). Many of us are busy and troubled because we do not know that our true worth is not in what we do. Now that we are required to stay home, we have an excuse to slow down and sit with our feeling of needing to serve. We can sit still and let God disprove the lie that we need to earn love. This is closely related to…
“I need to feel relevant / like I have a role”: This is a lie that we are facing as a Church. Sometimes we find our worth in our roles as ministers and teachers running our programs and ministries for the faithful. We find affirmation in feeling useful. But now our churches are locked or empty and we have had to cancel our prayer meetings and sacramental classes. We no longer have the faithful to affirm us in our roles. Perhaps we feel a little lost and like we need to scramble to find a new role for ourselves. This past week at my parish we were busy trying to move our operations online. Perhaps we could have taken more time to sit in silence with our feelings of being irrelevant.
“I need to be the hero”: Western culture exalts “the Hero Myth” of “Great Men and Women” who change history and save worlds. Everyone wants to be a superhero or a saint, one of “the good guys” who proves his goodness through righteous acts. We priests especially fall into this category. These past weeks, I have wrestled with the notion that I can’t minister to some of our sick and homebound because I could put their health at risk. A hero wouldn’t let illness come between the faithful and the sacraments, right? I have had to sit with the realization that this inclination is to some degree a “saviour complex”: me making my ministry about me. Sometimes the best thing we can do for each other is simply to be still and feel our helplessness, trusting that there is a God who cares more for the vulnerable than we do.
“My family is my world”: For many of us, life revolves around family. Our identity is deeply connected to maintaining family ties. Many people feel responsible for their families, and feel guilty about being cut off from them for any period of time. Though we are told to honor father and mother, Jesus is clear his family are those who “hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). In Christ, the love of the Father introduces us to a whole new identity as children of God and a whole new family, the Church. Many young people are now unable to visit elderly parents for risk of exposing them. We must now sit with our broken hearts and “be okay” with just being children of God, trusting that He will care for our loved ones.
“I feel uneasy without my purchase power”: We find great solace in being consumers, providing for ourselves, even things we don’t particularly need. We like to comfort ourselves by exercising our purchase power. During this time, malls are closed and many of us have lost our jobs or have seen our income decrease. I sometimes find myself going online just to “window shop.” Last week it kind of rattled me that many items were out of stock, even though I had no money to buy anything. Perhaps God wants us to sit with this desire to consume, trusting that we can depend on him.
“People without jobs are ‘losers’ or ‘shameful’”: In our society, self-sufficiency, the ability to provide for ourselves, has become a moral virtue that distinguishes the deserving from the undeserving. Those who cannot “do” for themselves are seen as morally deficient, lazy, undeserving of compassion or assistance. Many of us who have secretly held this attitude will now face the shame of losing our jobs. This is a good time to discover how God’s ways of thinking are different from our own. In sitting with these feelings of shame and being undeserving, we can discover that God does not measure our worth by worldly standards. He loves our weakness and dependence on him, no matter how society looks at us.
“I’m afraid there won’t be enough for me”: In these past weeks, many of us have panicked out of fear that we don’t have enough for ourselves. We have stockpiled and hoarded to ensure we have enough, emptying the shelves of essential items. In some supermarkets there have been fights over toilet paper. Often those who are weaker are less likely to be able to fend for themselves. When we sit with ourselves in silence, God can minister to our fears and assure us that he is the Good Shepherd who will tend to his flock. We can relax because even when we have nothing, there is enough to go around.
“God will not forgive me for not being in church”: Some of us are struggling most with not having access to our churches or the mass. We can’t escape the feeling that we cannot please God without our physical presence in the church at mass or in our devotions. Underneath our good intentions there are sometimes wounds that God wants to heal. One wound that many of us carry is the tendency to try to justify ourselves before God—to do things “for” God so that we can feel worthy of his love. Perhaps God wants us to sit with our feeling of guilt so that he can show us how generous he really is. The truth is that we cannot do anything for God. Rather, he wants to do something for us. He is the giver. Maybe this is a time for us to sit and receive.
Let us enter into this silence together as one flock, discovering how broken and needy we are, and how good our Shepherd is. In this silence let us hold in our hearts our broken and needy world, especially the sick and dying.