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Morning Sun
  • TRUE STORIES: Sacred Travelers

  • “There is a woe that is wisdom, a woe that is madness.” — Herman Melville

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  • “There is a woe that is wisdom, a woe that is madness.” — Herman Melville
     
    One of my favorite liturgical writers, Trappist monk Thomas Keating, says in his book The Mystery of Christ, “Each Lent Jesus invites us to the desert with him to share his trials.”
    It is, of course, a metaphorical allusion which calls upon us to embrace “Christ consciousness” in order to help us make some sense out of our lives as we are continually tempted to embrace false security, esteem and power as a source of fulfillment.
    It’s a struggle that continues throughout the year, year after year. One which, from time to time, becomes so overwhelming we can become genuinely lost.
    In my nearly 30 years as a counselor, it’s a story I’ve heard countless times. A story that is always different yet essentially the same. Most times posed in some form of the question, “What is happening to me?”
    As anyone who’s ever sat across from a counselor and exposed his or her self as lost, confused and depressed will attest, this exposing oneself to another human being can be a terrifying experience that requires a different and deeper bravery than many other human endeavors.
    Which is to say, people don’t usually arrive at a counselor’s door when they’re ecstatic about their lives and feeling full of wonderful potential. They show up when all else has failed and they’re experiencing what has aptly been called by St. John of the Cross “the dark nights of the soul.” Some of which are, at times, so filled with self-doubt, worthlessness, depression, fear, and despair that thoughts of suicide emerge.
    That is not to say that these dark feelings cannot be of value. They are often spiritually and psychologically required to thrust us into “the desert” wherein we can contemplate our lives without the usual distractions of “happiness.”
    The question we all face is: When depression, despair and self-doubt come along (and they will) what will we do? Will we hustle past them and try to “get happy” as soon as possible, or will we see in them what Buddhist teacher and author Joan Halifax calls a “sacred catastrophe,” a “holy failure”?
    These days, there are many therapies and medications available to aid those caught in this web of despair — approaches aimed at helping them get a little information, support and direction to get unstuck and continue their journey.
    When such a traveler comes into my consulting room, I am called upon to join with them in deciding which therapy to employ and which, if any, antidepressant or other medication might be needed.
    Sometimes I suggest they take medication. Sometimes I suggest they endure the dark night without it and focus on such things as contemplation, good diet, exercise, prayer and building their support system. Sometimes I suggest both.
    Page 2 of 3 - Some, in my opinion, go to medications too quickly — some wait too long. But, in the end, all I can do is give them my observations and a few options. For it is their struggle — their life to live as they choose.
    Most of them, like me, plod along in the darkness for a good while not seeing the help that’s right in front of them. In many ways it’s a question of timing. There are times in our journey when we must struggle in the dark; when we’re just not ready to see or hear the answers to the most difficult questions. And there are other times when the answers seem to magically unfold like the blossoms of a spring flower.
    The great difficulty for most of us is not only how to recognize and resist life’s temptations but, equally, how to recognize and accept God’s grace when it arrives. In this vein, Thomas Keating teaches that Jesus’ parable The Prodigal Son is not only about an errant son who realizes his sin and returns to the open arms of his father’s merciful love, it is just as much about the elder brother who, after staying at home and faithfully following all his father’s wishes, becomes indignant when his father so easily forgives his brother. “This shows us,” Keating writes, “that the central meaning of Jesus’ parable is that salvation cannot be earned; it can only be received.”
    In closing, I would like to share a story, sometimes told as a joke, that illustrates well how false security and blind faith might get in the way of salvation:
    After several days of heavy rains, a man who lived by a river heard flood warnings broadcast on the TV and radio but ignored them saying, “God will take care of me.” As the water flowed into his yard, a man came by on a bicycle and shouted that the flood was coming and it was time to pack up and leave. But the man shouted back, “No, it’s okay, God will take care of me.” The water reached his porch and began to flow into his living room so he climbed onto the roof. A neighbor paddled by in a boat and told him to hop in. “No, thanks, God will take care of me,” he responded. Soon his house was awash so he climbed a nearby tree and clung to its branches, praying hard for God’s intercession. A helicopter came by and lowered a rope, but the man shouted over the rotor noise, “IT’S OKAY! GOD WILL TAKE CARE OF ME!”
    In the end, the man drowned. When he got to heaven, he went straightaway to God and demanded to know what had happened. Why hadn’t he been saved by his unwavering faith?
    Page 3 of 3 -  “I don’t know,” God told him. “I’m as baffled as you. I sent reports by radio and TV. I sent a guy on a bicycle and a man in a boat … and, finally, I sent a helicopter. What more did you want from me?”
    This column originally appeared March 5, 2001. If you’d like to read more like it, you can find them in my book “Where The Pavement Ends,” available at Paradise Mall, the Pitt State bookstore or Amazon.com.

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