Things were bad for Mary and Joseph.
They were on a journey inspired by a dream and vision and a baby of promise.
God was doing something new with them – but what?
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.
So the darkness shall be the light,
and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
As the solstice approached, I found myself in that familiar Christmas funk that I’d now labeled the “well of doubt”. I had no solid reason be to down. My life is charmed in so many ways and my pockets are full of privilege. I’m on a path that I’ve chosen and I feel a purpose running in my veins. “Why then?”, I’d ask myself trudging through the grey city streets.
A visit from Saint Nicholas subtly disguised as John Bird at our Subversive Faith gathering cheered me significantly. This coming together of activists interested in hearing faith journey stories is now a monthly look-forward-to event for us. John is thoughtful, informed, and could pass for a laughing Bhudda as easily as Santa Claus. His optimism and humour were contagious.
So, without a good reason to be down, I made a decision. Instead of questioning my funk and working hard (uselessly) at climbing out of it. I decided to go deeper into it.
What if this sadness I carry is a gift? What if I am simply tapping into the suffering of others disguised as my own? What if my tears belong to the earth’s sorrow? Perhaps dropping down into a well of despair is a digging into the message of angels? What if I dug deeper?
In our early twenties, my brother and I spent a summer hard rock mining in Snow Lake Manitoba. It was my job to inspect the fill lines that ran all through the black catacombs of our mine. It’s shaft ran 3600 feet deep into the earth. And every 200 feet down there ran horizontal “drifts” where rail lines carried the iron ore. Between the “drifts” were cut vertical shafts only big enough for a ladder running 200 feet straight down. As I travelled throughout the mine that summer I became quite familiar with those ladders.
The only light in those tunnels is the light on your hard hat. When you switch it off you experience a blackness that is absolute. The total absence of light. It was on those 200 foot ladders that I became familiar with the gift of darkness.
Have you ever climbed an open ladder up a water tower? The best advice is “don’t look down”. And so, the saving grace of climbing those ladders was the dark. If I could have seen how far I had to fall – the job would have been much more difficult.
Often, the ladders would lead down into a “stope” which is the cavernous cave excavated by miners. I can still feel what it was like to suddenly find yourself climbing down into a vast emptiness. From the tight surrounds of a vertical tunnel – or well – to step down into a dark open space larger than any cathedral. So large that my light couldn’t find a wall or object or even the bottom to shine upon.
To climb down into that black open space was both terrifying and somehow awe inspiring.
This long diversion into my past is all in effort to describe to you what I felt last Friday on my journey down into the Christmas funk.
We’d planned a thirty hour retreat to our Kinmount cabin. But Lynn needed to connect with classmates and professor in Winnipeg via high speed internet. So we turned to the generosity of our Kinmount neighbours Reverend Desmond and Colleen Howard.
As Lynn chatted high-speed, I chatted with Desmond and Colleen by the hearth of their home. Now Desmond knows my story pretty well and I know his. When we come together we share like old friends. Right away he tells me he’s been studying the Holy Spirit Heretics of Christian history. “They’re just like you.” he tells me.
And we go off into the wild territory of quantum physics and the heart. How the church through the ages would always resist the ever-expanding notions of the divine imagination. As the spiritual adventurers of each age found new revelations in the ancient truths there was always an opposing, and very human, reaction that sought to keep God within the confines of dogma and the status quo.
“Advent is about becoming.” Desmond pronounced with the excitement of an explorer who’s found a new land. “It’s not about waiting but about seeing how things are unfolding all around us and within us.” He preached to this congregation of one with all the passion of an evangelist.
Like an indigenous elder, he told long stories that made me laugh. The stories I knew had more than a punch line to offer. Within the laugh there were seeds of thought to be considered later. Desmond spoke of how – as his own life is shrinking with the circumstances of age – his perspective is expanding to see his situation in the context of 13.8 billion years of life’s unfolding story on earth.
We plunged into the mysteries of the divine expanding, creating, becoming, unfolding – collaborating with our own energies of faith, hope, and love in this and every age. From the big bang that created not only the stardust matter which we stand and chew upon – but also the immaterial dark matter that science now tells us is 93 percent of what “is”. And always into an expanding universe that is still becoming. Deep beneath the surface of our daily lives, the eating, drinking, sharing, stealing, lying, hoarding – fear-filled and hope-filled existence – there runs a deeper story still.
Climbing down deeper into my “well of doubt” I came upon this vast expansive perspective in the deep dark bowels of the universe. What had seemed a tight and small place to be in – was now beyond the reach of my headlamp’s light. In such a fearful and awe-full place – l let my intellect become stilled. I found that my soul expanded into that vast emptying fullness.
I found beneath hope, beneath love, beneath the prayers that I don’t know how to pray – an underground stream of trust.
Desmond sent me the link to this poem that puts it well. And tomorrow I’ll tell you what Lynn and I discovered that afternoon as she left the path and descended down into the crown’s land bush beyond our cozy cabin.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown, something new.
Yet it is the law of all progress that is made
by passing through some stages of instability
and that may take a very long time. (Spoken like a good paleontologist!)
And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new Spirit
gradually forming in you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
our loving vine-dresser. Amen.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a French philosopher, Jesuit priest, and paleontologist.