The summer is over, the harvest is in and we are not saved. Jeremiah
You might chalk it up to the waning of the light, or to the overcast skies. Regardless of the cause, the change from summer to fall often stirs up a case melancholy in our souls. The shrubs I purchased last July and watered in their containers through the hot summer are still waiting for me to plant them. A year is winding down and I am looking at what remains undone, unsatisfied, and unfulfilled in my life.
A little mouse has found the bird feeder outside my window. He shimmies up the pole each day and gobbles the sunflower seeds and cracked corn. I suppose I should sic my cat after him, but I haven’t the heart to intrude on his salvation with her teeth in his throat.
Autumn’s teeth are biting into my heart. I don’t notice the pain as long as I am working. Then there it is, asking for my attention. A young woman described to me the pain she was feeling as like a splinter working itself out. “I think I need to just feel the pain I have stuffed for so long.” Another woman avoids sitting still to pray and listen to God. When I asked if it was because that was so painful, she began to weep in recognition.
What is it that will save us? What will rescue us from our incurable wound, as Jeremiah calls the distress of his people? Will the politicians scrambling for public offices? Will the latest technology? Will scientific advances? Will new leadership? Will my working night and day save us?
In the growing dark of autumn, reality appears more nuanced, layered, and resonant to me, than life as we tend to live it — skimming over the surface, subsisting on sound bites, condensation, slogans, and bumper stickers. In my fall funk I am suspicious of easy answers, human arrogance, and frenzied activity.
I am not alone in this assessment. People come for spiritual guidance. They sit down and reflect prayerfully upon their lives. They unpack their days and their opinions, lift and hold them to the light. They savor, grieve, rage, and weep. Sometimes they talk about how they do not fit in at their churches. Some are looking for more depth. Sometimes they ramble and are hard to follow. One person sits and simply says, “I do not know. I don’t know,” over and over. Sometimes they thank me for the safety and freedom they feel here.
I listen and pray and observe the Spirit’s dance in their stories. I witness the subtle shifts and changes in their hearts. These individuals possess that rare gift, an inner life, an examined inner life. They have taken responsibility for what is going on in that inner life. They understand how the truth of their interior reality shapes their outer experience. They are engaged in the serious and critically important work of personal transformation, self understanding, and deepening faith.
What I do is to stay with them in their pain, even when they can’t stand to stay with themselves. I believe, when they cannot believe. I hold up a light, as they discover the healing and freedom that wait beyond their darkness.
Many of us want to foster change in our world and institutions without doing the deep and painful inner work of our own transformation. How can I ask a whole community to change without being intimate with my own pain and my resistance to the cross of suffering in my life?
Thomas Keating invites us to understand our personal pain in a larger context, “Whatever you are going through is your invitation to participate in the redemption of the world.” The implication here is that healing for us all is made available through how we as individuals respond to the pain in our lives. This redemptive, life giving power of suffering love is modeled for us by Jesus.
The French activist and mystic, Simone Weil, writing in the late 1930s, observed that “The moral revival that certain people wish to pose will be much worse than the condition it is meant to cure. If our present suffering ever leads to revival, this will not be brought about through slogans, but in silence and moral loneliness, through pain, misery and terror, in the profoundest depths of each man’s spirit.”
We are all trying to get by the best we can, taking our harvest where we find it. We are still not saved. The cat lurks. The market falls. You can’t find a job.
Perhaps what is called for in this waning of the light is the ability to be compassionately present to our collective suffering with love and faith. Could we not trust that out of the profoundest depths of our spirits, as we die to ourselves and the way we want things to be, unimaginable new life is already putting out tiny rootlets, waiting to emerge in some distant spring?
If you can’t believe that, I do not fault you. We all have days like that. Besides, it’s autumn.