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It happened on an overcast March morning, usual in every respect, save reports of some infectious disease, distant from us. Not our concern, we said, getting the kids readied for school and shoving off to work. Little did we suspect…

 

Like the galloping invasion of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, pestilence, war, famine, and death have trounced our land and drastically altered our usual manner of functioning. At first, denial and rationalization softened the blow until weeks mushroomed into months, with rising numbers of those infected and dying from Covid-19.

As if the pandemic was not enough—Like a flashpoint, the George Floyd killing ignited demonstrations for police reform, both peaceful and violent, morphing into deeper mayhem, confusion, and polarization of our country. Meanwhile, exhaustion seeps into psyches, waters down problem solving, and thins endurance—A deadly scenario that cries for radical change, one found in the Gospels.

In my perception, the will to embrace the radical change that Jesus taught appears thin. Few care about cultivating humility, honesty, and love; it’s too costly—Easier to resolve problems with compromise.

Only such change of heart will bring about the longed-for restoration of our country that may or may not come in our lifetime. Besides, the work of the Four Horsemen is not finished—evil, far worse than the virus, still has us in its sway.

So what to do in the interim? From parched hearts, we pray for deep watering, one that cleanses and restores, despite the continuing tumult crashing around us. Protection does comes.

 

Happily, my copy of Helen M. Luke’s classic, Old Age: Journey into Simplicity survived several thinnings of my bookcase. First purchased in 2012, I highlighted significant passages, filled margins with stars and exclamation points that evidence past AHHHs! However, such richness must have surfeited my taste because of the unread essays on Shakespeare’s Prospero and T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding—To return to a later time, I probably told myself, when calmed down.

That time only came now. Well on the cusp of old age, Luke’s material resonates with my diminishments. Her lifelong play with unseen realities, beneficent and dark, bear the imprint of her Zurich training as a Jungian analyst; she has been through the mill and knows of what she speaks in the concluding chapter on Suffering.

Only life’s untoward barbs constitute authentic suffering; it bruises the psyche, offers course corrections, and deepens wisdom, humility, and honesty. Acceptance is key to this grief process, with its changes. Pseudo-suffering, its opposite, provokes whining, holds out for quick fixes, and pines for robotic living shielded by denial’s comfort. Only authentic suffering builds character that does not diminish, that we carry into the next life.

Her conclusion speaks: When suffering breaks through the small personal context and exposes man to the pain and darkness of life itself, the way is opened to that ultimate state of passion…There completely emptied, as Christ was when He cried, ”My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me,” he may finally come to be filled with the wholeness of God Himself.

For this, I long.

 

“No! Not that! No way! I’ve no time for this! I’m outa here!”

Most squirm in the face of suffering. Heart racing, breathing labored, shoulders tensed, the escape into palliatives, of whatever kind, is underway, until the distress is dulled. Few explore their setbacks and learn from them.

One of these is Karen Armstrong, British author, world lecturer, and winner of the 2008 TED Prize. Her memoir, The Spiral Staircase – My Climb out of Darkness (2004) weaves thirteen years of daunting reversals within the first verse of T. S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday: the paradox of turnings that appear to go nowhere.

What seemed like missteps in Karen’s beginnings—leaving the convent, failing her doctoral orals at Oxford, researching and writing scripts on Christianity and Islam and interviewing notables for BBC television in the Holy Land, teaching college and high school students, flipping out with an undiagnosed frontal lobe epilepsy—were, in fact, priming her psyche toward compassion, a discovery that wrought her conversion to the God of her understanding and one that permeates all world religions.

Karen Armstrong’s clipped voice, heard in lecture halls around the world and YouTube, still carries the incisive ring of God’s compassion in our world. The question remains, is anyone listening?

 

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