So much has happened in the past month that I find myself at a loss for words.
It’s hard to believe that in the past four weeks, I’ve been to Minnesota, Iowa, Maryland, and Virginia; that I’ve given my first conference presentation and attended my first funeral for a family member in conscious memory; that I had the enormous grace to spend time with a good friend and my old youth pastor and his family and meet relatives I didn’t know I had; that I’ve gotten to know a devout Muslim from Dubai and have conversations of faith with extended family; that three years ago was terror, two years ago was grief, and this year is great change and the quiet, insistent need for trust. And it is November, and cold, and another twilight.
Touches me not, though pensive as a bird
Whose vernal coverts winter hath laid bare.
Does despair touch me not? Honestly, I don’t know. The image of a bird left somber and anxious by the relentless winter that has made vulnerable its sanctuary feels deeply fitting. Death, change, absence, uncertainty… These things strip away the layers I hoard as insulation—the illusions of immortality, permanence, possession, control—and force me to confront the abundance of my own poverty. Even grace stings, because one can only receive a gift when one is aware of their own undeservedness. And there has been much grace. For all that wounds and weathers, there has been deep, abiding grace.
“Lord, suffer me to sing
these wounds by which I am made
and marred, savor this creature
whose aloneness you ease and are.”
Sometimes it feels like, in a world full of things trying its best to undo me, all I can do is keep finding things that make me human. Like the novels of Marilynne Robinson. Like the words of Christian Wiman and Frederick Buechner, Penny and Sparrow’s lyrics, sacred choral music, conversations with friends. Listening to an audio recording of The Screwtape Letters while driving through endless cornfields; playing with children who want to hold your hand and laugh at the simplest things; remembering gentle professors and the poignant pain of two year anniversaries marking the death of giants upon whose shoulders you stand, in whose footsteps you limp behind. Grace.
Even so, I confess that I am tired. (“You are tired, I think / of the always puzzle of living and doing.”) As the poet says, tired of things that break—including myself—and just…tired. Would that our weariness, our griefs, were taut enough to tightrope across, taut like Robert Frost’s harp-like flowers in morning dew, playing a tenderness that descends upon us in the night. Would that they were more outrightly beautiful, less in dire need of a redeemer.
I believe in a Christ worth the silence. Worth the absence that is so often the mark of his presence, and worth the tears that are so often the indication of his nearnesss. I believe in a Christ who declares that he, he himself, will search out his sheep and rescue them from days of darkness—will find the prodigal and heal the self-injured and feed the deepest hunger. I believe in a Christ who sprinkles clean water on us and replaces hearts of stones with hearts of flesh and will one day make “You shall love the Lord your God” a promise rather than a commandment. I believe; these are truths I find great hope in. But the truth is also that I’m tired.
“In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful”
In my own case, Yeat’s words are a truly spectacular use of understatement, but I take deep comfort in them all the same. Hearts are earned by those that are not entirely beautiful. If there is one thing that keeps me from despair, that gives me a home despite winter’s ruthless uncovering of the deepest places in me, it is the truth that I have earned hearts whose beauty I cannot put to words. There are people in my life who are so good….so broken and human and for those very reasons, so dear to my heart. And each time I fall prey to the darkness that so often makes me less than human, it is their care and prayer and love that make me more than who I could be alone.
I wrote in another post almost exactly two years ago about the privilege of an ache. The privilege of having people you miss, memories you are nostalgic for, blessings you wish you could repeat. Someone once said that the spiritual life is less linear and more spiral, more like descending a staircase and hitting the same few lessons over and over again, but in deeper and richer ways. I am still learning the privilege of this ache–this hollowness that is somehow painfully full, this longing that carves belief into my rib cage. I ache. “I thirst.” I am so deeply sad and uncertain, and yet it is such a privilege, this existence. Being here. Being. Here. Bless what there is for being, says Auden, says Roger Lundin. Bless what there is for being, for what else are we made for? Bless the burning, bruising, bottomless heart of it all, earned by those who are not entirely beautiful.