Maybe whatever seems
to be so, we should speak so from our souls,
never afraid, “Light” when it comes,
“Dark” when it goes away.
The shock of stars at five a.m. The bright belt of Orion and the arc and sweep of those other brilliant, nameless lights and even the blackness glittering.
The smell of wood smoke and fir. The cold, damp air.
I hear the voice of my wife calling from another room: “Do you know where I put my book?”
Standing at the sink rinsing out a bowl, I look up and see a strand of a spider web rising and falling, made visible by the wind. Then another and another, looping from the willow to the roof. Glinting on and off. As if all the shingles and boards of the house are secretly bound with thread.
We all have moments like this, moments that move us somehow, that seem to mean something we can’t quite put into words, but we are embarrassed by them or we doubt them or in the rush of things that happen to us each day we forget about them. For a moment we believed—in something—a presence, a beauty. But we let the moment pass.
“The believer,” Pope Francis says in The Joy of the Gospel, ‘is essentially one who remembers.”
My purpose in this book is to help you remember the moments, and to trust in those moments, to believe in them, by sharing moments from my own life, as a husband and father and grandfather, a teacher of English and a Catholic deacon. “I have said these things to you,” as Jesus tells his disciples, “so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” However small they are, however fleeting, moments like this can lead us to God.
And not just the moments of joy but the moments of loneliness and struggle and fear. Darkness is important, too, and in a way more important, because it’s darkness that teaches us the nature of light. In darkness, too, God is calling us.
This is the idea of the examen of conscience, the much-loved prayer of St. Ignatius, that God is always calling us, the Spirit is always moving in our lives. The examen is a simple but powerful way of remembering, and I mean the scenes and stories that follow to be examples of how it works, how it keeps deepening and opening up.
At the end of each day:
- we remember the light and give thanks for the light;
- we remember the darkness and ask for forgiveness, and refuge, and strength;
- and we let it all go–we ask for the grace to follow the light, to know what we should do—but then we leave it all to God, trusting in his kindness.
The light of grace is always shining, it’s always pouring down, though it’s refracted and scattered and easy to miss, and so one way to pray is to look back on the moments of our day and recall when we saw the light breaking through, and when we didn’t, when we felt it being blocked or opposed.
This is the practice of joy: remembering.
And then releasing–waiting, too, for an idea to form or an intuition to emerge about what God is calling us to do—but waiting with the knowledge that these things are mysteries, beyond understanding, and trying to give up our need for control.
The moments are poetry, not prose. We are rarely given a single, clear message, an unmistakable sign, or at least a message or a sign we can explain in the abstract. The practice of joy is the practice of scene and the practice of story because joy is an experience, not an idea. The best we can do is describe what happened.
The moments are parables. The details are simple and yet there’s something “arresting” about them, as C.H. Dodd says of the details in a parable. We glimpse something, we encounter something, and yet we are left in “sufficient doubt” about what the image means or the details point to that we are “teased into thought,” just as we are by the stories Jesus tells.
The root of the word “parable” in Greek is paraballo, to place one thing beside another, to juxtapose, and this is what Jesus does. He puts images side-by-side. He leaps from one idea to the next. He brings things together and asks us to bring things, too, connecting what we can and accepting what we can’t—accepting everything.
Be not afraid, Jesus says. The light comes and the light goes and all we have to do is see that and name it.
We don’t have to resolve the tensions, and we don’t have to reconcile the opposites, and we can’t. All we can do is live with things the way they are, trusting the days to God–remembering the darkness and remembering the light, and holding them both in our hearts, together, side-by-side. Our only obligation is to speak what is so. Our longing. Our grief.
The stars and the web.
The voice of the one we love, calling from another room.
from my LIGHT WHEN IT COMES: TRUSTING JOY, FACING DARKNESS, AND SEEING GOD IN EVERYTHING (Eerdmans, 2016)