Shadow Days and the Coldest Winter
Only months ago I believed so firmly with every reassurance in prayer and wise counsel that God was answering a prayer that I had long anguished and toiled with in the innermost parts of my heart. I was beyond happy, even friends and family saw something was different about me. I wasn’t just completely wrong about God’s direction for my life in this particular area but the thing I had been praying about was easily one of the most intensely confusing, longest and coldest winters my heart has weathered. Heartbroken, I cried my way through the whole liturgy of Jonah’s fast one morning.
Rewind to a year ago as 2016 gave way to 2017 and 2017 gave way to 2018; I was confronted by a what felt like an endless string of gut wrenching tragedies, dashed hopes and unkindness from the least expected of places. Sadness I hadn’t felt in years gripped my heart, threatening to freeze me to the bone, squeezing forcefully from it all traces of peace and courage.
I’m still raw from it all. I’m still prone to tears in the middle of the night. I’m still tired.
Sometimes shadow days turn to shadow months which snowball and avalanche into a relentless shadow year. I’m still waiting for winter to end and the snow to melt. My heart is left wondering why must this earthly life be riddled with so so so much loss and grief? How long Lord…Left with no solutions, no answer and in the absence of any feelings of warmth and bravery I have come to hardly recognise myself. Suffering has a way of stripping us naked as we confront the silence.
It is there in that silence that I have been wrestling with the question:
Who will I become after the coldest winter in a thousand freezing years?
I have spent a year flitting back and forth between answers, with no escape and no clue in the world what to do or where to go. Looking at this question and then looking at my distress and crippling disappointment of how different things should have been. “Lord, had you been here…”
We’re told to expect trials in life when we’ve done something wrong, when something is not quite right in our relationship with God – but what happens when we feel we really did try to do what we were supposed to do, yet we are consumed by the shadow of our troubling sorrow. This is sorrow compounded by sorrow. Not only is there pain and loss but there is the crushing sense of God’s absence.
Silence and solitude can be the place of great transformation where we “struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self” but it can also be the most terrifying place when it feels like death and evil, are breathing down your neck, obliterating any sense of safety and comfort, and heightening the sense of inescapable frailty. Sometimes I have wrestled, other times I have taken one look at those questions, slammed the door of my heart when anger flared and smouldered and shut out the morning, all the while feeding the darkness. I don’t know what has brought me back but between grace and faithful friends that refuse to give up or go away, I find myself home again in silence and solitude, with my pain and my God.
So this season I am standing at the brink of the abyss of despair knowing all I have left is naked trust and naked hope that God is still God despite all of the evidence to the contrary, despite the agony and confusion and injustice of it all.
Can I say with Job, “Even if He slay me, yet will I trust in Him”?
Do I turn to Christ or deny Christ (perhaps not so much with my words, but by my actions)?
Do I continue to love others or begin to blame, accuse and condemn others?
Do I become lost in self pity and never-ending reflection?
Do I thank God for all things, or do I grumble in my heart, demanding an explanation and another life?
Every difficult and painful circumstance in our life is a source of temptation. Because we are faced with a choice to say “You can do everything, And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You”(Job 42:2)…or to doubt Him. But with every temptation there is an opportunity. An opportunity to grow in humility and patience.
Do I see myself as much more broken, much poorer, much more sinful and confused and clueless than I had expected?
Do I use my pain to at least strive to choose, to commit my self to God and trust in Him despite everything?
Do I see the silence and solitude as a gift to embrace, to turn death into resurrection, the gift to turn earth into heaven?
Do I remain obedient to Christs’ commands even when I feel abandoned like all this pain has somehow happened behind his back?
I am learning that who I will become after the coldest winter, begins and ends in how I answer these questions. But answering ‘yes’ boldly to those questions isn’t a given, not for me anyway. These are outright miracles – the working of grace in my life. I am humiliated and embarrassed to admit how far I’ve fallen from answering ‘yes.’ This is how, I suppose, I must learn to depend completely on the grace of God. In reality the most of what I can do is to lie down and wait. He wills my obedience despite my disappointment but if it does not always come as easily as I would like, then I remain waiting, knocking, seeking, asking – with the assurance that if I do such things I will in the end receive what I have sought. There is humility in this.
It was said that Saint Anthony had a vision of the world full of snares and traps. In a loud voice he cried out, “Lord, who can overcome these snares and traps?” A gentle voice was heard saying, “The humble.”
Rather than ask for humility, I ask God for mercy acknowledging that I am not humble, that I am not “patient in evils for His love’s sake.” If “humility is nothing but the disappearance of self in the vision that God is all” what does this mean in overcoming the traps of suffering? I offer up my pain like I offer up myself as a living sacrifice through “ardent pursuit of prayer and the outpouring of tears” knowing I am too spiritually dull to know what to do about my pain—except to beg for His help.
Humility is using our present circumstances, no matter how powerless and paralysed we feel, as an opportunity to grow in faith, hope, and love and to better serve Him and our neighbours. Perhaps this is why resting our aching spirit outside the gates of repentance when the world beckons to give us relief from our pain is the hardest part of the silence and solitude.
Humility is continuing to love Him and not forsake what He loves when we are broken, despite how unsatisfying obedience and holiness may feel, which in turn creates a place in us for peace to dwell. There is no peace when we lash out in bitterness and despondency.
Humility is trusting Christ’s tender compassion to provide not what I want but what I need, because He is a good Father. It is doing the next right thing. So putting one foot in front of the other, I find snippets of contentment and calm, I show up for the sacraments and for prayer and I show up in the every day lives of my neighbours to be a salt and a light and to share in their joys and sorrows.
Faithfulness in the midst of dying to ourselves is even more precious than joy after Christ’s Resurrection and the relief of despair. Joy and thanksgiving in tribulation, rooted in the knowledge that I am radically loved by a God who is perfecting me, may be the most precious of all, though this joy and gratitude often eludes me. I am certain in the Resurrection we will see with spiritual eyes and we will weep with understanding, remorse, relief, and immeasurable gratitude. Our shadow days will be over. Winter will end.
“Complete trust in God – that’s what holy humility is. Complete obedience to God, without protest, without reaction, even when some things seem difficult and unreasonable. Abandonment to the hands of God.” Elder Porphyrios
“For in proportion to your humility you are given patience in your woes; and in proportion to your patience, the burden of your afflictions is made lighter and you will find consolation; in proportion to your consolation, your love of God increases; and in proportion to your love, your joy in the Holy Spirit is magnified.” St Isaac the Syrian
“Instinctively we cry, “Make haste unto me.” But He does not always respond at once. Like fruit on a tree , our soul is left to scorch in the sun, to endure the cold wind, the scorching wind, to die of thirst or be drowned in the rain. But if we do not let go of the hem of His garment, all will end well.” Elder Sophrony
God saves the humble who cannot save themselves.