I remember I was sitting on the edge of the couch, clutching the cushions. Life felt so overwhelming and I had reached a physical and emotional, and I suppose spiritual, breaking point. I was pulled in many different directions and discernment seemed futile. Nothing was clear. But one thing was for sure, things had to change. The way I saw it, I had to make some sweeping decisions NOW about what to do and what not to do, or, as the hissing voices suggested: “You aren’t strong enough to continue.” “You won’t be able to serve anyone.” “You are failing at everything.” “This can’t go on.” “It’s up to you to change it.” “Everything is a disaster.” “It won’t get better unless you act.”
And most telling, I see now, is the urgent and overwhelming sense that I needed to make hurried and unconfirmed decisions and I had to make them right away. Give up writing. Let someone else lead the study group. Call and tell them I can’t speak at the event.
But almost immediately, God had an answer. And as with any child, it wasn’t one I was too interested in hearing.
Wait? Wait? Seriously? This was too much to bear. There was no end in sight. Surely He can’t be serious. What about “I can’t do this anymore” was He not getting?
But yes, He was. Because that summer turned out to be a long, lingering, consoling time, and while nothing was solved, still, I found myself sustained. And then fall came, and new opportunities opened up which I could not have foreseen. He had been getting things ready for me, and getting me ready for them. Stretching me, scraping me, emptying me of every bit of my own strength. He loves us that way–because that’s when we really know that what we do is not of our own accord. I needed to reach the end of me, and the Lord knew it. What I also needed to know was that the oppressive feelings of failure and futility would not last forever. There would be sunny days sprinkled in, lots of laughter, bits of brightness.
And guess what? Most of it would come from the very things I had been – tempted – to give up.
God is merciful like that. He really, really does break suffering into bite-sized pieces, even if it’s just the relief of tumbling into bed after an awful day.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his rules for discernment of spirits, emphasizes this reality in the eighth rule. “Let one who is in desolation,” he writes, “work to be in patience, and let him think that he will soon be consoled…”
In other words – wait!
And remember that God knows what He is about, and His timeline always has eternity in mind. Don’t rush into decisions you will live to regret, or work yourself into a frenzy, or be plunged into despair thinking that your situation will never, ever improve. We have an enemy who is banking on us doing exactly that. I overheard a wise friend recently counsel a suffering younger woman, “Just hold tight, and know that the consolations will come again.”
In Setting the Captives Free, Fr. Timothy Gallagher explains this as the “Law of Undulation,” a phrase coined by C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters and “which expresses perfectly the presupposition that underlies rule 8.” He continues, “Lewis writes of human persons that ‘their nearest approach to constancy…is undulation–the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.’”
This is true with everything in life, including the spiritual realm. In other words, ‘normal’ is not a constant straight line, a steady hum, a smooth, level road. ‘Normal’ is like the undulating movement of waves, swelling, building, and then receding again. We simply can’t expect it to be any different.
And if we can remember that when the lying one on our left shoulder suggests, “this will never end,” we can send him packing.
“Therefore, be steadfast in your resolutions. Stay in the boat in which he has placed you, and let the storm come. Long live Jesus! You will not perish. He may sleep, but at the opportune time he will awaken to restore your calm.” – St. Pio of Pietrelcina, quoted in Setting the Captives Free by Fr. Timothy Gallagher, O.M.V.