A Cry for Help

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E Tenebris
Oscar Wilde (1856–1900)

COME down, O Christ, and help me! reach thy hand,
For I am drowning in a stormier sea
Than Simon on thy lake of Galilee:
The wine of life is spilt upon the sand,
My heart is as some famine-murdered land
Whence all good things have perished utterly,
And well I know my soul in Hell must lie
If I this night before God’s throne should stand.
‘He sleeps perchance, or rideth to the chase,
Like Baal, when his prophets howled that name
From morn to noon on Carmel’s smitten height.’
Nay, peace, I shall behold, before the night,
The feet of brass, the robe more white than flame,
The wounded hands, the weary human face.

This reflects my mood of the day. For some reason I am better at brooding than at sustained celebration. With the great relief of having the new Pope so swiftly installed, I can turn back to the concerns of my life--why am I, despite all good intention, so distant from God? God is not distant from me--why do I choose not to approach more closely?

The answer all boils down to perceived economics. Consciously or unconsciously, I ask myself the question, "What will it cost?" And the cost piles up--I might lose friends (heaven knows I have precious few), I might become "weird" (that's actually much less of a fear as I already qualify in many people's books for that), I might lose esteem from those around me (this one is more difficult to parse, because I don't know why I should care, and yet the question always comes up), but after these surface thoughts we get down to the nitty-gritty--I will have to change. I will not be able to maintain my comfortable routine. I will have to find His way for me, and I do not walk in the dark well.

Frankly, I'm frightened. God loves me, He always wishes my good--He wishes it more than I am willing to see it. A love this powerful is frightening, it's overwhelming--if it were human we'd be thinking Glen Close and Michael Douglas. But it is not human, it is supernatural and transcendent. And that makes it all the more frightening.

I think that is why John Paul the Great's continuing message to us all appealed so much to me. "Be not afraid." My conception of God is not God, my thoughts about God are not God, my fears about God are not God. I am afraid of change. I'm afraid of trusting one to walk in the dark. And I do not need to be afraid.

And all of that wars against this still stronger urge to follow wherever He might lead. He will show me the way home. He will find for me the right path. He will be my friend, my guide, and my Lord.

And vacillating I say, "And what will I have to give up for this great guide?" What will it cost me. Will I, like John Bunyan's Pilgrim, leave my house alone and wander the countryside through Vanity Fair and the Slough of Despond, forsaking what is familiar for what is cold and uncertain? And if I do, what will happen? All of this is colored by past experience, by the antipathy of society for religion, by the antipathy of most for a true follower of Christ. Do I want to forsake what little I possess in the way of positive popular opinion for Jesus Christ? Do I want to sink still lower in the chain of being, so far as those around me are concerned?

The truth is, I am weak. I am led more by my head than by my heart. This was one of the chief reasons St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila spoke so much to me. They are led by the heart. And what is more, my head is not nearly so strong, so useful as I would like to think. I used to have a pretty high estimate of my own abilities, but a few months in St. Blogs will cut that down to proper size. One quickly learns that what one thought to be first rank is once again revealed to be second, third, or fourth rank. That realization is frightening, but in the mysterious way of God it is also heartening.

But all of this is the work of the Holy Spirit, cajoling me along, encouraging me to abandon my opinion of myself, to leave myself behind to emerge as God would have me be.

Inside every single person there is a Saint who desires to be released to effect his or her work on the world. To do so will dramatically change our lives, who and what we think we are. To realize my Saint, I will have to abandon illusion and self-deception. That is why I said that the revelations of a time in St. Blogs are salutary. The self deceptions, the places one uses to hide oneself, are gradually removed. Nothing is left but the raw encounter with the mirror, and with time the Holy Spirit changes our fun-house mirrors into flat reflecting glass. And I, for one, don't much care for the image that is materializing in that mirror. Rather, I should become the mirror that reflects the glory of the Son. That is what Sainthood is all about.

And I become less afraid when I realize that the road to Sainthood is not the road to oblivion, as it would be were I Buddhist. I do not seek the annihilation of the self, but rather I seek to extinguish the false self, the little candle that I carry before me to ward off the dark. And in the darkness that prevails afterwards, there stands revealed the light which is so brilliant that it can be seen only as darkness so long as we are following our own lights. It is like that moment in the old movie Journey to the Center of the Earth when they extinguish their lanterns to discover all around them a phosphorescent glow that gives off far more light that their little lanterns generated. I am afraid of the darkness, but I need not be, because in that darkness I will see the true light, and that true light will show me who I am in Christ. I will not be so much extinguished as lit from within, I will become Light for the World, the lamp to place on a lampstand. And my doing so will not be to my credit, nor will I even see that light. Rather it will all redound to the greatness and the glory of God.

But the human self says, "What will it cost." I'm afraid of spending a few pennies, of losing my hard-won meager human estate because I don't believe that it will result in a wealth beyond imaging. Not mine to hold, but mine to distribute to all the needy--freely given and overflowing--the munificence of God Himself. So I cling to the poverty I imagine as wealth.

This vast "commodius vicus of recirculation brings us back to Howth Castle and Environs,"--the poem that started this chain of thought. Out of the shadows, out of the depths, out of the darkness, I cry, Lord help me. I am drowning in a stormier sea--a storm of my own making in the shallow sea of self--the tempest I toss up every time I want to run away--my good excuse for battening the hatches and closing down all possible access. When I cry out of the darkness, the cry is always the same--save me from my headstrong ways. "My heart is as some famine-murdered land," I am selfish and self centered--completely caught up in me, because after all the vast story of salvation really is all about ME. When I read the Bible, it isn't a message for the world, it's all for ME. I am the center and all circulates about I. I, I. And in a moment it is possible to see that attitude for the ugliness it is. My heart is a famine-murdered land, and yet in that land are the Elijahs, fed by ravens, the Widow of Zarapheth who offers her last food. The sun that burnt this land to dryness because that was the only way to purify it from the weeds that had taken it over, that same Sun will restore the produce of the land, if only I consent to it.

I stand in the darkness of the night of self and call on God to help me out of the shadow into light. I have lived my life in such a way as to swell that shadow to so great an extent that it will require many days' passage to escape from it. And yet, if I am willing, I shall be healed. That is the paradox of the biblical passage. The leper who approaches Jesus and says, if you are willing, I shall be cleansed. But it isn't Jesus' willingness that is the key factor, he is always willing. We learn that he was unable to work any miracles in his homeland--not because He was unwilling, but because those in the land were. It is my willingness that predicates healing. I say in Mass, "Only say the word and I shall be healed." But if I put up a shield and barrier to keep Him out, I will not be healed. I can resist the healing touch, I can refuse change, I can snuff out any candle, and light. But if I am willing, I shall be healed. There is my hope, because I am willing. At the same time as I am frightened, I am willing to be transformed. Like standing at the edge of a vast pool of cold water on the first day of summer, it is only a matter of taking the plunge--of losing my breath for a single moment to emerge in a new world.

Oh, but how the old man resists, how his head is filled with thoughts of how unpleasant that coldness is. How he dips in a toe, perhaps a whole foot. He walks to the pool ladder and lowers himself halfway, but when that cold water reaches his belly, he pulls himself out of the pool as fast as he can. The only thing for it is a trusting plunge--very few make it by degrees. It may not be impossible, but it certainly is the more difficult way. But the old man resists this transformation.

If only I could learn to see the sun and stop staring at the feeble candle I carry thinking it the source of all light. For indeed, it is a greater source of shadow than of light. E tenebris.

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It is time to give up and surrender, Steven.

Doesn't Wilde have a beatific vision at the end of the sonnet? I think the volta between lines 11 and 12, an unexpected place, indicates the suddenness of that vision, that theophany (Christophany).

Though it may be of no great consolation to the current state of your soul, Steven, the struggle before victory seems to be a common thread throughout salvation history.

Providentially, we will trade our feet of clay for His feet of brass, our stained and tattered robes for His robe more white than flame.

Dear Chris,

Thank you. However, this was written with a personal perspective to represent what I think is a common reality in the lives of those searching for closeness with God. This isn't merely the current state, it is a kind of ongoiong tension, and it isn't nearly so bad as it might sound.

I think I trace the same theophany, with the proviso of my own willingness to do so, in the course of the discussion. If we are willing to leave self behind we will come out of the shadows and into the true light where everything may be see as it is. Unlike Stevens's "Blue Guitar" "Things as they are are not changed upon God's guitar." Rather like the platonic vault of the ideal, the light of God shows things both in the way they are and in the way they ought to be. That is one of the things we can see when we come out of the shadows.



The tune of "Onward Christian Soldiers" popped into my mind after reading your post. Growing up in the Presbyterian Church, we sang this song regularly always accompanied by a thunderous organ. As a child, I visualized Christians going forth, en masse, with swords in hands, gleaming against the sun, led by Jesus' cross. Can't you just visualize Jesus' delight and glee with all these Christians going forth, as one body, swords in hand, striking down Satan and his minions as we all marched onward as one? Sadly, in this secular world, it seems to be an individual battle to garner up enough courage and faith to take a headfirst leap into that cold water -- perhaps that's why that song popped into my head, I really don't know, but wanted to share my thoughts. Thanks for sharing yours so eloquently.

How ironic that you who so clearly reflect the light spoken of in the first letter of St. John should not see the benefit of that light to yourself. The chief of sinners prays for you while asking your prayers.

Your comments express pretty much where I spend much of the time lodged. It often seems God and I are at cross purposes: I want to be in Heaven, he wants me to be on earth. I want to stay the same, he wants me to improve. I want bliss, he wants my improvement, which often involves non-bliss.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 20, 2005 7:21 AM.

Prayers for Purity was the previous entry in this blog.

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