Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Flickering Flame

As an acolyte at Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal, I’ve spent a good part of the last year-and-a-half standing at the Western door with my hand cupped around a candle, protecting the flame from the breezes following our congregants through the doors. In summer, the winds are hot, longing to lift the hair off my neck. In winter, the winds burn with an icy, cutting fire that works its way down to my very bones. But always, always, the door opens and the wind dances around my candle, bending my flame this way and that as it flickers against the changing currents. So I stand with my hand shielding the fire, guarding it from the breeze and feeling the unwavering heat against my palm.

Over the years, I’ve often heard it said that faith is like that flame you have to shelter from the wind. People will talk about faith as though it’s a fire we have to feed, that we have to tend, that we have to preserve against the winds and forces that would blow it out. We talk about not hiding our flame, but letting it shine. We talk about faith as a fragile thing that ebbs and flows and sometimes threatens to go out.

To some extent that’s true: we experience our faith as ebbing and flowing because it’s alive, and within us moves and has its being. We experience our faith as sometimes flaring up, as sometimes guttering, and as sometimes a steady burn. But that’s our experience of faith. Our faith, more truly, is a gift from God given in and through the Holy Spirit. Although the way we experience faith is mutable, it’s a mistake to think this means our faith is inconstant and changeable, that we can lose it or throw it away or allow its fire to go out. Although we may resist our faith, because we resist God, it is always still there, closer to us that we are to ourselves, as God is.

Lately, I’ve been feeling my life is like that flame, flickering and failing and threatening to go out in the violent breezes. Sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe, like there’s no more air, nothing to sustain me – and I think of the recurrent nightmare I had throughout childhood, where something that should be light is inexplicably heavy instead, and it is pressing down and suffocating me, until suddenly I am falling and falling, waking up when I hit the ground in terror.

Sometimes I feel like there’s too much air, too much everything, tearing and pulling at me, pushing me to and fro. And I don’t know if I can bear it.

The strong winds are arrayed against me, and I cannot withstand them. I feel my clothing pressing against my ribcage, my necklace lying against my collarbone, and I cannot abide it. Touching my skin irritates me, and I do not understand it. My veins, so close to the surface, torment me all day with thoughts that I should open them, and I am weary of resisting. I am weary of not being able to read and follow complex texts and movies. I am tired of the constant, constant sadness and emotional pain. I am weary of not wanting to eat, of not enjoying food, of not caring about what I’m wearing, of not having the strength to put on makeup, and of existing. I’m tired of not sleeping, and of staring at walls. It wears away at me, day by day, as I hold the burden. Thoughts of my own unworthiness, of my guilt, of what I have allowed to happen to me, swirl in my head. It is the nature of depression to lie, and the line between the truth and the lie becomes thin and invisible as a razor’s edge; my mind is fragmenting against itself, and I am afraid I will not be able to know the difference. Night falls fast, and the darkness is my constant companion. I see my life, like the fragile flame, flickering, and I am afraid of the darkness that will fall if it goes out.

My life is like the burning flame, and I am ambivalent about whether or not I want it to go out. I remember, when I was 19, waking up in the freezing ICU, attached to heart monitors and IV’s, with blood molded to my nostril where they had shoved down one of the tubes for pumping my stomach. I remember waking up with the absolute conviction that I was alive because God had decided to save me. I was angry with Him, but I felt like I owed it to Him to struggle to keep living. I remember, when I was 23, waking up in the emergency room, setting off alarms as I tried to remove my own IV line to stab myself with the sturdy needle. I remember feeling like a failure, disappointed that I was alive, and not knowing how this fit into God’s plan or what the point was. I remember my psychiatrist crying, and feeling like I owed it to him to keep trying.

I don’t know how I would feel, at 30, if I woke up again. I don’t know if I would be relieved or disappointed, forgiving of myself or deeply ashamed. But I do know that it’s important for me that people understand certain things, like that this might be the course my illness always has to take, and that while I can try to forestall it I am not always in control. And I’m sorry for what this does to the people around me, and I know I’m not the only one affected. And I’m sorry.

If I am the flickering flame, my faith is the hand cupped around me trying to keep me from going out. It’s important to me that people understand God has not failed. God is with me, I know He hasn’t abandoned me. I know that God said all is falling into darkness and God is the light, and I know that I need to hold on to the light. This isn’t about God failing, or my faith not being strong enough. If the candle goes out, that doesn’t say anything about the hand guarding it. It says only that the flame is too fragile, too weak, and the winds too strong.

Once, as part of a procession, I took my candle outside and the wind blew it out. It was just too much, and I couldn’t protect the whole flame. God’s hand is like that: it doesn’t completely surround you, because God treasures the flame and wants it to be. Under a bell jar, the fire would burn steady and then suffocate, starved of air. God’s love for us, as people and as humanity, means that He allows us to flicker, to burn unevenly, to shine in the world, and to be blown out.

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:37-39).

Sunday, December 1, 2013

To Become Like Children

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire” (Mt 18:8-9).

Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, Christianity is not a religion that generally promotes self-mutilation. Sure, there are exceptions: Opus Dei and some religious orders practice self-flagellation as part of the mortification of the flesh; crucifixion of the faithful to celebrate Good Friday in the Philippines; the occasional castration of singers, and monks who long too boldly. But for the most part, we consider the body sacred, a temple unto the Lord. And yet, here is Jesus, telling us to chop off our hands and feet, to pluck out our eyes, if they cause us to sin.

Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us that it is not what we put into the body that defiles, but what comes out of it (Mt 15:10-20). Taken together with this passage, we are presented with a human person whose being is profoundly embodied. The hand is not somehow being acted upon by the mind or spirit, being caused by the mind or spirit to sin. The hand is sinning, is the sin. The hand is not something that is defiled by being outside the self; nor is it a part or thing that can come into contact with you and defile you, leaving the soul blameless.

There is in the Christian tradition a profound pattern of trying to make the body bear the brunt of sin, the burden of sin, by saying that the flesh corrupts the spirit, as if the two are somehow separate. Chopping off your own hand is a sort-of metaphor for cutting out all the bits of you that lead you to sin. What good is it to cut off the hand if the desire for sin remains? Sin arises from each and every part of you, not just the one bit or the other, the body or the soul. It’s a question of the whole person, and the sometimes drastic changes we need to make to be able to stop committing particular sins.

I struggle with this passage because I struggle to understand exactly how much, and in what ways, my depression is leading me to sin. Apart from some of the more extreme things I’ve done while in the grip of depression (which are clearly sins) there are all sorts of ways my illness causes me to sin. It makes me more self-centered and self-absorbed because I begin to live in a bubble of my pain. It makes me less aware of other people and their pain. It makes me put myself, and my struggles, at the centre of my life instead of God. It makes me angry and hate myself. It makes me believe that my life is pointless, and meaningless, and that there’s no good reason to do anything, or even to keep going at all.

Is depression a part of me, or is it something that comes from outside and does not defile? The question plagues me because I struggle with knowing whether or not what it causes me to do is sin, or just illness. I think the answer is complicated. I think there isn’t just one answer. My depression lives inside me, in my body and in my mind, and so is profoundly who I am, and its sins are mine. My depression is not me but something that has gone wrong inside of me, a thing apart from me that cannot defile, though it resides within me, and its sins are not mine.

Both statements are true. Both statements are false. My depression and I are intertwined in complicated, unknowable ways, and while we can be conceived of separately, we are not, in fact, separate. Sort of how my body, mind, and soul are not separate. The difference is that I will always be embodied, but at the judgement only I will be thrown into the fire, and all that I am, and nothing that I am not.

We all have things about us that lead us to sin. Desires, personality traits, impulses of the flesh. And it isn’t as simple as chopping off your arm and being done with the whole business. There are things in the world that lead us into temptation (My 18:7), and we must try to avoid them. There are things about ourselves that lead us into temptation, and we can’t avoid them; we must strive to change ourselves, to get rid of those things. It’s painful, far more painful and difficult than plucking out an eye. We must be willing, in the face of God, to let go of those parts of ourselves that in their own way make us who we are, that they may be thrown into the fire so that we may have life.

Jesus tells us that we must “turn and become like children” (Mt 18:3) by humbling ourselves. It’s difficult to admit that there are parts of us that are just plain wrong. It’s difficult to admit that our lives, in all their glory and sorrow, are permeated by sin. It’s difficult to let go of the parts of ourselves that lead us especially to sin, because it’s always difficult to let go. We cling, and we cling, and we cling to our selves, to who and what we are, as if it will save us or be what about us is saved. But to have eternal life we must be willing to lose our lives (Mt 16:25). Jesus will save us, and we will not be saved by anything that we are. But we will be transformed, and we will be different. The old self will have to be let go, and we need to be ready and willing to do it.

No one can live this life free from sin, though we are called to struggle with all our might against it. Thankfully, we have God on our side: “it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Mt 18:14). God is helping us as we seek to turn and be like children, to be humble enough to admit our faults, and to seek a better way – God’s way – no matter what the cost.