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).

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