Beth didn’t get the job. She’d known it was competitive but she’d nailed the interview and was almost sure she’d get hired. It would mean rather than her own apartment and a life of her own after graduation, she’d be returning to her dysfunctional parents’ house in the small town where she was raised. She’d gone to school in a big city on purpose and she’d had every intention of getting away from her past for good. She felt like after four years of working like hell, if she was going to land right back where she started, where she didn’t want to be, it had all been for nothing.
Jason had known for a long time that his girlfriend was looking for something different. She’d told him so, but he still couldn’t believe it when she ended their three-year relationship to start seeing someone else. He’d been pretty sure that she was “the One” but to add insult to injury he suspected she’d already been seeing this guy for a while and that Jason was just the last to know. Their group of friends was splitting into two, his defenders and hers, and the camaraderie and the always knowing where they’d be spending weekends and nights out was coming to a close. He knew his life wasn’t over but it was really feeling that way.
The last thing any of us want to hear when our hearts are broken is “There, there dear, God has a plan.” Illness, a break up, losing a loved one—the struggles and losses of our lives can seem sometimes disconnected from our spiritual selves and yet in our solitary moments it is just those things that threaten to overwhelm and defeat us most completely. Those are the things that, unless we can make some deeper sense of them, can cause us to become bitter, cynical and most dangerously, to give up hope.
Like Jason and Beth I’ve been to that point where I’ve found myself asking, “God, why would you give me something so wonderful only to take it away?” It can seem like God is playing some kind of sick game. With the prevailing Internet theology of “If you do what God wants then God will do what you want” (send this to 10 people in the next 10 minutes and see how God blesses you) we wander into some scary territory. Does that mean then if I’m suffering that I must have displeased God in some way? On a good day I know better than this, but making meaning of our struggles in a way that respects the complexity and nuance of our lives can be difficult. When life comes along with a hard right and knocks our faith out cold we need a better answer.
I remember during one particularly rough patch not being on speaking terms with God. I hadn’t stopped believing really, I was just pretty disgusted at what a lousy job God seemed to be doing with my life. In the front of my mind most days was an old Tori Amos lyric God sometimes you just don’t come through, do you need a woman to look after you? I was definitely feeling Tori’s rage. In the back of my mind though an image kept nagging me. I come from up north, a few miles from one of the Great Lakes and in a driving snowstorm the snow comes, not down from above but sideways, flying at your face, stinging and biting on the wind. All you can do is bow your head, look at the next place you’ll put your feet, and keep moving forward.
That was the picture that kept floating to the surface in my anger and disappointment, of trudging exhausted, endlessly through a driving snow. But here’s the funny part. As my internal voice kept a stony angry silence, after all why bother talking to a God who’d basically been on lunch break for the last six months he certainly wasn’t listening to me, that image became my comfort. Comfort because whenever I thought of it I also had a sense of not being alone. Though I couldn’t “see” left or right or anything but my own feet, I also knew that I hadn’t been abandoned and that even if I wasn’t alright right now, eventually I would be. Out of my anger a deep sense of gratitude began to grow. All that had died in me was coming back to life.
The Paschal Mystery, which we celebrate most vividly during Holy Week, is another name for that crossroads, the place where faith and real life meet. This time of the church year starting on Palm Sunday and moving through the most sacred days of the liturgical year—Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday—draws us deep into the heart of that mystery. It’s the church’s name for the life, death, and resurrection of Christ but it’s not just a theological concept. The Paschal Mystery is a kind of roadmap for getting through our own lives—a model for knowing that our “dyings” come with “risings” built in. For me it means knowing I have a confidante and a companion who understands the deep joy and the terrible pain of being human. Jesus’ suffering & death makes me know that I have someone who has faced the worst human beings can do to each other and didn’t run from it. The Paschal Mystery reminds me that in the name of love someone surrendered everything, and the power of that love made something completely new happen. That because of it I’m entitled to live without fear, in a sense that I’ve got the biggest big brother on the block.
Beth eventually got a job in her field. Though she lived at home for a whole year and her family drove her nuts in all the same old ways, it gave her the opportunity to improve her relationship with her mom. Jason did fall in love again, but this time with someone who felt the same way about him. I moved through my dark time and God and I are on speaking terms again, and actually even a little better than we were before. Here’s the thing—you can run, but you can’t hide. Accepting suffering is part of becoming a “spiritual grown up.” Beth, Jason, me and you, we all have that in common. Our disillusionment is bound, sooner or later, to rub up against our belief. But being human, with a God who has traveled this same path, means having a God who “gets it.”
What’s the Pascal Mystery have to do with me? During mass Catholics say the answer out loud in the Eucharistic prayer when the whole assembly prays together—dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life.