beheld in the desert


Camille Corot, Hagar in the Wilderness, 1835, oil on canvas.

Mental illness flung me into a desert last Lent. It wasn’t a desert I planned to enter for piety’s sake—not a safe desert and not a desert I could find my way out of when it got too hard.

I called it a desert because I wanted to find meaning in what I was suffering. I wanted to believe that the Spirit had flung me out there like he flung Jesus after his baptism, and that, after some pain and struggle, I’d come out victorious and find that the season had a purpose. I wanted to write a good story.

But I quickly realized that the metaphor wasn’t romantic. The desert was cruel and incoherent. I still can’t wrestle a narrative out of it. And I certainly came to no victory on my own.

Most of the time my thoughts were abusing me in the pit of the netherworld. On rare occasions, they’d swing me up to a height where I’d wonder why I’d ever thought anything was wrong with me. Neither world told the truth. So I couldn’t trust my thoughts. Even my therapist told me to distract myself from them. Prayer and reflection, the two things that keep me grounded in myself and God, weren’t safe anymore. I didn’t know who I was, and I couldn’t see God either.

Imagine bringing that wounded, estranged self out in public. I felt like a leper. I spread shame wherever I went. And at home, my instability brought out latent sins and magnified others till I’d never felt so dirty and so powerless to become clean.

I kicked against the meaninglessness of the desert. I fought for a story. And I came up with nothing.

I did nothing, and something changed.

God entered my imagination, toward the end of the forty days, and I saw myself in the presence of the Father. I was dirty, wounded, naked—and yet covered from head to toe in tender love. I could stand in that loving presence fully exposed, and yet fully at peace with myself. That love stilled my questions and my search for meaning. It was the Answer and the Satisfaction. And in the stillness it brought, I found the freedom to truly lament.

That Sunday, I sang the Kyrie like it was a wail—and I saw Jesus look at me. I was in the crowd watching him on the dusty road to Golgotha, and he stopped, and turned, and looked into my eyes—oh, the gaze of my Lord—and I looked into his. In that brief beholding I knew he was there in all my suffering, and he felt the pain of it too. Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.

The desert didn’t end there, but it was changed. I didn’t experience a dramatic healing; I couldn’t write a story of triumph. But I could say with Hagar that “I have seen the One who sees me.” And I have seen that he is good.


Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide, till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide; O receive my soul at last.

Other refuge have I none, hangs my helpless soul on Thee;
Leave, ah! leave me not alone, still support and comfort me.
All my trust on Thee is stayed, all my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenseless head with the shadow of Thy wing.

Wilt Thou not regard my call? Wilt Thou not accept my prayer?
Lo! I sink, I faint, I fall—Lo! on Thee I cast my care;
Reach me out Thy gracious hand! While I of Thy strength receive,
Hoping against hope I stand, dying, and behold, I live.

Thou, O Christ, art all I want, more than all in Thee I find;
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint, heal the sick, and lead the blind.
Just and holy is Thy Name, I am all unrighteousness;
False and full of sin I am; Thou art full of truth and grace.

Plenteous grace with Thee is found, grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound; make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art, freely let me take of Thee;
Spring Thou up within my heart; rise to all eternity.

Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1740

Jesus, Lover of My Soul


Christ suffers impassibly in that his suffering is the consequence neither of any weakness nor of any external necessity, but solely within the parameters of the strength of his divine power and out of the compassion of his divine mercy.

J. Warren Smith in SUFFERING IMPASSIBLY: Christ’s Passion in Cyril of Alexandria’s Soteriology. PRO ECCLESIA VOL. XI, No. 4


the cross

Good Friday at Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem  (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Good Friday at Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

On Maundy Thursday, after washing each other’s feet and celebrating the Last Supper, we shrouded the cross, stripped down the altar of its adornments, and changed our robes to black. We processed, perhaps one hundred of us, down the dark streets of Wheaton, in utter silence. We bore the cross, that emblem of love, to our neighbors.

A few days earlier, a friend, a former Catholic, told me about the long Maundy Thursday night he spends praying in churches throughout the city. It seemed like a foreign kind of religiosity. I didn’t understand.

That night, I followed the cross for two miles, in the unseasonable cold. My lower back was stiff, as if my spine were made of rusty gears. The grating sound they made, turning, was the pain I felt. But I pushed my weak, weak body. I followed that cross with all the strength I had. Somehow, I was joining myself with Christ in his agony on the Mount of Olives. Christ’s passion was real, and near. I had never wanted to gaze too long into Christ’s passion before.

When we came back to the church, it was mostly empty, and so still. We sat (oh, sweet relief) around the baptismal font, the few of us left, and we were so quiet. We sat, and sat, some singing softly, some praying, one weeping. My heart was still. I did not pray. What would I pray? When someone you love suffers, you don’t say much. You sit up with them. Though I did not pray, my silence was filled with peace and comfort, and a longing to be near to Christ. But I still did not understand.

My strongest memory of Easter, before now, was from when I was about seven. My little brother Aaron was sick, so my mom stayed home with him. I sat in one of the pews of our fundamentalist Baptist church with just my dad, and endured the sermon. That Easter Sunday sermon, absurdly, was about the crucifixion, in vivid medical detail. My whole body squirmed in discomfort. My breath was shallow. The cross stood in judgment over me. The cross was my fault. And for many, many more years, this was what it meant to me.

This year I celebrated Good Friday, and the cross. For the first time in my life, when I saw the cross, I saw love. God had been preparing me for this. As I learned to share my suffering with Christ, and came to know Christ suffering with me, the suffering of the cross ceased to stand outside of me, to judge me. Instead, it drew me near, and I met Christ there. I met Christ there. His love, oh, his love.

Before that moment, Eddy’s love for me (what a beautiful, self-giving love) was the strongest love I knew. Eddy’s love was how I pictured God’s love, if I believed in God’s love at all. Afterward, I understood how women could be nuns, and I wept for the Parousia. Oh, Christ, give me one more vision of you.


offering issac

The Sacrifice of Isaac, Juan de Valdés Leal

The Sacrifice of Isaac, Juan de Valdés Leal

I’ve always left the doctor’s office discouraged. I haven’t felt good or strong in years, despite getting as much nourishment and rest as I can, and doctors can never figure me out. It’s always something “idiopathic,” which I think means, “All in your head.” Well, I finally met a good doctor, who listened, and told me I was in the wrong place. Find a neurologist, he said. What do neurologists treat? I didn’t know.

They treat Multiple Sclerosis. That one thing that one doctor wanted to test for over three years ago. That was the time that I didn’t listen. Multiple Sclerosis? No, not me. Multiple Sclerosis? Well, it could fit.

So I saw the neurologist, prompted by that week of headaches that never seemed to end, and I filled out her never ending questionnaire. She was a tiny, Chinese woman, with a bright smile, and a cheerful giggle. She tapped my knee with her toy hammer, and giggled. She tapped my knee with her tiny fingers, and giggled harder. My leg shot out like a horse in a derby, and I giggled too. I had never known why doctors play with those toy hammers before now.

I could barely make out “central nervous system,” and I don’t know what else she said, but those two letters, M and S, are still echoing in my mind. “Get an MRI, and if it’s abnormal, you come back to see me, and if not, you’re fine.” She popped out of her chair with an exuberant smile and showed me the door.

The past few weeks had been scary. Weak, tense muscles so that I couldn’t wave my palm branch or stand for the whole liturgy. Tingly patches in a few fingers and toes, and, awkwardly, my butt cheek. The right side of my lips sending electric shocks at a gentle touch. Trembling knees on the stairs. An unnerving twitch down my right side. Ringing in my ear, loss of balance. And those headaches that wouldn’t end. (Not everything at once, of course, lest you think I’m miserable!) Then there was the question: Could this be the rest of my life?

I have this pet imaginary future, in which I climb mountains and wrestle with my kids, and I’m a teacher and I show up to my classes to teach. But who would employ a girl who needs this many sick days?

A few hours after the visit with the neurologist, I was immersed in liturgy. It was Holy Week, and throughout that week, we kept returning to Abraham, climbing the mountain with his precious son and wrestling him onto the altar. God’s promise to Abraham, that son Issac, was Abraham’s future and his very life. When Abraham sunk into Sheol, what would his life mean, if not for Isaac, and then Jacob, and Jacob’s sons? God was asking Abraham to offer up his life.

But Abraham trusted God.

After I had heard the story a few times, I realized that God was asking me, too, to offer up my health, yes, my very life, to him. I said yes. Peace overflowed, and still overflows. It was a moment of faith, and I felt triumphant. I know, however, that my faith is far from complete. Yesterday’s moment of faith asks obedience of the rest of my life. Oh Lord, help me when I say no. Oh Lord, I am always saying no.

James says, “Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.”

May my faith, as I face this possible diagnosis, and offer up my physical strength to God day by day, be made complete, too.


participation goes both ways

Feast Day of Divine Mercy, Stephen B. Whatley.

Feast Day of Divine Mercy, Stephen B. Whatley. Pastel on paper.

Pain after pain. For a week, the pain burned along my trigeminal nerve, burrowing behind my eye and nostril, alternating from the right side to the left. I’d swallow an Imitrex, waiting for hours– “God! God! Help me!”– until the pain reset. And then it would start building on the other side of my face. By the end of that week, anything would leave me in tears. Exhausted.

Could this be the rest of my life?

One night, alone, I drew a bath for my feet. Multiple pairs of socks, slippers, blankets, and they were still cold. I sat at the edge of the tub and rest my head on my knees and began to pray. Well, I don’t pray. I don’t pray. And I’d been avoiding God all week. Wasn’t God to blame?

But I turned my face to God and I said, simply, “God, I don’t want to be angry.”

Immediately, Ι was overwhelmed with comfort. And then I knew: Christ suffers with me. He holds me close enough to feel each throb in himself. I was overwhelmed. I stripped, lit some candles, turned off the lights, and lay in the bath, in silence, in the dark, beholding Christ’s love.