One of my favourite passages in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) recounts an incident between Alice and the Red Queen. The Red Queen starts to run, holding Alice by the hand. The Queen keeps crying out: ‘Faster! Faster!’ Just as Alice is beginning to feel that they are going as fast as they possibly can, so fast that they are almost flying, they come to a standstill. Alice is taken aback to see that they are in exactly the same place as before. She questions the Red Queen, who replies promptly:
‘If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.’
The Red Queen’s comment, although frustrating for poor, tired Alice, feels very applicable to my spiritual life sometimes. With a perfectionistic temperament, I often have the nagging feeling that I have slowed down too much in my spiritual efforts and that if I ‘just did more’, all my problems would go away. My answer is to redouble my efforts, applying myself even more intently to daily spiritual exercises. Sooner or later, I discover to my exasperation that I still have the same problems. Just as for the Red Queen and Alice, determined sprinting seems to have left me in the same place.
At different times, the Lord in His great kindness has shown me that this isn’t His will. In fact, it is often the exact opposite that He is asking of me. He is asking me to wait, to slow down, and to let Him act in His own time.
Fr Robert Spitzer, in his great book on enduring suffering with faith, The Light Shines On in the Darkness, points out that one of the Enemy’s tactic, when he sees Christians making some improvement in a virtue like humility, is to suggest that they could do even better, go a little faster, apply themselves harder. In doing so, he tries to push them into ‘exhaustion or spiritual pride—or both’. These insinuations that we need to go ‘faster, stronger, harder’, Fr Spitzer writes, are ‘usually the tactics of the Evil One’. The answer? ‘Go back to who God is – the Father of the prodigal son.’
The psychologist Dr Gregory Bottaro talks a lot in his Catholic Mindfulness lectures about the failure of the ruminating, ‘doing mind’ to solve our problems. Sometimes, he explains, the reality is counterintuitive: we have to exert less effort to move in the right direction.
As St Thérèse wrote, doctors put their patients to sleep before they operate on them. In the same way, the Lord who ‘gives to His beloved sleep’ (Psalm 127) can work miracles when we are not looking. Some of the greatest graces I have received have been when I felt spiritually exhausted and inactive.
Fr Jacques Phillippe, in his beautiful book In the School of the Holy Spirit, says: ‘The only commandment is to love. We can suffer in love, but we can also rejoice in love and rest in love.’
It is very true that the ‘love of Christ urges us on’ (2 Corinthians 5:14) But at the same time, He ‘gives us rest in green pastures’ and ‘leads us near restful waters’. And sometimes it has been at the very hardest times in my life that He desired that rest for my spirit.
This Palm Sunday, listening to Luke’s account of the Passion, I was struck by the last words of the reading: ‘And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment.’ (Luke 23:56)
These holy women were in deep grief and mourning. Their hearts were broken; Jesus was dead. But they still faithfully did the one thing that God was asking them to do: they rested. And how great was their reward the next day! On Easter Sunday, the time would come for action again. The holy women would begin running again in joy to spread the news of the Resurrection.
Good Friday was the time to suffer in love. On Holy Saturday, the call was to rest in love. And on Easter Sunday, the call was new again: this time to rejoice in love.
As women, we can easily feel guilty for not ‘doing’ enough, whether in our personal, professional or spiritual lives. It is beautiful and freeing to discover that at times, all the Lord might be asking of us is to fulfil our daily tasks peacefully, even restfully, and wait for Him to ‘make all things new’.
It’s been years now since I left the convent: I’ve passed through all those different stages of grief (or rather, bounced back and forth between them like a ping-pong ball) and finally come to something resembling acceptance. The pain is no longer raw and immediate, which is a relief. However, there’s a drawback: it’s harder to find inspiration than it used to be. How do I set the world on fire, as Saint Catherine of Siena exhorts, when my usual aspiration is simply to use a limited supply of energy to get out of bed and make it through a day at work? And how can anyone rejoice while holding on to the memory of religious life, or even sometimes the Catholic Faith itself, like the remnants of a parachute that failed to open?
The message of Advent is, “Stay awake and keep watch! He is coming, and we do not know the hour!” These four weeks have compelled us to be alert, both practically, as we handle the pre-Christmas rush at work and family duties at home, and spiritually, with reminders of the immanent coming of Christ and exhortations to be prepared to receive Him – and we’re tired.
The message of Christmas, however, is, “Rest.”
The Guest for Whom we were preparing is here, and has fallen asleep in the manger. Christmas is gentle, domestic: a young mother asleep on a hay bale beside her Son, surrounded by quiet beasts and watched over by her husband. We are weary, drained and battered in soul – so were they. They had walked a long way in uncertain times. At Christmas, though, they have reached a place of shelter, safety and peace, and they offer us the same.
It’s not easy to be Catholic, and the longer you make a sincere effort to be so, the harder it gets. God can seem distant to women who have left the convent, but every Christmas we remember how close He came to us, and in the gentlest, least imposing way He could: who could be afraid of a baby? A baby can’t answer the questions we most need answered – why couldn’t I have stayed in the convent? What am I going to do with my future? – but instead, simply looks up at us with the dark, solemn eyes that newborns have, and invites us to set aside our fears and be with Him for a while. We still seek God, and in this octave we remember that He also came to seek us.
If you’ve had a rough year, this is the turning point: a baby is always a sign of the future, and this Baby more so than any. May the peace of Christ be with you, and may you have a gentle, happy year ahead.
I have always seen Advent as a beautiful season of hope and joyful expectation. I fell in love with Advent when I entered my religious community. There’s something about the quiet waiting of our Blessed Mother that has resonated so deeply with me.
For the first time in eight years, I am spending Advent at home with my family, instead of in the convent. I made the decision to leave the community six months ago, after more than seven years as a religious Sister. I chose to leave during a period of intense desolation, and looking back, I see that I acted in haste, without any true discernment. At the time, I was sure I was at peace with my choice, but my former postulant directress very wisely told me, “What you feel is relief, not peace.” I brushed her off as not understanding my situation, but after six months, I see the truth in what she said. I have yet to find the peace I thought I had. Instead, I came very quickly to deeply regret leaving the convent, and do not yet know if it would be possible for me to return.
This Advent, I find myself seeing Mary in a new way. I reflect upon her months of pregnant expectation, and for the first time, see more than just her joy. It must have been a time of great uncertainty for her, and also of learning whole-hearted trust in the God of the impossible.
How critical are hope and trust during the pregnant pauses in our own lives. In times of “limbo,” pain, or uncertainty, the temptation can be to fall into anxiety and even despair. Blessed are we to have Mary to guide us and be our example in these times.
As we enter the final days of Advent, I picture myself sitting alongside Mary in the later months of her pregnancy. The initial excitement has passed, and in the silence, perhaps Mary’s heart has begun to fill with questions of what the future will bring. I acknowledge the questions rising up in my own heart…questions of discernment, of God’s will, of doors that may or may not be closed before me. But rather than give in to the fear and uncertainty, I fix my gaze on Mary.
Very gently, she takes my hands in hers. She places my right hand over her heart, and the steady beating makes her hope, faith, and trust almost tangible to me. I cling tightly to Mary’s hope and trust, as I seem to have so little of my own right now. Then she presses my left hand to her belly, and as I feel the movement of the baby within her, I am reminded that times of uncertainty and waiting are really moments pregnant with God Himself. It is only by being faithful in the waiting that the sacred new life can be born.
If you, too, find yourself in a season of uncertainty, take heart. Hold tightly to our Blessed Mother, and know that something new and beautiful is in the waiting.