Grace Upon Grace
“From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” – John 1:16
“Did you ever have the thought that maybe God is asking you to suffer like this...so maybe it isn’t supposed to get better?”
A young woman had reached out to me for spiritual direction related to her crippling anxiety. In response, I had shared with her some of my own story: how I had suffered with depression and anxiety since childhood, and how after over a decade of medication and counseling, I had only found any measure of lasting relief by seeking peace wholeheartedly in Christ and His Church. I had also shared that even though my afflictions had improved greatly since building a strong sacramental foundation, I still struggled with them from time to time in varying degrees.
Her question immediately brought me back to a beautiful, late spring afternoon several years earlier. I was in the back garden playing with the children, when my phone pinged. There it was, the email I had dreaded for so many years. A request that I had begged God not to ask of me, told Him I could not bear to give, pleaded that it would shatter me to do so.
I quietly left the children with my husband and went to our bedroom. I sank into the rocking chair where I had spent many sleepless nights nursing all three of our children throughout their babyhoods, and I sobbed. In my despair, I prayed, the words ripped from my body in gasps: “Thank you, God. Thank you for bringing me to this point. It hurts, Lord, oh it hurts. But I know you are here. My answer is yes.”
“Yes,” I responded simply to that young woman who was struggling so deeply yet was so beautifully transparent and humble in her pain. “Yes, sometimes I think that part of what I was born for was this pain.”
This response may seem strange, perhaps even masochistic. The truth is, however, that I no longer try to flee from that “black dog” that haunts my footsteps, as Winston Churchill named it. And while he’s certainly no welcome visitor that I rejoice over when I see him behind my shoulder, I’ve learned that often our greatest victories in the spiritual life come when we allow Christ in us to use the weapons of the enemy against himself.
In the beginning, Satan refused to submit to God and cooperate with His Divine Plan. And so, God now turns the devil’s plans upon himself, transforming his flaming arrows of death into piercing rays of sanctifying light. It still hurts, to be sure, but when we allow God to pierce us in this way, what would have previously destroyed us instead brings us new life.
In 2 Corinthians 12, verses 7-10, St. Paul writes, “to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
In my weakness, I am strong, for like St. Paul, in the thorns of my depression and anxiety, Christ’s grace perfects me – but only if I allow Him to use my pain in this way. Apart from the Resurrection, the cross is nothing more than a Roman instrument of torture. Through God’s grace and Christ’s own fiat in the Garden of Gethsemane, however, it becomes the wood upon which our freedom from sin and death is purchased. This fiat is continuing even now in our own lives, as each one of us takes up his own cross daily, thereby “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church.” (Col. 1:24).
This is all beautiful on a theoretical level, of course, but when it comes down to brass tacks and we hear the ragged panting of our own black dogs on our heels, how do we live this out practically? In my own journey, I have found St. Ignatius’ 14 Rules of Discernment of Spirits to be indispensable in riding the undulating waves of grace that each of us experience. In particular, Rule #7 gives guidance on this point:
Let the one in desolation consider how the Lord has left him in trial in his natural powers, so that he may resist the various agitations and temptations of the enemy; since he can resist with the divine help, which always remains with him, though he odes not clearly feel it. . . .
For the Lord has taken away from him his great fervor, abundant love, and intense grace, leaving him, however, sufficient grace for eternal salvation” (translation provided by Fr. Timothy Gallagher, O.M.V. in his book The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living).
Grace upon grace. Like the waves on the seashore, even as one great wave of consolation recedes, we are not left in a spiritual vacuum. The pull back into desolation is a grace in and of itself, something akin to what St. John of the Cross calls a “ray of darkness.” In due time it will be followed by the crashing roar of another powerful wave of consolation. The Lord never leaves us bereft of all we need spiritually for eternal salvation. We must simply trust Him to be the Good Shepherd He has always shown Himself to be, knowing that if we continue to put one foot in front of the other and simply do the next right thing, we shall emerge from the darkness of the tomb into radiant light.
So yes, I can say with confidence that part of what I was born for was this pain. But like the pain of the cross, it is not a grim and bloody end unto itself unless I choose for it to be. When I invite Him into it, it is the beginning of something new and beautiful and good, and I echo St. Paul in boasting of it, so the power of Christ may dwell more fully in me.