In his volume of commentary on the Holy Gospel, according to St. Matthew: Fire of Mercy Heart of the Word, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes about the First Beatitude – blessed are the poor in spirit: “ We may translate more graphically: ‘How fortunate those who beg for their life’s very breath.’”
Anyone who has experienced any form of inner darkness, any sense of unrelenting grief, spiritual or emotional frustration, clinical or just ordinary depression/dark days, or gone through a critical period of seeming deafness of the divine to persistent prayer, knows exactly what Leiva-Merikakis means about begging for ‘life’s very breath’!
It came to my heart, preparing for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, it was time to resume this, indeed all my abandoned writing – that sense of such coming to my heart was/is, in reality, a merciful gift of grace.
More it is, albeit in some moments a tentative one, little step by step response to grace’s invitation to emerge from the swamp of darkness.
Trust is extremely difficult when in any part of the swamp.
Rescuers well know the phenomena of people lost in deep bush who actually flee away from the sound of those searching for them calling out their name!
Lost long enough in the bush, with all its shadows by day, darkness and cold by night, sounds which while perhaps formerly familiar now appear menacing, all leads to the onset of panic, while, if lost long enough, exhaustion, from the relentless futility of constantly trying to find a path out, and the experience of being suddenly so small, vulnerable, powerless in such a seemingly unending immensity, even hearing one’s name called triggers the flight instinct.
Therefore the first step in the struggle OUT of the swamp of darkness is to plead for the ultimate life’s breath gift of faith, faith enough to believe we will be granted the graced strength to trust the sound of someone calling our name.
Depending on how far into, how deeply we have sunk in the mire of, the swamp of darkness we may need only hear our name from the lips of a family member or friend to, as it were, ‘snap out of it!’
In deep enough and we will need to call our own name into a willingness to cooperate with grace from the One who alone knows our true name and seek out professional help – and be humbly willing to cooperate with that help.
For me it was indeed a friend who noted how far into the swamp I had wandered and he contacted a friend of his, a therapist, who phoned me. When I heard my name, by grace, this time I did not flee but acknowledged I was indeed lost in the swamp and the rescue effort began.
In a word, I had to begin to walk towards the sound of the one calling – their voice being the means by which I would experience anew pure life’s breath.
Lovingly Christ does come to us in the swamp of darkness – but often in ways we may not always expect or be open to because, as Pope Benedict reminded us at Pentecost: “ The roots of our being and of our action are in the wise and provident silence of God.”
The path out of the swamp entails a willingness to withdraw from the noises in the swamp, the noise of our disordered emotions, and all other noise and to listen to this life-rooting, life-activating holy silence of God.
According to my therapist [ an excellent doctor, a good and joyous Christian – the only authentic kind! ] the trigger for my becoming lost, plunged into, miss-stepping into, the swamp of darkness, was the impact of not one, but two car crashes in succession.
Both by the way the result of drivers running red lights and slamming first into the car I was driving and then the next time into the car in which I was a passenger.
Most likely it was the second incident which proved to be the proverbial camel’s back-breaking straw!
The constant stress of being falsely accused of abuse; suspended without due process by my bishop who to this day has never bothered to speak with me; the glacial pace at which the Holy See [ anywhere from an average of 3 to as long as 22 years to resolve appeals ] responds to the cries of the Church’s Priest-Sons; the enormity of the financial burden to appeal against a bishop, who can spend scads of offertory plate money to fight their own priests, while we must beg for funds or incur massive debts; health problems, financial debt laden stress, spiritual struggle because how could God let any of it happen to the children who are abused; [ and how could so many of us find ourselves falsely accused]; the, albeit chosen, burden of trying to comfort hundreds of co-accused, in many, many, many cases, falsely; grieving, again and again, when yet another brother priest, some very young, commits suicide – all of that suddenly engulfed me with the force of a tsunami and dumped me far from the seashore when He stands in His Risen Glory and left me, deep, deep, in the swamp of darkness.
While I constantly, and do so again here, urge everyone to pray for the healing of all victims of abuse, and quick and just settlements of their claims, the complete conversion of all predators so the horror of abuse ends – at the same time I urge prayer for truth, justice, restoration of falsely accused priests and the conversion of bishops who seem in bondage to an odd fear.
My sharing of this struggle out of the swamp of darkness, and revealing the causes of being thrust into the swamp, are not revealed to illicit sympathy, rather to urge everyone who is lost in the swamp to seek and trust professional therapeutic and spiritual help and to not ever give up hope!
Also, while priority must be given to the innocents who have been abused no baptized person, certainly no shepherd in the Church, has the right to refuse forgiveness – and certainly no shepherd in the Church should sleep easy at night if he is sacrificing falsely accused priests to the gods of anger, hatred, vengeance, insurance companies or lawyers.
Christ is emphatic about love, forgiveness – even of our enemies.
Now is not the time to debate the abusive evil of a disordered application of the Dallas protocols or similar ones of other Bishops’ councils around the world, much less the arrogant abuse of certain Canons such as 223 which grant a power to bishops the Church never tolerates in the hands of civil authorities.
Here I am sharing what happens to so many of falsely accused priests: sinking in the swamp of darkness – and some clues as to how to find the path out of the swamp.
For myself I am just at the opening edge of the path, have taken only the first tentative steps, though with each passing day at a more confident and enlightened pace.
There is a sense, finally, of some solid footing, of little shafts of light.
It is a beginning!
Gratitude is a wellspring of growing joy as the journey continues.
First and foremost I am filled with gratitude to my Spiritual Director, the friend and father of my soul, whose love, wisdom, prayer, encouragement – like the proverbial cup of sweet water to the thirsty man – enabled me to accept the graced offer of my friend whose efforts put me in touch with my therapist.
I am grateful to this good Doctor’s wisdom, professionalism, faith, and infectious joy, is turning bitter tears of frustration into weeping’s healing balm and enables me to turn from being darkly bent towards self once more into the brilliant warm light- and right order - of putting God first, other second, self third.
I thank my family whose patience and truth-speaking-love keeps me on the path, with the same blessing from you John as Simon of Cyrene brought to Jesus when He was burdened for us, and from you Lucille the same comforting coolness to my heart as Veronica with her veil likewise gave to Jesus in His suffering.
Your children, most beloved and treasured John and Lucille, with their unabashed joy every time I visit, remind me, and this I believe is an essential prayer for anyone struggling in the swamp of darkness, to constantly pray as the Servant of God Catherine Doherty taught me: “ God, grant me the heart of a child and the awesome courage to live it out.”
I am filled with gratitude not only to the Staff and Volunteers at the soup kitchen where I help from time to time, but to the homeless we serve.
Christ disguised as the poor, the Poor who bless me with the opportunity to stand unbent and other centered.
Each of my co-suffering brother priests, whose prayers and encouragement are always lavished with true fraternal solidarity, even in the midst of their own constant pain, how I thank-you too and I am honoured to be among you.
What initially blew me away, but now echoes in my heart as another of the treasured words of the Servant of God: “In God every moment is the moment of beginning again.”, was when one day when things were especially dark and the crushing weight of being suspended from normal priestly ministry was particularly raw, the acting Director of the soup kitchen asked if I could start coming on a regular basis because: “We need your presence, Father.”
YOUR PRESENCE FATHER!
Those words, as far as I know, were originally spoken by the Servant of God Catherine Doherty to a priest who was my confessor for years when he found himself in a place where he had ‘nothing to do’, and he asked Catherine for something to do, a job and she replied with words that encapsulate the critical reality of priesthood: “Your presence Father!”
Priest is who I am, whom all priests are, NOT what I [ or any priest ] does!
We are in persona Christi.
Knowing full well my situation just this past Sunday the organizer of a major conference asked me to attend, to be PRESENT.
Bishops may suspend without justice, charity or process and impede our ‘doing’ anything – they CANNOT stop our being!
In the next post I will share what that reminder of priestly presence led me, by grace, to rediscover as the next step on the path out of the swamp of darkness.