Trusting In What We Do Not Understand
Published: January 20, 2011
I have a photograph taken many years ago, taken by my father a few weeks before Christmas. It is a picture of my youngest brother and our mom. Peter was about 4 years old, and he is standing before mom. She is holding him to herself, as if to make sure he would not wander off. It was not a dress-up picture. Peter is wearing a pair of corduroy overalls, mom is wearing a white blouse, a blue sweater and a dark skirt. They are both smiling.
Peter’s smile is as natural as can be. Mom smiles as if she is so proud of him, her youngest and last child. The picture was taken 50 years ago. Yet the love in their faces is as real as if the picture was taken yesterday.
Many Advent seasons have come and gone since then. Christmas arrived, then receded, and then returned again and again. The tides of longing have risen high and have often been followed by the low tides of disappointment, sorrow, melancholy. But Christmas always came back, its promise illumined with light and song, the festive expressions of human hope in what the world cannot give of itself.
I look at the picture and wonder. Mom is now gone. Peter has had a few rough years of his own, with severe health and other problems. Life took its gradual toll on both of them, as it takes on us all. The ease of youth, its ready smiles and less questioned seasons, gave way to older years, worries, doubts about what once seemed so sure, so beyond question. We move on, through time and its possibilities. One grows older and the past becomes rich, more populated. And it slips away.
The future becomes less and less, awaiting the arrival of its redemptive moment when all will be given back.
We all have memories similar to the ones I have when I look at that picture. Memories of love freely given, love that asked for nothing in return except that we sons and daughters live good lives and be happy.
And so we try, and try again, and again.
Where does all the love go? All that longing of the past, the years that brimmed with hope, looking ahead to something new, something good, something lasting? Mom held Peter close, but that was not to last forever. The last goodbyes were painful.
Something is missing from the picture and what it is, I know I could never see it, no matter how hard I might try. Call it faith, or belief, it was the sense my mom had of the future, that God would come, that there would one day be a Christmas that would be eternal. She lives there now.
I do not know if those who have gone before us can hear our prayers, or see us, or if they are near us. But they were moving toward a destiny for which they were born. Part of that destiny was falling in love, raising children, leading good lives, learning through pain and sorrow to trust what they could not control. Always hoping for the best.
And perhaps that is the key for this Sunday. Desert sands will gush with water. Animosity will give way to peace. Estrangement will be no more. Good things will come, in time, and in abundance. We are asked to trust in what we do not understand, to live with hope amidst all the unresolved tensions of our hearts and this world. We are asked to keep giving from our hearts, even when it hurts, because that is the source of life, of this life and the life yet to come. I see that in the picture, though it was not there at the time it was taken. I have had the picture a long time, and the older I get, the more I see.
We know what to do with the high church seasons, like Christmas and Easter. We do not feel as comfortable with the penitential weeks on the liturgical calendar. They are there to lay out our entry into the sufferings of Jesus. We shall all enter into his hurt, his loneliness, his estrangement from God. And one day, for the last time, the lights will blaze, never again to be extinguished, and we will embrace each other, with a bond that will never again be broken.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery online store at www.abbeystore.com.