Some of you may know the C.S. Lewis quote my blog is named for, but if you don’t (or even if you do!) this post is for you!
I am continually inspired and uplifted by The Chronicles of Narnia, particularly by one scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In this scene, the characters are headed through dark, dangerous waters towards the Island where Dreams come true. As the crew realizes where they are headed, they regret the risk they chose to take and all begin to panic. Lucy desperately prays, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” In the midst of the chaos and fear, all look up and notice a strange creature, an albatross, flying above the ship. Lewis writes:
“It circled three times round the mast and then perched for an instant on the crest of the gilded dragon at the prow. It called out in a strong sweet voice what seemed to be words though no one understood them. After that it spread its wings, rose, and began to fly slowly ahead, bearing a little to starboard. Drinian steered after it not doubting that it offered good guidance. But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, ‘Courage, dear heart’, and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s, and with the voice a delicious smell breathed in her face.”
“Courage, dear heart.”
C.S. Lewis beautifully articulates the situation I find myself in over and over again. I feel afraid, lost, and in the darkness. I feel despair. I know that God loves me- deep down inside, I know this is true. I know that he delights in me, and that he loved the idea of me so much, he created me. But, when I feel lost and alone, I forget all about that. I feel like Lucy, aboard a boat I cannot control, in the midst of dark and stormy skies, with nothing but choppy, inconsistent waves beneath my feet.
I wish I could say I handle these situations with grace, like Lucy does. And on the rare occasion, I do. I think I have this whole suffering thing figured out. But then, just as I begin to regain my confidence in myself and the Lord, just as the clouds begin to part and I remember what it’s like for the sun to finally, finally, shine, storm clouds descend again and I am thrust into darkness.
One of the great voyages, if you will, that I took a chance and embarked upon was attending college almost 3000 miles away from home. Though there were many moments in my freshman year of college when I felt isolated from God, one particularly painful one stands out in my memory.
The Freshman Retreat
I remember being proud of myself for attending that retreat. Most of my closest friends were not going, but I knew I wanted to grow in faith and in community, so I said goodbye to my dear roommate and left the comfort of my dorm room to go to a camp in the middle of nowhere with a bus full of students I hardly knew. I felt pangs of anxiety throughout the whole retreat, but nothing was so bad as Adoration. I was ridiculously excited for Adoration. I wanted to sit at the feet of Jesus, holding my lit candle (a tiny beacon that signified I had gone to Confession) and bare my soul to He who loves me. I wanted Him to comfort me, as He had so many times before. I longed for the intimacy one can only achieve when in the presence of Christ Jesus. I knelt down before the Lord, and I settled into the beginning of one of the loneliest moments of my life.
I think I can only describe those few hours of Adoration as desperate. I begged Jesus for even an inkling of His presence. I knew He was there in front of me, but I didn’t feel Him. I felt many things, but not one of them was love. I felt my guilt gnawing in my stomach, after a rather mediocre confession experience with a priest who I’m sure meant well, but really just made me feel incredibly guilty and unloved. I felt the stabbing fear of the future, of having my whole life laid out in front of me, and not knowing if any of it would turn out how I expected- my career as a Speech Language Pathologist, my ministry ideas, my vocation- none of it was clear. I felt the quiet, constant loneliness of one who does not have many good friends in a state that has nothing of home. I dryly sang along to the praise and worship songs. I went through the motions- kneeling, standing, bowing, journaling- but I never felt anything. Around me, students were weeping, praying out loud, singing to their Lord, having (as I would later learn) some of the most pivotal, faith-filled experiences of their lives. And here I was- empty. I felt as though I had blindly trusted the Lord and gone on this retreat, only to have Him abandon me. I wandered out onto the dark waters, hoping to see a lighthouse, and not even given a lamp.
I continued to sit in the darkness, feeling dry and lonely, for all of Adoration. Finally, the agonizing period of prayer ended, and my classmates and I headed out into the crisp autumn air and back to the retreat house. I listened to stories of my peers’ dynamic and emotional prayer experiences, politely smiling and nodding. I should not be jealous, I told myself. I’ve experienced Christ before. It’s okay- someone else can have a turn. I sat rather numbly through the rest of the retreat. My prayers remained, in my mind, fruitless. I was incredibly disheartened, and I alternated between blaming God and myself. I thought I was being punished. I must have done something wrong. I racked my brain, agonizing over details of my life and my brokenness, trying to find an answer.
But, friends, I don’t think God wanted me to find an answer. I still don’t have one. Many months later, I still do not know why I felt such fear, sadness, and confusion in my soul during the Freshman Retreat. But I do know one thing. Despite the despair I felt, despite the fact that the LAST thing, the very last thing I wanted to do was continue attending Mass and praying and having small group discussions, I chose to continue with the retreat anyway. I chose to keep following God, wherever He lead me. And now, looking back, I think something miraculous happened to me on that retreat. I think God showed me something of my smallness. He showed me my desperate need for community, for connection. I participated in one of the best small groups of my life during the Freshman Retreat. I am still friends with many members of that small group. I continued throughout all of Freshman year to seek guidance from my small group leader, who also happened to be my RA. God taught me to see Him in others, even though couldn’t see Him in the Eucharist that weekend. I learned the value of connection. I learned to push on, to continue to seek friendships, to continue to choose to see the light, even with an angry, seemingly endless darkness churning in my heart.
Did I feel better coming back to campus from the retreat? Honestly? No. I felt horrible when I got back on campus. I felt desperate and alone, isolated from my Father. But I came home to campus with a network of acquaintances, who knew nothing about me other than my love for the Lord. I think, perhaps, that the Lord may have taught me through that retreat that I could seek Him in others when I am not strong enough to find Him myself.
Like Lucy, I was able to trust God when He led me out on dark waters. I couldn’t see Him or feel Him, but I knew he was there. I knew to keep searching for Him. Unlike Lucy, I did not experience the small, still voice of God. Most of us will likely not experience this whenever we ask for it. But, God does remind us that He is present with us, no matter how hard it is to hear His voice. I do truly believe this. Like Lucy, we will also have an albatross. Perhaps he will have a voice, or perhaps we will just know to trust him, like Drinian. During my time of darkness during and after the Freshman Retreat, my albatross was present in my small group. The Holy Spirit shone through my small group leader and my peers, as they offered me a place of connection and safety, even though I didn’t feel that connection with God in prayer. God is always present, just not in the ways we expect.
I believe- no, I know– that God and the angels and the saints in Heaven love, encourage, and cheer for us. God constantly whispers in the depths of our souls, “Courage, dear heart”. He desires for us to joyfully choose to be courageous. In our courage we will find our freedom. In fact, I’m so convinced of this that, after the hardest semester of my life (well, up until last semester) I got Aslan’s words tattooed on my arm, as a reminder of the encouragement God whispers to me constantly, even if I cannot hear it. He is there, loving us, even in the darkness.
My prayer for you, my friends, is that you would have the gumption to step out in faith onto the stormy seas. My hope is that this blog might help you to feel less alone in the chaos, because, believe me, I am there with you. And the Lord is there with all of us.