He Found Me in Darkness
Recently I was giving a tour of St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica in London Ontario to Our Lady of the Pillar Academy Catholic Private Elementary School. Its one of my favorite things to do as a priest - to welcome children into the Church and point out where Jesus is, how to pray, and what the liturgy is all about.
I began by speaking of the Church in 3 ways: the world of darkness (the narthex); the redeemed world (the nave); and the world to come (the sanctuary). When speaking about the world of darkness, I pointed out that the Baptism ritual often begins at the back of the Church. There we find the holy water fonts, where we remind ourselves of our baptism. I stressed that its in the darkness that Christ comes to greet us, to save us. When I say these things, I tend to have personal experiences in the back of my mind.
“What was the dark place” that Christ came to visit me? Thinking on that, made me want to share this article with you. Our childhood is a time in our lives when we are deeply formed. I am blessed with good parents, good siblings, and effective Catholic Teachers. I even had a teacher fail me in religion in grade 5 - which I say without a hint of sarcasm: it was the best thing she did for me. But that is a story for another time.
As a child I was a bit awkward, likely a little annoying. I believe as a result of these things I underwent some bullying. Certain bullying manifested with words - I had stories written about me and passed around on the bus. My life was a joke to many, a source of entertainment, and I didn’t take it too well. I internalized a great deal of it. I was also the subject of being “circle-beat” which is where your peers surround you, pushing you, making verbal jabs, laughing and smiling, while you try to find a way to stabilize yourself. This particular memory for me was likely one of the strongest. It isn’t any more, because of Christ. That is to say the memory is there, but it doesn’t weigh anything - it in fact has become something good.
But this change took grace, and we aren’t at that part of the story yet. I remembered the expression, vividly, on my classmates faces. I remember in one of the instances when this occurred, the psychological torture of it, the humiliation was so great, that the only way to stop it was to allow my head to hit the ground. If I walked into class with visible bruises, someone would be in trouble. It seemed like the only way to make it stop.
What I remember from this bullying was I really internalized it. I was the object of disgust, and I had done something to likely deserve it. I know personally, I was not all that innocent. I tried to circumvent (usually to no avail) much of this bullying with sins of the tongue, judgment, and deception. As children, I look back on this chapter of my childhood and scratch my head. I don’t think its possible for children to have any sense of what these things can do to others.
Regardless, when I had been in high-school, I had made my way to Steubenville for a Youth-retreat. It was there that we had Eucharistic Adoration, with a procession. At this stage in my life, I had been developing friendly relationships, my faith was growing, and things were looking up. However, God knew better - he knew everything wasn’t exactly fine in me. There was still a woundedness, buried in the dark. I remember as I saw all sorts of gifts of the Holy Spirit being poured out amongst the youth, I felt an intense spiritual poverty, crying out to be seen, noticed, and loved by God. I recognize now, that regardless of these various gifts of the Holy Spirit, God is always intently looking at us. But for me, I needed something tangible to teach me that was the case.
Very peacefully I found myself closing my eyes. And strangely the memory of being beaten in the circle came back to my mind. It was the most vivid memory, whereby I saw the faces of my peers. Yet as I briefly entered into this world of darkness (that is a place where sin reigns, where love is not known), everything became halted. That is, the memory was frozen, on pause. And suddenly I saw an arm reach out to me, as I sat in the ground.
In that moment I intuited with certainty that the arm was Christ’s. And yet, I also intuited that I had a choice. The arm did not grab me, it was a gesture, an offer, an invitation. I had to grab his hand, and be pulled out of this wounded place. That is exactly what I did, in my will. And suddenly I felt this rather significant lightness, as though the weight on my shoulders which I wasn’t aware of, had been lifted. Christ had come into this painful, dark, memory, and brought His love. He put love, where love wasn’t. When I opened my eyes, right in front of me was the priest holding the monstrance with Jesus in it. It was at that moment, with no doubt, that I realized Christ truly loved me. Up to that point, I believed in it some vague sense - but here His love was more real than my body, then my own self-awareness.
What did this do for me?
It turned difficult memories from my past that could have been places of resentment, bitterness, or even a general identity wrapped in victimhood, and it turned such twisted dark dispositions into a place of love and redemption. God brought me into the redeemed world in that moment of faith, and unveiled for me the reality of my own Baptism. I rather began to learn to internalize that I was chosen, beloved, and an adopted son of God.
These things aren’t always easy to speak about - because they are real, and our world prefers a type of decorum that is more about show, and ideology. Being vulnerable about our wounds should be done prudently - but it is always safe to do with God. All of that decorum reminds me of the phrase “shiny happy people.” Let’s be real - sin hurts us, we are broken, we need to be saved by Christ’s love. If we, your priests cannot admit this to ourselves, how can we lead others to that same disposition?
Christ, teaches us to boast of His goodness, and allow Him into the dark places of our lives. That is where He, as light, comes to encounter us. We fear the light because we often fear shame, harsh judgment, and ultimately rejection. We want to be known, yet we hide because we are trained by the enemy to think that in being known, we will be hated. Christ extends His hand to us - be it in the Sacraments, in prayer, and in our relationships with others. But more importantly, all of this is teaching us to be Christ as the visible Church. To extend our hand to those who require healing.
Might I suggest a prudent exercise of inviting God to heal the memories in your life that you are aware of, and perhaps unaware of that continue to indirectly affect your relationships with Him and others. Invite Christ to put love, where love is not present in your life. Perhaps such memories have to do with past sins; perhaps they have to do with sins done to you, and perhaps they are simply related to the effects of living in a fallen world. Either way, snakes wiggle themselves into the garden of our soul, and Christ drives them out of that dark place where they hide. He refreshes our garden, and makes it new.