“It’s Holy Week,” I thought, “and I’ve never felt more lost in the desert.”
“In the day of my distress I sought the Lord.
My hands were raised at night without ceasing;
My soul refused to be consoled.
I remembered my God and I groaned.
I pondered and my spirit fainted.”
- Psalm 77 : 3-4
I’m studying in Rome this semester. Everyone told me that this would be life-changing. Everyone told me that it would be so much fun, so exciting and free. This semester is exciting; it is fun. It’s life-changing, too, just not at all in the way I expected it to be.
It has been a while since I felt the cold, dead weight of utter desolation, and I think I’m making up for lost time with this semester.
I spent my time prior to spring break ignoring most negative emotions stirring within me – I wasn’t supposed to be upset. This is my semester abroad! I’m not allowed to be upset! This is the time when God is going to be abundant and change my life! … Right?
Everywhere I turn I have people telling me what I should be feeling this semester and what I should be doing to attain those feelings. Namely, I should be happy always, and I should be going out at night, should be meeting Italians my age, should be going on dates, and should be traveling as much as I can. If I’m not doing that, then I’m wrong – I’m not getting the things out of this experience that I should.
I’m really starting to hate the word ‘should.’
“In the day of my distress I sought the Lord.”
Spring break rolled around, and I finally stopped interrupting my thoughts long enough to be real with myself. I admitted to myself that I have been unhappy this semester. I realized that most of this unhappiness stems from the numerous places in my life where I feel unaccepted or misunderstood. I named the way I feel unaccepted in my daily encounters and the subtle ways I stifle myself in order to cope. I went on to name that it feels a lot like people do not understand the way I love. I love fast and hard, and that scares people, and nobody is good at hiding it.
I’ve brought this to God over and over again. However, this time was different. It was different because I realized that the people I thought understood me well truly don’t understand me much at all. Everything shattered; I felt like I had been lied to.
When I’m hurting, I like to hide away in nature; I feel most connected with God there. Naturally, then, I’ve sat in my fair share of gardens. Until this week, though, I had never sat in the Garden of Gethsemane.
As I metaphorically sat in Gethsemane, I let these realities sink in. It was the first time in my entire life that I felt completely isolated from everyone. My Peter, James, and John had all fallen asleep. Am I expecting too much? Had I been naïve to think that my closest friends viewed the world the same way I do and would be willing to stay awake with me? Am I seeing this all wrong, and really I’m the Peter/James/John who fell asleep on my friends? Or worse, have I fallen asleep on Jesus?
“I pondered and my spirit fainted.”
It is as if the pain of this entire semester culminated into Holy Week. Every day that week, I spent the day constantly on the verge of tears. Everything about me hurt, and I’ll never be able to explain it in words. I was in so much pain. Nothing I did made it any better. I couldn’t shake it.
There is one thing that cut through it all, though, and stung the most. It’s that, as I sat there feeling lost, deserted, unacceptable, and unworthy, refusing to let anyone in, I was surrounded by love.
“My soul refused to be consoled.”
Have you ever met people and almost immediately known that you want to be in their lives for the long run? Have you met people and known that, wherever life takes you, you want to make an effort to remain close? Have you known not only that you want to make an effort, but known with unwavering trust that you will? I can name a few of those people in my life – a rare gift, and in the midst of my struggling this week, they were there. They loved me in a way that was completely accepting and healing. They didn’t make me feel like my feelings were ‘wrong’ and needed defending. Their actions said to me something that, ironically enough, I find myself saying quite often to others: “Emotions are not wrong or right, they just are. Trying to control them instead of accepting yourself exactly where you are only brings more pain.” They did not need to say these specific words for me to get the message, and that only made things harder.
“I remembered my God, and I groaned.”
“Don’t let them in, Abbs. Don’t get used to this. Don’t let them love you, because they won’t stick around for long – you don’t deserve them. They’ll be gone before you know it.”
Even if sometimes only a whisper, this is what I hear every time anyone attempts to genuinely love me, and Holy Week was no exception. Regardless, this never seems to stop me from loving the people I expect to leave. It follows, then, that on Wednesday, I left my friends something small to brighten their days, because I wasn’t the only one having a rough week. Due to all-around stress/anxiety, there was some miscommunication surrounding this. Instead of seeing things in the level-headed, rational way that I could have, my insecure, stubborn, pessimistic subconscious took this opportunity and ran… quickly.
“This is it, Abbs. You scared ‘em away. Now, end things now before they do. No need to drag this out longer than you need to. They’re going to leave anyway, so might as well save them some time and just do it now.”
So I did.
But they didn’t leave.
Instead, all I received in return was love; a love that I rarely encounter, or even have the capacity to accept. It was gentle and kind; not demanding, not accusing, but patient, the way I’m told genuine love is.
I felt it starting to pour in the Garden. I was a wildflower, and it was storming.
And I needed a storm.
Fast forward to Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper. I was kind of in my own world, until the Gospel reading jerked me out of it. The reading tells of when Jesus washed the feet of His disciples at the Last Supper. Part of this passage from John 13 says,
“Jesus answered and said to him,
‘What I am doing you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.’
Peter said to Him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’
Jesus answered him,
‘Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with Me.’”
There I was, being Peter. There I was, not understanding the ways God is trying to love me. There I was, pushing Him away, telling Him how He will and will not care for me. There I was, not trusting Him to wash my feet.
Following mass, everyone in attendance went on a church crawl around Rome. I visited twelve churches and spent time adoring the Blessed Sacrament in painful silence at each of them. I quietly thought back to the night before, when I laid alone in my dark room, crying more violently than I have in years, my body trying to rid itself of this cosmic-feeling pain. “Where the hell are you, Jesus?” I thought to myself. I sat there and stared at Him, feeling like I was talking to a plain slice of bread rather than the Living Bread. Jesus apparently had nothing to say. “What am I supposed to be getting out of this? Why does everything hurt?” I was angry. “I’ve been out here in the desert, alone and wandering! I know it’s almost Easter, and things are supposed to make sense then, but it feels like You’ve been gone a lot longer than Lent. Where ARE You, Jesus? You’re not here.”
“You’re not here.” I thought it again.
The words had weight – heavy and real.
“You’re not here… because You’re in the desert. It feels like You aren’t entirely with me in these moments, because You’re in the desert… facing evil… for me.” My defenses started to crumble. I had let my loneliness make me selfish and blind.
I looked up to see the people by whom I was surrounded – people whom I never would have met had it not been for this particular semester in this particular place. I saw my friends praying, having their own conversations with God, and my heart felt like it was about to burst with gratitude. I thought about all the times throughout the week that Love left me speechless; the way it quietly snuck up on me and patiently waited for me.
And there I was again, in silence with the Blessed Sacrament, only this time, the anger was replaced by awe, and I was the one silent.
The rest of the Triduum was filled with decisions:
Decisions to give control to God. Decisions to pray instead of pout. Decisions to respect my emotions. Decisions to appreciate the small things. Decisions to understand that I have no right to choose who loves me. God chose me long before I chose Him, but in choosing Him, I agree to let Him love me however, and through whomever, He wants.
On Good Friday, I ended up praying through the Stations at 2 A.M. with a friend, cognizant of the ways I choose to love her. When we reached the Fifth Station, where Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry His cross, I again found myself needing time to be still and silent. Everything that occurred throughout the week boiled down to that moment of silence. “The people who love you are going to love you, Abbey.” The message was loud and clear. It was so simple; why did it take me so long to realize? The people who choose to care for me will make that choice, even when times get tough, and, as it turns out, even when I push them away. Did Jesus not continue to walk to Calvary, even as I told Him not to love me? He didn’t toss His cross to the side of the road and say, “Okay sounds good. This is a lot of work, anyway!” No, He kept walking. I realize that every time I push God away, I’m there in the crowd spitting on Him, yelling at Him, and gambling for His garments. Every time I push Jesus away, I’m going back to Good Friday, looking at His sweating, bloodied, beautiful face, and saying, “I don’t care that You did this for me.”
But I do care.
“The people who love you are going to love you.” I thought about it more. God’s love for me is greater than any love I can ever return to Him, and it is greater than the love I find myself having for so many people. I’m learning, then, that times when others do not choose to love me as much as I love them will only ever be moments of grace. For, it is in those moments that God reveals to me some truth about who He is. In those moments, I understand that God created a whole universe, that even when it chooses to love Him, will never be able to match the love He has for it. Yet, He is still pleased that it even makes the choice.
Not every person I choose to love will choose to love me back, but that doesn’t mean I stop loving. After all, where would we be if God chose to stop loving us? I venture to say we’d be nowhere. However, when I recognize this, I recognize that, even if they cannot always match the love I may have for them, there will be people who choose to love me. Some might even make this decision before I do (Re: Christ died for me), but whether I like it or not, Jesus wants to love me all the way to Calvary. Whether I like it or not, God wants to love me through Simon. Whether I like it or not, Jesus wants to wash my feet. Whether I like it or not, sometimes I need to go to Gethsemane.
The thing about rising to new life, is that I must first die to my old life.
There must be a Passion before there can be a Resurrection.
The most painful times are often the most fruitful times.
And if anything is proof of this, it’s the Grace abounding in Holy Week.