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Stars on the blackest night


In July 1999 I wrote in my diary, after publishing my first book, Tall in Spirit: “How will it change me? What burdens and joys will it bring? Am I being commissioned as a gatekeeper or guardian of words?” I remember pausing and sensing a vague, fleeting feeling like a dark cloud passing over, before I continued: “Perhaps when people come home to their hearts, it is then that they are filled with a passion to serve.”

Little did I know how prophetic that last entry would be. Just a week later, on Aug. 7, our 17-year-old son, Mic, was found dead by probable suicide. Our sweet boy who loved life, nature, our family, his friends and who once told me grinning (when I was worried about him growing up too fast), “Ah, Ma, I’ll always be your little Mic.”

The insanity and horror of those days defy description. We did not think we would survive. Coming home to my heart meant carrying an enormous grief that was nearly unbearable. What sustained me somehow was the faith that he was always, always with me in a mysterious way that only a parent can know. If there was any gift in the grief, that was it.

Judy Osgood, who also lost a son and has dedicated her life to struggle and grief ministry, wrote me recently: “God never promised that our lives would be free of pain and grief if we believed. The promise is, ‘I will be with you always.’ Even when that pain is so great that we feel utterly deserted.”

Making sense of struggle only makes sense when we put things in a faith perspective. Someone once told me: “We are spiritual beings on a human journey, not human beings on a spiritual journey.” This has helped me. In my journey with grief, I found that no matter how comforting or inspirational people’s words to me were, I couldn’t absorb them. I felt as though I had one teaspoon of clay to cover an entire skeleton. Words couldn’t reach me. I needed to fling my soul on the beaches of those close to me who had the capacity to withstand the waves of my despair. I look back with deep gratitude to those who stood bravely while those early emotions battered them.

Every day, and sometimes many times a day, I entreated God, “Please somehow find a way to send comfort my way.” As time went on, I found God did indeed answer those prayers, in large and small ways. As my prayers moved from pleading to more confident ones, I realized that a miracle had taken place.

I found also that images welled up in me, needing release as one after another they revealed themselves. I bought myself a giant box full of crayons and a sketchbook. I created a visual journal filled with more than 40 images and symbols that portrayed my questions and struggle. In this journal, which I called “Joni’s Map of the Heart,” I learned to follow the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s words: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.”

I began working with a life coach and found my questions becoming real spiritual quests. What draws me rather than pushes me? What is life-giving in my experiences? These questions transformed themselves into concrete belief statements that sustained me. I began to realize I was accountable for my spiritual journey, and that reality, rather than being heavy or burdensome, was a freedom.

Many dreams and memorable incidents came to me in those days. My husband and I were driving along the Minnesota River bottom where winding, narrow gravel roads took us through green woodlands. We take those drives often to find comfort in nature. We came to a special place where the trees bend over the road like a canopy. We came to a hollow there where thousands of migrating monarch butterflies had gathered. They filled the trees, the sky, the air. Spellbound, we stopped to watch. If I stepped out of the car, I felt as though I could spread my arms and they would gather me up. A sacred hush had fallen as still and golden as a prayer. The gift of that moment stayed with me. Those butterflies did gather me up.

A big part of learning from one’s struggles is the process of letting go. I don’t know where my life journey will take me. Recently, I had a cardiac test at the hospital that involved the use of a medication that speeds up the heart rate so it can be viewed on an EKG. I was scared, because it meant surrendering control of my very heartbeat. Every time the doctor asked me how I was doing, I said in a small voice, “Afraid!” These sorts of experiences come to all of us frequently. We have to learn to trust; that is part of this spirituality of struggle.

As we were driving home from the hospital that day, we noticed fog had settled in on a nearby lake. Mesmerized by the pure white, drifting shapes, I thought the fog looked like a community of hope gatherers. It reminded me of the poem that accompanies Mary Southard’s painting called “Woman’s Song of Peace”:

She sings the song of life’s seasons,
rhythms of birth and death ...
She sings a gentle song of listening and hope ...
Her song is compassion, her song is love.
If nations would be healed, woman’s song must be sung.
If there would be peace, woman’s song must be heard.

Times of struggle, while wrenching, carry this profound potential. When we come home to our hearts through adversity, clarity survives and a desire to live for others and to make a difference in the world.

The other day an image came to me via e-mail. Taken by a firefighter in Montana with a digital camera, the photo showed a mountainside blazing for miles as golden bursts of flame shot skyward through pine and underbrush. In the center of the photo, standing in what appeared to be a small lake, stood the silhouettes of a pair of deer, seemingly unafraid and serene while fire flared like a mighty tempest all around them.

Since the beginning of time, fire has been linked with initiation. In many societies and religious traditions, initiates went through symbolic purification by fire symbolized as ashes. When we face struggles, we are being initiated into new ways of thinking, living and loving. Struggles are rites of passage that bring faith gifts, profound ones that emerge like stars on the blackest night. In the words of the poet Rumi: “Let us be known by the scars of love that mark our faces,” as we take our rightful places on the journey of hope.

Joni Woelfel is author of Tall in the Spirit, Meditations for the Chronically Ill. A second book, The Light Within: A Woman’s Book of Solace, will be out in January 2001. Both are from ACTA Publications. Her e-mail address is woel@rconnect.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000