Falling To Rise
“The Conversion (of Saul) on the Way to Damascus” by the Italian Baroque Era painter Caravaggio, circa 1600:
[“Falling to Rise” is written by guest writer Harold Fickett.]
In King Lear, Shakespeare’s Gloucester says, “I stumbled when I saw.” Newly blind, he recognizes his old way of seeing the world led to his fall from courtly power. Behind him stands the New Testament’s Saul of Tarsus, the zealous persecutor of Christians, whose illusions of righteousness are taken away on the road to Damascus. Blinded by a vision of Christ, he must be led by hand to town, where he awaits the unknown ministrations of Ananias and a merciful return to clear-sightedness as the extraordinary Apostle Paul.
Spiritual awakenings often take place in darkness, in a place to which we have descended or fallen. We find ourselves in the midst of a living-death. The life we have so carefully constructed turns out to have the straightened dimensions of a grave. At the beginning of the spiritual life we are often most aware of life as a problem.
There’s a plucky response to life’s tight places that advises, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” This is spiritual Darwinism. We are invited to see our dilemmas as external adversities that allow us the opportunity to gain admission, through heroic struggle, to the company of survivors: the happy few.
Although there’s nothing wrong with self-initiative in the face of adversity, the spiritual life—because of its source and destination—has a different dynamic. The great spiritual pilgrims have always recognized that crisis is not an opponent but an opportunity. External adversity, even violence, can bring with it an interior clarity when we are prepared to accept the truth of our situation as God sees it. Acceptance, not struggle, is the key.
For both our first awakenings to our spiritual death and our ultimate spiritual reconciliation are shaped by the same loving hand, God himself. Shakespeare’s Gloucester reflects first on his own illusions, and I imagine Paul must have spent many days ruing his persecutions, but God, in his loving kindnesses, embraces the sinner before he is aware of his sin and prepares his banquet of forgiveness before the person has any notion of attending.
When I went through a time of crisis in my own life, I benefited greatly from counseling, and I’ve long reflected on why. The most powerful dimension of counseling, I’ve decided, was having someone root for me. My weekly therapy sessions were a steady reminder that an intelligent, caring person thought I was worth something—in fact a good deal—despite how I had alienated others in my life. I’ve come to see that my counselor embodied the love of God for me. His championing of my life reminded me that God’s love begins with our creation—the birth of each of us in God’s image. And it continues with the reconciliation made possible in Christ, who seeks to restore and complete the good work begun in us. These abstractions formed, in a manner, the working relationship between my wise friend and me, becoming real and tangible. This experience helped me to understand that from first to last God loves us—even when we are preoccupied with how we have rebelled against God. The “spiritual journey” involves nothing so much as turning around to receive the embrace of someone tapping us on the shoulder.
The Catholic Exchange