The Bad Place
I know these walls without having to open my eyes. Without reaching out my hands, I can feel them–cold and damp with years of fevered breath and sweat. I didn’t go to sleep here, but this is where I’ve woken up. In these walls, I sit at the bottom of a deepest well, and I forget my name. All the voices that once spoke to me as truth call out from high places where I no longer stand. I can’t hear them where I am. In their absence, I hear lies, whispered right against my ear, and I believe them.
It’s been said that hell is not a world of communal torment, but a chasm of complete and utter loneliness, where God gives the sinful exactly what they chased after their entire earthly lives–He abandons man to himself. And in the bad place, I sink in that eternal gray of alone, can’t hear the words of a saving God, can’t feel the touch of grace, can’t remember who I am or what that means. Help will not come to me here, and I couldn’t see it even if it did. The world is not a drama with me at its center, but in the bad place, it is–I am a one-woman show, only no one’s come to watch, and I’ve not been given any lines. I sit on this stage, in the pit of all this empty dark, and I can’t even think to cry. The devil has my throat. He’s pulled the hood over my head, and he will not let go without a long and dirty fight.
I once had a fire burning hot and bright within me, but now all I feel is so much ash, and I wonder how I ever believed there was purpose in this pain. There is no love within these walls–there is only self, cloying and close and ugly in its breadth of despair, the sheer weight of all I am more than enough to keep me under. I am in mud, and I can’t remember what I want. But the only option seems to be to burrow deeper, claw at moss and rock until its trapped beneath my nails, bite and gnaw until it’s stuck between my teeth, thick across my tongue, swallow it down to fill the empty that’s taken over inside of me. Heap the dirt on my head, my chest, my arms, my back, try to dig a hole big enough to fit and hide in. You are not loved, and no one is coming for you–it’s a lie, and somewhere within me, I know that. But in the bad place, I believe it.
The Good Place
Tallest cathedral built of holy breath and stone, made in the Gothic style of the Late Middle Ages, when despite, or perhaps because of the demons and scenes of Judgment that adorned their churches’ doorways, they understood something about grace. This cathedral has no ceiling, not because the builders ran out of material to cover it, but because those of us inside want to feel the play of sunlight on our faces, want just as much to feel the rain–because we understand that blessings come in cold and freeze just as much, or perhaps more than they come in warm and melt.
When I sit beneath this expanse and read, The dreams of your future have no room for the devastations of your past, I know You are speaking to me. When You tell me You have washed away my past, even the past I only imagined, I believe You. All I know is Your love, and nothing else seems to matter. If I could spend my life meditating on that truth and what it means for my existence on this earth and in eternity, that would be enough. In the good place, I can breathe, and I don’t have to search because You are with me. I see the stones and grass, the sky and sea, and I am caught up among them. In the good place, I know my name, and I remember what that means–I have been called, and those who are called are no longer children of the dark, but of light.
St. Augustine said, God loves each of us as if there were only one of us, but what he forgot to mention was the way You speak to me as if I alone were listening–stained glass windows throwing colors on my skin, and I can feel them just like reams of water. Dome of branches over my head as I run and run, and I am grateful for the years I spent among cement because without it, I wouldn’t love even the mess the trees make. The flowers bloomed last year, they must’ve, but I swear, I didn’t see them. Now I pass each one as if it blooms only for me, and perhaps, it does. I reach out and touch the pink, the white, the bloody red–want to drink them down like paint until every inch of me is color, color, color, and I am covered all in You.
The Grace in Between
I know these walls without having to open my eyes–tallest cathedral, built in the Gothic style of the Late Middle Ages, an era when they understood very clearly that there are two choices: God or the devil, and all of humanity caught up between them. When people took on apprenticeships to become blacksmiths and apothecaries, never asking how much longer were their years of service, how much time before they could live the way they yearned for–because they understood it was not up to them to dictate the terms of their preparation. God will not keep speaking if I keep refusing to listen, and then, to obey. One day, that still, small voice may go silent, and what will become of me then?
I once had a fire burning hot and bright within me…there was purpose in this pain–but when St. Augustine said, God loves each of us as if there were only one of us, he didn’t tell me that You allow pain so You can show me how You heal. He didn’t tell me it’s actually harder to believe in the possibility of the good over the certainty of the bad. He didn’t tell me that faith is a choice, and one of the hardest ones I will ever have to make. Nor did he tell me that to get to the good I’ve been promised, I will have to walk through miles of desert. That the desert is the place where the bad goes to die–or rather, to be killed, and that what’s bad in me will feel so much like all of me. There will be times and times and times when I become convinced it is only me who’s dying, and that when all is said and done, there will be no me left to live.
What they never told us in Sunday school: there is not a death on this earth that comes without blood, without pain. Not even the death of something as immaterial as the spirit, nor the death of a living God who will bring us back to life. Grace is not something to be earned, but it does come at a price–it costs all of us, every speck and inch. We fear pain, but do we not realize that walking through the fire is the only way to burn off what is killing us, what is already half-dead but clinging to our souls like parasites? In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton says, “The devil is no fool. He can get people feeling about heaven the way they ought to feel about hell. He can make them fear the means of grace the way they do not fear sin. And he does so, not by light but by obscurity, not by realities but by shadows, not by clarity and substance but by dreams and the creatures of psychosis. And men are so poor in intellect that a few cold chills down their spine will be enough to keep them from ever finding out the truth about anything.”
What I am beginning to understand: to die in Christ means to die every day. Every day, and if I don’t, this world will swallow me alive. But in this death, I also awake to life overflowing–a life so immense, I can scarcely contain it. The flowers bloomed last year, they must’ve, but I swear, I didn’t see them. And to see them now, to walk out the door each morning and at last, be able to pay attention, to look around as though cataracts as thick as coated glass have been pulled from my eyes, to gaze upon creation, on every leaf and bird, to feel in every breeze and drop of rain, to understand with every breath and step of my body, to know Who made every bit of everything and to move with Him in all of it–this is grace, and it is worth it.