One of my favorite activities during the week is walking down Washington Street during my lunch break and visiting at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the seat of the Archbishop of Boston. It is a beautiful building, one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world and since its restoration in the mid-1990s breathtakingly bright and inspiring (I included a picture of the interior in my recent, and rather lengthy, post on church buildings). Whether I am standing in awe before the great windows and vaults of the main church or simply sitting before the Blessed Sacrament in the side chapel, it is a wonderful place to talk with God and to just be.
The other day I had come into the cathedral chapel seeking help with a particular recurring problem of mine. We all have our hang-ups, to be sure, but some hang-ups have a habit of manifesting in ways that can’t easily be categorized. Suffice to say (and I will have to for now) that even a harmless pleasure can become a burdensome preoccupation. So as I knelt before the tabernacle there in the cathedral chapel, I prayed less formally than usual and simply asked God to tell me something I do not know, tell me something about this problem of mine I am struggling to understand. Getting even more to the point, I asked Him not just to tell me but to show me, and I shut my eyes (which I normally do when I want to see something) and steeled myself for a response, whatever it might be.
You see, I do know God answers prayers, and I also know that God doesn’t answer them in expected ways; as Pope Francis would say, “our God is a God of surprises!” So there I was with my eyes closed, and I began to see that orb of light that usually shows when we shut our eyes and just let our focus drift, like when we’re lost in thought or falling into deep sleep. But in the midst of this bright field I saw a spot, quite small in the vastness of its environment but dark and irregular enough to stand out. It didn’t move with the flickering of my eyeballs like other spots in my vision will, but stayed in place until I opened my eyes.
The first real thing that I thought was, “It’s like a sunspot.” Sunspots are dark spots on the sun, and they are thought to happen because the surface of the sun, which is not solid but gaseous, does not move all at the same time or at the same speed while the sun rotates. When some parts move and others don’t, or one part moves slower than the rest, the magnetic flow can get bunched up and energy isn’t released, resulting in these cooler spots. The area is actually still quite hot and bright, just not as hot and bright as the rest of the sun so the area appears dark by comparison. They can last anywhere from hours to weeks until the flow straightens itself out. And while the spots themselves aren’t solid either, the magnetic pressure beneath them is such that they become vortexes and make a visible impression on the surface of the sun. And now there it was: a sunspot on this field of light. And somehow, I knew that was the answer to my prayer.
This hang-up of mine is like a sunspot. A great many of my hang-ups in the past have been. The different parts of me – and I have as many of those as I have names! – have progressed and evolved at different speeds over my life. And every so often, I get stuck. Part of me just becomes a bundle of energy that can’t really go anywhere. It impresses itself upon me, and I start to fall inwards. And the result is a cool, dark spot on the surface of my soul. Sometimes it’s small, other times it’s quite large. It can be there briefly, or it can last a considerable amount of time. But as I reflected on that moment, I think God chose this particular way of showing me this hang-up of mine not so much to clarify its nature to me, but to help me not worry about it so much. It’s as if He had said, “It’s going to fade, it will pass, the flow of your life will continue, and in the meantime just trust Me,” but so much more powerfully than if He had used words.
I’m glad I dared to ask what I did: I asked Him to show me, and He showed me. I’m not nearly as worried about it as I was when I walked into the cathedral that day. I even feel more than a little hopeful, looking forward to the day that this hang-up has faded.
The experience gave me another unexpected gift as well. For a long time now I’ve referred to myself as a “crescent moon,” A large part of living this Christian way of life I’m trying to make my way through is to imitate Christ, the light of our lives, and to let our light shine before others as He told us, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” For one reason or another, I’ve never felt particularly full of light. I’ve felt that if any part of me shines it must be a reflection of His light upon me, not within me. I was more moon than sun, waxing and waning but never full. I could take comfort in knowing that even the moon was made to give light to the night, and so I could still be an instrument to help people see in the dark, but even then, the light wouldn’t reach my dark side. It’s one thing to be dependent upon God’s mercy; it’s another thing to do so because you feel like there are parts of you even He won’t touch.
But now…perhaps the darkness isn’t as cold as I thought. Perhaps there is light inside me after all. 🙂
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As I walked out of the cathedral, I was struck by a thought that brought a particularly thorny situation in my future into a new focus. I’ll talk about that in Part Two.