I recently finished putting together our 2019 family photo album. It was such a delight to go over some of the most fun memories of that year, including international family trips (remember those?), and welcoming our youngest child.
The year held some of my life’s best moments: finding out that our two boys were expecting a baby sister, taking our water-obsessed babies to swim for hours on a Hawaiian beach, and travelling to the Philippines for a family wedding. By the time Christmas 2019 rolled around, we had three small children to experience the magic of the season with. I was so excited about what the next year had in store.
By January 2, 2020, things started to unravel in our family. A routine check-up revealed that my dad needed to have a mass surgically removed. We learned three weeks later that it was cancerous and the surgery was scheduled a few weeks later, the same time frame of an already-booked family vacation.
We were in Europe during my dad’s surgery and while we were there, reports of a virus outbreak happening in northern Italy started to circulate. We started to receive texts from our family urging us to consider rerouting the rest of our holidays. We eventually returned home to Canada safely, and within days of our return, a pandemic was officially announced and government restrictions were put into place.
Three months into the new year and my boys’ birthday parties, my daughter’s baptism, and any semblance of a celebration for my dad’s successful cancer surgery were all put on hold. “Surely in a few weeks, these restrictions would lift,” we thought optimistically. I really wanted to celebrate this year; we planned for big summer gatherings to make up for a socially distant spring. When these didn’t happen, we thought we could instead celebrate my husband’s thirtieth and my daughter’s first birthdays in the fall. But spring turned into summer, and summer to fall. No parties. And now, Christmas gatherings are off the table too. If I’m being honest, it often feels near impossible to catch a break. Starting with our family cancer scare earlier in the year, to the coronavirus outbreak, to racial injustice, messy politics and economic repercussions, and everything else in between. Everything feels like it is spiralling out of control and my soul feels like it’s been through the wringer. Perhaps some of you can relate.
These last few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time sitting quietly in front of our fireplace. Often I feel overburdened and overwhelmed; hope feels like it is in such short supply. I’ve grown weary of expecting great things. I am pleading with God for relief, begging for solace, for restoration. But the more I ponder on the burden of uncertainty, the more I wrestle with the complexity of God’s character.
The reality is that God is as gentle as He is fierce. He challenges and rebukes, and He is the source of boundless mercy. That means I can run to Him again and again and ask for a reprieve. At the same time, it can also mean that He will hold me in an uncomfortable space where I will constantly need to ask for help.
The pandemic has made room for many of us to experience a slower, quieter pace. Unfortunately for me, quiet spaces often make plenty of room for fears and worries to surface. Then I started to ponder what it means to have a holy fear, and I came to think about the Spiritual gift of Wonder and Awe, also known as the Fear of the Lord. You may remember it from catechism classes prior to your Confirmation. Pope Francis spoke beautifully of this gift, during a General Audience about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He said:
“When we are pervaded by fear of the Lord, then we are led to follow the Lord with humility, docility and obedience. This, however, is not an attitude of resignation, passivity or regret, but one of the wonder and joy of being a child who knows he is served and loved by the Father. Fear of the Lord, therefore, does not make of us Christians who are shy and submissive, but stirs in us courage and strength! It is a gift that makes of us Christians who are convinced, enthusiastic, who aren’t submissive to the Lord out of fear but because we are moved and conquered by his love! To be conquered by the love of God! This is a beautiful thing. To allow ourselves to be conquered by this love of a father, who loves us so, loves us with all his heart.”
When you think of wonder and awe, what mental images come to your mind? I think about Moses’ experience, as he stood in front of an unconsumed burning bush. I think of a teenage Mary, being told by an angel that she will conceive God’s Son. I think of an anguished Job, whom God addressed by speaking to him through a whirlwind. I think of a bereaved Mary Magdalene as she stood face to face with the risen Christ. The experience of wonder and awe feels palpable just by reading their Biblical accounts.
Consider the people in Scripture as well as the many saints who have known and experienced uncertainty. Did they not exhibit humility, docility, and obedience? Were they not conquered by the love of a Father? They have forged a path for me to believe that suffering and joy can co-exist.
This is a lesson I am constantly learning. And when days come that I forget that joy exists amongst the difficulties, it helps to be in the company of trusted souls who help lift my head up once again. When my soul feels troubled, my natural response veers more towards flight than fight. I want to be distracted, to numb the pain while I find the fastest way out.
But if I were to take my experience from the vast abyss of uncertainty that this year has brought, running away from pain does little good for my soul. C.S. Lewis says it beautifully: “Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done.”
I know that the year 2020 has brought all of us varied forms of grief and suffering. Whatever shape it took for you and your family, I know that all of us have been changed by our experience. But this year is soon to come to an end, and whether or not things change for the better remains to be unknown. So in light of our shared experience of a tumultuous year, the question remains: should we seek joy? Of course! Or is it naive to hope? Absolutely not! As Pope Francis reminds us, the gift of wonder and awe “is not an attitude of resignation (or) passivity… it is a gift that makes of us Christians who are convinced (and) enthusiastic”!
More importantly, and the question I’ve sat with for so long, is it possible? Only by God’s grace. Truth be told, I fight hard for joy and peace in our home -- as contradictory as that sounds! By nature, I tend to be more anxious and fearful, so when uncertainty creeps in and steals my peace, I know that I need to lean into the Holy Spirit for a steady supply of courage and strength.
Have you ever heard of the name Horatio Spafford? He was a wealthy businessman, blessed with a wife and five children. A series of unfortunate events abruptly stole everything he held dear: first, his four-year-old son to scarlet fever. Shortly after, his family fortune vanished in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A mere two years later, as he strived to recover lost business due to the fire, he chose to board a later ship to join his wife and four daughters in a much-needed family holiday in England. The ship carrying his family suffered a tragic accident and Horatio received from his wife the now famous telegram saying that she was “saved alone”. Their four young daughters perished at sea. If you have not heard this story before, then perhaps the words he penned as he sailed over the precise spot where his daughters took their last breaths may sound more familiar: “Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.”
Horatio Spafford, a true 19th century Job. How is it that Horatio can cling onto hope, despite such a calamity? I can not fathom the depth of his despair. But I can imagine the wonder and awe that he experienced as he encountered God in the midst of his tragedy.
My personal antidote to uncertainty is to cling tightly to what I know in my heart to be true: that I am a daughter of a majestic, immovable, good Father. A loving God who knows my past, and has control over my future. I know that I don’t always have it in me to marvel at both God’s mighty power and His tenderness. To stand in awe of the Lion and the Lamb. To sit in the tension of joy and suffering. The good news is that as Catholics we have available to us the gifts of the Holy Spirit to be able to do so. We can call upon the Spirit for the gift to be able to sit in wonder and awe of an all-powerful God.
We have to fight our battles. We need to actively choose joy, and to fight to cling on to hope. Some days it may feel insurmountable, but there are no rules against taking it one day at a time. The Holy Spirit is ready and willing to provide us with supernatural strength and courage to persevere. It is not foolish to hope for a good ending, nor futile to plead for positive outcomes.
We won’t always know how the rest of our stories will unfold. But thank the good Lord that we have been privy to the last page of the book.
Through Christ, we know that we are victors of the war, but in knowing this, may we not grow weary in staying faithful in our strife. When we make room for joy to exist, even as we suffer, then we gain the freedom to dream big and to dream well. We can look forward to a new year with hopeful anticipation. So as we approach the dawn of a new beginning, may you be filled with the gift of wonder and awe. And may you experience the unmistakable peace of the Holy Spirit in ways that you never have before.
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