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        The Point of Despair

 

All the passages below are taken from Elisabeth Elliot’s book “A Path Through Suffering.” It was published in 1990.

 

A bit of sphagnum moss shows the process [of death leading on to new life] in miniature. Stage after stage of dying has been gone through, and each has been all the while crowned with life. Each time that the crown has sunk down again into death, that death has once again been crowned in the act of dying. And the life all the time is the apparent thing; the daily dying that underlies it is hidden to the passing glance.

 

SPHAGNUM IS A LARGE GENUS OF MOSSES, certain species of which are highly absorptive and are used for surgical dressings. It grows only in swamps or water, and as each layer decays it is "crowned in the act of dying," that is, a new one comes to life on top of it. This is how certain kinds of peat are built up.

When at times sorrow is heaped upon sorrow we cannot help wondering if this time God has forgotten us. We think of His promise that He will never allow us to be tempted beyond our ability to bear, and it seems that He has forgotten that promise, forgotten to be gracious. If ever a man had reason to feel that it was Walter Ciszek, as he describes in He Leadeth Me. In a Soviet labor camp he was interrogated for weeks in an attempt to persuade him to cooperate, that is, actively to work with his captors in various schemes.

"Life in the camp was painted in its blackest and bitterest details, and it was pointed out to me how easily I could escape all that if I wanted to work for the NKVD. I was annoyed, and then ashamed again of my own indecisiveness. Why couldn't I just stand up and say no? Instead, I temporized. I took to playing a game of cat and mouse with the interrogator, asking for time to think over his various proposals."

Ciszek was given books on the history and philosophy of communism and quizzed on the contents. He was glad to prolong the arguments and thereby postpone the need for a final decision.

"Then one day the blackness closed in around me completely. Perhaps it was brought on by exhaustion, but I reached a point of despair. I was overwhelmed by the hopelessness of my situation. I knew that I was approaching the end of my ability to postpone a decision. I could see no way out of it. Yes, I despaired in the most literal sense of the word: I lost all sense of hope. I saw only my own weakness and helplessness to choose either position open to me, cooperation or execution....

"I knew that I had gone beyond all bounds, had crossed over the brink into a fit of blackness I had never known before. It was very real and I began to tremble.... I had lost the last shreds of my faith in God.... Recognizing that, I turned immediately to prayer in fear and trembling. I knew I had to seek immediately the God I had forgotten."

God had not forgotten him. Suddenly he was consoled by the thought of the Lord in Gethsemane. He too had known fear and weakness as He faced suffering and death. His "not my will" was an act of total self-surrender, Ciszek was changed in that moment.

"I knew immediately what I must do, what I would do, and somehow I knew that I could do it. I knew that I must abandon myself entirely to the will of the Father and live from now on in this spirit of self-abandonment to God. And I did it.... God's will was not hidden somewhere 'out there' in the situations in which I found myself; the situations themselves were His will for me. What He wanted was for me to accept these situations from His hands, to let go of the reins and place myself entirely at His disposal.... It was the grace God had been offering me all my life, but which I had never really had the courage to accept in full" (Walter J. Ciszek, SJ: He Leadeth Me, Doubleday, New York, 1975, pp. 84-89).

Ciszek is one more witness in modern times to the astounding grace which has carried faithful believers through all dangers, toils, and snares.

"Flogged, imprisoned, mobbed; overworked, sleepless, starving.... Honour and dishonour, praise and blame, are alike our lot: we are the impostors who speak the truth, the unknown men whom all men know; dying we still live on; disciplined by suffering, we are not done to death; in our sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring wealth to many; penniless, we own the world" (2 Corinthians 6:5, 8-10 NEB).

The death of one layer of sphagnum prepares the matrix from which new life springs. The tiny dried fronds, so devoid of any vitality or usefulness in themselves, are vital and useful in the economy of the Designer. He takes their desolation and makes it life-giving. Without the dying, the sphagnum would not "still live on."

I am thankful for the rare combination of an artist's eye and a clear spiritual eye given to Lilias Trotter. The picture of the sphagnum "crowned in the act of dying" lights up so beautifully for us the word of Hebrews 2:9, "In Jesus ... we do see one who for a short while was made lower than the angels, crowned now with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that, by God's gracious will, in tasting death he should stand for us all." Crowned because He suffered. May we not unite ourselves with Him even in this? He died for us, as George MacDonald says, not that we might not suffer but that our sufferings might be like His. Think what this means. If we are His children, we share His treasures, and all that Christ claims as His will belong to us as well. "If we share in his sufferings we shall certainly share in his glory" (Romans 8:17, JBP).

There was a day in January of 1973 when I felt very close to desolation. My husband had his first radiation treatment for cancer, three and a half minutes under the eye of a machine the size of a freight car, making the noise of three motor boats. In the hallway was an ominous sign: DANGER-HIGH VOLTAGE. On the door of the waiting room, NUCLEAR MEDICINE. That morning I had sat thinking of what was to come, looking out on the bare dogwood twigs against a winter-blue sky, and on my little Scottish terrier, MacDuff, rejoicing and running in the snow as well as his short little legs would allow, snuffling and tossing his frosty black beard in ecstasy. In the waiting room that afternoon I watched the other patients go, one by one, into the chamber of horrors, until it was Add's turn. The few minutes he was gone were long to me, long enough to pray for him, and to think of all these things---the blue sky, the dogwood tree, my little MacDuff, the snow scene, the mysterious action of the betatron, and we ourselves, held in the Hand that made us all, the Hand that is laid on us with love and with loving words, FEAR NOT.

I was beginning very slowly to understand the reason suffering is referred to a number of times in the Bible as a gift, a concept which makes no more sense to the world's mind than the idea of Christ nailed to a cross---a stumbling block to Jews, folly to Greeks. But "divine folly is wiser than the wisdom of man, and divine weakness stronger than man's strength" (1 Corinthians 1:25). Things which are spiritually discerned cannot be discerned in any other way. The truths of the Kingdom of God cut straight across our natural mindset. But when there is nowhere to turn but to God, no explanations which satisfy either mind or heart except in His Word, it is then that the Spirit opens the understanding of those who turn to Him in their helplessness.

When I read my journal of 1973 I can discern the dawning of this radical reversal. I was thanking God for things I would never have learned to thank Him for without the suffering itself. And thanksgiving, in the midst of darkness, clears a way for grace. Walter Ciszek, dying the daily deaths of a labor camp, knew a horror of a darkness far greater than mine, but he gives me his word: God did not leave him alone. God was there, even when he had no consciousness of His presence. I can take his word for it that there are no depths to which I will be called to go where God will not be. Then I ask myself: but why do I need the word of anyone but God Himself? He has told me again and again and again that He is with me and will always be with me, in the deep river, the hot fire, the Valley of the Shadow. Yet I sometimes doubt Him. So, in His mercy, He brings along witness after witness, people who have learned dimensions of transforming grace impossible for them to have learned anywhere but where they were.

"Dying we still live on"; they say, "disciplined by suffering we are not done to death; in our sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring wealth to many" (2 Corinthians 6:9-10).

Their look is very kindly when they add, 'Where do you expect to find out what authentic faith is? Where will you prove the truth of the eternal Word?'" (117-122)

 

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