When you have defended yourself for a long time against discouragement, despair, disappointment and doubt you assume the defensive posture of someone who is only afraid of more of the above and certainly not hopeful of alternative experiences such as joy, peace, fun and hope.
When you’ve battled through so much you can actually get quite proud of your own ability to cope, to struggle on. You fail to realise that this self-reliant strategy has in fact become yet another thing between you and your guide.
You have become ‘defended’ and the one you are losing out on by your self defensiveness, is God.
I found myself thinking these thoughts as I got lost on a walk. On a retreat in the Lake District, I had intended to go for a walk in the woods. Instead I came across a path that led up, and up, and up. Stubbornly, I thought “I’ll just go a bit further”, and then once I had gone that bit further I thought “well maybe the view will be better just bit higher up” and finally “well I may as well make it to the top now I’ve come all this way”. So with muscles aching, heart racing and lungs working overtime, I struggled on upwards for the full 50 minute climb.
It became a metaphor for my recent spiritual life experience: sheer hard slog.
I sensed the Holy Spirit saying “Sheila, you are meant to stay close to Jesus, close enough to be yoked together. THAT close”
Instead I have fallen into step behind, certainly putting one foot after the other, faithfully following in the footprints of Jesus, watchful for the way markers left by the Holy Spirit which appeared like those flashes of bright paint on stones by the way-just frequent enough to stop me falling off the path altogether but never big enough to leave me entirely sure I was on the right track and never clear enough as to where that track lead.
I trusted that Jesus was somewhere up ahead on the track but he was several switchbacks above me. I wasn’t quite on my own but the lung bursting, sheer hard work effort of the climb was mine and mine alone.
If the Lord truly is the Lord of all hopefulness, kindliness, eagerness, and gentleness, then I’d lost sight of him. He was so far in the distance that those qualities seemed irrelevant to me-hot, sweaty and struggling as I was.
When I rely on myself, it feels safer to measure out my meagre resources of energy, love and compassion. I have learnt to budget myself today because I know there will always be ‘the next thing’ and ‘the next thing’ and ‘the next thing’ and then ‘the thing after that’. By which I mean problems, obstacles, challenges.
But whilst there is some wisdom in this approach to life it doesn’t allow me to ever fully give in to each experience as it comes. To be fully present to either the grief or disappointment or to fully enter into joy and allow hope to sink deeply into my bones.
I have been challenged that I can only stay “undefended“ in the face of pain, distress (mine or others) if I stay so close to Jesus that I’m ‘yoked’. Close enough so that what flows out of me: love, compassion, tears, can immediately be replenished. Then I can afford to give myself away because my older brother Jesus is constantly loaning me his strength and his energy, along with his love and his compassion for me.
“Take my yoke upon you for my burden is light” – it hasn’t felt that way Lord. Forgive me, for chaffing at the yoke, for failing to trust you that the burden will be light, for forgetting that you are carrying it not me.
Help me to slip into harness again, I know there will still be obstacles ahead, maybe even mountains to climb, but I’m not called to trudge on alone.