I was under the naïve impression that to expose children, to expose any person, to certain aspects of the spiritual life, is a way to spare them confusion when troubled times arise. For example, does knowing the existence of such a thing as a dry spell in prayer make the dry spell easier to cope with, when in the middle of it? I thought it might.
I thought wrong. I’ve come to understand that intellectual knowledge will only take a person (child or adult) so far. I underestimated the need for experience.
All along, I’ve been a little harsh with myself over how I dealt with difficult times in the past. My thoughts ran along the lines of “if only you’d read St. John of the Cross years ago, think how much better you would have handled that particular Dark Night.” I’m learning that it is because I’ve gone through various anguishes throughout the years that I fully appreciate what St. John has to say about the Dark Night.
The life event that helped me understand where I’ve gone wrong is not one I can share in detail. It is not my story to tell. What I will say is this: I witnessed someone going through an extremely difficult time. During the worst of it, I could recognize the feelings both because I’ve been there and because I have read so much St. John of the Cross when I am there. With every fiber in me, I knew what was going on with this person. To my frustration, there wasn’t a lot I had to offer in support because every word that St. John has to say on the topic that brings me comfort does so only because I’ve gone through the grinding despair and come out on the other side, understanding and appreciating the purgation and growth I’d experienced in the midst of the darkness. As well, I was frustrated because there was nothing in secular psychology or even Christian psychology* that could put in simple language what I’d learned from St. John of the Cross. (* see note below)
The story has a happy, blessed ending. The beauty that emerged on the other side of this darkness fills me with awe. I am humbled because I am aware of the Invisible Hand at work here. I suspect that the post-despair results could not have been achieved without that painful growth.
I could not have rushed the process of growth along by quoting St. John of the Cross from one end of the day to the other. This dark night experience was new. Intellectual knowledge of the dark night was no help until it was experienced. After all, even combining rudimentary knowledge of St. John with years of experience of cycles of the dark night does not spare me when my time for darkness comes around again. Yes, knowledge of it provides me with a comfort that things will be better again, but I must still re-experience darkness and purgation of self.
This has caused me to examine what it is I’ve been trying to do with my children, in teaching them about prayer. The examination has been a painful one. It is not for me to teach them about prayer in order to spare them a bit of pain in life. Rather, it is my task to teach about prayer because I accept there will be pain in life, regardless of how we prepare for it. I must accept that prayer is sometimes less a preventative medicine and more a healing medicine. Ironically enough, this is something I knew intellectually but didn’t really accept on an emotional level.
It’s like that story about the butterfly being helped out of its cocoon. Supposedly, it will die if it does not have the opportunity to strengthen its wings as it struggles out of the pupa. Would telling the caterpillar help it feel any better about what it would have to do to become a butterfly? You could tell it all you like, but the experience cannot be understood until the metamorphosis occurs. Of course, the analogy falls apart when applied to human spiritual growth, as we go through that metamorphosis of growth over and over. Happily, humans can learn from experience that the growth is painful but also necessary. Only experience, however, makes the lesson real.
I will not stop talking or writing about prayer. Not to my children or anyone else who wants to listen. I love sharing spiritual gems, especially those from Carmelite sources. But I understand in a new way that all I can do is share. I am not able to spare anyone difficulties. That’s hard. I wish it could all be preventative, but sometimes the words are only ones of healing. Ah, well . . . fiat voluntas tua!
* nota bene: Fr. Marc Foley does an excellent job at making St. John accessible, but I think experience is still required.