The snow is all around us in these deep days of winter, a kind of unmoving, silent presence, frozen in time. Even though life continues on full speed ahead in the busyness of these days, there’s also a sort of feeling that we’re ‘stuck’ in these winter days, waiting for spring to arrive when the snow will melt away and the green grass will grow again, revealing a beautiful array of flowers, a season of rebirth and growth. As I’ve been holding on to God’s promises and trying to stay steady in a season of emotional ups and downs in my life, I’ve been reflecting on the seeming-stillness of winter, and the growth which we do not see.
As a parish staff, we’ve begun reading a book called “Hinds Feet on High Places” by Hannah Hurnard, an allegory of the Christian life. Even though it’s an older book, written in the 1950s, I had been hearing about this book from multiple sources recently and it had really been on my heart to read it. So when Fr. Scott asked the parish staff if we would like to read it together as a book study, I knew it was an answer to prayer! We’re only a few chapters in to the book, but I have been captivated so far by the main character, fittingly nicknamed “Much-Afraid”, and her relationship to the Shepherd whom she serves, an obvious allegory for Jesus. She is from the family of Fearings and is disfigured with lame feet and a crooked mouth, which makes her incredibly timid and filled with shame.
To sum up the beginning of the book, the Shepherd asks her to go to the High Places with Him and take on a new name, but in order to go He must implant the seed of love into her heart. She quickly realizes that this seed is actually a thorn, which she eventually allows the Shepherd to pierce into heart. Although it hurts at first, it fills her with an incredible sense of sweetness and a kind of joy and peace she had never before known, and she exclaims, “I feel as though I shall never be afraid again!” The Shepherd’s response really struck a chord with me: “He looked very kindly at the little shepherdess who had just received the seed of Love into her heart and was preparing to go with him to the High Places, but also with full understanding. He knew her through and through, in all the intricate labyrinth of her lonely heart, better far than she knew herself. No one understood better than he, that growing into the likeness of a new name is a long process, but he did not say this. He looked with a certain tender pity and compassion at the glowing cheeks and shining eyes which had so suddenly transformed the appearance of plain little Much-Afraid.” (pg. 11) How many times have I gone on an amazing retreat or had an incredible encounter with the Holy Spirit and thought, “How could I ever doubt Him again? How could I ever go back to who I was before this moment?!” But the Shepherd knows our hearts, and He knows far better than we do that it is going to be a very slow and very long process to become who we’re called to be. What tender love He has for us that He guides and leads us every step of the way!
Shortly after receiving the seed of love, Much-Afraid is confronted by her cousin, Craven Fear, and is put into a total panic, acting completely as her old self again. But again, the Shepherd is there, loving her despite her failings: “She was overwhelmed with shame that she had so quickly acted like her old name and nature, which she had hoped was beginning to be changed already. It seemed so impossible to ignore the Fearings, still less to resist them. She did not dare look at the Shepherd, but had she done so she would have seen with what compassion he was regarding her.” (p. 13) All she needed to do was to look up and see the Shepherd looking with compassion on her, and all of her shame would have dissipated in an instant. But instead, she was consumed with the intense disappointment that she hadn’t arrived yet at being the kind of person she was called to be. She was just beginning the process of transformation, but was already despairing that she wasn’t yet at the goal. Sound familiar? It certainly does to me!
As we move into the beautiful season of Lent, I find myself being so impatient with how slowly healing and growth seems to come in my life, and with the feeling of being ‘stuck’ sometimes, just like many do in this seemingly-endless winter. But what I’ve realized is that we can trust that God is doing the hard work of producing growth in us, as long as we abide in Him. It will most likely take much longer than we would like, but we can trust that every step of the way is well worth it and will bring about great beauty. I’ve been convicted that this Lent, rather than feverishly trying to get things done both in my personal life and in my spiritual life, I need to rest in the heart of God, allowing Him to quietly attend to my heart and produce growth in hidden and unseen ways. So, my friends, how is God quietly inviting you to encounter His faithfulness this Lent? How is He inviting you to trust that He is producing growth in your life, even when everything seems stagnant? Let’s let go and abide in Him, so that He can do His work in us.
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to
something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time…
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that His hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.” –Patient Trust by Teilhard de Chardin, SJ