Imprisoned for the first time in her young life (of the at least dozen times from 1917-1955), Dorothy Day lay in her cell shivering from the cold and starving. She had joined a group of suffragists in D.C. to protest the brutal treatment of imprisoned women and, ironically, found herself in jail accused of rioting. Of the darkness she recalls, “I lost all consciousness of any cause. I had no sense of being a radical, making protest against a government, carrying on a nonviolent revolution. I could only feel darkness and desolation all around me” (The Long Loneliness, 78). As we journey further into this penitential Season of Advent and await the birth of the Light Himself in our world of darkness (cf. Matt. 4:16 & Isaiah 9:2), we can reflect upon the desolate darkness of this scene in Dorothy’s life and see it as an inspiring beginning. In that moment, for her, however, it felt like the end. The bad guys had won and Dorothy had failed, “I did not want to go to God in defeat” (The Long Loneliness, 81).
As Christians, we are blessed with the knowledge that our darkest of nights are a share in Christ’s suffering. Going to God is never defeat. Christ Himself provides us an example. Born as a helpless infant in Bethlehem, this Child Who was the very Light of Life was, as C. S. Lewis says, dropped behind enemy lines in the world of darkness, positioning Himself to transform it from within:
Enemy-occupied territory-that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage (Mere Christianity, 46).
Amidst the darkness of our world, from very early on in His life we find the Child Jesus seeking communion with His Heavenly Father as we recall in the 5th of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary (Luke 2:41-43; 44b-47). Throughout His life Christ would repeatedly retire from the busyness of His ministry and find respite in the presence of His Heavenly Father by spending the night in prayer (e.g., Luke 6:12, Matt. 14:23 & Mark 6:46). Christ’s turning to His Heavenly Father during times of trouble becomes most intense in His agony in Gethsemane. The kiss of betrayal from His close friend, the violent arrest at the hands of soldiers, and imprisonment (Mt 26:36-56; Mk 14:32-52; Lk 22:39-53, Jn 18:1-11) lay directly before Him. And, aware of His impending suffering as the darkness of fear entered into His Heart and the blood-sweat dripped down His face (Lk 22:44), God Incarnate prayed that He might be delivered, “let this cup pass from me” (Mt 26:39 & 42).
From this dark scene in Gethsemane to His crucifixion on Calvary, it would seem that the bad guys had won, the campaign for renewal a failure and the God Man had lost, not only to His disciples, but the abandonment Christ experienced seems to indicate that He felt defeated as well (Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46). In the first breath He prays, “Father, why have you abandoned me?” And in the second breath He prays, “Into Your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46; Mt 27:50; Mk 15:37; Jn 19:30). Even as He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, He was giving His life to God, “thy will be done” (Mt 26:39 & 42). With the backdrop of darkness, the light of loving communion with God comes into focus.
What is the implication of this for us? Well, we can be confident that our missionary road in life will decidedly not be a walk in the park, but rather a trek up Calvary. We can be certain that like our Lord and His saints (e.g., Servant of God Dorothy Day, St. Mother Teresa), we will experience fear and darkness; challenges in our life that quite literally feel like the end and we may tell ourselves that we have failed – yet again. But, success is not marked by the accumulation of stuff (recall the throne of God as the manger and the cross; recall too Dorothy lived with the poor as the poor); or prestigious titles or social status. Success in Christian terms is, rather, a state of constant growth, of constant conversion, reorientation of our hearts, metanoia. Although Jesus Christ, God, the second person of the Trinity, did not need conversion, Scripture tells us He grew “in wisdom and stature, in favor with God and man” (Lk 2:52) and “He learned obedience through what He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). He suffered much and indeed grew. His prayer in the garden of Gethsemane was a cultivation of His person, the culmination of a life-long process of growth He had begun in the arms of His Mother, Mary, in Bethlehem. Throughout His life He would repeatedly be rejected by stranger and friend alike. And the heaviness of the darkness and fear He felt, in Christian terms, was a sign of success.
In her cold, dark cell, Dorothy, too, prayed: “I began asking for a Bible the second day I was imprisoned, and by the fourth day it was brought me…My heart swelled with joy and thankfulness for the Psalms…‘They that sow in tears shall reap in joy’ (Ps 126:5-6)…The man who sang these songs knew sorrow and expected joy…I clung to the words of comfort in the Bible…I prayed and did not know that I prayed” (80-81). Her prison cell was her garden in which the Divine Gardener (Jn 20:15) made fit to cultivate her heart, nurturing it, and supporting it’s growth.
From the perspective of Christianity, the whole of life is an exile of sorts, an arduous journey far from our Heavenly Homeland (Hebrews 11:8-10). The months of Advent are a vivid reminder to our bodies and minds of this reality as temperatures drop and the light of day is shorter and shorter. The warmth and light of home never seem so far away. Nevertheless, this land of exile and tears is also the garden where the Divine Gardener nourishes, cultivates and prepares us for eternal joy with Him. The wreaths on our doors, the garland adorning our mantles and doorways, the Advent Wreaths and soon Christmas Trees in our homes so vividly remind us of this beautiful quality of our lives this side of eternity. So, as we journey together this Advent seeking to prepare the way for the coming of Christ into our lives through prayer and the cultivation of the virtues, experiencing fear, failure, and defeat along the way, let’s pray that the Divine Gardener transfigure our tears into life-giving nourishment for the gardens of our hearts (Ps 42:3).
Your Sister in Christ,
Photo Credit: Bob Fitch Photography archive | © Stanford University Libraries
Vanessa Crescio is an accountant with Lipic’s Engagement in Saint Louis, MO. She holds an MBA from the University of Notre Dame and an MTS from Newman University. She is interested in thinking through co-responsibility in the Church and developing leadership programs to form Catholics to serve the Church with not only their knowledge, skills, and abilities but with the servant heart of Christ.