I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
I scramble through busy days, racing against the clock and my to-do list, and I think about waiting. I wonder why some of us have to wait so long, facing down disappointment after sorrow after heavy blow, for any sign of hope or progress or the slightest stirring of relief in response to our prayers. And I wonder why some people, facing a grievous loss, suffer a few moments or a few days of weeping and then find the universe has abruptly shifted, delivering a miraculous turn of events beyond all expectation. For them, weeping did endure for something approximating a night, but joy came in the morning. For me and some of those I love, the night is months or years long already, and there is no glimmer of dawn. And then there are the prayers that simply come to an end, not worn thin by years of waiting but simply skidding to a halt at the lip of the precipice: that request can now never be answered. Death, on this side of things, is final–and unassailable by the legions of prayers offered up before that last moment came.
It is very, very hard for me to even consider asking God for anything now. Some people’s mountain-moving prayers are answered; they seem like the favored ones. I feel like one of the forgotten.
…In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy,
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
I often wonder what was the real tone of life for the ancient people exalted as heroes of faith. For those to whom the vast, precious promises were spoken–did those lofty words make an actual difference? All my life I have been handed those promises, snipped out of their home passages and presented in all their cheering simplicity, neatly trimmed of the threads connecting them to past and future and context. For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm, to give you a future and a hope. But the people to whom those words were spoken went off into captivity, and most of them never came back. Those who did come back, old men and women, wept when they compared their bare new temple to the lost glories of the old. And the Old Testament echoes with endless, specific, earth-centered, land-focused promises to the people of Israel–who are still waiting for their fulfillment, thousands of years later. It’s all very well to say that the promises are fulfilled eventually in Christ. That isn’t clear in the promises themselves, and the people who received them would have had no inkling that these words were not for them, that day. Small wonder that Jesus’ followers expected the Messiah to set up an earthly kingdom: all the scriptures they had known since childhood had led them to believe it. He came to reveal the firstfruits of the coming kingdom in which all will be made well–but how could that not have seemed like a cruel twist to the disciples waiting months and then years and then lifetimes for the return they had thought imminent?
As a child, reading wide-eyed through the Old Testament, I thought that it was about rule-keeping and the resultant rewards. If those silly people could just have obeyed and believed God, everything would have been fine. I sighed, exasperated, every time they failed again.
As a college student, I learned to see the Bible as an arc of promises and fulfillment. I knew there were some things yet unexplained, but I thought that what we understood outweighed what we didn’t. I thought the Christian life would be a steady upward slope into more knowledge and greater hope. I saw the Biblical figures going from strength to strength, buoyed up by a magnificent spiritual power.
Now I think the Bible is a long story of waiting. Waiting for home, for family, for love, for community, for justice, for deliverance, for redemption, for rebirth, for an end to pain and darkness. And perhaps those who waited did not gallop triumphantly toward the goal, but trudged–or crawled–or sat down and gave up. I think we can read too much optimism into that wait because we want to see it. It’s a waiting interspersed with points of light and small tastes of fulfillment, but the wait goes on, and it’s weary. Some people, perhaps by reason of circumstance or temperament, tend to focus on the light; and looking at light dazzles, making it harder to notice the darkness. But I am not one of those. The day may come when I can see more of the light and weigh it justly against the darkness. But right now, almost all I can see is the darkness of long waiting.
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
…We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
I think often of my Biblical namesake, Sarah, who laughed. I don’t wonder that she did. After all the years that she had followed her husband with his wild promises, through lands that were never home and among people who were not hers; facing ridicule and devastation and danger and empty arms–who would not have laughed at the suggestion that good would finally come? Peter wrote, generations later, that she considered him faithful who had promised. I think that must have been an evaluation, not of her long spells of darkness, but of her whole life, and of the fact that she kept walking and kept following, even through that darkness and with the bitter laughter of doubt.
Perhaps someday I too will find him faithful. Now, still, I wait.
The lines of poetry are quoted from “East Coker”, the second of the Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot.