Who taught you to go deep?
Who dared you to crack open the secret vaults of your heart?
Who stood by as you crept hesitatingly into the silence?
Who showed you the way?
My own responses are no less treasured for being expected: my parents, who without fanfare witness to the profundity of the everyday. A brother Jesuit, both friend and mentor, who sat attentively beside me as I dwelt for 30 silent days with my Creator and patiently helped me navigate the turbulence of the first years of my Jesuit life. The dedicated group of women religious who spent six weeks of a summer anointing me with many lifetimes’ worth of experience, teaching me the movements of my own heart as they taught me to listen to others.
And then there are the others. The ones that aren’t obvious. The ones whose hard-earned wisdom wore masks like Homeless or Addict or Thug or Abuse Victim or Abandoned or Lonely. People for whom pain, violence and anger accompanied their joys and laughter. People who taught me who I am.
I sat once with a man in jail, imprisoned on a charge he didn’t contest. It was a violent crime; an awful crime, one that caused my stomach to tighten and my muscles to clench as I sat. And day after day, week after week his anger at those who had wronged him washed over me. Most days it took a physical act of will to keep sitting with him. And most days, I sat because I didn’t know what else to do.
And then, one day, he set his anger aside and began surveying the broken landscape of his life anew. Bit by bit, layer by layer, he began to walk into the recesses of his heart, and as he did he asked only that I come with him as he went in the darkness. And it was a darkness a black as any I’ve seen. Abuse and neglect dressed up as power and strength. Living through war and the memories of having to follow the orders that come with war. Searing pain. And always the malevolent voice that hissed over and again: “Unforgivable. Unlovable.”
Lately my Jesuit superiors have been reminding me that I’m called to “depth,” and it’s a call I love. But if I’m honest, and if I had lurking in my heart what this man had, I’m not sure that I would have the courage to go into the depths. And yet he went. And asked only that I watch and listen.
In one of my favorite books, Brideshead Revisited, an elderly socialite breezes her way through an introduction to the main character, airily gushing about how she feels she already knows him “through and through.”
“Through and through,” he muses in response, “Through and through is a long way, madam. Can you indeed see into those dark places where my own eyes seek in vain to guide me?”
Just as I’ve begun to know better and better how deep down “through and through” might go in my own heart, just so I have come to suspect how little I know of the “through and through” of those around me. Yet it’s there, and its real. Those dark places where our eyes seek in vain to guide us, the places of secret pain and secret joy. The places where the heart of who we are dwells in a place that only God, with we ourselves for company, can ever know.
The Christian tradition saves some of its richest images for this time of year.
The desert, where Christians are asked to go with Jesus and let pretension be stripped away, leaving only humanity to be seen, weak and fragile. A meal, where Jesus talks about what it means to be human using the elemental symbols of life. And the last walk of a convicted criminal where, for the rest of us, being human means occasionally accepting powerlessness, especially when it is powerlessness that we least want.
Sometimes I think that, above all, we’re asked to go down into the deep places this time of year, into the real deeps, whose secret passages I hardly dare to tread. And not alone, but with a companion to watch and listen at my side. A friend or a parent or a beloved.
Even so, I don’t know how deep I’ll go. But I do know that whatever depths I reach will be at least in part due to a prisoner, and to the inspiration I take from his courage.