We are in the season of darkness. This year we can really feel it, can’t we? Sometimes the dark can bring us closer. We pray for healing, we hope for liberation. Other times, we feel such confusion and helplessness that we actually don’t want to know about each other anymore. We grow distant. We grieve.
What does this Advent darkness ask of us?
I think of Evie. Now a grown woman, Evie has lived with HIV/AIDS since she was a child. Several times, she has come to live at Joseph’s House, desperately ill, close to death. This most recent time, her caseworker found her under a blanket in a fetal position on the floor of her apartment. Nearly skeletal, she had an untreated throat infection that hurt her so much she had not been eating. She had been drugging. Weak and despondent, Evie accused her caseworker, “You don’t care about me. Nobody loves me.” She has said the same to us. Many times.
It is painful to hear Evie’s truth that years of loving interventions have not given her a sense of worth and importance and belonging to life. Born into poverty and racism, bounced among foster homes, poorly served by systems meant to serve and protect children, Evie’s suffering has deep roots and has never ended. Even when we think we have earned her trust, her instinct is to keep a distance. Knowing that this beautiful young woman cannot yet love herself enough to provide for her most basic human needs brings on a feeling of despair for those of us who care for her. Emotionally we are tempted to step back. Sometimes we do. She senses the distance and the distance grows larger. The helplessness we feel is really the heart closing in fear, in judgement. Who can stand it?
We can stand it when we humble ourselves and turn back toward her suffering with new courage and let ourselves feel again. Miraculously, when Grace invites us to drop our defenses, feel deeply and let ourselves be affected by the pain and the anger, when we share in the experience of brokenness – close is the only place we want to be.
With some weeks of rest and accompaniment to doctor’s appointments, her throat infection cleared up and Evie enjoyed our home-cooked meals shared at the table. Taking her medications every day, she grew stronger. Pat, one of our nurses, spent lots of time with Evie supporting her hesitant desire to go into drug treatment. With Pat’s help and support, she got there. We were so hopeful.
Evie checked herself out the next day. She had lots of reasons. To the rest of us, none of those reasons seemed big enough to leave the program. The thing is, Evie knew how much we hoped she would finish the program – and still she had the courage to return to Joseph’s House to thank Pat for trying so hard. When Evie came back, she helped make space for all of us to keep close to her and to each other, here, in the dark.
On the radio show On Being, I heard someone explain that the roots of Advent are in the early Christians’ longing for justice, for reconciliation and wholeness. Their longing wasn’t an “in-the-meantime” passive acceptance of the status quo, but an active participation in the work of healing and hope. Surely this is what the Advent darkness asks of us – that when we have turned away from suffering, we come back. Stay close. Open to Grace.
The friends and supporters of Joseph’s House are a light in the darkness that we stay close to. We so much need the warmth and clarity of your light. Thank you for it. We give thanks for you.