During Advent we look forward to the Word of God, incarnate, coming into the world—to the True Light coming into the darkness. Like John the Baptist, we “bear witness to the light, that all might believe” through us. This week we will continue sharing stories of lives in which the light of Jesus has shined in dark places.
The darkest season of my life descended a number of years ago while my late husband and I were traveling in Ireland. A trip that might have been a celebration of our twenty-fifth anniversary was instead an attempt to repair the frayed fabric of our marriage.
The final excursion of our holiday was a pilgrimage walk at Glendalough, an ancient Celtic monastic site set amidst the Wicklow Mountains southwest of Dublin. Established by Saint Kevin during the 6th century, Glendalough flourished as a religious and educational center for centuries. Extensive ruins within a majestic mountain setting continue to draw a steady stream of tourists and pilgrims to the site.
While my husband navigated the narrow mountain road, I sat silent, brooding over his frequent absences and elaborate deceptions during the past 10 days. ‘How could I be married to a person I no longer knew, couldn’t trust, and didn’t even like?’ I wondered. As the car careened around a sharp curve, I caught the all too familiar whiff of alcohol. I felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach, frozen with fear and dread.
Upon arriving at our destination, I bounded out of the car wanting to distance myself from that man and from the volcanic emotion that was close to erupting within me. I pasted a smile on my face and exchanged empty pleasantries with the twenty or so other pilgrims shivering under a grey October sky.
We were greeted by Father Michael Rogers, founder of the Tearmann Retreat Center located across the street from St. Kevin’s Monastic City. Glendalough’s leading expert was to be our guide. As we plunged single-file behind Fr. Michael into a dark forbidding forest, I entered an internal dark wood of my own, tears falling unchecked.
For two and a half hours we followed Fr. Michael to clusters of monastic buildings, along streams, over bridges and to the shores of two lakes. At various intervals, he stopped to relay the history and significance of each place then deftly wove in a spiritual principle to apply to our own Christian journey. He combined his vast knowledge of the area with quotations from Scripture, poetry, and ancient Celtic prayers.
Each meditation seemed to address the inner turmoil within me as if Fr. Michael was looking inside my heart and viewing its gaping fissures. In between these pauses we traveled in silence, encouraged to ponder, reflect, and listen to God’s voice speaking within.
The light rain that had begun shortly after our arrival was steadily increasing as we journeyed further into the forest, steadily ascending to higher ground and stumbling along rocky ridges. We eventually emerged beyond the tree line to a barren, tundra-like area where a small lake lay nestled among mountain peaks.
Here, at the Upper Lake, Fr. Michael explained, St. Kevin would retreat for lengthy periods to pray. We lingered there for 15 or 20 minutes, each standing with his or her own thoughts while the rain slapped at the water and the cold chilled our bones. Rain and tears poured down my cheeks as I compared this barren wilderness to the landscape of my life at that moment.
While I stood staring at the lake, a drastic change seemed to occur: I saw scores of women entering the lake, wading waist deep into the water. They all were weeping. I realized that the lake before me was a Lake of Tears, filled with the tears of heart-broken women from across the centuries and of every race. Then, I found that I was among them standing waist deep and weak-kneed contributing to the volume of water with my own tears. I was feeling overwhelmed by the crush of the crowd and the weight of so much sorrow, when I noticed a figure hovering near the shore…It was the Lord!
Christ waded into the depths of the lake and stood among us.
The dark winter season that began in Ireland extended like a starless night for many years. My marriage unraveled. My teen-age children rebelled. Treatment centers, separation, financial ruin, and emergency trips to the ER were stopping places along that arduous journey. There were many times that I felt I was in water up to my neck, about to drown. Each time, I found Christ there, standing beside me in the Lake of Tears. He would lift me out of the deep and hold me in his arms, providing respite and comfort.
When alcohol finally claimed my husband’s life, death and loss deepened the darkness for a time. But Christ’s continual presence and tender shepherding gradually lead me out of that long, dark winter season into sun-filled days. Therefore, I can heartily proclaim along with the prophet Zechariah in Luke 1.78-79:
Because of the tender mercy of our God, the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.