Home >> Volume 5, Issue 01

Choosing His Light

Beth Impson

I preached a sermon to one of my freshman classes some years ago. I realize it is the wont of youth to be untrained and self-focused (one of my colleagues frequently repeats, as we stave off violent impulses, “remember, they are but colts!”)—but this group had pushed me to the limit. Besides a long litany of lame excuses, late work, and ignored instructions, I’d actually had to tell one newly-dating couple to separate themselves because they couldn’t keep their hands off each other during class. I made clear that I knew some of them were not characterized in this class by the critique I was about to offer, but challenged even them to consider whether it might apply elsewhere in their lives. Then I gave them a no-nonsense Bible study on responsibility and obedience and excellence, tying it to their lackadaisical efforts and general apathy.

“Your attitude and work reflect on your walk with the Lord,” I reminded them. “What we do is who we are.” Of course I acknowledged that we all sometimes fail and that circumstances may sometimes hamper us, but I emphasized that one’s normal attitudes and work ethic usually become pretty clear in the course of six weeks of daily assignments. Then I told them to rewrite the latest essay—which most of them had failed by simply ignoring the clear written instructions they’d been given as well as my extensive comments on their first drafts.

Within minutes of my dismissing class, a young lady appeared at my office door, eyes wet with rage. After I motioned her to take a seat, she sputtered, “How dare you judge my walk with the Lord. I go to chapel and I’m so happy in God’s presence…. How dare you say I don’t love Jesus.”

I could think of no immediate reply, as she appeared to have heard only one of the half-hour’s worth of sentences I’d just spoken, and not heard it accurately. As I recall, I simply stared at her for a long uncomfortable moment.

Finally she added, the returned essay shaking in her hand, “I did my best on this, even though it’s not a good grade.”

“Then I wasn’t talking to you, was I?” I answered her. “As I said, if the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.” Then I tried to explain again the point I’d made and help her to find for herself whether it really did or did not apply. I don’t know that she ever understood, but at least she left calmer than she’d arrived.

Her furious accusation, however, has stayed with me through the years. I’ve had no one hurl it at me in quite that way since, but it’s lain between me and a number of other students as I’ve challenged them with that which has always seemed obvious to me: our habitual attitudes and actions reflect our walk with Christ. Of course, we all fail in various ways, even repeatedly, but if, day after day, a student who professes to be a Christian gives no evidence of a desire or attempt to improve, refuses to do homework, argues about policies and grades, proves himself unteachable, sleeps through class, speaks disrespectfully to and about those in authority and disdainfully of the subject and the college… that student has a spiritual problem, no matter how happy he may feel in chapel.

But far too often such students protest the diagnosis on much the same basis as my freshman did that September morning—they go to chapel and church; they love Jesus; why, they were crying during the worship music this very morning, they were so happy… so how dare I suggest their spiritual walk could be deficient based on such an irrelevancy as how they perform in their primary responsibility as full-time students? They reduce their walk with Christ to how they feel in a worship service, and too often they similarly choose their music, their movies, their hobbies, their career paths, and, I fear, their spouses, by the same criteria: “This makes me feel good, so it must be right.” True, God gives us gifts and talents and a created world to enjoy—keeping His commandments isn’t supposed to make us go about long-faced and miserable—but this is reducing choice to feelings, without regard to reason, counsel, or revelation, making obedience subservient to or reliant on fickle emotion.

In our highly emotion-driven neo-Romantic culture, it is all too easy to get caught up in this happiness gospel. “But surely God wants me to be happy,” I hear so often, not just from current students but from many now in their 20s and 30s; a Christian version of my own 60s generation’s “do it if it feels good” mantra, but with a veneer of God talk—an abundant life, pleasures forevermore, Christian hedonism.

I do understand this desire. I’ve had my own years of wondering just exactly when I’d get a taste of that abundant life Jesus said He came to give us. Spending most of my adult life in circumstances both unsought and unsuited to my temperament, plagued by depression and chronic pain, I’ve been a slow learner because I kept thinking that joy and an abundant life meant a happy feeling and circumstances that kept getting easier. I also assumed these should be the natural reward of obedience; my frustration and, too often, outright anger with God lay in not receiving what I believed was due me. However, thanks to my own parents’ example of commitment and promise-keeping, I never doubted that carrying out my obligations to my family and employer was an absolute, no matter how I felt. Many of our young people today, on the other hand, believe that feeling happy in and of itself means their relationship with God is obviously rightly ordered and no more thought about it is needed. If they stop feeling happy, they then think they must be on the wrong track and frantically attempt to regain that feeling, often throwing aside what obedience they had been practicing—I’ll find a new job, or a new wife, or a new set of friends…. In the end, of course, they are seeking, just as I sought, emotional fulfillment, for itself or perhaps as a sign of God’s approval of their choices. And the failure of the search is evident all around us: a 50% divorce rate in the church, the sneering of many who themselves profess Christianity at those who try to live Scripturally based lives (such as living and dressing chastely), the many choices of violent and sexually charged entertainment, discontentment with tradition and the ordinary.

Thankfully, time and experience, as well as encounter after encounter with the wisdom of sainted lives in person and in print, have convinced me that when I asked for the abundant life I was asking the wrong question.

The gospel is good news indeed, good news of our salvation—but it is first of all the good news of what God has done for His glory, not what He has done to ensure that I feel good. Christ in the Garden prays for His followers, but first and throughout He prays for His own glory and the Father’s: “Glorify Your Son that the Son may glorify You; I glorified You on earth, now glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed”; and about His disciples, “I am glorified in them,” and “I desire that they may be with Me where I am, to see My glory that You have given Me.” Yes, He prays that His joy may be fulfilled in us, but far more He prays for unity and sanctification, and that these will cause the world to know that the Father sent Him. Again and again in the New Testament we are admonished to do our work to His glory, to conduct ourselves righteously for His glory, to glorify Him so others will believe. We rebelled, and it is to His glory that He chose to pay the penalty for our rebellion. He owes us nothing; it isn’t about us. We owe Him all; it is—all of it—about Him.

The question I should have been asking, then, was not “when are you going to give me that abundant life You talked about?” but rather “how do You want me to glorify You?” Doing what we were created to do—which is to love and glorify our Creator—will bring joy and an abundant life… but these will very likely not look like the feel-good, get-what-I-want states we have in mind when we seek them as something owed us or as ends in themselves. They take on their richest and most genuine hue as they rise out of suffering and sacrifice, and they may be the most profound within deep and abiding sorrow and pain, with little in the way of happy feelings at any given moment. And it is a guarantee that they will not be ours when we seek them for our own comfort and ease instead of seeking God’s glory for His purposes.

I should have seen this much earlier in life, having been raised by Depression-era, World War II parents who knew so well that life is not, cannot be, merely about what any individual happens to want or how anyone happens to feel at any given moment. My mother’s grandmother, who had already raised twelve children, took in her three young grandchildren (ages 9, 6, and 3) when their mother died and their father, her son, was placed in a TB sanitarium and expected to die. (He lived until I, his youngest grandchild, had started college, but his children didn’t see him for years as he fought the disease.) They eked out a living on a Dust Bowl farm, she taking in washing and the children helping with gathering and selling eggs, feeding meals to passing tramps in exchange for a helping hand. They had to work together to survive, and I learned from my mother—as she had learned from her grandmother—to “do the next thing” no matter how one feels.

I knew little of this history until I was older, though I reaped the benefits of it in my mother’s sensitivity and quick response to the needs of others. Certainly I was raised in what anyone would call a happy home, where my parents deeply loved each other, my brother, and me, and cheerfulness abounded. Only after I left home and began to experience the common trials of adulthood, marriage, and parenting, which made me reassess my parents’ lives from a new perspective, did I begin to realize that their joy didn’t come from easy circumstances. Of course they didn’t have pain-free lives; like all of us, they continued to face trials and adversities throughout life, some far more difficult, even devastating, than I could have understood as a child—and it finally came through to me that the happiness of our home was based firmly on the abiding joy that comes only from faith and trust in the God who loves us and gave His Son for us, a joy that is not dependent on circumstances or feelings, but is the result of seeking to serve God well in all things. This fact was directly in front of me every day, but my youthful self-centeredness blinded me to its reality. Only the experience of real trials, not mere childish self-will or teen-age angst, opened my eyes to the way my parents lived for the glory of God.

Reading Mother Teresa’s letters in Come Be My Light helped to solidify what I’d finally begun to learn from Scripture and good teaching as well as from the examples of my parents and others. All through her youth Mother Teresa had enjoyed “consolations” from the Lord: a clearly felt sense of His presence, His love, that gave her happiness and comfort. But from the time she began her great work in Calcutta to her death, those feelings disappeared except for one month during which they were renewed. She struggled terribly with this soul-darkness, this lack of the felt sense of Christ’s presence; “[i]n my soul—I can’t tell you—how dark it is, how painful, how terrible,” she wrote to one of the few trusted superiors in whom she confided this ongoing trial. But she never allowed it to stop her from obeying her Lord, quietly fulfilling her vow to refuse Him nothing. Of her feelings, she would say, they “are treacherous”; “Thank God we don’t serve God with our feelings, otherwise I don’t know where I would be.” At the same time, she exhorted herself and her sisters, “Take away your eyes from your self […]. You and I must let Him live in us and through us in the world”; and, when someone would speak to her about trials, “Don’t give in to your feelings. God is permitting this.”

Rather than ask for prayer that the darkness be lifted, Mother Teresa asked her superiors to pray “that in this darkness I do not light my own light—nor fill this emptiness with my self.” Day in and day out, she went about her work “with a hearty ‘Yes’ to God and a big ‘Smile’ to all.” She even desired to be “an apostle of joy”: the darkness itself made her “determined more than ever to spread joy wherever [she would] go—the fragrance of Christ’s joy.” In fact, the sisters she had worked with for years were stunned when they found that she had not continually felt the comforting presence of Jesus, because she had shown so much joy to them, had been such a joyful encouragement to the poor they served.

Mother Teresa learned to have and to give great joy—despite not feeling a pleasant sense of happiness in God’s presence—because she trusted the Word of God when it told her of Jesus’ great love for her, and, as Brian Kolodiejchuk, the editor of her letters, summarizes it, she could therefore be “certain that she was in an ‘unbroken union’ with Him because she found her thoughts ‘fixed on Him… alone.’ She was steadfastly united to Jesus in her will, although her feelings were telling her the opposite.” Through the counsel of her superiors and her own meditations on Christ and His Word, she came to see the darkness she felt as a type of the darkness Jesus felt on the Cross when He was separated from His Father, and of the darkness her beloved poor felt in their unredeemed misery; it made her love them all the more for His sake, empathize with them more fully, and be even more determined that she would bring the joy of the Savior into their lives through obedience and “a big smile.”

This joy manifested itself not only to Mother Teresa’s sisters and the poor she served, but to all she knew; one of her superiors writes, “She radiated peace and joy […]. I was often amazed that someone who lived so much face to face with suffering people and went through a dark night herself, could still smile and make you feel happy […]. I felt in God’s presence, in the presence of truth and love.” Kolodiejchuk summarizes the multitude of testimonies to her character: “she radiated the joy of belonging to God, of living with Him.” Her influence finally extended far beyond her initial vision of helping the poor in Calcutta as she traveled the world to speak God’s truth and offer His joy to those in other countries and walks of life; even the darkness she suffered is now encouraging others to live for God’s glory and for His purposes, whatever these may be, instead of being concerned for our own feelings.

Me, I’m inclined to grumbling about circumstances, even now that I’ve begun to learn these lessons at the intellectual level. (I keep reminding myself that I don’t want to turn into a grumble, as does the woman in Lewis’ Great Divorce….) I no longer expect happiness or pleasant circumstances as a norm or as a reward; I am trying to learn to seek God’s glory instead of my own comfort. And He has given me a taste of joy here and there, a week or a day, an hour or a moment, of living as I was created to do.

But, oh, I become so weary so often, dragging myself through the days and longing for rest (which even good sleep rarely offers), just wanting to feel half-way normal. I’ve never had much energy, but every year saps yet more of that little, along with chronic pain and burning eyes and a life at odds, most of the time, with my temperament. Every time I read another article about how privileged and work-free is the life of a college professor, I want to find the writer and say, “Live in my skin for a year—do this the way I and my colleagues do it, and with the limitations so many of us have—and then let’s see what you have to say.” We who take this work seriously, who desire to live it as to the Lord, we work long hours in intense relationship with our subject matter, our students, our colleagues, and our administration to try to bring alive in our students’ hearts the love of Christ as the driving force of their entire lives—intellectually, spiritually, practically. And failure dogs us, of course; we are only human, limited and prone to our own various sins and weaknesses—terrifying, when one is dealing with human lives. And even were we perfect, some percentage of those we pour our lives into would still refuse what we offer, breaking our hearts with their destructive choices. (After all, even our Lord could not convince everyone who learned from Him to faithfully follow Him.)

I’m sure my trials look small enough to many who are far worse off, and I quite sluggish to find life so hard. And don’t I know that God has promised not to give us more than we can bear, that we will mount up with wings like eagles? Yes, I do know God has promised these things—if we will wait on Him, trust in Him. And there’s the rub. It’s easy to say “wait and trust,” but our fallen wills and broken circumstances conspire to make it hard to do. I think, “if I only had good health and more energy…” or “if I only had more time and more talent…” or “if I only hadn’t had to support my family…” or “if I only didn’t have to be so constrained by petty bureaucracies….” There’s plenty that appears to hold us back from accomplishing all those things we think would be of lasting worth, and as for how God has made me and orchestrated my life… well, it often feels to me as if it is too much to bear, and I fall, again and again, into feeling hopelessly overwhelmed.

And so I’ve just re-read Paul Mariani’s biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry and life has encouraged me again and again. The poor man was responsible for grading thousands of classical language exams every year for university entrance, on top of his teaching and preaching. He was always exhausted; of course, he may have been ill with Crohn’s disease, unknown in his day—that, combined with typhoid, probably caused his death at 44. But what struck me in the biography was this sense of never-ending exhaustion, so like the way I often feel. A holiday—a genuine holiday of no work at his schoolmaster’s tasks—would revive him remarkably, but within a week or two of return to exams and classes he would be worn down again.

And this weariness and overwhelming work kept him from the writing he loved; he seems to have had far more unfinished projects and project ideas in his 44 years than the hundreds my 60 years have given me to languish in drawers and boxes and the corners of my mind. Of course, he was a genius… and his genius seemed to be slowly wasted away in grading schoolboys’ Latin translations.

He complained of this at times to dear friends, once writing to fellow poet Robert Bridges, “I have been in a wretched state of weakness and weariness, I can’t tell why, always drowzy and incapable of reading or thinking to any effect.” But this exhaustion was never an excuse for avoiding duty, no matter how hard. In one of his sermons, Hopkins explains that the man who loves God is the man who desires God’s will to be done, especially over his own will. A person may be cold in his feelings, not shedding tears over Christ’s Passion or even his own sin, but “the fact remains that that person [who desires God’s will above his own] loves God.” Mariani summarizes this teaching and applies it to Hopkins himself: “And what can bring out the diamond brilliance of the self [the redeemed self, the unique self created by God to glorify Him] if not duty, duty to the death, if need be? What [Hopkins] in fact hopes himself to do in going where he is told, and serving as best his aging body can under the banner of his Lord and King.” And Hopkins, on the same theme, relays to Bridges what a superior has told him in retreat: “the greatest part of life to the holiest of men is the well performance… of ordinary duties.”

This emphasis on duty bring Hopkins through dark times. He has chosen his life and he will not waver, not put his hand to the plough and look back, no matter how useless the work he does may seem to him. He will trust God, and he tells his congregation, “The man that says to himself as he walks: Christ is my king, Christ is my hero, I am at Christ’s orders, I am his to command, that man is a child of light. Then what are we to do? The answer is simple: do one’s daily duties for the greater glory of God.” This is the heart of the matter. Why did God create? He meant the Creation to give Him glory; man was especially created to intentionally choose “to praise, reverence, and serve God, to give Him glory,” and when we fail, we may “[a]ny day, any minute,” repent and “bless God […]—give and mean to give God glory.”

Hopkins’ Sonnets of Desolation reveal the depth of darkness he felt during much of his time in Dublin, as he contemplates the cliffs of despair (“hold them cheap may who ne’er hung there”); sterile, fruitless springs (“birds build—but not I build”); even the temptation of suicide (“I’ll not untwist […] these last strands of man / In me”). But these very same sonnets also reveal why he never gave in to the despair and could in fact know and communicate joy in its very face—as he does not waver from obedience, he does not waver from faith: God is his Friend, his Savior, his Sanctifier, his Comforter, and all is done to “refine his grain.” Like Mother Teresa, few knew of his despair, but all loved him for his good humor, his oddities and pranks, his gentleness and generosity, his intellectual depth and challenges, and (with the exception of a cynic like Bridges) for his simple trust in God.

We do not, as far as I know, have instances in Hopkins’ writing where he connects his feelings of darkness with a decision to act in joy, as we do with Mother Teresa, though many of his letters contain puns and joking conceits and playful jabs at the recipients, revealing this aspect of his character. However, Mariani offers us anecdotes and testimonials that do reveal him as a man given to laughter and generosity. For example, he was known for climbing into his room through the window to avoid going around to the corridor; he climbed onto a roof to chase and capture another priest’s pet monkey which refused to come down; he saw a boy in pain from a toothache walking the grounds and, to distract him, set down his books, shinnied up a football goal post, slid down, picked up his books, and went on. Boating with the children of friends, he removed his priest’s collar and belted out an anti-papist song for their amusement. A priest who had known him since they joined the Society together wrote to his biographer, “He was highly original, even whimsical, and said and did odd things. […] Superiors and equals, everybody liked him. We laughed at him a good deal, but he took it good-humoredly, and joined in the amusement. And yet, he was anything but silly. He had good solid judgment, and was accounted the best moral theologian in the class.”

Even Bridges, who despised Hopkins’ Catholicism and didn’t much care for most of his poetry (yet could not help but recognize genius in him), wrote to Coventry Patmore about one of Hopkins’ visits, “we have sweet laughter and pleasant chats”; it is a certainty that their friendship ripened and held because of Hopkins’ genial personality, ability to forgive, and determination to see beneath Bridges’ bitter exterior an inscape worthy of love and admiration. A friend in Dublin whose family often offered Hopkins a place to rest on vacations wrote to his parents after his death, “His beautifully gentle and generous nature made him one with his friends, and led us to love and to value him,—feeling that our lives were better, and the world richer, because of him.” Such was his life—deep darkness revealed to few and the joy he knew in serving Christ for His glory lived out to bless his world.

Some say of Hopkins—certainly his friend Bridges did, and I’ve read contemporary critics who agree—that he was wasted by the Jesuits, his genius destroyed in make-work, his life itself cut short by their not understanding who and what he was. How much more he could have given us, they say, had he lived in honored ease and into old age. Perhaps. But Hopkins was more than a poet-genius. He was a man of God who freely chose God over the world’s pleasures, including family, country, and poetry. And despite the exhaustion and darkness that dogged him he was able to let God write his story as He pleased, and, yes, to find joy and faith in the hardest times. What he wrote of Alphonsus Rodriguez, a mere hall-porter in a Majorcan monastery whose life yet blessed multitudes, could certainly apply to himself: although inner battles with self and Satan are not noticed by others as bloody martyrdoms are, they are no less battles, and victories in them are no less notable in God’s eyes; He could “crowd career with conquest” and make a saint.

Would some larger body of work created in an easier life carry as much value for us today, would he speak to us as he does had he never known despair and weariness and yet clung to his Lord in faith and hope? After all, the poems that mean the most to us were wrought of great weariness of body and soul, out of despair that arose directly from his circumstances, and yet he died with the repeated words “I am so happy” on his lips, and he lived his life sustained by “the reality of Christ risen,” knowing, in the words of one of his poems, that “I am all at once what Christ is, since He was what I am”: “immortal diamond.” He rose on eagles’ wings even as he lived and died in physical exhaustion. What more, what better, can any of us desire, than to live in Christ’s light, to give Him glory, and to know that He is in charge of the conclusion, that we need not grasp and strive and worry over our productivity, our influence, our fame, our legacy? Hopkins died with only a few of his poems published and Bridges didn’t get around to editing and publishing the entire body of his work for three decades after his death (and apparently in order to protect his own reputation)—yet today he is one of the well-known and dearly loved, who has offered consolation to who knows how many who suffer from that same desolation that dogged him, and need to know where Hope lies: “repent our sin and begin to give God glory.”

And so he is my hero, all the more so the more I think on his life. I pray to struggle on with the burning eyes and the weariness and the chronic pain and, yes, the all-too-often despair, to struggle on, as Mother Teresa prayed, with “a hearty Yes to God and a big smile for all.” If life seems hard to me, it is only the common lot of most of us—and surely I can find the strength in His strength for the simple yes and the heartfelt smile in the midst of my own hardly unique trials. I fall so short: I am part of a broken humanity in a broken world and I demand to name myself; every day I hear my tongue give voice to my complaining heart. Yet His name for me, the story He has written for me, are best, if I find the faith to live that truth and not merely know it. "Come be My light," Mother Teresa heard Jesus call to her; I long to desire that call, to desire to be His reflected light in the darkness of this world, no matter what of light or dark may be mine, to always remember, as she reminded her sisters again and again, “The work is God’s work and not our work, that is why we must do it well. How often we spoil God’s work and try to get the glory for ourselves.”

To give God glory: the purpose that makes sense of the refining fires of darkness, and the only purpose within which we will find the joy of the abundant life.