The upper lake in Glendaloch, the valley of two lakes, lies still and quiet. Even on a sunny day with ducks and tourists and cameras. It is not the silence of the hunt or the wait in line. It is not the silence of the held breath. It is the silent exhale of prayer, the long quiet of a faith beyond waiting on God.
It is a place that makes you wonder if you are eavesdropping on Saint Kevin’s prayers, or if he came to eavesdrop on God’s quiet fourteen hundred years ago.
There is a cave above the upper lake that is only eight or nine feet deep and too low to even crouch in. I crawled up there once to pray a dozen years ago, before the tourists began their trying to follow the finger of some guide. I sat in the early gray before gray that comes in the mountains when the sun is lighting but not yet warming the landscape.
It was a day like today began, cool and rising later to something the Irish consider heat. The sun was bright and dancing on the waters in the breeze today, sending the duck’s waves in small arcs to the shore where the German tour group stretched out in the quiet and tried to fill it with the chatter of the content wanderer.
If that sounds like a critique it isn’t. Tourists have their place, despite the whining of locals and soft puffing of cars waiting in lines. But even they found the quiet drug their chatter down to murmuring in that soft wind.
Along the shore to our left, tucked into the perpetual shadows of the valley’s walls there is the first church Kevin’s friends built with him to start their foundation as a community that later down the valley would become the monastic city which would give civilization back to the Western World after the collapse of seven-hilled Rome. Their tower both beacon of light and summons to prayer.
The green slopes hold cave and church both in shadow still, reminding the searching pilgrim that the Celts are known for their love of nature, but should be remembered for their comfort with suffering. Is it the suffering that suffuses this place with holiness?
We, the tourists of the still collapsing Western World, do not suffer now, not really, and certainly not for God. We have forgotten what the athlete and the anorexic know, that desire has a cost and the cost is creative or demonic. Suffering is part of becoming, and the question for most of history wasn’t if you would suffer but why.
We forget this at the peril of our souls as we get our air conditioned buses and fuss about the rocking of the ride along the mountain passes. We become a people who are never present to the silence of our chattering murmurs in the presence of the Silence of a millennia prayer. We don’t enter the cold waters that could cool our ardor, Kevin, or quiet our scattered desires.
The Celtic saints chose to suffer, shaped by the Mothers and Fathers of the Desert. They seemed to understand that suffering could identify us with Christ. I have grown up with the diagnosis of that kind of mindset as diseased. Ascetic might find its place in Roget’s list under anorexic or heretical. It was a denial of grace, a form of works salvation, an aspect of the past to mock gently like phrenology or the flat earth. But what harm it did! We all heard the stage whisper of the professor that confirmed that we should embrace the cool air on the bus and credit card debt.
Kevin might have been more right than we care to admit. It isn’t that we suffer to gain salvation. We suffer to gain identity.
Like the ache in my shins that kept me awake and crying at night from the age of six to maybe twelve, growing has its pains. When it comes to the soul, we can wait for the suffering to choose us when our loved ones die or the bus breaks down, or we can wade into the cold waters of the upper lake and lower ourselves to pray in Kevin’s cave.
It may be as simple as the long walk of pilgrimage or staying awake all night in prayer. It may be the ache of the fast or the sacrifice of giving away more than our comfort likes. But when we choose to enter the world with suffering, we identify with Christ and with his family that does not always have the choice.
Here me, concerned Lutherans! I am not saying that you gain salvation by suffering, or that our suffering adds anything to the work of the cross. I am saying that we join ourselves to Christ through suffering intentionally with love of God or neighbor.
This has been missing from the West for a long time. I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but we are the spoiled children of rich and careless parents. We compare, with all seriousness, the relative time it takes our phones to load applications that we didn’t even have two years ago.
Suffering for love of others, suffering for God in spiritual disciplines, suffering for any reason has to be handled carefully after The DaVinci Code because we all know that this idea can lead to mental destabilization and murder. In truth it is more likely to lead to three other profound evils.
One, we can encourage someone to suffer who is being harmed by another. The priest who tells a woman to take her husband’s abuse because that will lead to holiness is wrong. We all know that. When we encourage someone else to suffer, we are in the wrong almost always. When we turn away a victim without getting involved with deny Christ.
Two, we can justify someone else suffering for some “greater good.” This is almost always rubbish and a dressing up of profound evil. It is sometimes important to imagine describing a decision like this to a child or grandchild. This includes torture of our enemies. Jesus never says, “It’s okay to a be a little evil in order to do some bigger good.” It is his colluders in the crucifixion that said, “Sometimes a one person must die for the good of the people.”
Black people don’t deserve to be shot by police because they are black. Poor people don’t deserve to be poor. And we don’t deserve to be saved. Or to be privileged or rich. We don’t deserve much when we really look at it. “God makes the sun to shine down on the righteous and the unrighteous.” We have to let that go and thank God in the midst of all things while working to be be just.
Three. Rare in my experience, is the third type, but just as real. That is when we justify not doing the right thing and letting ourselves by abused for God or neighbor. It does happen, but it is just as likely to be an excuse to avoid confrontation or losing a relationship. I have known a few real cases. What is usually needed is not battle against evil but rather honesty applied consistently.
Suffering may not be a choice for us forever. History has a way of being written in the present tense, and what we consider today to be the way things are may not be tomorrow.
Blessed are those who are suffering now, for they will be comforted.
How do we prescribe suffering in the spiritual life? Suffering should be addressed in two ways.
Embrace the suffering of a normal life of doing good and seeking the will of God. If you get stuck in a line, embrace it. If you give up your goods for others, really enjoy thinking about them having your things. If you know that what you are doing will please God, then relish it. Practice treating suffering as a good thing.
Every athlete knows this. Soon you will do what before you could not imagine, and it will be easy because you embraced it. You will pray until birds rest in your hands and lay their eggs.
You will build a church that will bring in the birds of the air like mustard bushes. And they will come for hundreds of years. You will know contentment in life. You will know peace and the silence of the upper lake where the breath of God stirs the waters to knew life.
You will join Kevin and follow Christ. You will be holy, and your world will be holy.