Light Unto Light
Almost two years ago, I surprised my parents by resigning from my university’s School of Nursing. Just a few months later, I gifted my parents with the joyful news that I had withdrawn from the University of Pittsburgh entirely. I assured them that I would spend the summer “figuring it out.” Truthfully, though, I had no intention of trying to discern my next step. My only desire was to be truly happy, living a life centered around Christ, and letting beauty, truth, and goodness flow from that—however it might look.
I spent that summer at odds with my parents, storming out of the house and doing everything to get away, to go and “figure it out,” though in my mind it was already decided: I would apply to one or two random schools to please my parents, but I will actually spend the next year substitute teaching and nannying. Maybe I will experience some great revelation where my vocation will be revealed to me (preferably in some vision where Christ and all the saints appear to me, I don’t know). I was ready to make PowerPoints and Excel spreadsheets to convince my parents (who appreciate planning and structure) why it was the best choice for me to take a year off. Before I began what would have been my best persuasive essay to date, a friend of mine suggested that I apply to and attend a one-year program at some international university. This plan, it seemed to me, would please my parents but also give me the space I believed I needed to be able to “discern.”
My first thought, though, was Oh heck no, you will not find me at some tiny theological school that might just be a bunch of old master’s students who probably have that ‘holier than thou’ complex and have no idea how to socialize and have fun, and I’m probably not smart enough anyway. In a quick response, my friend told me that “everyone gets in” and assured me that the people aren’t that weird, shutting down my misconceptions. So with minimal convincing, I bit the bullet and sent in an application.
Yes, going to Austria to study was the “escape” from my family I was longing for all summer, but it wasn’t the easy choice. And not because it meant moving far from home, but because it was the choice I had to make while everyone I loved and cared about gave me conflicting advice. While my one sister encouraged me to take a gap year and a few friends pushed for me to go to ITI, my other sister shared her qualms about these types of universities and expressed a real hesitation towards me attending this school. As someone who highly values the opinions and advice of people dear to me, my decision to go felt like the choice against and the rejection of one sister, against what I thought my parents had really wanted, against the opinions of several other of my friends. To go meant to wholly surrender all of the previous visions and hopes I had imagined for my life in Pittsburgh and my life/career as a nurse-midwife. It was a switch from the big state school with sports teams that was in a city, to a tiny school in a random suburb with eighty or so students. It was the choice I had to make entirely on my own; it was the lonely choice, but it was also the decision that required great trust. A trust in this friend, but more importantly, trust in His will for my life. For so long, I had convinced myself that my will was His will; my prayer was never Let thy will be done, but rather, Lord, let my will be Yours. Until I stopped grasping at my plan and my ideas for my life, I couldn’t see that in a naïve and somewhat unintentional way, I placed my faith for my future in the near-perfect accomplishment of a self-created life-plan, reducing His power and place to merely obeying my plan, facilitating my “worldly success.”
As I questioned my understanding of God’s will, I was reading He Leadeth Me by Walter Ciszek, where one of the major themes is God’s will in man’s life, and how the most necessary components for man to live out His will are sheer trust and obedience. A trust which I desperately needed to rebuild and an obedience I needed to relearn. God’s will for my life is not restricted to the big events which inevitably will occur in my life, but His will for me includes the situations I face and respond to every day. Every decision, encounter, et cetera is a response to His will—and it is my decisions and my behavior, either virtuous or vicious, which respond to God’s will. In each decision I make—the way I choose to treat the stranger in the car who cut me off on the beltway, the way I respond to my parents, the way I treat myself—I am responding to His will, His offer of love.
So there it was: a choice put before me by an act of His will, a chance for me to respond with full trust and obedience after years of placing Him second to myself.
I went, and it was good, but it took time. With time, I came to see that the people are good; they love to love deeply and love to celebrate, they pray together and center their lives around God and live out authentically Christian lives. It’s a beautiful thing to witness, something I think I needed to experience for my own understanding of the faith and of my life, to see and hear the ways in which each person was brought to the faith and when the decision to follow the faith shifted from that of their parents’ to that of their own will.
This past April during Holy Week, we must have spent more time in prayer and in the chapel than we did sleeping. On Good Friday, in an unlit chapel with the windows blocked to any light, we listened to the Word and sang prayers for hours, and together we walked through the Passion of Our Lord and felt the intensity and darkness of the suffering of the Word Incarnate.
As Jesus bowed His head and breathed His last, the world grew dark. The Redeemer of Mankind, the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, humbly died on the Cross and was carried by men to His grave. The Light was put into a tomb, safeguarded, blocked by a stone rolled in front. He died for mankind. He submitted Himself to the pains of death for my sake, He died because of my sins, this darkness was not brought by Him but by my every rejection of His love. The terror of praying in a church without any lights is real, but even greater is the terror of a Church without the Light, yet we know darkness did not prevail, and never will.
On Easter morning, as people woke up early to attend matins and the prayers were being sung, the flowers bloomed, the sun slowly rose and the reflection of rays caused the gold in the chapel to gleam. The great Light returned, the difficulty of our fasts no longer mattered, because the Bridegroom was among us, and we must rejoice and exalt His name.
This is our salvation. Every book of the Bible leads up to the woman finding the stone rolled away and mistaking Jesus for a gardener. The beauty of the Resurrection gives hope to every man after the Fall. Jesus, the new Adam, in His resurrected body greets her in the garden, the first place where man dwelt, the place where sin entered the world. The Fall has been redeemed by the Light.
The wounds from the cycles of deep sin I had been stuck in for so long, the unhappiness from fighting with my parents who only wanted to love me last summer, the loneliness I was experiencing, the grief from unexpectedly going home just a week prior to lay my Grandfather to rest and to “carry him to his tomb,” the emptiness that had enveloped me for so long—these struggles which seemed only to worsen finally made sense. These burdens didn’t disappear, but meaning was brought to them, and these darkened pieces of my life which affected me so greatly were brought to the light on this bright Sunday in April. His will that I had fought against for so long led me here, and the darkness in my life made sense when I finally viewed it in relation to the Light. Apart from the Resurrection, my sufferings and pains lose all meaning. With it, they made sense, because the Light transformed and cleansed, made beautiful and golden, and gave meaning to all of the hurt and despair, the sorrow and struggle. Yet still today, when I selfishly allow myself to get caught up in worldly affairs and become desperate and overwhelmed with my own “struggle,” I am neglecting to see the hope of Resurrection. I lose sight of the greatest act of love, the Death and Resurrection of our Lord, who fulfills and sanctifies and gives meaning to all things, even the small troubles which “so gravely afflict” me.
Joy returned. The real, deep, intimate Joy overcame me, the joy I had longed for in my desire for the good life. The joy and awe that filled that blessed woman, St. Mary of Magdala, who was the first to see the risen Christ, I felt in my own being.
On Easter Sunday (and throughout the entire Easter season), the glory of the Lord was proclaimed in everything we did, and the Good News was shared and heard with every greeting: Christ is Risen!, Christos Anesti!, Christos Voskrese! The joy surrounded us: in the singing of the Paschal troparion, the beauty of witnessing a friend receive the Eucharist for the first time on Resurrection Sunday, the chandeliers that were swung, the bells that were rung, and the words that echoed throughout the chapel and courtyard as all of the people sang:
Christ is Risen from the dead, by death he conquered death, and to those in the graves He granted life!
I was in the grave. I was overcome by and chained to worldly ideals and possessions, to death. I was Mary of Magdala before Jesus first spoke her name and cleansed her, I was the Prodigal Son before he turned back and the Father ran out to meet him. But from every wrongdoing I had committed, every sin I had fallen back into, every rejection of goodness and love I had made, from the prison of evil, I have been freed, we have been freed! There was a restoration. There still is. Cleansed and purified, glory and light have been bestowed on me yet again, life in each of us has been restored because Christ is risen! Each day, may we make our daily conversion and turn back toward the Resurrection.
I am an Easter person, and so are you. There forever remains a great hope for us, the new Eden awaits.
Claire Arnold was born and raised in the Baltimore area. She is entering her second year of studies at Katholische Hochshule ITI near Vienna, Austria.