Walking out of the abyss

by Maria L. Evans

“Christian contemplation is precipitated by crisis within crisis and anguish within anguish. It is born of spiritual conflict. It is a victory that suddenly appears in the hour of defeat. It is the providential solution of problems that seem to have no solution. It is the reconciliation of enemies that seem to be irreconcilable.”

~Thomas Merton, “Ascent to Truth”

“Oh, you have several choices,” the cashier at Carlsbad Caverns told me. “You can take the elevator down and up, you can take the natural entrance in and out, or you could do one going in and the other going out.”

It had been thirty years since I had visited the caverns, and I had all morning. So I chose to take the elevator down and walk out the natural entrance. I figured it was a nice mix of quiet time and exercise.

But when I started out the pathway to the natural exit, I had discovered that literally everyone–EVERYONE–I met was going INTO the caverns via this route, not OUT. I did not see another single person on this journey going out the natural exit. I had to maneuver past people going downhill while I was going uphill. Some people were considerate of that; some were oblivious that going up out of it is a little trickier than going down into it. One woman looked right at me and very sternly announced, “You are going the WRONG WAY.” It was truly disconcerting to her!

After a while, I started taking note of the places to rest on the way out, and making use of them here and there. I particularly remember one at a time I was breaking out in a good sweat and had ignored the previous resting place. It was a place to sit and observe a rather open room in the cavern. So, with my chest heaving, and the sound of my heartbeat in my ears, I just sat and observed for a while.

It wasn’t long before my eyes caught a glimpse of a particular rock formation on the wall of that room–it looked like Christ hanging on a cross. I found myself sitting there in quiet meditation for half an hour, and as the noise of my own heartbeat began to subside, I discovered thoughts in my head that hadn’t surfaced in ages. I thought about the time I was there thirty years ago. I was 22 years old, and I had felt that I had failed miserably at my first teaching job. The guy I was planning on marrying was now planning to marry someone else. I was discovering that “going home” wasn’t a great option because some heavy-duty dysfunction was brewing. I was dealing with that feeling of having started out in the penthouse of elation as a recent college graduate, ready to take on the world, and now being sent to the outhouse. I had gone to the desert to clear my head and get my bearings on a great solo adventure.

My mind turned to other stories like that in my life, and I began to see the pattern. My subconscious choice that day, perhaps wasn’t so subconscious. I had chosen to take an elevator ride to the abyss, wander around in it a while, and then choose to walk out uphill. I’ve been told before on those journeys that I was going the wrong way, but in retrospect, it was always the best way. I sat there and looked at that cavern wall and it suddenly hit me: “This is the way of the Cross–to be plunged into the depths and emerge. This is the way of baptism. This is the path to resurrection.”

As I got up to leave, I looked back the other direction. Had I gone into the cavern via the natural entrance, the rock formation that had so captivated me was not really visible from that angle. Had I chosen to go in the cavern that way, I would have missed it. I would not have seen the Corpus that nature had molded. I would have missed the most profound part of my trip. When I reached the opening, I was surprised to discover from the ranger that going out the natural exit was the equivalent of climbing 75 stories. Had I known that, I would not have chosen this path. I would never have known the things I now knew were on that path. I would have been in the dark about it rather than have been shown a wonderful light.

As much as we yearn for those inner joys of a life in Christ, the truth of Holy Week is that its uniqueness is framed by the road to the Cross. The joys are there, but so are the sorrows–and it is in the 75 story journeys we didn’t know we had in us, where we most see the presence of Christ.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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