Ink Slingers

Learning to be a Pencil

I’ve done it for years. Decades, really. I’ve made lists. You know the kind— where you write down all the tasks you need to accomplish as a wife, mom, employee, homemaker, all of the above? I actually got pretty good at it over time. I use a business system to help me track and organize my various to-do’s. I create weekly and monthly goals that connect to my daily planner. And once, in a highly creative but mercifully short-lived phase, I color-coded my list according to priority. Yep, that’s me: A list-maker supreme.

So it only came naturally to me when I reverted to the Catholic faith five years ago to approach my spiritual growth in the same structured manner. Soon I found myself making a list of books I wanted to read, jotting down virtues I wanted to explore and develop, and later, noting elements of the faith I wanted to re-learn (better this time). And I made prayer intention lists— lots of prayer intention lists. But more recently I began penning things I thought the Holy Spirit was nudging me to explore— in particular, ways I could maybe help build the kingdom using the talents and gifts He’s given me.

Sometimes the spiritual list-making worked. I checked off several important milestones in my faith life and I felt like I had accomplished some significant goals. But then…

Lent 2018

Fast forward to this recent Lenten season. I specifically prayed for a spiritual breakthrough. I was feeling not quite stuck, really, but dulled. Quieted. Dutifully plodding along instead of on a spirited adventure with Christ. I had been looking for something “to-do,” but my lists offered no solutions. What do you want me to do next, Lord? This…or this…or this? I asked, oh-so-generously offering a few of my own ideas to the Creator of The Universe. Give me a sign, give me the word and I’ll put it on my list. I was clearly ready for a new assignment from God; all he had to do was answer, right?

He answered. And oh my, was it ever a breakthrough.

He told me to ditch my to-do list and just be a pencil.

This message evolved through the pages of my prayer journal one morning. I repeated my request for a breakthrough. And deep in my soul, I experienced a light-bulb moment, a Holy Spirit-fueled shift of perspective: Instead of asking for items to add to my list and check off, I need to throw out the paper altogether. I need to ask instead for greater softening of my heart and to let the Lord fully take over. To allow him to fill me to overflowing with his love and be my guiding force at all times and in all things. To cooperate, not control.

 I realized I had taken my ask-and-answer, to-do list mindset too far. I was more focused on results and not focused enough on my primary relationship with God and my role as his obedient follower. When I get so busy methodically planning in my head, I am not graciously receiving in my heart. It was time to give up my need to call the shots and instead become an instrument, like a pencil in His hand.

“I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world,” said Saint Teresa of Calcutta. It’s one of my favorite quotes; I have it posted above my desk. The deeper meaning of her words is just now starting to sink into my stubborn brain: If I let God love me fully and mold me and shape me as he desires, I too can be a fruitful pencil in his hand. Then I can stop worrying about what to write (figuratively and literally!). If I can learn to be a pencil, what I am to “write” will take care of itself. And through God’s hand, the result will be far more eloquent and beautiful than what I would have come up with on my own, that’s for sure.

Control vs Surrender

This whole idea of ditching control and just letting myself be his pencil amps up the need to trust him. This, not surprisingly, makes me nervous. It requires an unwavering commitment to total surrender, something I struggle with constantly (for proof of this glaring weakness, see the prior suggestion little old me made to the Creator of the Universe). But I know this is how you bear fruit and help build the kingdom. You have to yield to Him before you can yield for Him. He is the vine, we are the branches. Not the other way around! Apart from him, we can do nothing.

My Lenten season breakthrough comes down to this, dear Sistas: I need to work on being a better pencil.

Sounds like the perfect “to-do” for my Easter season, doesn’t it?

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Mother Teresa: A Lamp in the Darkness

st teresa of calcutta

“Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
  to observe thy righteous ordinances. I am sorely afflicted; give me life, O Lord, according to thy word!-Psalm 119: 106-107

She founded a religious congregation. She served the poor with radical acts of Christian charity. She fought for the rights of the sick, the downtrodden and the unborn. She won the Nobel Peace Prize. And this week, she was canonized. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a busy little ray of God’s light shining onto a jaded 20th century world.

But Mother Teresa’s achievements, however brilliant, are not what draw me to seek her intercession.  Instead, I find comfort and solace in what the holy nun did not achieve during her life on earth–a lasting spiritual peace or emotional experience of God.

During the same decades that Mother Teresa was changing the world with her presence, Christ was changing her with his seeming absence. With few instances of reprieve, her adult life, even until death, was marked by an extended period of agonizing spiritual dryness, the dark night of the soul. In 1957, she wrote:

“In the darkness . . . Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me?  The child of your love — and now become as the most hated one. The one — you have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer . . . Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.  Love — the word — it brings nothing.  I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” (Source)

Mother Teresa wasn’t the only one who had difficulty understanding the meaning of this painful struggle. Once her critics got wind of it, they used it repeatedly in their attempts to discredit her. The famous atheist Christopher Hitchens, who had gone so far as to testify against the nun’s case for canonization, wrote in Newsweek in 2007: “I say it as calmly as I can—the Church should have had the elementary decency to let the earth lie lightly on this troubled and miserable lady, and not to invoke her long anguish to recruit the credulous to a blind faith in which she herself had long ceased to believe.”

So why exactly should we rejoice in a life that was so full of inner pain? Why take comfort in the struggle of another? Why canonize someone who could not feel the light of God in her own life, who was dogged by doubts and darkness?

I’m no Mother Teresa, but as a Catholic with depression, I can relate to the hurt and confusion apparent in her writings. I can sympathize with her short periods of solace and sunshine, followed by long times of inner darkness. I can appreciate what it feels like to keep going day after day, stumbling and striving to do your best for a God whom you cannot feel. And I take great hope in the Church’s brave declaration that Christ does not abandon those who cannot sense him emotionally.

St. Teresa of Calcutta is indisputably in heaven, and her example is a lamp to the feet of all of us who travel in mental and spiritual darkness. If we continue to fight, continue to keep going, continue to believe and confess and pray and work and love, we too can ultimately triumph by the light of Christ.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us!