by Margie Van Duzer
There are seasons in my life where I have a sense that God is at work in me, appearing to be helpful in my sanctification process. Then there are those times where I’d have to say not so much…. These last few months have been in the not so much category. I am not saying God is not at work, nor am I saying I don’t see God at work – I am just saying that I don’t see God at work shaping me into being more the person that I think God would want me to be. I feel stuck.
I was complaining to God about this recently, especially about my chronic struggle with anxiety. I am so tired of it and wish it would just go away. I then go down the spiraling thought process about how little faith I truly have, how this proves what a weak Christian I really am. Who am I to be guiding others in the life of spiritual formation? You get the picture.
It was in this mode that I began reviewing the readings for our next CFDM Guidance conference. This September we are spending time looking at some of the mystics in church history. Once again, I was struck by how much I admire one of my favorite mystics, Catherine of Siena. She only lived into her early thirties but was a powerful spiritual force in the 14th century. If you are discouraged about the state of the church today, just investigate that time period. Evelyn Underhill says Catherine lived in a time of “almost unequalled ecclesiastical degradation.” At one time there were even three popes not just one, due to clerical corruption and power struggles. And yet Catherine taught of church unity, played a significant role in convincing a pope to move back to Rome from Avignon, and was sought after as a spiritual director by many women as well as men in church leadership. People flocked to her. She had a godly authority that was powerful. She was a wonderful model of deep theological truth combined with an intimate love and connection to Jesus. And yet….
Catherine was very self-aware and one thing she struggled with was what we now call holy anorexia. It begins with fasting as a spiritual discipline but then shifts to symptoms of anorexia. Catherine was aware of this shift and prayed that she could eat. She tried to stop fasting but could not. “Over and over I have prayed and do pray and will continue to pray to God for the grace to live as other people do in this matter of eating…it very often makes me sad that I have not overcome it….I for my part don’t know what else to do about it….” She referred to this as a “weakness”.
This reminds me of Paul’s own thorn in the flesh that he prays God to remove yet God tells him “my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness,” (2Corin. 9). I have heard this over and over and somehow, seeing it in Catherine’s struggle, encourages me anew. She was incredible. She clearly had such a love for God and about as much influence as one individual could have for God’s kingdom, and yet still struggled with her own weakness that caused her to doubt her faithfulness to God.
But during this struggle, she continued to affirm God’s mercy. I have framed in my prayer room a prayer/poem written by Catherine that my son hand stamped for me. The central line in the writing is simply “I know that mercy is your hallmark, and no matter where I turn, I find nothing but your mercy.”
I have recently read that the word mercy in English is the translation from Greek word “eleos” and the Hebrew word “hesed”. The Greek word has the same root for olive oil, oil that is associated with comforting balm. The Hebrew word means steadfast love. We Americans might think of mercy as simply being released or forgiven from something we have done wrong, but it is so much more than that. It is fundamentally God’s incredible love that is a balm to our brokenness, soothing to our soul. Even when the wound still exists.
Rather than focusing on my weakness, Catherine’s words remind me again of God’s soothing mercy. I am steadfastly loved in the midst of my falling short. I am reminded again that my life is about living into this mercy, no matter what I may feel about my spiritual progress. Catherine embraced this mercy in the midst of her own personal struggles. I pray I can more fully follow her lead.