The Still Point of the Turning World
Finding Christ in the Fire of Suffering (with a little help from T.S. Eliot)
My heart palpitations are back. They visit most often at night, when darkness and silence allow my worries to take center stage. But really, they’ll take any moment of quiet as an open invitation, including this moment, when I’m sitting in my office, writing for you.
I’m not worried about the palpitations. They have visited before. They are my body’s response to extreme stress. Or, as I like to think of them, my body’s show of solidarity with my anxiety-ridden soul.
The palpitations used to come when I was working under pressure to meet unreasonable deadlines. My cardiologist told me that, of all his patients dealing with stress-related heart problems, the professional writers always seem the most stressed. This is why I don’t generally recommend writing as a career path.
Right now, however, the palpitations have only a little to do with deadlines. It’s more about …. well … everything.
It’s my parents, who are fast slipping from this world.
It’s my aging, exhausted, perimenopausal body, which is rebelling on the daily.
It's my house, which is overflowing with books, toys, clothes, papers, rocks, and remnants from our long since completed house renovation.
It’s the ceiling light shorting out in our bedroom, the shower fan clogged by a grackle’s nest in our bathroom, and the 133-year-old steps crumbling on our front porch.
It's the minutia of life—the taxes that need to be filed, the health care bills that need to be appealed, the subscriptions that need to be cancelled.
It’s also friends who keep dying, leaving spouses and young children behind, upending all our expectations of what life should look like.
It's my babies, my beautiful babies, who are growing and changing and needing so much from me. It’s the tantrums, fighting, crying, whining, and my fear that I’m responding to it all wrong, that I’m feeding them wrong, disciplining them wrong, entertaining them wrong, catechizing them wrong, loving them wrong.
And yes, it’s my work. It’s work I can’t get to because of aging parents, aching bodies, messy rooms, unfiled taxes, beautiful babies, dying friends, and a mind fragmented by the whole lot of it.
It is, as I said, everything. Nothing earth shattering. Nothing life ending. Just a mountain of ordinary things piled up all at once, that together have set my heart to racing.
At the same time, though, on another level, it’s not any of those things. it’s just one thing, one common problem underlying every individual problem. It’s control. Or, more accurately, my lack of control.
That’s really what has my heart pounding. Life is whirling and swirling all around me, at a pace I can’t match. People, places, and relationships that have anchored my life are disappearing or have already disappeared. And I can’t do anything about any of it. I can’t make the days longer or the distance between my parents and me shorter. I can’t save the dying or bring back the dead. I can’t fix what’s broken or protect my children from all life will throw at them. I can’t even find the time to file papers, let alone my taxes. Even my tried and true ways of maintaining some illusion of control—cleaning, organizing, exercising, sticking to a strict schedule—aren’t at my disposal anymore. Time, exhaustion, babies, and age have stripped them from me, one by one.
And I am so, so grateful for that.
The other night, back in Illinois, I was lying awake, crying over my parents’ decline and trying to calm my wildly beating heart. Nothing worked. My mind just hopped from one worry to the next. The chaos felt like it would overwhelm me. Then, I remembered the One who is not madly spinning. I remembered “the still point of the turning world.” I fixed my mind’s eye on Him. I mentally rested my head on His Sacred Heart. And I breathed.
This is the gift of my current chaos. This is the blessing of losing the illusions of control that hound so many of us, especially those of us who excel at “doing”—at planning, organizing, directing, managing, working, creating, accomplishing. The loss of control drives us back to Him.
For Christians like me, the single greatest obstacle to holiness can be thinking sainthood is another objective to accomplish. We make our plans, say our prayers, and map out how we think our journey to God should go. Then we hold so tightly to those plans that we don’t give God room to work. We close down avenues for grace because those avenues aren’t part of our carefully mapped journey. We pour ourselves out for Him, but we don’t make time to just receive Him. We say we trust Him, but who we really trust is ourselves, and when one part of life slips out of our control, we just double down on our control of another part of life. It’s all pride. It’s all the Garden, over and over again. It’s forgetting who’s God and who’s not.
God is not letting me forget that right now. He is too kind and merciful to leave me to my own devices. He is permitting chaos to strip me of my illusions about control and self-sufficiency. And as my world spins, He is reminding me that all is grace. All is gift. Apart from Him, we can do nothing. Apart from Him, I can do nothing.
I am not learning this lesson easily. The heart palpitations bear witness to that. But I have zero doubt that I need this lesson. T.S. Eliot has been a good friend to me as of late, reminding me: that my “only hope or else despair/Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre/To be redeemed from fire by fire.”
This is true for each of us, regardless of our struggles, whether it’s pride or greed, gluttony or lust, envy, vanity, or wrath. All that is not truly us—the wounds, sins, and habits of life in a fallen world, which have accumulated on our souls like calcifications on a bone—all that must be burned away. We can’t enjoy heaven unless those calcifications are gone. We can’t enjoy Him unless they’re gone. They will just keep getting in the way—obscuring our vision, limiting our love, pulling our attention away from Him and towards ourselves. That’s what they do now. That’s what they would do then … if given the chance. God doesn’t want to give them that chance. Hence the burning.
The fire is hot. It hurts. But it also heals. I know it does because I have been burned before and healed before. There is not one fire for the Christian who truly desires God. There is fire after fire after fire. As I told my friend Elizabeth two weeks ago, while we watched our friend’s grieving children play with my children, sometimes the pain of purification is enough to make you want to jump ship, tell God thanks but no thanks, and walk with the world instead.
That’s a fool’s leap, though. For the choice is always fire or fire. We have to pass through one fire or endure eternity in another fire. There is no escaping the burning, not for anyone, no matter how it may seem from the outside looking in.
This is why I am grateful. Because this present fire is the better one. As hot as it is, there’s also a sweetness to it. In the midst of the tears, palpitations, and panic attacks, there also are moments of profound consolation, where I feel Jesus so near. For He is near. He does not ask us to go through the fire alone. He stands with us through it all, arms around us, taking on the worst of the pain Himself. He burns with us. He suffers with us. And as He does, He strengthens us, healing our wounds and transforming them into scars made glorious by flame.
For Him to do that, though, we have to say Yes. We have to allow Him to do His work in us.
But how do we do that?
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