From the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Reflections magazine
by the Rev. Carol Morehead
When everything is irretrievably lost, life does not end but is at the point of new beginning says Belden C. Lane in The Solace of Fierce Landscapes.
Life is always ending and beginning. Nowhere can we see that more than the incredible destruction we have seen in the past months. What appeared to be a tropical storm on the far horizon in the late August waters of the Gulf of Mexico quickly became Hurricane Harvey, barreling toward the Texas coast. Both the storm’s initial power and its lingering stall reminded us all that life is indeed unpredictable.
Life as we know it can change in a moment. Following on the storm’s heels have come wildfires that have ravaged California, more hurricane winds, and two senseless mass shootings, first in Las Vegas and now here in our midst in Sutherland Springs. Truly, for many people, we are in a time when everything may seem irretrievably lost.
And so it is that we come to the end of our liturgical year with a heavy weariness. We are those who are wearied by the changes and chances of life. We yearn to rest in God’s eternal changelessness, for God’s protection in the night, as the collect from Compline says.
When everything seems like chaos and the world feels like it is ending, we cry out, “I just want my life back. Give me my life back.” And yet…we don’t get our life back. We get a new life instead. What do we do with this?
In The Four Quartets, TS Eliot famously wrote, “What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning./The end is where we start from.” I know this to be true on my own journey. Many years ago, I was in a serious car accident with painful injuries. Just days after the accident, my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. She died a week after Easter, and while it was the season of resurrection, I was plunged into darkness, and life felt at an end. God was silent; I felt alone; I was at the end of where my lifelong faith could take me. “God can only be met in emptiness, by those who come in love, abandoning all effort to control, every need to astound,” writes Lane. “The presence of God may, as often as not, be perceived as an absence.” I was certainly empty and perceived only God’s absence. I couldn’t see beyond the pain and loss. I wanted my life back; but it was not to be.
And so I waited. Listened. Yearned. With Eliot, “I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you/Which shall be the darkness of God” (from East Coker). It was Eastertide, but I couldn’t see the new life of resurrection. I was left only with the end of my life as I knew it. This darkness of God was my dwelling place, and it was dark indeed.
As much as I wished for life to begin to fall into place in those months after my accident and my mother’s death, it didn’t. Long nights and longer days followed, filled with questions that were seldom answered. It was hard work, finding this new rhythm of life, hard on me and on my family. Days and weeks became months, and soon two years had passed. I faithfully showed up to worship, in daily prayer, which was mostly just silence or sometimes tears. And then something amazing happened. I began to change. Slowly, as my body became strong through the rigors of physical therapy, my empty spirit began to notice the miracles around me. And it was with the beginning of Advent, two years after my life had exploded, that this shift happened.
Advent is a season of ending and beginning. This truth took me time to discover. I had never been especially in tune with Advent. Not being raised in a liturgical church, I lacked the framework for understanding. I understood the whole waiting for the Christ Child thing: Christmas was on the horizon, and we were expectantly awaiting this wondrous coming. But what to do while waiting? This time around, though, I found a parallel between these years of waiting, of listening, of soul searching about why my life continued and my mother’s life did not, about what God wanted from me, about what I was supposed to be doing with this precious and precarious thing called life. It was within the everyday, quotidian life that I led where I found God again, or became aware enough to see that God was present. “God’s grace comes sometimes like a kick in the teeth, leaving us broken, wholly unable any longer to deny our need,” Lane reminds us.
And that is what happened: I stopped denying my need for God. No longer could I hold the pretense of control in my life; I couldn’t be good enough to convince God to love me. I couldn’t demand that God give me the answers to life’s uncertainties, to what was most certainly random and unpredictable. In fact, the emptiness and quiet in my soul allowed me to see that God’s love is what made me good enough, rather than my being good enough to make God love me. This shattering truth is part of the ending that was taking place, the death of my own self-reliance, and new life didn’t have the space to begin without the endings I experienced.
So as Advent came that year, I finally, simply, accepted the deep need I had for God Incarnate, for the promises of the Light to the Nations, for the Prince of Peace, for Emmanuel, God with us.
I came to rely on the Benedictine wisdom rursus incipiemus nunc et semper — Begin again now and always. Every end is an invitation for a new beginning. This realization didn’t make the endings easy – far from it. The realization helped me see that the endings are necessary, a condition for new growth. Just like the field that lies fallow, my soul and spirit needed time to become a place for the new work God had to do in me and in my life.
Now Advent is perhaps the most important part of the year for me. Advent is the time when God takes the losses, the endings, the unexpected and terrible and bewildering parts of our lives and begins to quiet us so that new life can begin again. Always, we begin again. I see the gift of the desert times; as the Arabic saying goes, The further you go into the desert, the closer you come to God.
Advent has become the time in my journey when the desert days make sense, and I see on the horizon something new and verdant and growing as God in me begins again. When Advent comes this year, may we all hear the invitation to enter the journey of new life that comes, as sure as the sun rising and setting each day, the fulfillment of God’s promise of love and care for the world.
Dear Lord, I will remain restless, tense, and dissatisfied until I can be totally at peace in your house. But I am still on the road, still journeying, still tired and weary, and still wondering if I will ever make it to the city on the hill. With Vincent Van Gogh,* I keep asking your angel, whom I met on the road: “Does the road go uphill then all the way?” And the answer is: “Yes, to the very end.” And I ask again: “And will the journey take all day long?” And the answer is: “From morning till night, my friend.”
Is there something that is ending or has recently ended in your life just now? What will you do to cooperate with God in bringing about a new beginning?
What hope and help can you give to those around you who are suffering endings?
What will be your prayer this Advent as the story of Christ coming among us begins again?
The Rev. Carol Morehead is Associate Rector for Liturgy, Adult Formation, and Pastoral Care at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, San Antonio. She graduated from Seminary of the Southwest in May 2013. Read more from Carol’s blog at www.enteringthemysteries.com Reach her at