It came to me in the sudden realization, “This is what Hell is.”
I didn’t see the burning, unending agony the Saints have seen. I thank the Lord He knows me well enough to understand I’m not strong enough to witness such suffering even in those justly condemned by their own choices.
But I understood what must be one of the greatest agonies of Hell, and it wasn’t an eternity of physical torture. It was no gnawing and gnashing of teeth.
It was what was not in Hell that hurt souls most.
It was their inability to give or receive Love.
What made Hell so awful was, quite simply, a complete absence of Love.
Human beings can undergo amazing trials and be okay when we have loving support. It is when we are alone that even the slightest pain seems insurmountable.
Our Marriage hadn’t been perfect. We’d lost a Baby before he/she was born. We’d struggled to find jobs, buy a home, get financially fit, overcome normal family conflicts. Sometimes we struggled to understand each other. We had 6 pregnancies, 5 children, several moves, countless jobs and layoffs,…We had “life”…but it was okay because we also had each other.
When my husband left suddenly, I realized how completely alone I was. Frightening thoughts ran through my head in those early months: “How do I give birth to this child and undergo that pain alone?” “Who will be there for the children if I have postpartum issues? What if I can’t take the hormone shifts and do something drastic postpartum?” “What if someone makes advances, who will stand up for me?” “What if the house burns down? How do I get five young children out in time?”
There were so many things I was unsure of; some seem outlandish now, but they were very real at the time as I realized that I was for all intents and purposes – alone, very alone.
Even daily tasks seemed overwhelming.
I couldn’t call on my husband for help. He’d told me I was a bother and wanted a more exciting life. If I wanted any chance of reuniting our Marriage, I couldn’t be a bother any more. I had to show him I was strong, independent, not a quivering pile of mush like I wanted to be.
And sometimes it worked. Other times, I was a mess.
The realization of how alone I was slammed home one day. I’d gone to our bank to talk about the mortgage. The bank was a good 10-15 miles from our home, and in my pregnant, heartbroken state, I wasn’t thinking as I slammed my car door shut, keys still in the ignition.
I tried to get in the car. I looked around the parking lot. Shaking, I went into the bank for help.
They were sympathetic but didn’t know what to do.
Local police would take a while to get there and weren’t supposed to do lock outs anyway. I didn’t want to bother friends or family to make the trip that, on backroads, would take an hour or more to complete. I just knew I was a bother, and didn’t want to bother anyone.
I couldn’t call my husband because I knew without a doubt I was already a bother to him. This would reaffirm his dislike of me.
I was seven months pregnant on a hot summer day a good ten miles from home.
And I was utterly alone, desolate in the realization.
I sat, for I don’t know how long, on a picnic table placed on a little patch of grass outside the bank.
And then I began to walk, fighting to keep tears from streaming down my face, the 10+ miles toward my home.
And I knew this is what Hell would be.
Not the physical torture. That would be a part of Hell I didn’t experience, but I realized that Hell would be the absence of Love, the knowledge that you were alone, that friends and family could not come to your aid, that you could not warn them as they travelled down paths similar to yours.
Hell would be that eternal lonely absence of love in any form. Hell would block out even the Hope for God’s vague whisper of Love.
I knew how much the absence of my husband’s love hurt, I couldn’t imagine how much the absence of God’s Love, a Love I too often pretended to not exist, would hurt.
It would be Hell.
I was beyond desolate as I began that long, hot walk home. I hadn’t thought ahead to how I’d come back for the car. I only knew that I needed to move toward home and that there was no one who could move me where I needed to go. I alone needed to make start.
It was hard getting up. I wanted to just sit on that picnic table forever. I wanted a miracle to swoop down and open my car doors, but I wasn’t even crying out to God that day. I guess I figured He’d pretty much given up on me.
I was a bother.
I didn’t see the road ahead of me. I didn’t see myself or my boys or the Baby I carried inside. I flashbacked seeing my husband brushing his teeth a few days before he’d moved out.
I’d left the house in the foolish hope that he’d come after me, ask me to stay, worry about where his pregnant wife and child were. It was a nightmare of a night. A cold, pelting rain soaked my clothing and penetrated my skin as I stood in the backyard hours after giving up on my being worth coming after. I stood in dark shadows, the yard around me and my drenched figure illuminated only as lightning flashed showing the mascara running in pools from swollen red eyes.
I watched through the window from the darkness hoping to see some sign that he cared. He brushed his teeth. He watched tv. He got ready for bed. He checked his phone several times, a typical night, one in which no one on the outside would notice anything amiss.
The images that haunted were real again as I began that long, hot walk.
He wasn’t mad. He wasn’t worried. He wasn’t sad. He just wasn’t anything.
That night I understood the absence of Love and what Hell was; the Desolation was real again as I walked away from the bank.
I didn’t realize at the time what a gift that Desolation would be. We tend to think Desolation is a result of Satan’s attacks on our inner Peace, on our very souls, but as Saint Ignatius pointed out, God will also send Desolation to spur us to change, to get us off the path we are on and to move us closer to Him.
I didn’t realize as I stepped out on the road on shaky legs that my Desolation was sent by God, but it was.
There I was, alone in the world, not knowing what to do or where to turn for help, not having faith that help would come even if I did call out. I was a bother. The mantra ran through my head.
The “You are a bother” mantra was desolation sent by Satan. It was pulling me down a path of worthlessness and self-destruction. It was a constant hum that buzzed between my ears where free thoughts should have sung.
The desolation sent by Satan told me that I was worthless and that was its whole point.
The desolation sent by God told me that I was alone and in that aloneness I’d find power.
With God’s help, I realized no one could heal for me. I had to step out on shaky, insecure legs and take those steps. I had to stumble and fall and probably slide back quite a bit, but no one was going to force me to get up again. No one was going to force me to take another step. No one was going to force me to try again. No one was going to bother with me – if I didn’t bother with myself first.
And I began to walk that road toward Home.
And once I did, a funny thing happened. Colin, a man who worked in the bank, almost a boy really, not someone I’d have looked to for help, suddenly called out, running after me and bringing me back. Maybe his grandfather had his lock set and could open the door.
Colin made the call. Grandpa came, and, after being assured that there was nothing I could do to thank them, I drove home.
The day and Colin and his Grandfather’s kindness stuck with me, and six and a half years later, I can truly say I am grateful for the Desolation knowing I was alone that day brought me. Without it, I would have slowly sunk further into the battle I was afraid to voice to anyone, that I truly was a bother, truly worthless.
The desolation sent by Satan would have consumed me had it not been for the Desolation sent by God to save me, had it not been for my free will in accepting God’s Desolation, had I not taken those first shaky steps when I so desperately wanted to keep sitting on that picnic table where, I might not have gotten home, but where I wouldn’t be hurt either, where I wouldn’t be a bother to anyone.
I had to get up. I had to move. I had a choice. I had to discern which desolation was sent by Satan and which was sent by God. I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t decide I was a worthless bother and allow the loneliness I felt to show me that I alone could make the change, that I alone could choose to change my path, that I alone could prepare the way for the Lord to enter my life in earnest.
In Sunday’s Gospel, we see John the Baptist preaching in the desert telling people to prepare the way for the Lord:
During this season of Advent, of celebration and festivity and Joy, it is easy to experience desolation, to think everyone else has a wonderful life, to feel worthless, alone, sad…desolated. The challenge is to discern whether this desolation is sent from Satan or from God, to weigh options, and to move forward either toward God fighting the desolation sent by Satan to move you off the path of righteousness or to embrace the Desolation and use its force to make a complete about face and march in the other direction, to push you to find your calling, to reevaluate relationships, to take those first shaky steps.
Desolation sent by God provides a glimpse into the eternal Hell Satan calls us to. Our challenge is to discover which desolation we has grips on us and what to do about it.
That day, as I headed out of the bank parking lot and down the street, Colin came after me pretty quickly. Things don’t always work that fast with God, but I do know that if I’d continued to sit on that picnic table, it would have been a whole lot longer before I’d gotten help. God wanted me to take my first steps and change what I was doing, to do all I could to reach home. Could He be asking the same of you?
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths…” Notice, we are never told there will be no valleys, that we will encounter no mountain or hill, that the road will not wind or that the rough ways will be in our imagination but that we will be given the power to overcome them, that valleys will be filled, that mountain and hill shall be made low, that winding roads will be made straight and the rough made smooth.
But this can’t happen if you’re not willing to take the first step, to move forward, to chase away desolation and invite the Lord into your Heart, Mind, Body, and Soul even when His gift is Desolation.
I Hope you choose to do so this Christmas. Make a fresh start. Invite the Lord in by stepping out, by straightening your path.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths…”
and see what He does for yours!
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