Two icons were projected on the wall. The first depicted the Father, Son and Holy Spirit sitting at a table. When asked where I was in the icon as the viewer I discovered I was sitting at the edge of the table in the foreground—not only welcome at the table with the Trinity, but already sitting there. The second icon was “The Harrowing of Hell.” It showed Jesus Christ after he was crucified and descended into hell. I was told that “harrowing” was taking a long tool and plunging it into the soil to bring the nutrients to the top, a powerful metaphor for Jesus’ message to the lost souls: “this is not what you were made to be, come with me.”
This was the second time I attended the All-Seminary Retreat as a Northeastern Seminary student. I appreciated the opportunity to travel for reflection, away from the demands of school, work, and church business; but also, to see the faces of people who appeared as images on the video-conferencing screen at the Albany satellite site, or with whom I’ve communicated only through email. I valued this opportunity to shake hands, have friendly conversations, to worship, and just be in the presence of the seminary community.
The presenter was Dr. Damien Zynda, a spiritual director, who focused much on personal brokenness and darkness, and emphasized this as the intersection where Jesus wants to meet us. She explained, these unpleasant, painful, and discouraging times are the place where our conversion into the fullness of Christianity happens. She used as an example, the late Bishop Oscar Romero, and his conversion from an obsessive legalist and “work-a-holic,” into a Gospel-centered disciple focused on justice. She had shared the icons that opened my spirit to grace.
During the time of extended silent reflection we were instructed to find a quiet place to reflect. We were invited to explore the rooms and nooks off the “zig-zagging” corridors lined with paintings of priests, saints, bishops, and religious figures inside the retreat center; or spend time in the glass-walled chapel, that placed a believer sitting in a pew into a perspective of being both inside the building, and in-touch with the tidy and natural surroundings outside; or, to roam outside and discover the grounds of Notre Dame Retreat House overlooking Canandaigua Lake.
I chose to go outside and walk though the labyrinth on the hillside, maintained throughout brush, bushes, and trees; the path of which, was coarsely mowed glass; with the lake forever on the horizon out of the corner of my eye. I made two discoveries in the labyrinth that spoke to the messages I had received from Dr. Zynda.
I began to notice the berries of the different bushes and shrubs. I wondered, in this season of late fall, why these berries would not have been eaten by the birds in preparation for winter. Upon reflection, it occurred to me that winter birds would have to eat in the months to come. I recalled scripture, “therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”(Matt. 6:25-27 NIV).
Walking outdoors in the fall, the season that highlights the beauty of decay, and in contemplation of winter, the time of seasonal death, I realized the brokenness I identified in me, the brokenness that I hold onto with a tight grip, is a brokenness I can lay on the table with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Throughout my life, God has provided sustenance to me in the winter of my brokenness, just as He has provided for his winter birds. If I met Jesus in the darkness of my brokenness and surrendered it to Him, I could wait expectantly for spring. But not just another spring in nature’s cycle, a new spring which my brokenness prevented me from experiencing all along.
Then I saw a small shrub adorned in its fall colors. It was beautiful in the bright reds, oranges, and yellows. This small bush stood in its glory before the harshness of an impending upstate winter. It reminded me of Joseph and his multicolored coat. Little did the young Joseph know that the blessing as the favored son was the fall of his life, and that his own brothers would strip him of his fall colors and throw him into a long winter of servitude and imprisonment.
The favor of his father, Jacob, failed Joseph; his youth failed him; and his good looks failed him; but, God did not fail him. When Joseph was enslaved by Potiphar, the scripture said, “the Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered” (Gen. 39:2); when Joseph was in prison, the scripture said, “the Lord was with him” (Gen. 39:21); and when the Pharaoh asked Joseph to interpret the his dream, Joseph said, “I cannot do it … but God will give Pharaoh the answer” (Gen. 41:16).
Joseph did not harrow himself out of hell; it was God who was able to release him from his darkness. Once in the light again, he was not the Jacob-favored son in possession of a fine coat, but a God-favored son possessing the foresight to administer an entire nation.
I have been blessed by this retreat. I have identified the brokenness and the darkness that holds me back from a fuller relationship with Christ, as well as my brothers and sisters around me. Meeting Christ at this intersection to bring me through the winter into a new spring will be my conversion from believer to disciple.
Richard Moran, Jr. (M.Div.) is a member of Bethel AME Church in Schenectady. N.Y. and is a candidate-on-trial for ministry with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.