Standing Far Off

By Sr. Elizabeth Wagner

he shortest month of the year lasts forever. In February, in the depth of winter, time stands still. The days are slowly lengthening and the dark receding, but winter persists unabated. Time hangs heavy as we wait for the spring that seems so immensely far off.

This winter is harsh, with unrelenting cold and buffeting storms. True, we have days and even a week or more at a time without a storm. But then we’re hit with another nor’easter, a major storm that dumps a foot or more. In between, the days are cold and gloomy. Snow piles grow ever larger. As the mounds get higher, shoveling the walkway gets harder and harder. We run out of places to put the snow and finally hire a backhoe to move the piles around and make some room in the driveway. Worst of all, there is no bare ground anywhere, and so I feel disconnected from the earth. My psyche craves the greenery of spring, my feet are craving bare earth, and all I find is snow and ice.

I feel as though I am standing still. I’m oppressed by the weather, tired from too many projects which seem never to come to completion, fatigued by demands on time, talents, and energy. I can’t summon any enthusiasm for prayer or lectio. Everything is stale, nothing appeals.

Lent begins late in the month. Normally it’s one of my favorite seasons, a time of life, renewal, and hope. Since my first year as a Catholic, Lent has meant not a season of guilt and misery, but a wonderful time of deepening and rebirth. This winter, life and hope seem to have migrated south, gone with the robins and the wild geese.

Perhaps it is fatigue, perhaps it is anxiety about change, or perhaps it is the weather. For whatever reason I seem to be paralyzed, unable to do more than exist from day to day. Prayer and lectio are boring, my relationship with God appears remote. I can think of so many things I should be doing, so many initiatives I should take. But can I actually get myself going on them? No. The more I dally and delay, the worse the paralysis feels and the more distant God seems to be. I continue to pray, continue to practice lectio, continue my normal routine. Yet dejection and melancholy persist, and I teeter at times on the verge of despair. Despair of many things but most of all myself. After all, it’s not God who is to blame for my inertia, is it?

Then one day for lectio, I reread the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. I read aloud the overly familiar words and, for the first time, hear this phrase, spoken of the publican, that public disgrace: “Standing far off.”

Standing far off! “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”(Lk 18:13, NRSV). Always before I had focused on the last part of that verse, but that morning three words pierced my heart: standing far off. What else had I been doing for the entire month of February but standing far off? Far off from God, far off from myself, far off from engagement with life.

God’s response? “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified” (Lk 18:14). Reading this, my heart opened, and I wept. I was indeed standing far off, and yet God, who knows me well, said, “It’s OK.” It still doesn’t feel very good, and it continues to make my life challenging, but as far as God is concerned, it’s OK. Standing far off may not feel comfortable, but God understands and remains close to me in infinite compassion. Though I stand far off, God does not.

I notice that in this Gospel story, people are standing. At the time of Jesus and for centuries after, people would stand for prayer. Note the difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector: the Pharisee is “standing by himself” in splendid isolation. He obviously felt himself to be above and beyond the ordinary run of humanity. The Pharisee stands by himself in enormous self-righteousness. And the publican, that lowly tax collector? The publican stands far off, not daring to come near to God, to heaven, to the Holy One.

There are many other times when people stand in the Scriptures. In Psalm 135:2 the psalmist “stands in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God,” an attitude of worship. There are other famous examples. Mary, the mother of Jesus, stood near his cross. Three days later another Mary, who came weeping to the tomb, was privileged to be the apostle to the apostles, the first great witness of the resurrection.

All of these are concrete instances of simply standing. The implications of this basic posture are enormous—and enormously varied. Our stance in life says so much about who we are and how we are feeling. Mary, the mother of Jesus, stands before her dying son in enormous sorrow and suffering. Mary Magdalen also stands in grief and longing and sorrow, and yet her sorrow is transformed into wonder and amazement and joy.

How frequently do we all stand far off? And for so many different reasons! Like the publican, we are even unable to raise our eyes or thoughts or heart.

We stand far off in guilt over all the miserable things we have done or not done. Surely God knows our horrible sins and failings. We live in terror of condemnation. How could we dare approach the Holy One?

We stand far off in unworthiness. Perhaps we think we’re too sinful. Or perhaps we know we could never live up to the standard of perfection we think God has set for us. Never mind that it is we who have set it for ourselves. Never mind that it’s unattainable, too high for any human being ever to reach! Nevertheless we believe ourselves unworthy, and we stand far off, cringing in a corner, our heads bowed to earth, able only to look at our unlovely imperfection.

Perhaps we stand far off because we’re afraid. After all, don’t we know that God will judge us? Who can possibly stand before God’s face unafraid? We read that “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31), and we forget the story of the good thief, forgiven on the cross. Or else we think the thief was in some way different from us, better than us, more open to God’s love than we are. We stand far off, abiding in fear.

We stand far off because we feel dry, arid, and unmoved. The things of God are outside our hearts, unable to enter, and we feel we must be pushing God away. “Surely this must be my fault? Surely if I only tried harder, did something different?” So we think, and yet we are unable, and we turn away and stand far, far off.

We stand far off because we are anxious. God may not really be the loving and compassionate One of whom we have heard others speak. And there are so many other anxieties as well! “How will I pay the bills today, and will my children have the courage to turn away from peers who push them toward drugs and alcohol? Will that sick parent or spouse really get better? Will there be enough money for retirement? What will I do when I grow old? Who will take care of me? Can I really entrust God with all these worries? It seems so unbelievable to think that God could care for me. It really is all up to me, isn’t it? How can I ever go close to God with all this on my mind?” We stand far off from God, but we stand very, very close to all our worries and anxieties.

We stand far off and sometimes we just don’t know why. Or we may not know how to move toward God. Perhaps we feel stuck, paralyzed.

We stand far off because we feel ashamed. Perhaps we’ve done something we feel is too awful to talk about. It might not even be something all that important—but it’s horribly important to us! We are ashamed because we eat too much, or we talk too much. Greatest shame of all: we don’t look good enough. Shame is so deeply connected to our bodies and our looks, to our posture, to our stance in the world. We are very much ashamed, and so we hang back, hoping to be unseen, standing far off.

We hang back and stand far off when we feel abandoned. Perhaps the deepest fear, the deepest shame, and the deepest anxiety is about abandonment. Why would anyone ever love us or care for us or watch over us when we’re so unlovable? Impossible! We’ve experienced this many times before in our lives, haven’t we? Parents and siblings let us down just when we most needed them. Friends betrayed us, the world turned its back. Besides, we’d rather sit in our bleak, dark isolation. We may be miserable, and we may feel dead, as though we’ve turned to stone. But at least it’s familiar. It’s not risky or challenging, and it doesn’t hold out any false hopes. And so we stand far, far off in our abandonment and isolation.

Abandonment! Writing this some weeks later, this word shivers through me. For so many weeks now, I have been puzzling about what this paralysis means. What is it that I am really experiencing? How it perplexes me! Today this word resonates deeply, awakening echoes that make me cringe. I’ve not felt disconnected, and I’m unaware of turning away from God, yet I’ve felt remote.

Now I begin to wonder: from whom am I standing far off? Is it from God? Or more likely, is it from myself? Could it be that I stand far off from my own deepest longings, sorrows, hopes, and fears? Surely this is the source of my paralysis! I have cut myself off from myself, taken all my energy and used it to hold myself down. I have fled from the deepest part of my own self, and now I feel disconnected.

How could this have happened without my even noticing? I wonder. I recall the weeks and even months leading up to this winter. I was busy: really, really busy. It was perhaps the busiest time in my entire life. There was little time for prayer, even less for being still. It was a time of hard work and challenges. I knew there was a fixed time limit to this busyness; I knew it wouldn’t last forever. That alone made it bearable.

Then the busy time ended, and there was time to relax. But somehow, in the process, my deepest self had gone underground, as though it had died and was buried. Worst of all, it was forgotten: “For I am like the dead, forgotten by all, like a thing thrown away” (Ps 31:13, Grail Psalter).

Like the dead, so long forgotten that now my heart is numb. How can I awaken it? I take time each day for quiet, I try to pay attention to the deepest longings of my poor, dull heart. I apologize to my own deepest self for such desertion.

At times I see glimmers of hope, catch echoes of the child who still exists deep within, yet seems so withdrawn. So far these are distant murmurs only, occasional glimpses of this shy, deep self. The Deep One, I sometimes call her, for she is deep. She lives deep down within me, and she is possessed of profound insight, intuition, longings, and sorrows. Playfulness too! She is the one abandoned by my day-to-day self, the functional, competent, organized self. The busy self. Now I try to make amends. I spend time each day just trying to be present to this deepest part of myself, this little one long forgotten, this vulnerable one who is like a thing thrown away. Occasionally she responds, and I am able to feel her presence briefly: in tears, in joy, in a sense of deep peace and connectedness. But mostly I seem to be sentenced to standing far off.

Speaking recently with a friend, I recalled that our faith does not exempt us from suffering. Yet this same faith reminds me that in Jesus the Christ, God has entered into our humanity. God has embraced our struggles, sufferings, and sorrows and has taken on our bodilyness, neediness, and vulnerability, even our failings. Standing with us in all things, he is even named Emmanuel, God with us. We may be standing far off, but Jesus stands close by.

Alienated from myself, I am alienated from God. Close to myself—my entire self, not just the competent, functional self—I am close to the One who stands close to me.

I remember this now as I lament my inner stand-off. It is clear that I need to learn how to come close to my deep and most vital self again. Perhaps this difficult time is the prelude to the dawn of a deeper intimacy with both self and God. Meanwhile I need to learn from the One who stands so completely with me. I must learn how to be close, how to comfort, how to be present, and, all the while, how to be respectful of this deeper self. Perhaps, like children, she and I play a game of hide and seek. I seek, she is hidden. Once in a while she shows herself, and for a moment, briefly, I come to life. Then she is gone, and I am standing far off once again.

Perhaps we are all like this, really. Perhaps we are all lost, alienated, standing far off from ourselves and from God. Perhaps we all must work at coming close. Perhaps intimacy, even with ourselves, never comes easily. I call upon my faith, reminding myself of God’s past actions and constant loving presence. I know God is with me, standing close by, even though I do not always feel that loving peacefulness.

Standing far off, I remain in the desert this February. I call upon the living One, and remind myself that God is always standing close at hand.

_____

Sr. Elizabeth Wagner, who is currently finishing an M.A. in theology at St. John’s University School of Theology, is a Benedictine hermit and member of Transfiguration Hermitage in Maine, where she prays, offers retreats, gardens, and writes. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Catholic Digest, Church World, Eclectica Magazine, GreenPrints, Review for Religious, Westview, and Willow Review — winner of the Willow Review 2011 prize for nonfiction. She has also written book reviews for Capital Weekly, Spiritual Life and Town Line.


One Response to “Standing Far Off”

  1. Ian says:

    Thank you Sr. Wagner for this fantastic piece. My family is struggling through a very difficult time right now and your words are a reminder that, though we fear what may be around the corner, and fear that God may not perhaps intervene in the fashion we choose, it is nevertheless incredibly important to draw close to him in all things.