Tag Archives: Columba

The second half of life: Encouragement for creative suffering

The other day I was watching International House Hunters, where I learn a lot about life these days. In the episode, an apparently divorced mom was ready to send her one son off to college. She appeared to be nearing fifty years old. Although she did not have a lot of money to spend, she decided to quit the job she hated and move to Merida, Mexico. She bought a fixer-upper outside of town and started her life over as the only Anglo in her whole village. She said life was too short to wait until one was ready to live it. Hers is a second half of life story.

Also last week, my fiftysomething friend said on Facebook:  “I was reunited with some old friends this weekend to celebrate a birthday. I am also thinking about a sweet brave friend in Philly who we lost last week. Life is short. Don’t sweat the small stuff. LIVE.” That represents some second half of life philosophizing.

The second half of life

What is the second half, maybe we could call it our second act? It is a discernible transition in life that people all over the world note. Mid-life has significant characteristics. We sometimes call the entry into that part of life a “mid-life crisis.” Richard Rohr, who wrote a book about it, calls it the time to “fall upward.” The transition into the second half is the time when we face the limits of our capacity, now that we have tested it and probably failed to achieve our idealization of ourselves, and must face the limits of our lifespan, now that our bodies start to tell us we’re definitely not twentysomethings anymore.

The term “second half” implies some kind of dualism: a before and after, this or that, obsolete and improved, foolish and wise. But that’s more of a “first half” way to see things. The second half is more about embracing our inevitable development and not avoiding the suffering that will lead to our wholeness. We had to build the house, so to speak, before we could consider leaving it. We had to learn to drive the car, so to speak, in order to ask Jesus to take the wheel.  We could miss the beauty of our second half altogether if we avoid the necessary suffering of entering it. But we will be pushed hard to give in to maturity, regardless.

Image result for Dolly Parton

Signs of the “mid-life crisis”

As a result of this inevitable transition, we either solidify into a withered caricature of the unique self we have been building, or we become more spiritual, more self-giving, more of a leader, and more comfortable with the ambiguities and joys of being our true selves. Dolly Parton is an interesting mix of both possibilities. I saw an interview with her in which she boldly said she was committed to the caricature that is her trademark, be it ever so withered, as you can see, above. She even had surgery to maintain what she could of the persona she created. But she has also developed her spirituality. She’s not just being a country music legend; she is also a champion of early childhood literacy, through her Imagination Library. Every month, that nonprofit program mails a free book to more than a million children — from infants to preschoolers. In 2018 they reached 100 million books donated.

however we navigate it, we are going to grow into a new season of life. The pressures we face at the beginning of that season are so well known, we can make a list of typical feelings or reactions, such as:

  1. Desiring to quit a good job.
  2. Unexplained bouts of depression when doing tasks that used to make one happy.
  3. Changing or investigating religions, churches or philosophy.
  4. Change of habits. Activities which used to bring pleasure now are boring. Unable to complete or concentrate on tasks which used to be easy.
  5. Excessively buying new clothes and taking more time to look good.
  6. Wanting to run away to somewhere new.
  7. A desire or obsession to get into physical shape.
  8. Irritability or unexpected anger.
  9. Leaving family (mentally or physically) or feeling trapped in current family relationships.
  10. Looking into the mirror and no longer recognizing oneself.

Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises. At some point we will face loss; we will encounter a “stumbling stone” — that we cannot power, finesse, or manage our way through, that we cannot fix, control, explain, change, or even understand. It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering. There is going to be some kind of suffering, regardless.

At midlife, our suffering, inside or out, helps us leave “home” — that stationary place where we are most comfortable — and drives us toward the necessary encounter with the self and with God, who loves to walk through our suffering with us. That suffering helps us deconstruct the persona (or the person we wish we were and want others to see), and to acknowledge and welcome our shadow side into the dialogue. As a result, we have the hope of emerging into later adulthood and blossoming into our full, true selves in Christ. In the second half, suffering becomes more of a friend than an enemy, if we are going to plumb the depths of our new capacity. Richard Rohr says, “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day.” That kind of prayer is taking the example of Jesus seriously:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! – Philippians 2:5-8

There are good examples who show us how to suffer creatively

A great example of moving into the second half, albeit not entirely successfully, is King David. The painting by James Tissot, above, captures the moment of his midlife transition, just before his dissatisfied boredom is distracted by the sight of Bathsheba from his upstairs portico. Tissot, himself, is another interesting example, since, at age 49, he was caught up in the revival of the Catholic church in France, changed the focus of his art, and spent the rest of his life creating the paintings of  Biblical events I love so much.

After David unified the land of Israel under his rule, he grew discontent. He had done most of what he set out to do. He’s king. He’s got power and accomplishment, influence and comfort. He feels sure of his identity as God’s chosen king. He sits back. Is that all there is? Here we go.

In the spring he sends off his army under the command of others to complete military campaigns. This tests his faith, since in the past he had lived on the edge as a general and learned to trust God for every breath. He came far trusting God. Now how does he trust God? His “shadow” is lurking in the recesses of his success.

Usually in our forties, we are ready to face a similar struggle, but we may not get to it until we are older (or the children we bore in our late thirties are older), or we have retired, or we get divorced, or we lose our job. Laura Ingalls Wilder quit teaching when she got married and helped her husband on the farm. Their first half was very difficult, including the death of a son, the partial paralysis of her husband, loss of the farm buildings through fire and the great depression. She was well into her second half when her daughter, Rose, encouraged her to write a memoir about her childhood. She spent many years improving it. It wasn’t until she was 65 years old that “Little House in the Big Woods” was published. She wrote other “Little House” series, including the last one that came out when she was 76.

Often the mid-life struggle percolates up because we are bored or burned out – maybe even too accomplished or too settled. We can, like David, lose touch with the very essence of what made our lives fulfilling. We might still be perfecting the outside, like Dolly Parton, unable to give up the rush and power of performing. We might meet the dark side of what made us a brilliant young person, like Columba. We can drift from a present-tense relationship with God and lose touch with what is sacred in our day-to-day routine. It’s time to move into the second half with some consciousness, or maybe fall upward.

When David comes to the shocking revelation of what his reactions mean, he reconnects with God. He reconnects with holiness in the everyday routine of his world. Psalm 51 reveals the restoration of David’s relationship with God. It shows his tenacious hold on his belief that God is present; God is good; God redeems.

Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise. – Psalm 51:15-17

The psalm shows a crucial acceptance of paradox:  “I am king and I am powerless to save the baby. I have committed an unforgivable sin yet I can be forgiven. My former life-sustaining pursuits and way of faith were a prelude to this deeper, contradictory, way of life.” Mature adulthood includes anxiety, doubt, and paradox. In the face of all this newness, sometimes shocking and often unwelcome, the second half of life is the time when our creative suffering comes up with our deepest contributions to the Lord’s cause.

Image result for king i have a dream

Some of us may be “early bloomers” like Martin Luther King, who summed up the challenge of maturity well in his famous “I have a dream” speech. Right before he gave the ringing conclusion about his dream, he said,

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation…You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive….Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

King was only 34 when he wrote that and he only had a few more years to brilliantly live out his creative suffering. But in those years, he showed Jesus-followers, especially, what it means to pay attention to the promises of wholeness in Christ. Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises – most likely, we will be on an interesting journey during our “mid-life.” It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering, so when we leave the home we had to build for ourselves in this world, we will be welcomed into the home Jesus has prepared for us in the next. In Christ, suffering is redemptive. As we can see all around us, immaturity is common and cheap. The costly wholeness of life in Christ, becoming our true selves, is a gift worth whatever creative suffering we endure to receive it.

Columba the Creative Sufferer

The Celtic church folk seem like family when you get to know them — inspiring spiritual ancestors! Some people think it is a little weird to get to know them — they are long gone, after all. But when we are trying so hard to represent Jesus as a radical, missional community, I’ve got to say a few words in honor of Columba. He stokes my fire. He’s right in the middle of re-creation, and we aspire to be as meaningful to our corner of the world as he was to his.

Re-creation is an earthy, sweaty process of creative suffering. Columba learned a lot about being reborn — about the kind of suffering-like-Jesus that pushes into the light from the dark. He knew about rebirthing — about the suffering-like-Jesus that pushes from the light into the dark. From both angles, he proved that the pain of getting deeply involved with God’s re-creation was worth it. As I tell you part of his story in honor of his death day, you’ll probably be considering what God is teaching you about being born into your own fullness.

Columba (521-97) might be more famous than you know. He is one of the three “patron saints” of Ireland, with Patrick and Brigid. He founded many communities of radical disciples of Jesus in Ireland before he went to Iona for the last 30 years of his life. From Iona he masterminded the mission to the great tribe called the Picts in Scotland. The community he founded on the edge of the world became the mother for hundreds of other communities all over Scotland and the world. It was a missionary factory for centuries. And it is known for being the place where the Book of Kells, one of Ireland’s artistic treasures, was written.

Columba was born a to an aristocratic family, the son of a king. When he was at Finnian’s great school in Clonard,  Columba’s hut was in a favored place nearer the chapel, because he had brought so much with him when he came to join the community. Quite a bit was written about him, and some of it makes him look a little imperious, maybe overly ambitious, like he took himself quite seriously, especially as a young man. He was a leader. He did rash things but he made up for them and went on. He was intense, so intense, disciplined and austere that a lot of people could not keep up with his example. But all these attributes made him someone who could be followed.

He was a big, tall, handsome man. So the icon on this page does not do him justice. He’s old in it. He’s got his Celtic tonsure on (shaved up to a line from ear to ear). And he does have his book.  Columba had a big voice too — you could hear him from far away. He often used it to sing. People loved to hear him sing. He wrote songs. He also loved to write poetry, and is known for having written one of the earliest known poems by an Irish native.

To get the full idea of his song, you have to pretend you are hearing it in some echo-y, house made of rock, a dark place with candles in the 500’s. This is just a bit of the very long piece:

 Altus Prosator

Ancient exalted seed scatterer
whom time gave no progenitor:
he knew no moment of creation
in his primordial foundation
he is and will be all places
in all time and all ages
with Christ his first-born only-born
and the Holy Spirit — borne
throughout the high eternity
of glorious divinity:
three gods we do not promulgate
one God we share and intimate
salvific faith victorious:
three persons very glorious.

Try reading the Latin, it makes it even better.

Altus prosator, vetustus
dierum et ingenitus
erat absque origine
primordii et crepidine
est et erit in sæcula
sæculorum infinita;
cui est unigenitus
Xristus et sanctus spiritus
coæternus in gloria
deitatis perpetua.
Non tres deos depropimus
sed unum Deum dicimus,
salva fide in personis
tribus gloriosissimis.

This artistic son of a King turned to Jesus and went about making new Christians where there were very few in his big, dramatic, creative, radical way.

From dark into light

Columba’s introduction to creative suffering began with a shock to his system when he was about 40 years old. You may have experienced a similar situation that meant life or death for your faith. The Spirit of God does not let us rest in the dark; almost-involuntary birth pangs begin, and we have to push toward the light, even though the opening seems kind of small and we seem kind of weak. We have to repent, change and move along to our fullness.

Columba’s biographers aren’t quite clear on just what exactly happened, but here is the  watershed moment. Finnian of Molville had a very famous rare book. It was a copy of the Jerome’s Vulgate, the first Bible translated into Latin. Columba went to stay with this other Finnian and every night he secretly went to the library and made a copy of this precious book for himself. One night Finnian caught him in the act. He told him to hand over the copy, which by rights belonged to him. Columba refused to do it, even though he was in the wrong. Finnian took his case to the high king of Ireland at Tara. The king ruled in his favor. He said: “To every cow its calf, to every book its copy” — the first copyright law.

Then the history gets kind of mixed. However it got going, there was a war over this incident. Columba’s clan, whose members were mostly Christians, took up for him against the high king at Tara, whose followers were still mostly pagan. 3000 people died in a huge battle. Columba’s side won but Columba was mortified. The battle over his misdeed was a shame to Jesus. He was given a great penance. Radical that he was, a person who did big things, he put himself in permanent exile. He said, “I will never look on Ireland again.” And he vowed to go win as many people to Jesus as were killed in the battle on his behalf. That is creative suffering! — a radical pushing out of his darkness into the light.

He ended up on Iona, which was the first place he could get to where he could not see Ireland anymore. Columba turned away from what was wrong and literally went a new direction toward what is next. It cost him. He loved Ireland. He lost family and power. But he did something in line with what he was given to be and responded in faith to the mess he had made. He didn’t go on stealing and fighting. And it hurt. He took what Paul said seriously. “My present suffering are nothing compared to what is prepared for God’s children” (Romans 8). He got the message. If you fear what has been or you fear what is next, get into your boat and do something.

From light into dark

Columba looked for what was prepared for him. As a result, he had a great success in what he did for Jesus. He was soon crossing the strait from Iona to Scotland to try to convert the Pictish king. He took his great light and he pushed into the spiritual darkness with it.

To get to the city of the king, Columba and his comrades had to cross the river that goes out of Loch Ness.  He asked one of his helpers to swim over and get a boat he saw on the other side that could carry him and the rest of the crew over the river. About halfway over, disturbed by all that splashing, a gigantic beast rose up out of the water. With a roar, it tried to devour the swimmer. Columba stood on the bank and said, “You shall go no further. Do not touch the man.” It was like ropes pulled the monster back. It was dragged back into Loch Ness. I don’t know if that is totally true. But they thought a monster was in Loch Ness way back in the day.

People don’t tell these stories for nothing. Whether you believe the history or not, the truth behind the story remains. Jesus will turn away our foes as well. What seeks to devour us feeds on our fear. But if we follow Christ we are God’s heirs and our destiny is secure. We’ve got to suffer through the work to get though to our destiny. But it is worth it. We’ve got to face the monster. God is on our side. Push your light into the darkness.

Not all of Columba’s creative suffering was as a result of his sin and poor judgment and neither is yours. We don’t just suffer just because we are fools. There is a positive side to how we suffer. Our pain often has more of the suffering of the artist to it. It is creative suffering like the trouble of giving birth to something. Trying to find a way to express our hope and convictions is an art. Trying to push the beauty of our relationship with God into the dark – how to say it, how to express it, how to get it out there – is creative.

The Celts were good at evangelistic art. They spread the gospel more by infiltration than by arguments, more by osmosis than by domination. They brought Jesus by art, by incarnation, by relating, by singing it. They let people experience their lives in Christ — feel what was in their hearts, trusting in the light to penetrate the darkness.

We are often pushing from the darkness into the light, but we are also pushing from our light into the darkness and they are both beautiful expressions of this groaning creativity of the Spirit in us. Our suffering is often a good thing. We need creative suffering. The example of the Lord and the message of the Bible is that suffering is part of creation. God can be creatively involved in our pain.

It took suffering to create us and recreate us. If you are broken and trying to push into the light, don’t let anyone steal that from you with a pill or a false promise. If you are trying to push some light into the dark through your art — whether it is setting the table or painting the Mona Lisa, singing, speaking, writing, conversing, even if you think you are a terrible artist and should just quit — don’t give up on that; die trying to do something. Whatever God gave you to do to express that creative suffering — push out of the dark into the light; push out of the light into the dark. In that you will be like Columba — and Jesus.