My memories are such fragile things, and yet desperately important to me. They can be vague, hard to explain, like trying to recount a dream. They can be incredibly detailed in one aspect and muddled in the next. Yet without them I am not sure who I am, or what has got me to this point.
My memories help form my identity, not least my ‘spiritual’ memories – that is, those memories that have been faith-forming. They may be encounter with or experience of the God I follow; they may be more explorative – setting my mind to learn about what I believe.
My childhood memories, as for most of us, are snapshots or tableaus, not easily placed chronologically. But nonetheless they have great staying power, and they are formative in my faith journey.
Dear God, are you there?
I remember the window in my parents’ bedroom. In fact, there were two – huge sash windows that rattled ominously in winter gales. I remember light streaming through one of these windows as I asked my mother for a favour. I was seven. I had just been on a church camp where I had decided to make my own commitment to follow Jesus. The question in my mind was something along the lines of: Did God hear me?
I think it’s a question adults ask all the time, in the depths of their hearts. I asked it then, in the light of that huge window. I asked my mother to pray with me again – just in case. Just in case God hadn’t heard the first time.
I’m not sure why that memory sticks. Why is the window so central to the memory? Did we sit on its wide sill as we prayed? I can’t remember – not exactly. But I remember the need within me to know God had heard. I remember the desire I had to commit to following Jesus.
This memory tells me of something inside me that craved God from an early age. I was terribly sincere about it. I would read stories from the bible to our hamster, cat and black Labrador at Christmas because, well, it was important for them to know the ‘real meaning’, wasn’t it? Memories like that make me smile. Perhaps God smiled too?
There were other commitments, other stages beyond that ‘window moment’. From raising my hand for prayer in a Pentecostal church to lighting a candle in a Catholic cathedral. From learning with friends to sitting alone in my room, remembering to spend time drawing close to God when everything got too much (yes, I’m still learning that lesson).
Pebbles of promise
Another memory: this time at the beach, crouching behind a pebble ridge. I was making my statement to the world; I was making my choice. I was about to be baptised, under the waves. Oddly my memory dwells most on that moment behind the pebble ridge, as I prayed with my friend. I knew, suddenly, that after this there would be no turning back. For me, this was it. I was going to follow Jesus, and this was my promise. This was my vow.
I could feel myself quaking with the seriousness of it: this was my whole life, and I was about to commit it to God. I had no idea how much that ‘pebble-ridge moment’ would assume such great significance. I had no idea that later, at a time when the lights in life went out and I entered a time where faith was absent and all was darkness, the memory of that vow was all that kept me from giving up and running away from everything and everybody. I could not give up on Jesus – that promise was all I had.
God in the dark
Now, that darkness itself has become a formative memory for me. I was achingly empty. I saw myself as dangling over a deep, dark pit, with only a frayed rope to hold me. I was terrified. I kept on living on the outside while faith was ransacked on the inside. It wasn’t for days, or weeks, or even months. It was about three years that I seemed to dangle there, inching lower and lower.
Then one day the pain and the rage all got too much. I cried out to God – I can’t do this! I flung it all at him – rage, pain, indignation at the things in life that seemed spectacularly unfair and unmanageable. I let go of the rope.
I can’t say exactly how I did this, what mental action was taken, but it felt like a physical snap. Almost instantly, I felt the words. Again, I can’t say how I felt them, or how I knew that God was speaking.
These were the words: Ah. There you are.
I was completely disassembled. I had experienced emotional collapse. Now, squinting in the darkness, at the bottom of the pit, I discovered something. I’d got it all wrong. God wasn’t at the top of that ragged, fraying rope, waiting for me to get up to him with my tiny strength.
God wasn’t above me, chiding me for not climbing up, for not keeping the rope strong. He was below me, in the pit, waiting for me. Me – the way I was actually feeling, without all the coping mechanisms. Everything had spewed out of me in that one moment. Now, I had dropped into the darkness.
And found that God was in the dark.
God was there in the darkness, the everlasting arms below me – not above me. My predominant feeling was not the despair I thought I’d given myself up to, but relief.
It wasn’t a quick fix. Life didn’t suddenly become perfect or easy. But the terror had left me. I was not alone. God was with me, even in the darkest pit. In fact, it took the darkness for me to see again.
That memory, a window of discovery in darkness, is one of the most powerful I have.
This post originally appeared on the DLT books blog, publishers of Forgetful Heart. Find out more about Forgetful Heart here.
Image by Peter Miller, Creative Commons license