Gimme a Sign

How I Flunked Sainthood and Learned to Love the Absurd

Hong Kong (2007)

Trips go better with good signs. Any traveler will attest to this, regardless of dependence on GPS or turn-by-turn Mapquest instructions. Besides accurate maps, we rely on clear signs to point us in the right direction.

My good friend Saint Ignatius was a keen observer of life. In his Spiritual Exercises he outlined a map for pilgrims going to the New Jerusalem, offering guidance that ensures sticking to the right road. His “discernment of spirits” is a lot like learning road signs, like the ones tested for at every DMV across the country. Discernment is a way of looking at interior and exterior signs and understanding what they mean. (I recommend you read Ignatius’ Exercises or his modern interpreters to understand more about this major concept in Ignatian spirituality. A few possibilities: James Martin, SJ; William Barry, SJ; and Timothy Gallagher, OMV.)

My experience of discernment, especially during critical situations, is like the neon sign that pointed the way in the Hong Kong night. The sign stood out in the dark, there was an arrow pointing the way, it’s just that I hadn’t a clue about what it meant.

Last night my friend Rob called. Our current circumstances are very similar and we have the freedom to speak the complete truth about what’s happening and how we feel about it all, while we scratch our heads to figure out what God is up to and ask ourselves what it means. We had just such a conversation, he while walking in his New York neighborhood and me in a parking lot in front of Whole Foods and Barnes & Noble where I intended to walk around.

I outlined my current situation (no income for about a year, no money, soon no home, no options, blah blah blah) which has caused sleepless nights, stomach problems, anger, irritation, anxiety and tears … all this in spite of having faith. What would this situation be like if I didn’t? “It looks bad for the home team,” I said. “It’s a tie game at the bottom of the ninth, bases are loaded with two outs. God’s at bat.” Indeed, at the moment things look bad. It appears God has not kept his promises. Rob understood. Things don’t look so good for him, too.

Then we laughed. Almost uncontrollably. Our situations are preposterous. Laughter is one of the few appropriate responses, far better than our natural inclinations that swiftly remove us from the sainthood track.

In recounting the most recent plot twist that moves my personal narrative into the realm of the absurd, that of having the last viable option for housing closed with only a few days to go, I remembered words from Streams In the Desert, an old devotional that remains as vital today as when it was written in 1925. “… [When] all choices [are] removed, … the only choice has now become the purpose of God. … [We] can now let the circumstances be what they may, and continue to seek only God and His will, with the calm assurance that He is causing everything in the universe, whether good or bad, past or present, to work ‘for the good of those who love him.’ (Romans 8:29)”

Just like the neon sign in Chinese, I can’t make out what the current signs in my world are pointing to. God is once again using a foreign language that I don’t know. What I do know is: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me.” (Psalm 138:8) That’s enough to go on.

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