As I left the chiropractor’s office in an Atlanta suburb yesterday with my two young sons around 1:30 pm, I expected the drive home to take a little longer than usual – maybe an hour or more instead of the usual 25 minutes, due to the snowy weather.
I had no idea the drive ahead of us would last for over eight hours.
As snow began to fall around lunchtime in the Atlanta area, it seemed like everyone left work and schools let out early at the very same time, creating an instantaneous gridlock on highways and back roads all over the Atlanta area. We were lucky to make it home last night, as we found out this morning many people had not. Stories of people sleeping in Home Depots and schoolchildren sleeping in classrooms on gym mats were commonplace.
While an eight hour drive with a four year old and a four month old, when you are prepared for it, can be challenging, it becomes even more so when you are not expecting it and you are worried you might not make it home. Despite the challenges, though, I found there were a lot of lessons to be learned, especially about prayer and the spiritual life.
Over the past few weeks I have been reading Fire Within, by Fr. Thomas Dubay in which he explains and comments on St. Teresa of Avila’s masterpiece, the Interior Castle, where she describes the spiritual life of prayer using the analogy of a mansion with many rooms leading to the innermost room, where God himself dwells within us. In describing the second mansions, Fr. Dubay says, “the man or woman in the second mansions is a battleground where conflict between the world and the divine call is being waged.” The person in this mansion is still young and weak in the practice of virtue, and St. Teresa says that in order for prayer to grow in them, Gospel living must be perfected.
To these people, St. Teresa gives the following advice: choose companions who are further advanced in the mansions; embrace the Cross; accept God’s will in daily life; do not lose heart when you fall, but press forward; and finally, be faithful to prayer, for it is the door to heaven, and to all of the other mansions. I had just read this part of Fire Within yesterday morning, and I had a lot of time to think about these points as we spent eight hours either standing still in traffic or creeping along at a snail’s space towards home.
I found the first three to be especially applicable to the situation we found ourselves in and I concluded that they were lessons God was trying to get across to me despite my thick-headedness. I will leave the advice about choosing companionship for last, and focus first on embracing the cross and accepting God’s will in daily events. About St. Teresa’s advice to embrace the crosses we are given, Fr. Dubay points out, “Resignation is not enough; there must be a generous, willed welcome to hardships and dryness in prayer.” Well, if you are anything like me, you have enough trouble resigning yourself to inconveniences, even slight, and especially to real trouble in life, but the idea of generously desiring hardships or dryness in prayer seems almost out of reach. On our own, of course, it is. We have to pray for the grace to be able to do this, and to be brave enough to practice it when God gives us the opportunity.
St. Teresa’s exhortation to embrace the cross leads us to her next point – being faithful to God’s will in the events of every day life. St. Teresa wrote: “All that the beginner in prayer has to do . . . is to labour and be resolute and prepare himself with all possible diligence to bring his will into conformity to the will of God.” As humans, this may be one of the most difficult things in life. We love it when things go our way, when everything runs smoothly, and when we are not inconvenienced in the least. When faced with an undesirable situation our own powerlessness to control things in life is made very clear, but God still gives us the opportunity to choose to submit to His will, and to say, “I want this if it is Your will, God, and I thank you for what you are doing in my life by giving me this trial.”
Lastly, we come to St. Teresa’s advice about choosing one’s companions wisely. She says that it is important to associate not only with people who are in the first mansions, but those who are in the more advanced mansions, “nearer to the center” where God dwells, because they bring others to “higher things, along with themselves.” This point struck me in a particularly vivid way around 8:30pm last night, when we had been in the car for about seven hours, and we were only a few miles from home. Needless to say, I was anxious to get my sons home and in bed, and to see my husband, and I was thinking about how I should be just as anxious for heaven, when out of nowhere came an enormous Unimog, driving on the grass beside the highway. (For those of you who are not familiar with these vehicles, I have included the image above. Wikipedia says that “Due to their off-road capabilities, Unimogs can be found in jungles, mountains and deserts as military vehicles, fire fighters, and expedition campers. . .”) As soon as I saw it drive past, I decided, along with most of the other drivers who had four wheel drive vehicles, that I was going to follow that thing wherever it went. It was so massive and powerful looking and confidence inspiring, that I knew my best bet was to stay in the path it was making. If the driver of that Unimog was driving on the grassy shoulder, I was going to do the same.
It dawned on me that St. Teresa’s advice could be restated as “Follow the Unimogs of the spiritual life.” While the BMWs on the road last night were easy on the eyes, and no doubt luxurious and comfortable inside, they were not the cars I wanted to follow when we hit an icy patch, or when I was trying to find the best lane to be in. The Unimogs are the everyday saints that we encounter. They are the powerhouses of sacrifice and prayer, the men and women who live out their faith in ways, big and small, who live out their vocations generously, and who are taking the difficult but most direct way to heaven, even if that means driving over rough terrain. They are the people we should spend time with, for they are the ones on their way to heaven, and who are growing closer to God day by day.
* Please join me in praying for all those affected by the cold temperatures and icy road conditions, especially in Georgia and Alabama, for all the emergency workers, and the families of those who have died in weather-related deaths, may their souls and all the souls of the faithfully departed rest in peace.