Sunday, 12 February 2012

Limbo or Serenity?

This is a short extract from "Have a Little Faith" a book by Mitch Albom. It is set over an 8 year period and explores the lives of two extraordinary men. One the author's childhood Rabbi Albert Lewis and the other is a former drug addict and criminal Henry Covington who spends his time serving a community of primarily homeless people, alcoholics and addicts in a run down old church. The extract is from a sermon delivered by the Rabbi.

“A man seeks employment on a farm.  He hands his letter of recommendation to his new employer.  It reads simply, `He sleeps in a storm.’

The owner is desperate for help, so he hires the man.

Several week pass, and suddenly, in the middle of the night, a powerful storm rips through the valley.
Awakened by the swirling rain and howling wind, the owner leaps out of bed.  He calls for his new hired hand, but the man is sleeping soundly.

So he dashes off to the barn.  He sees, to his amazement, that the animals are secure with plenty of feed.  He runs out to the field. He sees the bales of wheat have been bound and are wrapped in tarpaulins.  He races to the silo.  The doors are latched, and the grain is dry.

And then he understands.

 `He sleeps in a storm.’

My friends, if we tend to the things that are important in life, if we are right with those we love and behave in line with our [beliefs], our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfulfilled business.  Our words will always be sincere, our embraces will be tight.  We will never wallow in the agony of `I could have, I should have.’  We can sleep in a storm.

And when it’s time, our good-byes will be complete.”

...I recommend this book...

As I mentioned in my last blog I am a very deep sleeper. I was apparently like this as a child. It would appear that this is my natural state.

My mother often recounts a tale of me wanting to watch Brendan Foster run in the 1976 Olympics. She promised me if I went to bed early she would wake me up when the race began late at night. I was only four years old at the time. She tells me that she found it virtually impossible to wake me, but she persevered and eventually I awoke and watched the race. I wept at the end as my cheering him on did not lead to his victory; he only won a bronze medal for finishing third. Brendan Foster was my first sporting hero. I have had to overcome many sporting disappointments since. My heroes rarely come in first it would seem.

As a child I slept well, but this changed as I moved into my teenage years and young adulthood. By my mid twenties this got progressively worse. I could not sleep sober, my mind never stopped, it was over laden with worry, concern and regret. This only changed as I found faith, as I found spiritual connection to a power greater than myself and began to live by spiritual disciplines. This of course did not take any of the problems away, but it seemed to take the weight off them and reduced them to right size. My mind has never spun uncontrollably since.

Now I’m not saying I never have disturbed sleep, of course I do. From time to time it takes me a while to process things. I can get caught up in worry and resentment, but not for very long.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense.”

One of the disciplines that I attempt to follow each day is to put my day to bed before I put myself to bed; I put my mind to bed, before putting my body to bed. On the whole it works very well. I reflect over my day meditatively and then spend a short time in prayer. Ever since I began to practise this simple discipline the insomnia has gone away. Of course sometimes I don’t do this as carefully as I could and interestingly it is often on these occasions that I find it harder to settle down.

This is not an easy practise to get into and of course patience and persistence is required. Results do not usually come over night. As I’ve said in a previous blog “Wax on Wax off” from the Karate Kid, always helps me to maintain spiritual disciplines. Patience and discipline is required and slowly results do come. We may not notice them immediately, but they can and do come.

I do love that little story above, from “Have a Little Faith”, The man sleeps in the storm because he has taken care of what he can take care of; he sleeps soundly at night because he has done all that he can during the day. This to me is the essence of faith, well actually to put it accurately it’s the essence of faith and works, taking care of what is our business and trusting that the universe will take care of the rest. We cannot control the wind, but we can usually set our sails accordingly. I love this simple, open and honest humility.

This brings the words of the serenity prayer to my mind “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” If only we could all find the wisdom to know the difference.

I love the serenity prayer for many reason, but primarily because it is humble, honest and open. It is not a petition demanding that the universe conform to our will, instead it is asking for guidance and strength to do our part and to see what our part is, while also accepting the realities of the world in which we live. Finally it also points to the fact that we need to discover the wisdom to know what our stuff is, what our stuff is not and what is in our power to change.

It is not a passive prayer about simply accepting the status quo, quite the opposite. I see a lot of faith and works in these words. It is a prayer about seeking out what we can do and doing it. It brings to my mind those words from Edward Everett Hale that became my Lenten meditation last year:

 “I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything; but still I can do something: and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” No it’s definitely a prayer about doing what you can, but it is also about accepting your individual human limits and not playing God. Of course it is not always easy to keep faith and to simply keep doing what one needs to do day by day, especially when the storms of life hit us.

We should never confuse serenity with passivity or lack of care. It is not a state of limbo. I see limbo as a state of self protection, where there is no faith and no room for God. In Catholic theology it is a state preserved for the innocents. If we translate this into our lives as we actually live them it seems to be a frozen state where there is no life. It is a state ruled by fear and not faith. Limbo is the fear of going out, because we are not certain that we will enjoy ourselves; Limbo is staying silent over an injustice, because we don’t know if anyone will listen to us; Limbo is expecting the wind of change to blow in our direction, instead of setting our sails accordingly; Limbo is fleeing from life just because it is becoming uncertain and or a little out of our control; Limbo is for people who will postpone a decision or action until they are absolutely certain that it will work out in their favour; Limbo is procrastination, it’s what we put off until tomorrow, what we could have taken care of today: Tomorrow does not yet exist; Limbo is a lifeless state where nothing exists; Limbo is the domain of the zombie and not the human.


I have a confession to make. I can be very impatient, especially when it comes to those inbetween moments when I’m waiting for something to happen. It doesn’t seem to matter if I’m waiting to hear good news or waiting to start on a new adventure; or whether I’m waiting to hear something that is potentially awful, that would put a stop to my plans. I do not like waiting on the cusp of things. More than anything this tests my faith. I’m fine in the middle of a crisis I can stay calm in the storms of life and set my sails accordingly. My problem is during those inbetween days when I have to wait and there is nothing I can do about a situation. I don’t suppose I am alone in this. I want to push, I want to impose my will and it only causes trouble. I am getting better at this though, progress not perfection as they say.

Faith alone cannot build that commonwealth of love that I’m sure we all desire for our worlds, on both a micro and macro scale. Human salvation requires human action. As it says in James 2 v 17, “Faith without works is dead” We are responsible for the world in which we live. That said it is important that we accept our human limits as well as our potential. This though is not about simply passively accepting life as it is, that this is somehow how it is meant to be. When I look at my world and my own life, there is much that I and we have done to create our troubles. Accepting our limits is not about accepting the status quo; it is about accepting that we cannot do everything though, humility is essential. That said there is much we can do. It is also about clearing up after ourselves each and every day and having faith in the simple spiritual principles that are there within all the great faith traditions of human history.

And do you know what this all starts with a good night’s sleep, which I have discovered only comes if I have taken care of everything that I can, both in the physical, mental and spiritual sense.

We can all become men and women who sleep through the storms.

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful :) I've been struggling with sleep lately and I've taken a leap of faith and now my sleep is improving. I was also told by a Chinese acupuncture doctor that all my problems in life stem from not getting enough sleep and exceeding my limits. So it was interesting that you talk about sleep and limits in one blog as these have been two things that I've been trying to get right. I always had such strong faith. I'd pray and things would happen. I felt it and so did friends from all various religious and non religious backgrounds. Reading your blog has helped me realise that the things I have been praying for, and continuing to suffer with - required action. Wanting to be healthy, yet not doing my bit. Not wanting to be frustrated and in pain at work - yet not reaching for a new career (far too frightening! ). Wanting to not be lonely any more, yet not reaching out to others. I realise that the answer to my prayers is at the other end of my faith. They used to come instantly, but now I have to have a much bigger faith, which requires action. You've really helped me to see that, thank you so very much :)

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