The Certainties and Upheavals of Life

As we embark on a new year, it is good to take a few minutes to reflect on the essential mystery of life. We begin our reflection with this classic definition of religion: mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery both disturbing and fascinating. Could we not say that life itself is a mystery both disturbing and fascinating?

When we see the smiling face of a small child, we are fascinated. When we experience a chance encounter that evolves into a life-long relationship, we are fascinated. When God feels very close to us, we are fascinated.

But when things don’t go as planned, we are disturbed. When we see a loved one in pain, we are disturbed. When God seems distant or absent, we are disturbed. Uncertainty can be so difficult for us, we sometimes take refuge in the familiar and the known. One family therapist put it this way: “Most people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.”

In her beautiful book, When the Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd says that a certain amount of insecurity or disturbance is not only inevitable in life, it is good for us. She writes: “Creativity flourishes not in certainty, but in questions. Growth germinates not in tent dwelling, but in upheaval. Yet the seduction is always security rather than venturing out.”

Kidd goes on to say that total security, however, eliminates risk. “And where there’s no risk, there is no becoming; and where there’s no becoming, there’s no real life. The real spiritual sojourners–the ones who touch the edges of life as well as the center–are people who risk, who let go.”

One of the clearest examples of a real spiritual sojourner was Mary at the Annunciation. She says to the angel, “Let it be done unto me according to your word.” Talk about risk! In saying those words, Mary let go of her old life and embraced a daring (and scarey!) new life. She utterly abandoned herself to the mystery of God’s designs.

As we bid farewell to 2019 and begin a new year, we do not know what lies ahead for us. This can be both fascinating and disturbing. We may be disturbed when we realize how little control we have over anything–our health, work, finances, loved ones, and current world situations. Such a realization can instill terror in our hearts and tempt us to retreat into a cave of our own making.

Father Ronald Rolheiser, many years ago, made a retreat under the direction of an elderly sister. He admits he tended to make cosmic tragedies out of ordinary setbacks. Sensing this, the sister gave him this little proverb: “Fear not, you are inadequate!” Rolheiser said, “It is healthy, humbling, and uplifting to accept the fact that we are not God and that we are not asked to be.” (On more than one occasion, I have had to remind myself: “There is only one messiah. And the messiah’s name is not Melannie!”)

Let us face the New Year, then, not with fear and trembling, but with hope and joyful fascination, trusting in our loving God who is the God of the past, the present, and the future.

I wish a very blessed and happy New Year for you and your loved ones!

How comfortable are you with uncertainty, ambiguity, and mystery in your life?

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the words of Sue Monk Kidd?

What are some of the risks you have taken in life? Did any of these risks result in greater growth and life for you?

PS: I will be making my annual retreat Jan. 4-12, and I ask for your prayers. During this week, I promise to hold all of you in my special prayer. I worked ahead so you’ll receive my blog as usual on Jan. 6. Thank you and God bless you!

The song for today is an “oldie but goody.” It is “The Love of God Will Rise Before the Sun” by the Dameans. The refrain is one I sing often–especially if I am worried about something in the future. The words are:

I know nothing of tomorrow except the love of God will rise before the sun (2x).

Nations shake and earth may quake and storm clouds tend to gather, troubles seem as dark as night. Shades of gloom and threats of doom I see; but I would rather watch the darkness fade in morning’s light. (refrain)

Come along and sing a song and fill the world with laughter. Trust in Him who’s worth the trust and then, with heads held high against the sky, we’ll take what comes and after smile to feel the warmth of love again. (refrain)

If you care to respond to anything in this reflection or share some of your thoughts on the new year, please do so below.

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  1. John E Hopkins on December 30, 2019 at 5:37 am

    Good morning, Sister Melannie and happy New Year to you, too.

    Your words, “retreat into the cave of our own making,” really resonate with me this morning. A cave offers a single view of the world, and if that single view — i.e, my view — is the only way I see the world, then, yes, I may be “certain” to see a bird fly by from time to time but never the glorious trees in which it nests.

    To play with Plato’s analogy: retreating into a cave of calcified certainty reduces the world — and us — to shadows.

  2. Mary J Danner on December 30, 2019 at 5:37 am

    Thank you Sister Melannie. I loved the song. What a great song to begin a new year. May God bless you with peace and good health in the New Year. I will remember you in prayer while you are on retreat.

  3. Denise on December 30, 2019 at 5:38 am

    Happy New Year Sister,
    I must admit I am intrigued by the numbers of this year, 2020. To me it signifies clarity, balance and it’s even. Twenty to the power of twenty, WOW!
    I am inspired by Sue Monk Kidd and am presently reading her collection of Guidepost writings. I agree with her above thoughts, especially calling out the seduction of security. As I age, I find I am not as creative nor as engaged with change and I am more accepting of settling. However God doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo . Every time I whine I’m tired He sends a care package that brings me to new places of understanding and doing. The thrill keeps me going!
    Happy New Year and His Blessings to all!

  4. Ed Johnson on December 30, 2019 at 5:53 am

    The birth of our firstborn, Elizabeth (Beth) in 1974 was a blessing, of course, but produced great anxiety for my wife and me. Beth, we were told, had Downs Syndrome. What was that? What did it mean? Why us? What about her future? Yes, struggles ensued over the years; still do. But blessings have abounded; still do, always will. And, as we came to know, realize, and accept, God was, and is, right there with us in our journeys. Sometimes it is easy to forget that fact; and it is indeed a fact. Always has been; always will be. Thank you for your thoughts, wisdom, and words. Blessings to you, and to all, in the new year.
    Ed J

  5. Thomas DeFreitas on December 30, 2019 at 6:00 am

    Sr Melannie, good morning, and all best wishes for the New Year!

    To answer the questions:

    I was always one, in youth and up to age 40, who needed “the right answer.” My Catholicism was a brittle adherence to rules, one or two of them especially. Or rather, the expectation that others would adhere to rules! I gave no one the benefit of the doubt. Life is too messy, sloppy, and mysterious (in other words, too human and too alive) for such an approach.

    A few small risks: agreeing, in 2012, to meet with a spiritual director who saw things differently than I did (she was a mainline Protestant progressive, and I was Catholic and quite conservative; we got along quite well, as it turned out, and worked together for four years!). Sending poems to magazines can be a risk (rejection!). Applying to be my town’s poet laureate (as I did in ’15: rejection, but I got to know who the other poets are around here!).

    And quitting drinking: perhaps a bigger risk than those previously mentioned. Not much needs to be said here, except that drinking was as familiar and as “safe” as an easy chair, Marty Crane’s recliner. My drinking wasn’t always calamitous in an obvious way. It was more like coastal erosion. To take life on life’s terms, edges unblunted, feelings unblurred: that can be arduous some days!

    Sincerest wishes for peace and light to you, Sr Melannie, and to everyone reading. Wow, 2020. Give me a minute to adjust to this!

    • John E Hopkins on December 30, 2019 at 7:06 am

      Love your honesty, Tom! Take care and have a great 2020. Keep writing!

      • Thomas DeFreitas on December 30, 2019 at 8:34 pm

        John, thank you so much. And you please do likewise!

  6. Mary N. on December 30, 2019 at 7:39 am

    The biggest risk I had to take was whenI had to leave an emotionally abusive marriage with my 2 little ones. While it was a bit surreal at first,I soon learned how faithful God was/is, helping me to make right choices and thankfully encouraging 2 younger brothers to step in to watch them when I needed to get away for a bit.

    There were certainly bumps in the road, some of them more like mountains, but I learned to rely on God and I must say both my children who are middle age adults, have become very caring people and we have a loving, trusting relationship that I am thankful for.

    I am a more understanding and compassionate person because of my life experiences.

    Now I am living with total mystery as I continue my journey through this life as an “elderly” person……somehow that doesn’t feel right to say, but I guess it is true…..but I feel eager to still participate in things I have a passion for and for that I say
    Glory be to God”

    So 2020 is upon us…..I remember when it was a TV show and seemed a long way off, but as one of you mentioned, it means perfect vision…..seeing clearly… can only hope that this may be prophetic!

    May all that is good be your gift for the new year,

  7. Shirley on December 30, 2019 at 8:50 am

    Happy New Year Sister Melannie! Prayers for your retreat! The song was great and I Love The refrain it is super! Hope you have many blessings in the New Year!

  8. Jean Canatsey on December 30, 2019 at 9:50 am

    My two biggest risks in life were probably my marriage (63 years ago ) at 16 to a “man” who was barely 19 (probably about the ages of Mary and Joseph) and the difficult decision 35 years later to uproot from our rural Indiana life with our youngest child and follow him to the suburbs of Orlando, Florida. (Makes me think of the Holy Family’s journey into Egypt.) The only certainty in either case was that
    “The love of God will rise before the sun.”
    This morning I find myself praying for the safety of a couple’s unborn child and for the health and safety of a son. The only assurance I have is, “The love of God will rise before the son.”
    Sister Melannie, please pray for Marla & Josh and for Scott.

  9. Pam on December 30, 2019 at 10:21 am

    Love the song!

  10. Chris on December 30, 2019 at 11:38 am

    I turned 75 yesterday, so for me this song is a birthday gift. I plan to play it at the end of my morning meditation for the next year!
    The gardener in me was first drawn to your blog by the title; now I look forward to reading your insights each week. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and sense of joy and gratitude.

  11. Patty on December 30, 2019 at 1:20 pm

    Sister – Wishing you a Happy and Blessed 2020.

  12. Tom on December 30, 2019 at 5:33 pm

    What a wonderful way to begin a new year, by making a retreat! May every moment be blessed, preparing you for another year of bringing the light of Christ to all of us.

  13. Kathie Turk on December 31, 2019 at 9:22 am

    As I read this I’m gazing out my window into the woods behind my property. Its snowing, which can be both beautiful and concerning. But, the squirrels are out there romping around in it. They are drawing me out of my cave in spite of what may be concerning me and reminding me that romping in the circumstances of my life is what God asks of me. Besides they look like they are having a lot of fun!

  14. Kathryn Mann on December 31, 2019 at 10:44 am

    Thank you for your words that speak to my heart!…Happy New Year and may God bless you all year long!…..kathy

  15. karen on December 31, 2019 at 3:30 pm

    I am always inspired by your reflections. In this one, I love these two: “Most people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.” and
    “Fear not, you are inadequate!”
    I took on a totally new position (one that I did not exactly seek out) in April 2018, and it has been a consistent opportunity for growth as well as a challenge for me, who often prefers the ‘certainty of misery’.
    Thank you and Happy New Year!

  16. Christie J Banks on January 2, 2020 at 1:22 pm

    Just an observation regarding the translation of the word “tremendum” as “disturbing”. As used in this phrase, the correct translation would be closer to “awesome” or “awe-inspiring”, (cf Rudolf Otto, et al.) The same problem occurs frequently with the term usually translated as “God-fearing”. The term often mistranslated as “fear” is more properly “awe”. While awe often contains disturbing and/or fearful elements, the main meaning (and experience) is quite different. The intertwined mysteries of God and life are truly awesome and awe-inspiring, not to be feared and, if approached with openness and reverence, not disturbing but, to the contrary, uplifting and even, quite often, blissful, well beyond any ordinary happiness or joy. (Read the works of any mystic. Of any and all religions.) If we approach God and life with awe instead of fear, we are automatically closer to understanding and experiencing a bit more of the truth(s) of God (Who is beyond full understanding by definition) and life (which we experience constantly but usually without anything more than a passing surface awareness). Some even conjoin an ongoing awesome and blissful experience of God throughout their ongoing experience of life, (cf the Baal Shem Tov and Hazrat Khan, among others). Of course, that does take a bit of practice, but well worth it. Just a thought.

  17. Patty on January 3, 2020 at 4:02 pm

    Sister – After reading your e-column, I bought Ms. Monk Kidd’s book: The Heart Waits. Thank you.

  18. Stan Davisson on January 4, 2020 at 8:33 am

    Sister Melannie, thank you for starting my 2020 Saturday mornings off right! I really enjoyed your reflections today and the comments by your readers were terrific. My wife Teri suggests that Kathie who wrote about the squirrels should go to her library and get a book by Nancy Rose called the Secret Life of Squirrels. It’s a picture book for ages two and up, in our case way up. Every adult she has ever showed it to enjoyed it a lot. Please keep up your important work. I look forward to “seeing” you next Saturday morning. Stan

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