The Persian poet Rumi once said that “the wound is the place where the light gets in.” Musician Leonard Cohen meant much the same in his Anthem lyrics:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There’s a crack, a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
The moment we fall down and scrape our skin on the pavement is the precisely the instant that we are invited to open our hearts to something bigger than ourselves. We see a path that wasn’t visible before. We access a truth we didn’t know before. We know with a new conviction that we are held together by a loving God and will never be broken beyond repair. The fate of Humpty Dumpty is not ours.
“The worst thing that could ever happen would be for everything to go right,” writes Father Jacques Philippe in his book Interior Freedom, “for that would be the end of our growth.”
Trials do one of two things: render us bitter or make us wiser. Failures shave off the protective layer of ourselves, making us more vulnerable. We can shut down in fear, closing ourselves off from the world. Or we can allow the pain to open us in new ways, to pave the way to a fresh resilience.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul complains of a thorn in his flesh. He pleads with the Lord three times to remove it. God practices tough love and replies, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” That’s all Paul needs to hear to instantly adjust his attitude. He professes to the people of Corinth: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me….For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
This passage is powerful for me because it reminds me of a rainy morning about 15 years ago. I knelt in church pleading with God to replace my ultra-sensitivity with a laid-back temperament. I asked him to dull the sharp edges of my personality and grant me an ability to brush off the disappointments of life. Like other people do. I told him I was done feeling everything so deeply. I was tired of being the delicate and complex human being He created. I wanted to be someone else.
Not even five minutes later, a woman rose to the lectern and read this passage.
Paul believes the thorn served the purpose of keeping him humble. Perhaps mine does, too, although I don’t think God goes around pricking everyone to prevent pride. I believe the thorn forces strength in the way that lifting weights do. When we challenge our muscles with higher levels of resistance they tear. The body works to repair the damaged fibers by fusing them, which increases muscle mass. It’s called muscle hypertrophy.
Muscle hypertrophy is what Paul was referring to in another letter when he said, “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:4). Our pain initiates our first visit to the spiritual gym, where we lift the weights of virtues such as justice, temperance, and prudence. If we stick to our routine, we build character, which eventually brings us to hope.
Living “Sin Cere”
According to a popular legend, dishonest sculptors in 16th-century Rome and Greece would use wax to fill in the cracks of marble to make the surface appear solid. The wax would disintegrate right after the sculpture was made so the stonecutters began to stamp blocks of authentic marble with the Latin words, Sine Cere, or “without wax.”
I believe that we are called to live “sin cere” or “without wax.” The tough part of our vocation is to resist the urge to remedy our fractures with artificial glue — like professional accolades or financial success or thrills that feed our endorphins and then make us crash. Holiness consists of filling in our cracks with things that stand the test of time.
Setbacks remind us of the powerful glue that we have in our faith. Humiliations make us turn to the grace that is available at all times.
Falling down forces the humility that is needed for the light to shine through our lives.