“So there I was. Alone at the flagpole. In the rain.”
The perfect opening for Addie Zierman’s memoir, When We Were on Fire. She is fifteen, “foggy on the difference between alone and lonely,” but so “on fire for God” that she stands in the rain, by herself, reveling in her strong faith.
What she didn’t know? Her friends were inside the school the whole time. As she wrote looking back on that day, “I thought I was choosing something extraordinary. I thought it would all turn out differently.”
But she was alone. And her fire would only stay lit for so long. Under the downpour of so many clichés and cut off from the fresh air of an honest, questioning faith, it was bound to go out.
In When We Were On Fire. Zierman tells the story of how her faith burned bright, but then flickered out. How she groped through the darkness of doubt and depression. And how she found light after a dark night of the soul that lasted a whole year. It is a beautiful, poignant, agonizing, and uplifting story.
Addie Zierman and I lived very different lives, separated by a generation as well as by a culture. Our high school years were a decade apart, and while hers were spent in a evangelical Christian bubble, mine were spent in the secular world that that her bubble was meant to guard against. Had we been the same age and had we crossed paths in the same high school, she would have viewed me with pity and I would have viewed her with ridicule.
We both would have missed a person made in God’s image, and we both would have missed the similarity of our paths.
There are two broad ways in which people come to God. There’s the dramatic Damascus Road conversion, where the deluded sinner races down the path to destruction, is knocked on his butt by God, and then sees the error of his ways, gives his life to the Lord and—flash forward—lives happily ever after in heaven. That’s a great story. it fits as well in a three-act play as it does in the “three-minute testimony.”
But that’s not a lot of people’s stories. It’s not mine and it’s not Addie’s either.
There’s another story. It’s called Perseverance. It’s not neat and clean. It can’t be broken down into tidy bullet points.
- Your life BEFORE Christ (“I once was lost …”)
- How you came to know Christ. (“… but now am found …”)
- Life AFTER you received Christ. (“… was blind but now I see.”)
Instead it’s the story of how you’ve always believed, how you’ve always struggled, and how you continue to believe and struggle at the same time. No clear-cut before and after. It’s all during. It’s messy. It’s life.
And in the hands of a talented writer, it is beautiful, and a far better story.
In a strange way, it was my story too. It took me three decades to nail down just one pivotal moment out of many that put me on the path to the Catholic Church. It wasn’t the rather shallow born-again experience I had at sixteen. That lasted a few months, perhaps, before I realized it was nothing but an empty prayer to me. It didn’t speak to my experience of God, it ignored the rich Anglican tradition I was raised in, however nominally, and it dismissed the deep sacramental reality that my tradition was rooted in. It would take me another three decades to find that reality in its fullest expression. My dark night lasted a lot longer.
But as Jesus said, “he who perseveres to the end shall be saved.” —Matthew 24:13.
My point—as I keep going off on tangents—is this. In her own faith journey, Zierman had to go through a similar darkness before she found the light of a renewed faith. She had to “persevere until the end” and go to the deepest, darkest places in her soul, before she could find her way out. Like all Christians do at some point she had to walk her own Via Dolorosa—like we Catholics do every Lent—and enter the tomb, before she could rise to the light of Easter. And like the cycle of church year, she will probably go through it again, stumbling through new crises of faith. I pray that, like the church year, these upcoming struggles are a remembrance of the struggle already fought and won.
In the Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton wrote that “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” And who shows us the way out of the grave, and into the dawn of the first Easter morning. Like the traditional Icon of the Resurrection, where the risen Christ pulls Adam and Eve—and all of us—up by our wrists.
That’s the story of Christ and the story of every Christian. It’s an ongoing story that only ends when we see him face to face and a new story we can’t possibly imagine begins.
For now, let’s live our own stories and tell them to one another. Let that be our witness.