It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. --Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
In some ways, it feels like Dickens could be writing this story now instead of during the French revolution. The book has themes of conflict between family, and love and human prosperity and poverty. There are scenes of chaos and despair juxtaposed against moments of happiness. The story unfolds with paradox and duality.
To be sure, the injustices and suffering in the world must be addressed. It is vastly important to do what we can for justice and mercy to prevail. But at a deeply spiritual level, what if we could begin to look at situations of suffering and conflict as times of potential transformation, opportunity, and connectedness? Some situations of great suffering happen against our will. We do not necessarily choose those times. Much of life is out of our control. However, when we wrestle with pain, if we refuse to let it teach us and transform us, then we risk passing our pain onto others or even the next generation.
Major change or suffering can lead us down the path of becoming bitter or isolated. The flip side is that it can help us to become more empathetic, compassionate, open, and wise. Father Richard Rohr says that he believes the line in the "Our Father" prayer that says, "deliver us from evil" does not necessarily mean we are asking to avoid suffering (which is impossible). He says that he understands it to mean that when big trials come, we are asking God to hold us and protect us from turning bitter or full of blaming. Instead, what we hope for is an opening and softening of our hearts.
Lately, I have been enthralled with the seasons of all the prickly pear cactus. These plentiful plants, all around my Texas home, are not to be tangled with lightly. Just ask Hunny, our deer-chasing, bunny-chasing hound. It is a frustrating and difficult task to remove the prickly pear thorns and little stickers that match the color of her blonde fur after one of her full-on pursuits. But if seen from a different point of view, those thorny cacti bring gifts of beauty and benefit. First comes the buds, then the flowers, then the fruit—all the while full of sticky encounters.
I love all the beautiful colors--pinks, oranges, purples! It is a wonder to me that something so thorny and difficult to handle is so lovely. If one is willing, harvesting the sticky fruit can provide delicious jelly and even prickly pear juice for health or margaritas. Prickly pear has magnesium, vitamin C, potassium and calcium. From ancient Indigenous people to modern day health enthusiasts, the prickly pear's benefits can help with immune system health. At first glance, these thorny plants seem a terrible nuisance but with effort and care, there are wonderful gifts.
Perhaps, if I want my life to have even more meaning and purpose, I need to see the connectedness of all that is and embrace the harshness of life in a way that softens my heart. Therein, I can learn and be transformed. I can become a flowering soul when I allow a deeper kind of consciousness to bloom even from limitations and troubles. Bitter or better? Bust or benefit? Today, I am asking the prickly pear to teach me about holding difficult, sticky things as my teachers. Without a doubt there is a good work happening in me in that liminal space. Prayer: Help me, Oh Lord, to open and soften my heart to all that can be while living with care in compassionate ways in the worst of times and in the best of times. Thank you for the great teachers in my life---even the prickly pear and all its thorns. Amen.