by Linda Ryan
I have a small book of quotations I’ve come across at various times and on various topics. It was inspired by Jan Karon’s Patches of Godlight: Father Tim’s Favorite Quotes which gave me the idea to begin my own favorite quotes book. I used one of those little black-and-white composition books, small enough to put in a pocket and have added to it periodically over the years. There are barely five unused pages left, and I have a second little book just like the first waiting to be put into use.
This morning I wanted to find a quote to write about so I began looking for my little book which is always somewhere either on or close to my desk. I couldn’t find it. I searched various piles of papers, books and magazines to no effect. I moved the calculator and the small pile of cards to be sent out but again, to no avail. So I resorted to my go-to implement, a small but bright flashlight. It took a few more minutes but I located the little book. Then it came to me: the flashlight was helpful not just for shining light on what I was looking for but gave me an epiphany as well. I could see many things with the available light of my desk lamp, but by using a small flashlight it concentrated my focus on only a few things at a time. An overwhelming task had been reduced to a small focused one, and it worked. I found what I was looking for and in very short order.
Then I began to think about what a flashlight does. It creates a beam of light that helps illuminate things. If I walk around in the dark where there are no lights, On every episode of CSI, the team begins their investigation by clicking on flashlights and, even in fairly bright areas, they find tiny clues that lead to the solution of a crime. There’s never an area so bright that it can’t use a little more light.
I can stumble over things that I would have seen had there been more light. A flashlight helps prevent that stumbling. It puts light in dark corners of the closet where things I had forgotten about were stashed or perhaps hiding. It shows me where the vacuum has missed small masses of cat-lace (hair shed by my boys which hides under chairs and tables and sometimes sits defiantly in the middle of the floor) and also the toy for which they’ve been groping under a chest or media rack. It makes what was difficult or impossible to see visible, and it forces me to focus on a small area. Perhaps that’s the word I’m looking for — focus.
I remember when I had panic attacks. It was an effort even to breathe and making a decision as to what I was supposed to be doing was almost impossible. I had written an essay on mental health issues that referenced panic attacks and gave some clues on how to get through them. It had to be a God-thing in that I remembered some of those tips several years later and in the throes of something that had just been a subject to write about. The major tip was to focus — focus on the next thing that had to be done. The first step to focus on was taking a breath, then another one. From there the next thing was to stand up, then walk to the kitchen. By focusing on one small thing at a time, I got through the 20 minutes or so that, if I remembered correctly, was about the length of the average panic attack. When I was thinking about the flashlight today I remembered the whole episode and thought how similar that remembering to focus was so much like using my flashlight to illumine one small area.
Then I started thinking about faith. What exactly is it, where did I learn it and how does it affect me and my life? That’s a big question because faith encompasses a whole range of beliefs — who is God, what is God, who is Jesus, who is the Holy Spirit, what roles do they play in my faith, etc. In Education for Ministry (EfM) before our last curriculum change, we had an exercise that attempted to nail down precisely what it was that each of us believed, why we believed it and where we had learned it. We referred to it as the Grid because it began as a table with a number of columns, each with a specific word like “God.”. Under each column heading was a series of questions, each in its own block under that topic and those questions asked for specific answers. When I worked on it as a student, I put six solid weeks of thought into it and still never finished the exercise. I did it again when I became a mentor, and still never finished it. It isn’t really part of our new curriculum and that is a relief, in a way. I’m also sorry to see its demise because I think it was a great exercise, just maybe too daunting in its depth. But then, wasn’t the whole purpose to gain depth? To use a kind of flashlight to lighten up the dark corners?
It’s easy to recite the historic creeds on a Sunday morning but if someone asks me what a precise phrase means and why I believe it, I have to stumble around and try to come up with the answer. I think maybe I need more flashlight work when it comes to that subject. Like CSI, I need to focus on small areas and not be overwhelmed by the larger issues.
Maybe being able to explain my faith isn’t something that will change the world or even solve one of its myriad problems, but then, I have to remember that as huge as the world’s problems are, individuals and groups shining the equivalent of flashlights on small areas have helped to change things, whether things solely of faith or where faith intersects good works.
The world could use a little more light in a great many places.