saint sarah: in the middle of the night
"Let There Be Night," I had said to God. And for several more months, there was Night.
In July, in the middle of that Night, I took the train from Germany to Paris. I spent a long weekend in Paris before flying to Togo to spend three months working at the Hospital of Hope, a hospital that had just opened a few months before in a rural, remote town in the north of the country.
I stayed at the same hotel I always stay at when I'm in Paris. It's a building from the 1700's that has a small lobby with stone floors and a red velvet couch. There's no elevator, just a narrow, winding wooden staircase. The rooms are simple, with only a narrow bed, a wooden desk and a chest of drawers.
It's nothing fancy, but it was my 5th time staying there, so it felt a little like coming home.
I got a lot of rest. I ate some delicious food. I walked around my favorite spots....Luxembourg Gardens, L'Ouvre, Notre Dame.
On the day I was flying to Togo, I took a shuttle to the airport. As I watched Paris landmarks grow smaller and smaller and finally fade into the distance, I cried. I was like a little kid getting on the school bus for the first time, crying because she's not ready to leave home.
Not only did I not want to leave Paris; I didn't want to leave Paris for Togo. I was embarking on the riskiest thing I've ever done, and God felt absent.
God, can you talk to me? Say something. Say anything, I prayed as I leaned my head against the window.
Just then I heard a loud cracking sound from the back of the shuttle van and I was thrown forward. We'd been rear-ended by a car going at high-speed.
It was the first car accident I've ever been in in my life.
Thankfully no one was injured, but still. I didn't know if it was a special sign from God, or an omen -- a foreshadowing of worse things to come.
I flew from Paris to Ethiopia and then, after a two hour layover, from Ethiopia to Togo. I landed in Lome, the capitol city located on the coast. A driver was supposed to pick me up, take me to a guest house where we would spend the night, and then drive me up to Mango (a 9 hour drive) the following morning.
The driver was supposed to meet me at customs, but he wasn't there.
I spent 3 hours at the airport trying to figure out what to do next. My phone didn't work in Togo. I borrowed a phone from a girl who worked at the airport to call the numbers on the Emergency Contact list I'd been given. None of the numbers worked.
The airport's WiFi network was password protected. In tears, I finally got a guy who worked at the airport to put in the password for me.
I sent an e-mail to the missionaries and to the missions organization in the U.S. The e-mail literally took 15 minutes to send. It took another 15 minutes to be able to open the e-mail they sent in reply.
In the meantime, the guy who had tried to "help" me with my suitcase was following me around the airport, and kept trying to grab my bag from me. Then he yelled at me when I didn't give him a tip.
I sat on a bench outside and cried. I had been up all night, it was 120 degrees and the airport wasn't air conditioned, I couldn't get this guy to leave me alone, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do next.
Three hours later, a local pastor came and picked me up and drove me to the guest house. I ended up spending two nights there instead of one.
I asked the guest house staff if it was safe to for a walk by myself. They said no, it wouldn't be safe for a white American woman to walk the streets of Lome by herself.
There was a small patio, and I asked if it would be okay to sit outside to do some writing. They said sure, but beware that it had been an extra long rainy season, which had produced a higher-than-normal number of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
So for two days, I stayed in my room.
The downside was that I felt like I was on house arrest, held captive by a high crime rate and some pesky mosquitoes.
The upside was that with nothing else to do with my time, I began to write.
One of the discoveries I made as I was writing about the Darkness is that I had been mistaking silence for absence.
Just because I had gone a long time without hearing from God, it didn't mean he wasn't there.
I had assumed not only that silence was absence, but that silence was punishment. That silence was deprivation. That silence meant that I had done something wrong, or, worse, that God had done something mean.
I realized that assuming God was mad at me because of the Darkness and the silence was like a child thinking her parents are mad at her because, at bedtime, they turn off the lights and whisper, "Shhhh, no more talking."
In fact, it would be cruel for the parents not to be quiet. Constantly stimulating someone with sound, or talking to them 24-7, is actually a method of torture. Our brains and our bodies need quiet, darkness and rest in order to function well.
I began to accept the season I was in, even though I didn't like it and even though it felt like the worst possible timing in the world -- for God to feel most distant when I was embarking on a dangerous journey and needed him more than ever.
I began to rest.
Lots of Christians describe conversion as being "born again," the phrase Jesus used when he was talking to Nicodemus in John 3.
And maybe as we follow Jesus, we're born again over and over again, in ways that are big and small, as we are continually transformed to be more like him.
But in order for us to be born again, we first have to go through gestation again. It's like a child, who has experienced balloons and birthday cake and T.V. and footie pajamas choosing to give up all the comfort and stimulation of the world, climb back into the womb and sit in wet, warm, silent, lonely darkness until their parent calls to them, like Jesus to the grave of Lazarus, "Come Forth."
It's like a butterfly choosing to become a caterpillar again. Choosing to shed her colors, surrender the freedom of flight, crawl into a cocoon, fall completely apart, and lay in nothingness until the Creator begins to forge her new wings.
It requires trust and faith and patience and hope.
It requires being carried and sustained by unseen Divine Love.
And maybe this is what my friend meant when he said that we experience painful Darkness when there are places we haven't let Love go -- transformation we haven't let Love do.
For me, accepting this was, in a way, agreeing to it.
Amen -- may it be so. Or, in the words of Mary at the Annunciation, Be it unto me.
"Okay," I said to Love. "You can do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to do what you know is best for me."
"Okay," I said in the room of that Togo guesthouse, as I squished a mosquito on the wall, and a large spider on the floor, of the bathroom.
"Okay," I said, as I laid down to sleep that night.
"Okay," I said with my heart, mind, body and soul, trusting that the Love that had held and sustained me all my life was not going to abandon me now.