By Stars, by Candle
Before beginning to write today, I closed my eyes & slowly said, God, please take everything out of my mind that doesn’t need to be there for this moment. Please help me know what to write—and help me know You are enough.
My freshman year of college had some rough patches. I suddenly felt far too introverted to be tossed into a large university, & I didn’t want to have to join a sorority to make friends. My boyfriend of nearly two years was going to school back home and was one of the biggest jerks I had ever met. I still have no idea why I dated him for a single day. It wasn’t that he was outright mean or cruel. He was actually very charming & pursued my sixteen-year-old heart more than anyone had in high school. It’s hard being a people pleaser though when your boyfriend demands too much of you. I’m also way better at forgiving others than I am myself, which works out for people who need a handful of second chances. He knew I was naïve, and he knew I trusted far too easily, and he used that to his advantage. He quickly began stealing bits of my body, always without question, without discussion. And when I cried later, somehow he always managed to make me feel like I was this delusional idiot, making absurdity out of the normal. Things never progressed to sex because I had made it clear in the beginning that was off limits. Side note: When you have to voice that rule off the bat, things are probably not looking too promising. But that’s what I knew to do. All this grey matter in the middle was new to me, but as long as the forbidden remained forbidden, I hoped I was doing okay. He kept inching his way closer, and the wrestling in my soul grew stronger, until finally God’s gracious spirit said, Wake up, honey. This relationship is killing you. I broke up with him on a December night that freshman year. I think it might have been in my parents’ front yard. I gave him back the promise ring he had given to me the year before. It was a ring I thought symbolized true love, a sign that he respected me & longed for my heart. It turns out though that a ring can simply be a ring.
It’s strange, really. I have never been a closed off person, but I guarantee nobody knew any part of what was going on during that time. It was as if since I wasn’t in control of our relationship, I didn’t want to claim responsibility for it. All the other areas of my life stayed in tiptop shape and not in a fake way. My grades were good, my family relationships were strong, and I really felt good about where I was with God. I was surrounded by adults who loved Jesus, and I stayed on their heels, wanting to be just like them. I loved chapel and singing worship songs to my creator. Serving people was something I loved doing and longed to do more. This little black hole in my life just stayed completely separated from everything else because I had no idea how to handle it and for some reason felt incapable to talk to anyone about it.
My roommate our freshman year of college was such a dear friend, and we had loads of laughs as well as deep, beautiful discussions together. She never knew any of what was going on with this guy until I told her the next year. It turns out I was pretty good at keeping secrets, even if I wasn’t trying to.
The summer after freshman year, I was sitting with my parents, watching Anne of Green Gables, & I felt the wheels start turning. Before the movie was over, I announced I was transferring schools. More specifically, I knew I would be going to Hardin-Simmons, a tiny university in West Texas. I never planned to go to this school. I had visited it once or twice for orchestra competitions, but I had zero friends there, and it was in WEST TEXAS, for crying out loud.
My parents were convinced I needed more time to think. I never made decisions quickly, and there had been zero talk of switching schools. There are times of transition in our lives when we beg for a sign, a sense of urgency, or just a flat out answer to guide us. This was one of those times for me, and I couldn’t ignore this feeling of absolutely certainty in my heart. Classes started in just a few short weeks, and I was actually going to Disney World with a friend for her birthday during that time. I think I was told of my official acceptance from the Admissions office over the phone while in line for Splash Mountain. I was on my way to school with my car packed before I was even secured a dorm room or schedule.
I was supposed to be done with English classes, but for some reason I had to take this Basic English course my first semester. I fell in love with my professor. She offered me a job in the writing center, and I probably bothered her in her office way too much. One day when I was in there for probably no reason at all, she handed me a book & said, I think you should read this. It was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve always loved books, but it’s when you get that book at just the right moment and it changes your life and you think, Did I even love reading before this?
The second phase of the author’s trip and story was India (the pray phase of Eat, Pray, Love). The scene that continues to stand out the most to me involved a plumber/poet and a tall, dark tower in the midst of an ashram. The man had handed Elizabeth Gilbert a piece of paper that read Instructions for Freedom when she unfolded it, and he showed her to the open roof of the tower where she could focus on those instructions. I was craving some instructions, and I was craving freedom. The relationship with the guy may have ended, but I was still sick— sick with regret towards myself and sick with anger at him. I was more than willing to follow my favorite plumber/poet and imitate Liz to find peace. She had the stars of India, but I was in my bedroom in Abilene, so I lit my favorite candle of black wax and spicy aroma and turned off the light.
I set the candle on the floor and breathed in deeply just as instructed. I desperately hoped my roommates wouldn’t be home anytime soon so I could go on being brave and vulnerable in my tiny space. Eyes closed, I began to talk. I told God I was sorry….sorry for making bad choices and for thinking I could separate them from Him. I was sorry for still holding on to it all. I told Him I was mad at this guy for everything he had done, not just physically but the way he had abused my heart. I shifted my focus and told the guy, as if he was standing right there, all the things I wished I could have said to his face. I told him he was wrong for treating me that way. I told him I had trusted him to love me but instead, he had just hurt me and made me feel like trash. I didn’t feel a surge of anger as I spoke these words– it was very much a time of release and simply allowing myself to be vulnerable. I focused again on God and told Him I needed to move on. I needed to forgive myself and forgive this guy if I was to build this beautiful life I was dreaming of. So I did. I told the guy I forgave him, and I meant it. I told him I forgave myself, and I meant it. I told him all my future thoughts of him would be very few and far between but when I did think of him, those thoughts wouldn’t be harmful. Rather, they would be thoughts of grace. I didn’t want a sad life for him but a beautiful one. And then I lay there and just soaked it in, soaked in my candle.
And life moved on.
There was nothing magnanimous about anything I had said or done. But we rarely have anything to do with the greatness of what happens in our circumstances. The Spirit of God reminded me what prayer meant. It was the Spirit that made beauty of ashes in that moment because while before it felt absolutely impossible to let go of that tired relationship, in those moments of lying on the floor, forgiveness felt like the most natural thing—both towards the guy and myself. I never once concocted lies about who I was or what people would think of me. My heart was finally resting in the Spirit I belong to, and there was freedom.
My thoughts became mine again, fed from a holy place and not from a pit of despair. I became thankful, not necessarily for the experience in its entirety, but for learning how to respond in a way that grows instead of destructs.
When someone hurts you, it makes you question every facet of who you are as a human being. You wonder if you’ve been getting it wrong this whole time, this life thing. You wonder what people would think of you if they knew, but worse, you think very little of yourself. There doesn’t seem too much of a window for recovery so you grieve a bit and think about all the things you need to change about yourself. And the list is so very long.
But then—over time—some work starts showing itself in your heart if you allow it. It turns out Jesus was there the whole time you were hurting, but He patiently waited for you to be ready to accept the forgiveness He always, always longed to give. Grace gives breath, and you slowly begin to grasp the strange understanding that you may not need to change who you are at all. You just need forgiveness, and forgiveness is always abundantly available. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you magically forget or that you won’t still have negative feelings about the situation. Forgiveness means you gain freedom to live and grow and not be bound by this thing that held you hostage. Forgiveness means you no longer get to measure yourself or the other person by this thing. Forgiveness is believing that even though we all make crappy mistakes, there isn’t a single person who can afford to not extend grace. Forgiveness means you are completely and forever accepted because grace is just that big.
There is something very real about prayer. It’s accessible to anyone and in all circumstances. Sometimes we wait for a quiet place, and other times, we pray small, completely heartfelt prayers while we’re in a meeting or making dinner. There are times though, when lying down in a dark room (or on top of a tower) next to a lit candle is vital to the soul. It’s in those moments we are reminded that we were created, we were created to do good, and we were created to love and be loved.
Instructions for freedom (excerpt from Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert):
1. Life’s metaphors are God’s instructions.
2. You have just climbed up and above the roof. There is nothing between you and the Infinite. Now, let go.
3. The day is ending. It’s time for something that was beautiful to turn into something else that is beautiful. Now, let go.
4. Your wish for a resolution was a prayer. Your being here is God’s response. Let go, watch the stars come out – on the outside and on the inside.
5. With all your heart, ask for grace, and let go.
6. With all your heart, forgive him, FORGIVE YOURSELF, and let him go.
7. Let your intention be freedom from useless suffering. Then, let go.
8. Watch the heat of the day go by into the cool of the night. Let go.
9. When the karma of a relationship is done, only love remains. It’s safe. Let go.
10. When the past has passed from you at last, let go. Then climb down and begin the rest of your life. With great joy.
PS The movie, Eat Pray Love, was released two weeks after my grandma passed away. The theme song from the movie, Attraversiamo (Italian for “Let’s Cross Over”) reminded me so much of her, and I’ve listened to it over and over again—anytime I want to just sit and think of her and the beauty of who she was as a person.It turns out this beautiful story Elizabeth Gilbert didn’t think anyone would read has influenced my life in a multitude of ways. She didn’t think anyone would read it, you guys! Are you serious? Don’t do something based on if you think it will or won’t make an impression. Live your purpose with courage.
PPS I adore Juila Roberts, but the book trumps the movie by a thousand.
PPPS If I had not listened and followed where God was leading me, I may have not…