When I lived in Los Angeles, wildfires were an annual event. They would sweep down the hills and canyons around the city, destroying homes, trees, reducing the tenacious desert plants to charred stubble. The first time I saw it, I wept. Topanga Canyon had been one of my favorite refuges, a place of serene beauty only a few miles from the noise and press of downtown. As I drove along the edge of the canyon, all that silver-green beauty was a smoking mass of blackened dust and twigs. It felt an utter loss.
A few months later, I was driving those roads again when I noticed that something had changed. A thin green fuzz coated the hills and rocks, blurred the sharp outlines of the mountains; within a year, the landscape was restored, as lush and as green as it had been before. The fires, it turned out, were integral to the ecology; they helped new life to be born.
This is the time of gathering shadows; the final hours of Christ’s life run out like spilled wine. Each hour, each minute, is now a “last”: last time to go the Temple, last time to teach, last time to eat with his friends. Last time to draw breath without pain. That time comes for all of us; it is the way we are born to new life. But Christ did not merely die; he was crucified.
It is hard for me to understand why this was necessary, why God could not have chosen another way. Having embraced human life, having savored its goodness, was it really necessary to lay it down so horribly? To allow the worst that was in us to have its will?
In 2008, another wildfire swept through Malibu. This time, it destroyed the monastery of which I was an associate. I had grown mighty philosophical about the fires while I lived in California, but this one still hurts. That place was holy ground for me; it was the place I came to find Christ when Christ seemed hidden from my eyes; the place I came to find love and understanding when nobody else was willing to give it; the place where my friend Cindy was laid to rest, secure in her trust that the community would be gathered around her always. The loss seemed an utter waste: a place that welcomed thousands each year and showed them the mercy of God.
Some losses count more than others. For some, there is no easy answer, no swift resurrection. They compel us to wait in hope, to sit in darkness and to trust that dawn will come, maybe not where we are looking for it, but where God wants it to be.
Until that dawn, we treasure our memories of love. They allow us to wait in hope. They ground us in the goodness of God, even when we cannot see it. They form the interior garden where we walk God, even now. Until we can see God’s face.