No one prepares you for the lows in life. We’re well-versed in stories of triumph over struggles, but no one taught us how to go on living when we’re lost. When I’ve hit the lows, my coping strategies have been wide-ranging: go for a walk and feel guilty that I’m not running. Eat some pizza. Start a novel. Start a series on Netflix. Scroll through social media. Take online personality tests.
But the last time I found myself in despair, I remembered the cloud of witnesses. The idea of a cloud of witnesses comes from the book of Hebrews, where the author remembers heroes of the Old Testament, from Abraham to Noah to Rahab to David to Samson. After gushing about these saints who went before us, saying “the world was not worthy of them,” the writer urges us to persevere, not to lose heart or grow weary.
Because I believe our cloud of witnesses includes saints who showed up after the book of Hebrews was written, I often turn to spiritual memoirs. And when you read the memoirs of old people of faith, you read about entire decades where they drifted aimlessly: They studied to become an accountant until they felt called to pursue the priesthood. They spent years administering the Eucharist until they fell in love with a woman. They escaped to the mountains for a time of meditation and found booze there instead. They never arrived.
Look at Dorothy Day: a recent article in The Atlantic captures several different chapters in Day’s story.
There’s Greenwich Village Dorothy, cub reporter, in the teens of the 20th century: “cool-mannered, tweed-wearing, drinking rye whiskey straight with no discernible effect.” She’s with her buddy Eugene O’Neill in a bar called the Hell Hole.
There’s young Dorothy lying in darkness on a work-farm bunk in Virginia, on a hunger strike, having been arrested, beaten, and terrorized for joining a picket line of suffragists.
There she is in 1922 in Chicago, following an abortion, a failed marriage, and two suicide attempts, “fling[ing] herself about” and in love with the pugilistic, alpha-male newspaperman Lionel Moise.
She went on to start the Catholic Worker Movement, which created Houses of Hospitality, where people who weren’t wanted elsewhere could show up for food or shelter. Over 200 Houses of Hospitality are still active in the United States. None of these chapters make up the whole of Dorothy Day’s story.
Then there’s Brennan Manning. In his final memoir, All Is Grace, he weaves together the story of his life as an evangelist and his relentless battle with alcoholism with no lack of detail and no attempt to save face. He tells stories of getting blackout drunk the night before taking the stage of a megachurch, where he spoke about the radical grace of Jesus. He writes about his wife meeting him at the airport after church retreats, when he smelled of vodka and vomit and humiliation.
The biblical heroes are no less scandalous, but I can’t bring myself to recount all their wives and concubines and adulteresses, so we’ll just leave it be. The stories of the saints are rife with mishaps and setbacks, years of wandering with no sign of arriving. Not all of the stories include sex scandals and benders, some feel displaced and hopeless for reasons unknown to them, but all of them get lost.
It’s important to remember the whole stories of these saints, because we usually only hear about their moments of glory. We sing the hymns they wrote and read their famous sermons, forgetting they were also lost sinners, just like you and me. They are our cloud of witnesses.
While the testimonies we hear today on stages vaguely allude to struggles or past sins, we rarely see them in their current confusion. So when we’re curled up on our couches with the blinds pulled down, we feel alone in our despair. We wonder if it’s because we aren’t disciplined enough with our spiritual practices, or because we started a business instead of going into ministry, or because we opened ourselves up to compassion when we were told feelings were the enemy of the truth. We believe we’re to blame. And maybe we are to blame; our cloud of witnesses were their own undoing more often than not.
The beauty of Christianity is that it’s for those of us who are lost. The good news is for drunks and addicts, the ones who never get a break. It’s for the poor and oppressed. It’s for rich kids, whose dads never showed up at their ball games. It’s for the Sunday school teacher with the prescription pill habit, and the sex worker trying to send her kids to college. It’s for the seminary student who still believes correct doctrine will save him.
If you feel lost and confused, you’re not alone. The saints who came before us didn’t have their lives in order. They were sometimes jobless, sometimes homeless, and often unbearably lonely. But they weren’t their failures and they weren’t their moments of glory. They were lost humans, who were found by God, whether they believed it or not on a given day. Like you and me and the people we struggle to love, our cloud of witnesses includes a long list of sinners who also happened to be saints.