The dark valley is, as everyone knows, a symbol of difficult times we all encounter sooner or later in our lives. I have yet to meet someone who managed to skip this stage, although individual valleys seem to differ in length and degree of darkness.
For some of us, the valley is an illness or some disability, for others a loss of work and status. Aging is certainly one of the valleys, and not an easy one either, what with the trembling hands, dimmed eyesight and memory that fails in the most embarrassing way.
However, this valley can be a path to eternal light. Often by that time in life we know who it is that leads us through the darkness. We grab his hand with hope — children once again.
What happens, however, if we are still young and strong? What if our marriage or vocation begins to feel like the confining dark valley? Do we drag our feet, increasingly confused and weary, craving air and light?
It is easy to panic in the darkness at the bottom of the valley. Who has not felt a desperate need to climb out of that claustrophobic space in any possible way, regardless of the risk?
Climbing the steep slope of the deep valley may bring death and destruction, not only to us, but also to others who walk with us, or even follow us. Yet we run up the slope and claw at the stones and boulders in a desperate attempt to get to the top. Inevitably an avalanche is released. Lives are destroyed. Bodies are broken and souls twisted.
Each valley has its own story to tell — stories of folly and stories of quiet courage.
In Poland years ago, I met a woman who seemed to be in the longest valley ever. Her father, a policeman, was murdered by the Soviets in the famous Ostaszkowo massacre — shot in the back of the head.
Her mother and younger siblings were deported to Kazakhstan deep in Russia, never to return. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were removed in cattle cars in winter from their own lands.
Jane, saved by her timely visit to an aunt, survived the war, got herself educated and married soon after in hope of having a family again. Her husband was a hardworking, honest man and would have been ideal if not for his terrible temper and prolonged gloomy moods. These were pre-antidepressants days and no therapy was to be had.
Her marriage, no doubt, was one dark valley.
When I met them in a small town near Wroclaw, they had been married for more than 10 years and had three children. Jane was a physician and her husband was a manager in a state firm. I was supervising a nearby archaeological excavation site and early in “the dig,” I needed medical help when one of our workers was injured.
From that day, I was a frequent guest at Jane’s home and a mute (and horrified) witness to her silent martyrdom. Her husband would abuse her verbally, demean her and ridicule her for no reason.
He barked orders to her and, should she forget to place, say a fork by his plate “in a timely manner,” he would sit, silent, immobile, wearing the face of a deeply offended person until she corrected her mistake.
“If I were her, I would have walked out of this marriage in an instant,” I thought so often. One day, I spoke those words aloud when Jane and I were safely washing dishes in the kitchen. Jane was not surprised. She must have heard these words often.
“What about the children?” she said simply. “They need a father. And we have been married in the Church. There is no divorce.”
“Wouldn’t it be better for them . . . ?” I broke off in midsentence and added, “So you decided to do nothing?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “I am doing something. I pray.”
She told me that while he was cursing her and yelling at her, she was saying Hail Marys to protect her children from his bad influence and for them not to hate him. That was her defence. Her husband refused counselling and would not listen to the priest either. She could leave him or stay. That was it.
Last year, some 25 years later, I ran into them in front of a new mall in Wroclaw. We all age and so had Jane. I probably would not have noticed them but for the impression this aging pair, holding hands and so obviously in love, made on me as I was passing by. In a rushed conversation I learned their children were happily married and had given them many grandchildren.
The once-bitter husband was mellow. For once I saw him smile in a genuinely relaxed and happy way. They were now basking in the sunlight — well out of the valley of shadows.
If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called,because Christ also suffered for you,leaving you an example.