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No no no no no. I shake my panicked head as my fingers clutch the stony wall. I’m slipping. I can’t grip the crumbling rock beneath my bloody fingertips. I scramble, desperately trying to find footing as the wall begins to break beneath my vain efforts to climb out of the pit I’ve fallen into. As the blood runs from my hands, elbows, and knees – any exposed skin that met with this unforgiving wall – I cry out in anguish, my fingers screaming in pain, my legs shaking from adrenaline. The thought of hanging on any longer seems impossible, yet what lies below is unbearable. I’ve been there before. I just recently crawled out of this pit not that long ago. How could I possibly be back?
I crane my neck, risking a peek at the sky above me. It’s black, just like this chasm, yet with the help of the moon, I can just see the silhouette of the edge, where my foot slipped. Help me! I want to cry, but I know it’s in vain. I’m alone. No one peers into the pit; no one offers a hand. I am alone, and the panic rises again as I realize I can’t allow myself to fall. I just can’t. No way am I walking the valley of that chasm again.
With renewed invigoration, my breath coming at faster speeds, I blindly explore the wall, my fingers searching in desperation for a grip. I find one and latch onto it. I pull, my arm muscles straining against the weight of my own body, and for a second, I actually believe I can do it. A hysterical laugh is shot from my throat as I raise myself up just the tiniest fraction of an inch. And then I remember why I gave up on hope a long time ago, because without even being allowed to experience one moment of joy at the possibility of getting out of here, suddenly it starts to rain. Not just a drop here and there, or even a trickle. A full-on downpour, and before I can take a sharp breath, I’m washed down the wall of the chasm and land against a rock.
Stunned, with blood tracking down the side of my face, I deny myself time to heal or reflect. It’s survival mode now. I act on instinct only. With a torrential flood about to break in the chasm from the storm, I seek high shelter. I start with the rock that broke my landing – and quite possibly some bones – and hobble to its peak. Delicately, I balance on the top, rain soaking every fiber of my being. The light of the moon allows my eyes to adjust, and I get a glimpse of the chasm truly for the first time.
Jutting rocks along a rough path no hiker could easily traverse. A swift, dark current running down the center of a valley formed by walls too high to climb. Darkness everywhere, hiding any forms of danger in its crevices. The chasm looks familiar. Too familiar, and my heart sinks. An overwhelming sense of despair – one that I know too well – falls on me, and I can barely stand under its weight. I’ve been here before. I thought I would never be back. Almost two years ago, I crawled out of this darkness. Yet here I am again. I shake my head, forcing my thoughts back to my surroundings. I have to focus. I have to get out of here.
But I’m stuck. I can’t move from the rock, or I shall be swept away in the rushing water. I can’t climb higher. I’m shaking from the cold, from the terror. I’m paralyzed by fear. Horrific memories of my last stay in the chasm rush upon me faster than the water below, and I’m drowning in their pull, in what they are making me remember. I see images as plain as day, I taste the panic in my throat, I hear the ringing in my ears and the buzzing in my brain from my body and mind trying to make sense of the pain I encountered two years ago. And I hear a message, in a volume like a mighty roar: You’re back, and it’s going to be just as bad as before.
I curl up on the rock, my face scrunched in anguish, and I beat the top of that rock with my hand until it goes numb, punishing it in an attempt to release the anger – no, the fury – within me. I believed. I believed with all my heart that I had made it to a safe place, that I would never again see the darkness of this chasm, that I had been spared for something better. I beat the rock again, the physical pain diverting my attention from the agony in my soul, from the horrifying memories.
“I trusted you!” I cry out. I trusted you. My voice is unrecognizable in my own ears, the torment distorting the familiar. I thought we were done. I can’t believe I’m back here.
“Back where?” I hear. The voice is so faint I almost wonder if it’s an echo of my thoughts. “Back where?” it comes again, this time louder, closer.
I sit up suddenly.
The rain slows.
My heart races.
I know that voice.
“You’re not back anywhere,” I hear Him say. My eyes scan the area, but I don’t see Him. I want to see Him; I’m desperate for it.
“Where are you?” I cry out.
“Where are you?” He asks.
“You know where I am. I’m back where I was, back where I thought I’d never be.”
“Are you?” He asks gently.
“Of course I am. Look at this place!” My anger is mixed with grief, and I double over, trying to catch my breath. Trying not to have a panic attack.
“What is it you see, exactly?”
“Not a thing. It’s so dark,” I snap, my tone harsher than intended. “I can’t even see You. I know You’re here, but I can’t see You.”
“But I can see you. And I can see where you are.”
“I know where I am,” I counter. “I’m right back where I left.”
“Are you?” He asks again. “How can that be?”
My head is spinning with His questions. My tears mix with the slowing rain. Of course I’m back where I was. Aren’t I? Even though I traveled so far these past two years, I’ve somehow found myself back at the chasm I had escaped. Right? I wipe the tears from my face and furrow my brow. “I’m back,” I answer, “because I recognize this place.”
“I see,” He says, but I’m not convinced He actually does, so I offer evidence.
“This rock I’m sitting on. I remember it from two years ago. The pain. The hard landing. The bruises it gave me.”
Silence on His end.
“Those high walls,” I say, pointing above me, blood still fresh on my skin. “Those never-ending, impenetrable walls. My scraped hands know them well.” My eyes sweep the area. “Those jagged stones over there. I tripped on those last time. I stumbled. I fell. I remember.”
“Those exact ones?” He asks, a softness to His voice.
“Yes,” I say, but my voice wavers. “And I just know what’s around that bend up there.” A dark bend in the valley lies in shadow, full of scarier sights and sounds. An onslaught that embodies actual physical feelings reaches me, and I experience again in my mind what had awaited me around the bend last time: the panic attacks, the counseling sessions, the loss of appetite, the sleepless nights, the sudden anxiety, the erasure of life as I knew it and its accompanying grief. I feel them all over again and struggle to brace myself for a second round. “I can’t do it again.” My voice is strained against my tears and anguish. “I can’t.” My eyes dart about, looking for an escape. “I won’t….I won’t do it again.” If only I can find a way out of here – out of this dark valley, out of the pit of despair – then I can run and run and run and never face this again.
But the walls are too high, the ledges too rough. The path down the center leads only to more pain and distress. My throat fills with bile, as the taste of hopelessness again finds me.
“What is it you won’t do again?” He asks me.
“This,” I say emphatically. “All of this.” How can He not see what I’m pointing at? How can He not remember? He was with me last time.
“But you’ve never been here,” He says matter-of-factly.
I scoff – an actual frenzied-type of breathless laugh despite my tears – and am shocked into silence.
“This is not what you think it is,” He says. “You are not where you think you are.”
I almost don’t answer Him, not willing to justify His audacious remark with one of my own. But I can’t help myself. My soul needs answers. “How can You possibly say that? You know this valley. We’ve walked it before.”
“I’ve walked many valleys. I’ve walked all valleys.” His tone turns serious. “I know every valley inside and out.”
The idea that He intimately knows every valley sends a shudder through me. What things must He have seen? What must He have experienced? Before I can ponder this further, He speaks. “I know this one very well. And I know you haven’t been here before.”
“I know it looks the same. I know it feels the same,” He says. “I know you’ve probably heard a voice telling you that it is the same valley, but trust Me when I say it’s not.”
Can I trust Him? Does He know? When all I see and hear and feel is evidence that I’ve returned to the same chasm I escaped years ago, can I trust the one voice telling me otherwise?
“Come,” He says. He doesn’t require that I know everything or that I even fully trust Him. “I want to show you.”
While His voice is reassuring – strong, even – the idea of stepping further into the darkness, into my nightmares, frightens me. As if knowing this, He says, “I am with you.” At this, I sense His nearness, stronger than before, and it’s as if my recognition summons His next move. A light – only a flicker at first, like someone striking a match – appears near the ground and dances there. It is in this moment that I fully grasp that the rain has completely stopped. How long it’s been stopped, I don’t know. And I don’t care because I can’t take my eyes from the light. Its color is both warm and cool. I’m mesmerized.
I crawl down from the rock, gasping in pain but spurred on toward the light. It hovers just above the ground, which I notice is dry, and creates a periphery of light, a perfect circle, around itself. As I draw near, the circle grows, and I am at once startled and intrigued. I bend, my body and head aching, but I long to see this small flame. It is neither hot nor cold, and I can’t seem to take my eyes off of it. My foot brushes the outer edge of the circle of light, and it grows, not only in size, illuminating a space far bigger than I, but also in intensity. I can clearly see what’s right in front of me for the first time since falling.
I take a step – hobbling against the pain in my leg – and the circle follows. It no longer increases. I take another painful step. Still, the flame’s circle is the same size, but it’s with me. The step in front of me is the only thing with light. In that step, I can see potential hazards: a jutted rock, a slick surface. I step around these, and with my new circle of light, I take several more, safe steps. I look back and see nothing but darkness. The rock I had stood on is cloaked in shadows. I look ahead and see nothing as well. The light about my feet is all I see, and I slowly realize all I can do at this moment is take one step at a time. That, in and of itself, feels like a huge accomplishment. One step. As painful as it is.
“It is an accomplishment,” He says, hearing my thoughts. “You have done much already.” I warm at the words.
But then, a cold breeze sweeps by me, sending a chill through my body, reminding me of where I am. The momentary feeling of accomplishment is met with the reality that I’m still in a chasm, that I’ve fallen, that much awaits me. “I need to get out of here,” I say. I lift my eyes heavenward. “I need to get back up there.”
Pain shoots through my leg. I realize I’m parched and cold. I start to remember the last time I walked through the valley of the shadow of death. “I don’t think I have the strength to do this,” I say, “a second time.” The circle of light about my feet quivers for a second through the lens of my tear-filled eyes.
He doesn’t speak. Doesn’t tell me that yes, I can do this. That yes, I have the strength. I think if I could only hear Him say something like that, then I would go forward in belief. But He has no reassuring words when I need to hear them the most. I almost think He’s left me, that in my wavering belief, He took off. Did my lack of faith cause me to be alone again? I can hear the blood in my ears, my breathing gets shallow, and all of a sudden, the light about my feet seems to flicker.
But then He speaks, finally. My heart settles. His words are few. “Do you hear them?” There’s a smile on His voice.
I strain, but I hear nothing.
“They’ve got you covered,” He says.
I have no idea what He’s talking about. All I know is that I’m standing in the middle of one of the darkest places of my life, alone, with no help and no hope. But then I hear it. No, it’s like I feel it. I am surrounded. A mist has entered the valley from above. It’s moving, as if by the wind, and it encircles me, spinning slowly at first. As this cloud moves around me, I catch the slightest sound. At first, it sounds like music, but then I recognize the melodic notes as voices.
Before I can ask, He explains: “The prayers of those who love you, who don’t know how else to help you right now.”
The cloud moves closer, faster, as if the urgency of the prayers has increased. I can’t distinguish one voice from the next; they are unified in their pleading, a mournful yet hopeful song that embraces me in a hug. In a smooth movement, the cloud rests me on the ground, and I can breathe for the first time. Slight pressure is applied to my hurt leg, and I look at it. A brace has been fitted around my wound, bound tightly so that I can walk better. Pressure now on my head, and I reach up and feel a bandage, absorbing the blood. Next to me lies a canteen and nourishment, and I down the fresh water and meal in a rush. As I rest, satisfied by the food and aid and the light of the circle of flame casting warmth about me, I notice I am lying in green grass. The waters, that only moments before were a threat, are now still and clear as glass.
The cloud disperses a little, but it’s not far off. I sense it will be with me as I face the journey ahead.
“It’s time,” He says. I nod, placing my hands in His scarred ones as He lifts me to my feet, and I know I can do this. “You are not in the same valley,” He reassures me, “for you are not the same person you were two years ago. You are stronger. You developed muscles in your former valley that will aid you now.”
I see the muscles as I hold tightly to Him. The mist has moved just slightly. Part of it is within my circle; part of it is just ahead. And there’s another part of it that has remained in the dark places behind me.
“You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who will spur you on through their prayers,” He says. “And you have My light to guide you. This does not mean you won’t encounter obstacles here. In fact, you will. I know because I know this valley. But even if you stumble and fall, you will renew your strength. You will walk yet not grow weary. You will run again and not be faint. I promise.”
And with that, I turn my head to the dark chasm before me, His hand warm as I clutch it. His light at my feet. Prayers around me. I will fear no evil, for He is with me.