When someone tells you that you’re in a hole, listen.

Like the moon, our worlds wax and wane. The candles on a child’s birthday cake mark more than years. Their gathering glow corresponds to the expansion of experience and perspective.

Then comes the waning. As we grow older, we notice that our circle of friends and relatives shrinks, that responsibilities and concerns give way to ailments and anxieties. A single candle on the cake seems somehow fitting. We’re grateful for the gift of life, but we know that its shadows are lengthening.


Poor people vacation by visiting uncles, aunts and cousins. You can’t say that you see new worlds, but it is a break from the everyday. As a child, I looked forward to visiting our cousins the Ruders. My cousin Mike had much better toys, though, if pressed, my memory supplies only a large, yellow Tonka Dump Truck.

When a family stays overnight with cousins, almost everyone ends up sleeping in a spot that’s unfamiliar to them. I remember waking in the middle of the night, unable to move or to free myself from the sheets. There were other people, unknown to me, in the bed. I was cramped against bars of some kind. 

One can’t accurately judge a childhood fear from the expanse of a larger, adult world. All of childhood seems small from that vista. Try to imagine waking up in the unknown dark, unable to free yourself from your narrow enclosure. You have no world from which you came or to which you are going. You’re simply conscious and captive, confined in a small, terrifying corner of a dark world.

The Prophet Jeremiah, in contrast, was thrown into a cistern. He “sank into the mud” (Jer 38:6). At least he knew that the world was a larger place, that the cistern wasn’t the limit of his life.

The problem with our own dark holes is that we typically don’t know when we’ve fallen into them. More likely, we’ve crawled into a crack, not noticing how tight it was becoming. What sort of cisterns am I talking about? Life has a lot: depression, exhaustion, an illicit affair, addiction, an unrelenting anger. Some holes we fall into; some, we dig ourselves. Either way, once down there, we cannot extricate ourselves.

The first counsel is this: Look out for your brother or sister, who has fallen into a pit. He or she most likely cannot see the small cavity to which life has been confined. We never imitate Christ more faithfully than when we set the captive free, and no one is more enslaved than the person who cannot see, who thinks the shaft is all there is.

Second, listen carefully when someone tells you that you’re in a hole. There are truths about ourselves that we alone know. And there are others that everyone, except us, can see. Our worlds wax and wane because of those who enter and depart from them. Others bless and burden, and even bury our lives. We recognize avalanches, but we can be equally covered by the slightest of relentless snows.

Take the lifeline, the rope that has been thrown to you. Don’t let go. If your life is seriously disordered, you may not be able to discern adequately your own situation. Be willing to listen and to share what’s happening to you. You mustn’t tell yourself that you can handle this on your own, that this is your own little shame, a knot that you can untie, if only you struggle the more.

St. Ignatius of Loyola taught that evil seeks darkness because it weakens in the light. He said that the “enemy” “acts like a false lover, insofar as he tries to remain secret and undetected.” Consider Loyola’s “enemy” to be whatever oppresses our souls. He wrote:

When the enemy of human nature turns his wiles and persuasions to the upright person, he intends and desires them to be received and kept in secrecy. But when the person reveals them to his or her good confessor or some other spiritual person, who understands the enemy’s deceits and malice, he is grievously disappointed. For he quickly sees that he cannot succeed in the malicious project he began, because his manifest deception has been detected. (The Discernment of Spirits, Rule 13).


The world needs a savior; we need each other, because we cannot pull ourselves out of cisterns. Humans can’t be human alone. We need others for that, because God made human nature, made our lives, radically incomplete.

In the name of the mercy that we owe each other, sling a rope when you see someone in a hole. And, for your own salvation, if one’s thrown to you, grab it.

Jeremiah 38: 4-6, 8-10  Hebrews 12: 1-4  Luke 12: 49-53

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 7 months ago
I grew up in a place where cisterns were common. My Aunt had one in her yard fed by spouting around her house through which water was transported off the roof during rains, to the cistern. As a child I used to peek in to see Mahogany Bugs (local name for roaches) crawling around on the upper walls of the cistern, assured of water no doubt, also food somehow. My Grandmother also had one in her yard with an attached pump from which household water needs were drawn by pot, or bucket. Once, a younger brother who used to pull temper tantrums, holding his breath until blue in the face, was grabbed by our distraught Mom, a Mom raising six kids by herself, during one of his tantrums, who saying in effect, “Enough already. I’m going to cure you!” Taking him to the cistern pump forcibly, Mom proceeded to pump the cold water into his face until he stopped holding his breath, crying and sputtering. In a few seconds it was all over and never again did my brother pull his tantrums! Later he served twenty years in the Navy – obviously water didn’t bother him! - raised a family and died two years ago at eightytwo. Jeremiah had his cistern too filled with wet mud into which he was thrown. God allowed this but at least showed compassion by letting Jeremiah fall into soft mud, not so deep as to engulf him. I think that’s pretty much how God works – He always provides some type of assistance. Jesus had his Angel to comfort Him in the Garden, where unimaginable fright of what was a few hours away, was so intense that skin capillaries in Jesus’ skin ruptured mixing blood with his perspiration, causing which devotionally is honored as Jesus’ “Bloody Sweat.” I was astonished to learn that sweating blood as Jesus did, can be a natural consequence of enormous mental, emotional and physical pain. Yes, as we grow older how true, our circle of friends shrink. Many of people I grew up with are now in the ground! But I keep making new friends, following the adage, “If you want to have a friend, be a friend!” At eightyfive, I like to imagine I have another fifteen to go, recalling the words of George Burns, who lived to be one hundred, “We all get old but we don’t have to BE Old!” This even though as Francis of Assisi might say, “Brother Ass” (the body) shows it in many ways! But whatever the Lord determines is fine with me, hoping that Divine Providence will allow my wife and I to celebrate fifty years of marriage, next May. My Comforting Angel in old age is the Faith-rooted realization that, “the best is yet to come,” exactly what Jeremiah and Jesus discovered, once the mud and Bloody Sweat disappeared. Look for the silver linings in all the cisterns of life, human and spiritual.


The latest from america

Some background to the kerfuffle over Pope Francis and kissing the papal ring.
Eric Sundrup, S.J.March 26, 2019
Israel’s upcoming election, which takes place on April 9, is casting uncertainty over House of Grace’s future.
Eloise BlondiauMarch 26, 2019
The freshness and wonder, the way that what was there before still exists but is now shot through with newness. The city glitters. Why not? Lent is the season of baptismal preparation as much as penance.
We have experienced God’s benevolent interventions in our own lives.