When I think of scriptural valleys, my mind always goes first to the 23rd Psalm, memorized in King James majesty as a child in Sunday school:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Those metaphoric words of David the shepherd reassure us that both the guidance and the discipline of the Lord will bring us succor as we climb out of whatever damp, drizzly November of the soul we find ourselves in.
Isaiah 40, the Old Testament reading for Advent 2, similarly offers figurative language about valleys (and mountains and rough spots)–the obstacles in our paths–in a chapter that begins, “‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” saith your God” (verse 1):
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain (verse 4).
However, my recent immersion in the philosophy of the Stoics has made me keenly aware that sometimes the valleys are just what we need. Marcus Aurelius tells us in his meditations, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Or, as Ryan Holiday paraphrases it, “The obstacle is the way.” I wrote this motto inside the cover of a book I gave to each of my at-risk students at the end of this past summer’s Trojan Jump Start Program to help them understand that they can embrace the very challenges they face as opportunities for growth.
Of course, anyone who has suffered acknowledges that the that the most likely substrate for growth lies at the very bottom of the spiritual valley because that is where we become most open to God’s help and love because in our darkest moments we find the assurance promised in the Psalm: “Thou art with me.”
What a perfect metaphoric circle we have just completed in the understanding that indeed, valleys are the fertile places of the earth, where the soil is rich with nutrients, and the landscape is protected from wind and harsh weather by the surrounding hills.
As we prepare for whatever circumstances this Advent has in store for us, may we seek the deep communion with God that can occur in the mountains and the valleys of each of our lives.