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By Eric A. Clayton

This past weekend, I got stuck in a cactus. It was unpleasant.

“I want to see the plants, Daddy,” my eldest had said. We were at Lowes to buy paint, and my youngest was busy collecting every one of those square paint samples within arm’s reach.

“That’s not a bad idea,” my wife said, one eye on the two-year-old, the other on a variety of blues.

“Back in the cart, girls,” I declared. Off we went.

My eldest wanted to see flowers. But the first thing we passed was a collection of colorful cacti. I’m no horticulturalist (surprise!) but you know the kind of cactus I’m talking about: those little ones with the bright colored toppers, pinks, purples, yellows, the like.

“I’ll buy you girls one,” I said. The recent, devastatingly cold temperatures in Baltimore did a number on most of our plants. We have a lot of empty pots to refill.

The haggling commenced then, as the two girls would need to agree on a single specimen.

There was this really cool looking roundish one – like an orb of fluffy prickles – with a yellow topper.

“This one,” the eldest declared.

“That one,” the youngest agreed.

And I picked it up.

We’ve replayed the moment – my eldest and I – and we can’t figure out exactly what happened. All I know is that in the process of picking up the cactus to put it into the cart, my hand brushed those fluffy prickles. Except, they weren’t fluffy; they were like miniature fishhooks. And even the slightest graze found them embedded in my skin.

Suddenly, I had one, two, six of them stuck in my right hand, the hand that was still holding the pot. I blinked, surprised, and instinctively tried to use my left hand to free my right. Almost immediately, the pointer finger on my left hand got stuck.

“Girls, I think I’m stuck in this cactus.”

A brief panic took hold. The cactus was giving no ground, and I was standing in the middle of Lowes with two little girls and a plant literally attached to both of my hands – hands which might as well have been bound behind my back, they were so useless in my current predicament. I desperately wanted to keep trying to pluck the prickles from my skin, but had learned the hard way that there was no way to touch that thing without further entangling myself.

I took a deep breath. Then I remembered: I was in a store full of gardening gloves, sheers, rose clippers and all sorts of other equipment designed to sort out the very dilemma I was currently in. I brought the girls back to the paint section.

“We can get that cactus,” my wife said, thinking I was holding it up to show her, her attention on the paint she was purchasing.

“I’m stuck to it,” was all I said in response.

But not for long: We found some gloves and pulled and prodded and through gritted teeth and a bit of blood, the cactus and I parted ways.

We did not purchase it.

Cacti come in many shapes and forms in our spiritual lives. Things that appear pretty at first, welcoming even, but upon deeper inspection are found to be harmful, hurtful. We get stuck, ensnared in suffering and shame and heartache. And our instinct might be to go deep within. We thrash about, trying to extricate ourselves from the source of pain only to find our problems getting worse.

But there’s always a way out. Remember this: Pause, look up, take stock of where you are – physically, as well as spiritually. Who is there with you?

We’re not meant to go it alone in this life. St. Ignatius reminds us that the enemy of our human nature often works by convincing us that we should keep our suffering and shame a secret rather than sharing our struggles with others.

Because when we do, when we stop becoming further entangled in our spiritual cactus, we might just realize that God has placed exactly what we need in that moment in aisle six. It’s going to hurt, it’s going to be bloody, but once we remember that we aren’t alone, we take the first step toward casting that prickly beast aside.

Good riddance.

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a person smiling for the cameraEric A. Clayton is the author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America MagazineNational Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian.