Lessons from the Dentist on Spiritual Numbness

Remember, God, to love us in a way
Our souls can taste
and rejoice
in.
St. Teresa of Avila, “In a Way the Grain Can Feel”

A cheek the size of a softball

I went to the dentist yesterday. ick.

I had to get two fillings. ick ick.

I asked the woman at the front desk if it was difficult working in a place where your clients were all unhappy to be there. She just smiled at me (with very nice teeth, of course.)

Having half your mouth (let’s be honest: your whole face) be numb is such a strange experience. I rationally knew that my cheek hadn’t swollen to the size of a baseball, that I was in fact capable of licking my lips, that the squishy thing between my teeth was still my tongue, even if I couldn’t feel it – I knew these things rationally, but my sense experience was something else entirely.

When a part of your body is numbed, it can’t function normally. Even though the left side of my mouth was just as capable as my right, the fact that I couldn’t feel it working made all the difference! I had the ability to use my teeth and lips and tongue, but I had lost my sensual connection to them, so I stopped exercising that ability.

“Don’t eat until you can feel your lips,” the hygienist warned me, “You’ll chew your tongue up.”

That was enough warning for me. I waited it out.

Spiritual Numbness

The unpleasant but fascinating experience of Novocaine shots got me thinking about spiritual numbness.

I wonder if the same thing that happened to my mouth can sometimes happen to our spiritual lives: we function at less than our real capability because we can’t feel the results in the moment.

When we can’t feel God, sometimes we just assume that God is not there, even though we have all kinds of evidence to the contrary. We stop flexing our spiritual muscles, digging deeper into our spiritual power, because we somehow become disconnected from that sensual experience of God.

Moving Mountains

I remember being taught as a child the idea that authentic faith could move mountains.

It always seemed like kind of a catch-22 for me. I felt this kind of pressure to believe blindly enough – to believe without even a shred of doubt – in order to really harness my true spiritual potential. If what I prayed for didn’t come to pass, the obvious reason was that I hadn’t really believed purely enough. How do you rationally talk yourself into believing that your faith can do the impossible?

Needless to say, those stubborn mountains just sat there for me.

Looking back now, I find that an uncomfortable vision of prayer and an uncomfortable vision of faith. Who knows what kind of mountains I was moving without even realizing, because I was waiting to feel some kind of spiritual magic? Who knows how my idea of prayer was skewed by my understanding that it was a spiritual strength contest?

When parts of our spirits go numb, we may rationally know that we are spiritually powerful, but we are unable to experience that power and therefore unable to exercise that spiritual power.

A Call to Deeper Aliveness

So here’s the bottom line:

God’s presence and love surround and sustain us, even when we aren’t feeling in touch with them moment to moment. When we feel abandoned, we have to trust our deeper knowledge that we are not alone, just as I had to trust that my mouth still worked fine, it had just gone numb for a while.

When we encounter periods of spiritual dryness, numbness, or despair, I suggest we should welcome them as challenges that call us into deeper awareness and aliveness. These experiences are reminders that our ability to grow in loving relationship with God and with each other is even greater than what we can feel in the moment.

Sometimes we just have to lean into those dark experiences – knowing that there is something to be learned, knowing that all the goodness and beauty of our life is still there – and wait for the numbness to subside.

Practices to make you Tingle

When your mouth starts tingling, that’s when you know the numbness is starting to wear off and sensation is returning (although you still can’t eat until you can feel your tongue because… you know.)

I want to offer a suggestion for how to make our spirits tingle when they’ve gone numb, how to connect with our spiritual vitality when we’re feeling dead and tired.

  • One of my favorites is the spiritual examen: this is an excellent way to take stock of your spiritual strengths and weaknesses on a daily basis. A simple way to re-connect to your life and re-commit to your faith.
  • Another one that’s been really profound in my faith walk is gratitude lists. Gratitude has been shown to be one of the greatest antidotes to despair. And I think it’s another simple way to re-connect to the spiritual dimension of your daily life. (Want some ideas/support? Check out what Ann is doing!)
  • Wonderful mystic and lover of God St. Teresa of Avila wrote:

Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet, on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.

Make this into a daily prayer, a mantra: Christ has no body, hands, or feet but mine. Mine are the eyes through which he looks compassion, mine are the feet with which he walks, mine are the hands with which he blesses… As you go through your day with this vision, see what changes. What do you feel drawn toward? How does this prayer help you root your spiritual life in your sense experience?

That’s all I’ve got. Go out there and come alive… and don’t forget to floss.

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Filed under Musings, Spirituality, Theology and Faith

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