Tag Archives: Authenticity

Speaking into spiritual darkness

“[The dark night of the soul] is a time of special vulnerability,
not only the kind that makes you feel weak,
but also the kind that opens you to signals in the world around you…
You may think that the time spent in a dark night is a waste.
You accomplish nothing… [but] you need to see
the waste of your life as having a place in the nature of things.”
Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul,

Talking about spiritual suffering

It’s been difficult to write about spirituality over the last year. Mostly that’s because I haven’t been feeling very spiritual, and that can be difficult to admit — especially as someone who makes my living as a religious leader.

Our spiritual lives are intimate parts of our selves, parts that are often difficult to express in words. Working in ministry, I continue to be amazed at the depth and unique complexity of the spiritual lives of every person I encounter.

So, why is it so hard to say when we’re suffering spiritually?

A missing conversation

One of the main challenges I’ve encountered in my own effort to be authentic and transparent is that we just don’t talk about spiritual sorrow very much in the church.

Sometimes it seems to fall into that category of off-limit topics in the church — like divorce, addiction, financial accountability, or racism. You don’t hear very many pastors preaching about their own “dark nights of the soul,” seasons of spiritual darkness and separation from God. Even grief can become a topic that we push to the more private corners of our worship and congregational lives.

Perhaps it’s that we’re not sure how to measure our own spiritual well-being. Or perhaps it’s something too personal to share. Still, I’ve found myself longing for more openness and conversation within my religious community about the struggle to connect with God.

And I don’t think I’m alone. Often people in conversation with me — many of them also ministers or seminarians — will quietly admit that, secretly, they don’t have any kind of prayer life to speak of, or that they don’t actually get very much out of worship.

I wonder what resonance and edification might be possible if we brought those kinds of conversations into the open.

Re-framing spiritual language

One of the most profound insights I’ve had during my own journey with spiritual atrophy is that a deadened, grieving, or strained spiritual life is still a spiritual life.

We are not spiritual beings only when we are spiritually flourishing: we are always spiritual beings, no matter what our spiritual state.

One of the most helpful exercises for me has been identifying new images for God as my personal faith shifts and moves into new landscapes. Scripture, hymns, and poetry are filled with descriptions of a God that feels distant, or even entirely absent. Sometimes, we relate more to the God who forsakes us than we do to the God who shelters us under wings.

I think it is important to make sure we include these kind of dark or difficult images, names, and descriptions of God in our worship so that people who find themselves in a period of spiritual dryness may know that they are not alone in their struggle and that they may perhaps find new language for what they are experiencing. Otherwise we may unintentionally give the impression that the only God the church knows is the God of spiritual vitality and connection.

And how good it is that God is bigger than that. How good it is that, as Rilke writes, “even when we do not desire it, God is ripening.”

2 Comments

Filed under Church, My Faith Journey, Spirituality, Worship

When I Stopped Praying

Tiny Island

Closing Shop on God

I haven’t prayed in a while.

Not because I’ve been too busy to take the time. Not because I don’t have anything to say to God. Not because my life is going swimmingly.

I haven’t prayed in a while because I’m worn out.

It’s one of those seasons when I wonder whom I’m talking to or why I’m talking. I often ask myself if anything would change at all if I stopped reaching toward God.

The last six months have been a period of person upheaval and painful growth for me, and my spirituality has had to transform along with the rest of my life.

I am a person of spiritual practice — I make gratitude lists, I journal, I write poetry and songs, I sing hymns and light candles before bed, I set up altars in my room, I carry prayer beads, I meditate.

These are habits woven into my life, but recently, in the wake of painful transition, they’ve all kind of slowed down. They’ve all gotten quiet.

This is not new. Scripture and tradition are full of great teachers and seekers who have walked through times of darkness and silence from God. No one needs to feel alone in that process, and I certainly don’t. Yet, the prayers of others don’t seem to fit for me these days. No prayers seem to fit at all.

So I stopped. I untangled my spiritual practices from the weaving of my life. I stopped speaking to God, with words or music or movement. I closed up shop, spiritually, and went dark.

Become a Prayer

Nothing happened, of course.

No bolts of lightning, no sudden light of revelation, no voice of the Almighty.

Just quiet, and the smallest kind of transformation.

Here is the truth I have learned: closing up shop and going dark, quitting your spiritual practices, telling God goodbye — these things are still prayer.

Our very breathing, our very being itself, is sufficient.

[P]ain and need and vulnerability lead us directly to God.
Then we do not need to practice prayer. We become a prayer.
We throw ourselves on the heart of God.
(Joan Chittister, The Breath of the Soul, 37)

As the Psalmist cries, “My whole being clings to you!” (Psalm 63:8) There have been days when clinging is all I can muster, and that is enough.

I do not always have to pray. I can let my life pray for me. I can let the spirit intercede with groans deeper than language. If that is the only prayer that fits, that is the prayer I will pray.

I do not always need to reach toward God. God will reach toward me. I love how the poet Rainer Maria Rilke expresses this:

Because someone once desired You,
I know that we, too, may desire You.
Even if we renounce all depths:
when gold lies deep in the mountains,
and no one’s there to dig for it,
one day the river brings it to the surface,
reaching in stillness into the stones,
into their fullness.
Even when we don’t desire,
God ripens.

When I read that, I think of all those great teachers and seekers who have gone before into the darkness. When I am out of faith, I can lean on their faith. I can lean on their doubt. I can lean on their desire.

When I do not desire, I can allow myself just to be in that place, trusting that the movement of love is not dependent on me. The web of the world will carry me anyway. God will ripen anyway.

Waiting in the Tomb

I’m sure there will be a day when I pray again. My heart will heal and re-open, and a new chapter of my spiritual life will begin. There will be prayer beads and poems and hymns sung again.

Until then, I cling. And I become prayer. And I desire (or not).

And I trust that the whole while, I am transforming and God is ripening.

It is a season of Holy Saturday, an in-between waiting. Something is happening in the quiet darkness of the tomb. I cannot see it or control it, but I know it is coming.  I know that life is coming out of this death, even before I feel its first breath.

Cling. Become. Desire.

Enough for now.

2 Comments

Filed under My Faith Journey, Spirituality

Sometimes I write what I feel

Birdie

Sometimes —
when I’m sure that no one’s watching —
I write what I feel.

I can’t do it on the bus,
when someone next to me might surreptitiously cast
one eye in my direction,

or at the office,
when someone might sneak a glance at my desk
from across a carpeted, cubicled span of inches.

Really, it’s best not to use paper at all,

in case it slips out of my pocket
while I’m climbing a flight of stairs,

and heavenforbid someone recognizes my handwriting.

So I write it on my heart instead,
traced into the veins and ventricles inside me,

secret.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry