Saturday, July 18, 2009

Thank You, Lord, for Chinks in the Wall

     Sometimes victories aren't measured by distance run, mountains scaled, or merits achieved. Sometimes victories are, rather, the art of not collapsing; the placement of one marathon-weary foot in front of the other; the quiet, negative space of simply not giving in. These are quiet victories. No horn blasts. No headline proclaims. No ticker tape floats majestically. But you know that you haven't given in. You know the deep shadows of your soul. You know the abyss well, the cracks and crevices in which you placed your fingers, feeling for a more sure grip as bloodied knuckles scrape against the cliff you cling so desperately to.

   Not much is said about the temptation of giving up. Giving up hope; giving up faith; giving up your own determination; giving into fear; giving into despair; giving into sour cynicism; giving into sarcastic doubt of the goodness of God.

  Anyone who's fumbled for candles in the long, dark night of the soul knows this temptation well. This temptation always brings a guest, fear: fear of fatigue so deep you'll never escape; fear of a betrayed trust in God; fear that your worst fears are true: that when you wake up in the middle of the night from a nightmare, that there will be no one there, by your side or cosmically, to comfort you.

   Prolonged battle is wearying. Each spiritual muscle aches just from fending off the enemy, much less hurting from injuries suffered and wounds endured.

   Do I hear an amen?

   Recently I've become blessedly aware that many women and men across the country are finding themselves in the same dark night as I have. I don't wish those long, dark hours on them - but I'm glad to know I'm not alone. Lights are shining from windows from coast to coast in the wee hours, sleepless inhabitants numbed and bleary-eyed from the stretch and strain on endurance. A lot of it circles around to job loss, loss of income, loss of home, loss of the ability to give provision to loved ones; loss of health, loss of the ability to procure rest, vacation, and relaxation; loss of peace.

   Let me give a pastoral word of comfort, if that's okay: when you find yourself in the abyss - and make no mistake, you will at some point in your life - when you find yourself there, too tired to cry, too frustrated to move, remember something. 

   It's okay to not be normal for a while. But it's also imperative to keep. To keep trying, to keep dragging yourself up, scanning for chinks in the wall. I saw a movie once that portrayed a more than average joe attempting to run a marathon with little athletic experience. It visually portrayed the wall he hit - brick on brick, blocking his road. He stopped. He started slowly weeping. He was already the last runner on the trail. Hours had passed since the beginning of the race. He swayed and almost fell from sheer exhaustion. Then, slowly, he started putting one sneaker in front of the other, moving one brick at a time. Brick by brick, step by step, he plowed through the wall.

   How do you eat an elephant? the proverb asks.
   One bite at a time.

   One of the defeating elements for me when I find myself in an abyss is the way I feel unplugged from my faith. When I look at my Bible, I feel like an ill person suffering from an epidemic a hundred and fifty years ago: I'm looking at a bowl of soup, hungry, sick, and tired, knowing I need the nourishment - but I'm too weak to lift the spoon to my mouth. When I wake up to find myself still in the dark night, that's how I feel about Scripture. I manage to swallow a few verses from a Psalm. And then I lay my head back on the pillow, feeling feeble and drained.

   And that's when I'm desperate for a chink to appear in the wall: music calms my soul because I simply sit and receive; encouraging fiction, like Jan Karon's "Mitford" series feeds my mind from the back door to my heart. I found myself encouraged today by, of all things, the nativity story. Why? Because with my steadily progressing pregnancy, I find myself sharing something new with Mary. I look forward to being very lo, with child, this Advent season. I think it will feed my soul, feeling a baby kicking in my womb while I sing Christmas carols about the Christ child. Christmas in July, you ask?

   It's my chink in the wall, a space to slip my fingers into, grasping, pulling aside bricks to widen the stream of light coming through.

   I think it's important to compare and contrast the dark night of the soul and clinical depression, because sometimes they overlap, coincide, are tangled up, or are one and the same. Not always - but I do believe they often interact. Here's one of the best descriptions of (the poorly named) depression that I've ever read: 

"I had had a short and really quite catastrophic marriage and I'm left with this baby and I've got to get this baby back to Britain and I've got to rebuild us a life," Rowling recalled. "...Adrenalin kept me going through that and it was only when I came to rest that it hit me what a complete mess I had made of my life and that hit me quite hard."
     Her deep depression inspired the creation of dementors, "the foulest creatures that walk this earth," who prey on people's happiness and suck out their souls in the Harry Potter series.
     "I was definitely clinically depressed. And that's just characterized for me by, a numbness, just a sort of coldness and an inability to believe that you will feel happy again or that you could feel light-hearted again," she said. "It's just all the color drained out of life really."
     That may or may not sound familiar to you. But maybe this does:
"You ask if I have ever faced such a thing as you are currently facing. My friend, exhaustion and fatigue are a committed priest's steady companions, and there is no way around it. It is a problem of epidemic proportions, and I ask you to trust that you aren't alone.  Sometimes, hidden away in a small parish as you are now - and as I certainly have been - one feels that the things which press in are pointed directly at one's self.
I assure you this is not the case.
An old friend who was a pastor in Atlanta said this: "I did not have a crisis of faith, but of emotion and energy. It's almost impossible for leaders of a congregation to accept that their pastor needs pastoring. I became beat up, burned out, angry, and depressed."
The tone of your letter does not indicate depression or anger, thanks be to God. But I'm concerned with you for what might follow if this goes unattended.
Keep a journal and let off some steam. If that doesn't fit with your affinities, find yourself a godly counselor.
I exhort you to do the monitoring you so sorely need, and hang in there. Give it a year!
(excerpt, "At Home in Mitford," letter from Bishop Stuart Cullen to Episcopal priest, Fr. Timothy Kavanaugh)
Keep this in mind: if enough lamps are burning in kitchen windows at three a.m., representing sleepless women and men awake and experiencing every minute of the dark night of the soul, eventually, the pools of light will melt together in combined radiance, and will chase away the darkness. 
You are not alone. 


Anonymous said...


Bob said...

YOU saw "RUN,FAT BOY RUN!" didn't you?

Elizabeth Glass-Turner said...

YEP, I heart Simon Pegg comedy - he's also "Scotty" in the new Star Trek, very funny role.