17 Dec Overcoming Spiritual Despair
When our son Michael revealed that a traumatic event occurred in his childhood, my husband and I could finally connect the dots and understand what precipitated his 30- year struggle with depression, eating disorders, and drug addiction. Despite gaining closure, we agonized over what our dear boy had endured. He felt unworthy of love and of every good thing that might come his way. To protect himself from the shame and powerlessness, he fractured his personality and built up layers of control. I witnessed both vulnerability and resilience as he pushed through an insurmountable wall of anger and grief. Though I kept telling him, “No pain is wasted,” in my hungering dark, I had difficulty believing it. I longed to tell him that God, too, was victimized–that only a God with wounds could truly understand his.
The pain isolated me from friends. Though I longed for comfort, Michael deserved privacy, and I feared saying too much. My jealousy extended to the entire universe of parents whose sons hadn’t been robbed of innocence and personhood. My incendiary anger at the victimizer resembled a raw wound– seething and untouchable. Pure insurgent rage charged through every vein in my body. I had overcome much, but this stood in a category all by itself. Everyone has a breaking point, and I had reached mine. My soul, a parched, barren terrain, plummeted fathoms into my imagined sanctuary. I found no one at home.
Every numinous awareness evaporated into thin air, and God disintegrated into nothing more than an imaginary childhood friend—simply an illusory force I could cry to. I would have preferred to not have loved Him at all than to lose Him this way. That a single, sinister act could so effectively damage our family caused me to feel at the mercy of malevolent, random forces. Aside from God’s sovereignty and the power of Jesus’ resurrection, I had nothing to counterbalance it.
In the treacherous space where love often twists into hate, I pushed the void back onto itself and found a light. This occurred when I intuited that underneath my blaming God lay the assumption that He was personally involved in my circumstance to such a degree that He warranted culpability. My safe harbor came from acknowledging this aspect of God’s sovereignty. If I wanted to access His healing touch in my pain, I had to accept His will in all things, good or bad. Unable to grasp how sovereignty, free will, and prayer worked together, I tilted towards the theology that says: “God allows what He hates to accomplish what He loves.” The more I focused my anger at Satan, the more I could recognize and access God’s goodness, the full measure of Julian of Norwich’s prayer.
To overcome spiritual amnesia, I force fed my soul by revisiting former insights. I turned to Mark 14:34, and read how Christ’s swelling grief reached a peak in the Garden of Gethsemane. He said, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death.” This eternal template quantified and mirrored my pain. Thomas Merton said, “To suffer without dwelling on our own affliction, we must think of a greater affliction and turn to Christ on the cross.”
The spirituality of abandonment led to my purification. My soul united with God, I left behind all hope of reward—save intimacy with Him. On the other side of emptiness, I found peace. Like a moth approaching a flame, I drew close to the object of my desire, dying in self-surrender . In Ruth Skogland’s, Bright Days, Dark Nights, I read Charles Spurgeon’s sermon indicating that Jesus passed through the brook as well and that we can’t expect a giant faith that can move mountains.
In reading Psalm 88, I took comfort from the fact that another had waded through waters as deep as mine.
You have put me in the lowest pit, In the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; You have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends. I am confined and cannot escape; My eyes are dim with grief … Why, O Lord, do you reject me And hide your faith from me? From my youth, I have been afflicted and close to death; and have made me repulsive to them I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; Your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; They have completely engulfed me. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; The darkness is my closest friend (:6-9;14-18).
Jesus felt the most forlorn and forsaken at a time when God was never so near. In my failing, flailing faith, I had only to abide with Him on the cross without striving for hope or sacred feelings. I saw that I can never, in fact, lose my faith. Like a metaphysical boomerang, the greater my forsakenness, the closer will be my adherence to Jesus.
In the story of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” the caretaker loves the stuffed animal until he morphs into an actual rabbit. In my despair, Jesus devolved into nothing more than an imaginary childhood friend. As it happened–metaphorically, at least, I loved Jesus back into tangible, authentic existence. In the comings and goings of the Holy Spirit, I learned that God bestows faith as a gift. My inability to muster it on my own kept me from pride. Otherwise, I would resemble the child in the C.S. Lewis story who, after asking his father for money, proceeds to buy him a gift and take credit for it.
Every time I think I’m doing something for God, self is right there, staring me in the face. Someday, I hope the mirrored light will capture His glow rather than the dim shadow of my own ego.