A couple days ago I did a little reading in historical theology and spirituality. I wasn’t looking so much for historical details as for personal help. I wasn’t disappointed.
The Valley of Vision is a collection of Puritan prayers. “Puritan” has become a mostly negative word; reading some of the beautiful prayers of the Puritans might correct some of that derision. One prayer addresses the Triune God together (three Persons and One God) three times and addresses each Person (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) three times, praising them for having “loved me and sent Jesus to redeem me,” “loved me and assumed my nature,” “loved me and entered my heart,” among other warm praises.
Many Puritans recorded their experience of grace in journals “to test their spiritual growth, and to encourage themselves by their re-perusal in times of low spiritual fervor,” as the brief introduction says. I find it comforting to know that well-known writers, preachers, and physicians of the soul found themselves in temporary moods or longer seasons of spiritual drought. For of course I find this myself, and return not so much to journals as to specific memories of God’s grace and guidance in the past. Thinking through the story of what God has done for me helps to balance out whatever apathy or depression I may be feeling.
The Rule of St Benedict (written in the 500s) is one of the foundational documents of monasticism, which has a long and influential history in Europe. Our new home country of Belgium was basically settled and civilized by monks, whose monasteries were “from the sixth century on, centers of economic and intellectual life,” according to an introductory history of the country. Monasteries are still remarkably numerous here, but they are now known more as centers of brewing technique rather than economic, intellectual, or spiritual life.
Several people here have expressed that they feel lonely. As church is often the one setting where these people really do feel at home, I decided to reread Benedict’s Rule for some possible ideas of how to bring a stronger sense of community and spiritual growth to the church. What struck me instead was Benedict’s brief comment on the type of monk who has moved out of the monastery. They “have been trained by a lengthy period of probation in the monastery with the support of many others and have learned to fight against the devil. Well-armed, they go out from the ranks of the brothers to the single combat of the desert…they are able to fight against physical and mental temptations.” The most spiritually mature are not beyond temptations; they have not arrived at some restful state. They are ready for greater battles, greater temptations.
I find myself dealing with two mindsets. On the one hand, I long for a season of rest and renewal. On the other hand, I think God may set me greater challenges. Why not? What God wants for me is not easy relaxation, but something that can only be shaped through the hammer of adversity and the anvil of suffering: Christ-likeness, also known as holiness or spiritual maturity. God may indeed grant me a period of rest and renewal. He knows what I need. And although I have no plans to head out for the single combat of the desert, God may also continue to let the challenges come.
The challenges so far have included the expected adjustment to a new country and culture. But then it’s difficult to identify where those difficulties end and where grief begins, not to mention normal stresses. What is certain is that the experiences of the past year have left me more vulnerable. Things that I might have handled with minimal stress now trouble my soul for extended times. My sleep, for instance, has been crazy in its irregularity. Some nights I sleep ridiculously long hours. Other nights I fall asleep normally, but after a few minutes am jolted back awake. Sometimes this repeats dozens of times. After so many I begin to struggle in my thoughts. Fear creeps in. Strange things. I suspect that underneath this difficulty sleeping is that the state of my soul is easily shattered. Something in me is not able to rest. Indeed, sometimes the thought that jerks me to consciousness is this: “I had four children. One of them has died. This cannot be true!” That thought feels like getting too close to the edge of a cliff, so my mind and body are left buzzing with an energy that makes it difficult to fall asleep. Sometimes I wake up sobbing. But it’s not always obvious that grief is the cause. Many times I just wake up for no apparent reason.
This is where the books on grieving, whether about stages of grief or how resilient people grieve, become irrelevant. No book could predict that seven months after my son’s death I would go through a week of impossible sleep. Each person grieves according to their personality and circumstances. Certainly, there are healthy and unhealthy things that people can do in the process. One healthy thing, I think, is to let myself be weak.
The last book I read from was The Fathers Speak, a collection of personal correspondence of the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil, his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus. They were important church leaders and theological thinkers in the 4th century. In one letter Basil writes openly and refreshingly about his coming death. He is “driven by an illness towards the inescapable issue,” he tells the new priest of a nearby church. He asks the man to pray for him that he may visit him in the church, concluding, “but should we die first, we shall meet with you in the Lord.” As if death was no big thing.
Peter felt the same way about death. “Can you please…stop…crying?” he asked us the day before he died. “It makes…me cry too.” He wasn’t actually crying. It just made him feel sad. Without our sadness he was emotionally just fine. Really. He was on his way to meet the Lord. But for those left behind, now that’s the hard part. That’s where all the difficulty comes. And that’s why seven months later I continue to experience aftershocks of grief.
Going back even farther in history, I find a clear statement of my feelings: “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13:2). Maybe forever, I feel. But the last piece of the Psalm also applies: “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” Sorrow and joy together are a part of life in Christ.
There you have my personal reflections, as if copying a page out of my journal. What about the family? Here are a few photos of snow (“It hardly ever snows here,” everyone said) and exploration.
The kids were all ready for the Christmas vacation. School in a foreign language is tiring. We are proud of Isaac, who studied harder than ever in his life and achieved excellent grades on his first big exams.
And the church? In the last week several people have received their papers – their applications for asylum have been accepted and they are now residents of Belgium! On the other hand, a family was just denied asylum. In a month they are supposed to leave the country. Actually, they can appeal the decision, but will not have housing until a court case is opened, which could take six months or more. They cannot return to their home country; their families have rejected them and a militia has stated their intention to “spill blood.” The family has felt the love of the church, which is the body of Christ. “You told me that the church is a family,” the father of the family told me, “And it’s true.”
To tie it up, I find myself learning and re-learning this same lesson: it’s okay to be weak. In fact, weakness is in our nature; each of us is mortal, growing physically and mentally weaker in our older years. What good does it do to deny reality? Strength comes from God’s grace in us. Back to the prayer that gives its title to The Valley of Vision:
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.