Earlier this year, I felt as if my heart and head both broke open, and everything of myself fell out. People told me I should trust in God, cry out to God. But I didn’t have much to say to Him. There was nothing I wanted. I had no plans or dreams to seek wisdom about. And while I knew I had things to be grateful for, there was nothing I particularly felt like giving thanks for.
Then I discovered liturgical prayer. In his book Water To Wine, Brian Zahnd lays out the liturgy he prays each morning, and it’s been extraordinarily helpful to me. Zahnd says this about prayer:
“When it comes to spiritual formation, we are what we pray. Without wise input that comes from outside ourselves, we will never change. We will just keep praying what we already are. A selfish person prays selfish prayers. An angry person prays angry prayers. A greedy person prays greedy prayers. A manipulative person prays manipulative prayers. Nothing changes.”
Did you know, Lord, that you could feel this – emptied, depleted in the wilderness?
Does the voice of the tempter sound just like your own, insisting, if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. Do you stretch a hand toward them, trembling, wondering if you can fill yourself and end this hollow torture?
Do you remember that other voice, booming as you rose from the glistening Jordan, skin dripping wet, when the Spirit descended dove-like upon you, and your Father claimed you as his own?
Then that same Spirit drove you into the desert; you wandered forty days and nights. Did you know this world you gave life to could blister your feet and turn a blind eye, deaf to all your needs? Can you hear your Father in these dry stones, or do you perceive only silent, cloudless sky?
“What am I in the eyes of most people – a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person – somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short, the lowest of the low.
All right, then – even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.
That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love, in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.”
Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven toward these things with an irresistible momentum.” (Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, 21 July 1882).
The more I read about Van Gogh, the more I find in him a kindred soul. Today, I also find in him a challenge to keep seeking, keep searching; despite many rejections throughout his life, Van Gogh did not reject himself, but sought constantly after beauty in the world and in his own soul.
As a child, Easter was a main event, mostly involving spring and eating a lot and having my grandparents in town for the weekend. My sister and I put on our new dresses and flowered hats; we wore white gloves to church. Before we piled into the van, my eyes would scan the hallway, seeking the plastic eggs I knew were filled with chocolate, though the egg hunt wasn’t until afternoon.
Jesus was a part of it, but I’d heard the story so many times; resurrection was hardly a surprise. Mostly, I think I was grateful the savior enabled such a holiday—where overnight a new stuffed bunny might show up on the kitchen table in a basket, along with chocolate eggs and turquoise candy-coated malted milk balls.
Perhaps as children, this is all we need; the assurance of newness, joy returning every holiday.
Easter dawned cloudy this year, and the wind felt cold walking from the van into church with my family. I didn’t have a new dress. I didn’t wear white gloves. Afterward, only one grandma came home to celebrate—the other sits in a nursing home barely aware of what’s around her, and my grandpa is years gone.
Despair has still got a rope around my ankle, it seems, and it’s pulling, pulling me down.
I spent this last week in Florida, playing on the beach. My brother and I went swimming on a day when the waves were high, and it was joyous to ride them up and down, effortlessly floating on the sea’s boundless momentum.
But coming into shore, the waves knocked me down with force and dragged my body across the sand. Every time I stood up, I was slammed back down until I was bleeding from the sand and broken shells.
I thought, Oh, this feels familiar.
This isn’t how I thought I would feel at the back half of 22–like I am fighting to see anything good in the world.
Time is both a blessing and a curse. People say that time heals, or at the very least, it lessens hurt, but in good times, time seems to sweep in only to steal away joy.
The Psalmist notes,
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more. (Psalm 103.15-16)
So it is with seasons of joy here on earth; they come and are gone. Time stops for no one.
It seems the joys in life are few and the pain and boredom plenty. I’ve had seasons when every day seemed bright and blooming. But they didn’t stay, and they left me feeling cold and empty. Admittedly, I am one who dislikes change and am easily driven toward despair, but lately I’ve felt like life is a meaningless string of days I am growing tired of. What’s the point of reaching a better place, if any future days of joy are just as likely to be ripped away?
In the dull hours you dreamed of ending, but think how you would never
have heard the birds sing above the quiet streets, seen the snow melt as January leans
toward thaw, or watched the red sun light the tips of the bare trees,
burning but not consumed.
Holy fire of sunset takes the world in stride; flames lick away what need not go on,
and you cannot kneel in ash forever; a gentle man once said,
let the dead bury their own dead—perhaps the harshest words he ever spoke.
But we are the ones still breathing, in and out, this ancient sacred breath,
inclining our eyes to the bright skies, branches aglow like embers;
they declare in the voice of YHWH, “You are standing on holy ground.”
Would you turn away from this world reviving?
Would you close your small body into a dark tomb?
Or would you rise again with the morning, feel sinew thread around bone,
blink as the dawn fills your eyes and see that the world, again, is wide?
It felt like each of your dreams died in the winter,
buried deep beneath frozen earth, and you stood alone
in the cold til you forgot what they looked like.
A part of you stopped believing that anything means anything.
We are just puppets here in God’s great game. We play our roles and fall in love or fall apart,
and all the while the world’s a burning explosion. Stare deeply into your glass of wine.
There are no answers.
Yet, even yet, snowflakes waltz from the grey sky—old shroud of a dead day,
weeping new fractals that spin in sheer exuberance, etching a message into the air:
the world dances on an axis of grace, and even in these frigid moments lives beauty.
Lightning split the sky open in a long streak of white, and thunder echoed like the whole earth cracked within its depths. My brother and I stood outside to watch as rain pattered against our hoods and soaked through our shoes.
At the end of the storm, a cloud drifted across the shining street and above the house, moving with speed and glowing orange and white and silver tones. It looked like it was painted with curved brush strokes. It looked so close we could touch it, but even if we could ever reach so high, we would touch only particles of water. We could never grab hold.
I thought of the story in Exodus of God going before Israel as a pillar of cloud in the wilderness. Is this how he seemed to them, so close but so out of reach? So breathtaking, yet completely unknown?
I was sitting on the deck at my parents’ house in late September or early October, crying, and the only thing that seemed to help was reading John O’Donohue like a prayer. I skipped around in his book of blessings, reading out loud, hoping to bless myself.
Some words I’ve come back to over the months since then are these, the first stanza of For An Exile:
When you dream, it is always home.
You are there among your own,
The rhythm of their voices rising like song
Your blood would sing through any dark.