Melancholy has been my friend, since childhood. I am drawn to grey seascapes and misty mornings. Sad endings to books and movies often resonate more than happy ones.
An exchange from one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who (yes, I am that nerdy) sums up my natural feelings quite well when Sally Sparrow says:
I love old things. They make me feel sad. Kathy: What’s good about sad? Sally: It’s happy for deep people.
I would argue, even, that there is a Divine Melancholy that comes from seeing the deep truth of our world. Our wide, great earth is irreparably broken. We have been irreconcilably cut off from our Creator, the source of all love.
What I love about winter in the north is the way the backdrop of snow and cold highlights every hidden beauty. Visiting my parents’ house, I took a walk in the woods I grew up playing in and stopped at everything that caught my eye – berries, bright red like the world’s own Christmas ornaments, thorn bushes with green and purple branches branches bound together, rich brown stripes on mushrooms growing like shelves on fallen trees. Even in the cold, dead winter, there is enough small grace to take the breath away.
Adulthood is a rhythm I’m trying to work out, and there are days it feels like a song hummed on some spring morning and other days it grinds inside my ears. With my first grown-up job, I am reminded how much of life is repetitious—I drink my coffee, go to work, come home, eat dinner, pack a lunch for tomorrow, go to sleep and restart again. Grocery shopping and laundry replay week after week.
Then in the news I hear of all the ways and places the world has split open to bleed. Our black brothers killed, attacks on police, Baghdad bombed, crowds mowed down by a truck in Nice. Bloody summer once again.
What can I do? My daily routine is shabby at best.
About a year ago, I wrote a blog post pondering how God speaks. It’s still a topic I find endlessly fascinating, and fairly recently, I read Frederick Buechner’s memoir The Sacred Journey, where he says,
“If God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks. Someone we love dies, say. Some unforeseen act of kindness or cruelty touches the heart or makes the blood run cold. We fail a friend, or a friend fails us, and we are appalled at the capacity we all of us have for estranging the very people in our lives we need the most. Or maybe nothing extraordinary happens at all—just one day following another, helter-skelter, in the manner of days. We sleep and dream. We wake. We work. We remember and forget. We have fun and are depressed. And into the thick of it, or out of the thick of it, at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks.”
This sounds quite nice, and is certainly something I would like to believe—that God speaks and is present in all things, but I would be the first to admit that in my own life, I rarely sense it. What does it really mean to say that God speaks?
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?
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.
Lately I’ve been trying to take some hard looks at my life to eliminate the difference between how I’m living and how I’d like to be living. This post might be more thinking out loud than making any definite point about. I just want to put to words to my thoughts.
The pastor of the church I attended in Virginia recently wrote a blog post about belonging. He quotes the author Wendell Berry about a community in one of Berry’s books. Berry says,
“Members of Port William aren’t trying to ‘get someplace.’ They think they are someplace.”
That stood out to me, because I think I’ve always been trying to get someplace. In high school and even before, I wanted out of my town. In college, I wanted out of my state. Most things I spent my time with were a means to an end.
This is the way God loves you,
in the quiet of blue mountains
that have only to stand tall to speak,
and this is the way God loves you,
in red clay earth staining rivers across palms,
blood-splashed dirt drunk on men
who fought for freedom and men they kept as slaves;
from this unholy ground springs flowers,
pressing blue petal-lips to sky.