“Are you afraid of leaving your congregation alone in the dark with God?” I asked a pastor who simply could not understand why I would blow out all candles during a Longest Night Service.
He’s not alone. We tend to rush to bring light into darkness in the same way we rush to fill silence with sound.
Pastors, especially so.
They feel the weight of proclaiming and reminding. Wanting to make sure people know there is hope and “Jesus is the Light,” they constantly talk about hope, repeat Jesus’ name, and keep the lights on, candles burning.
Honestly, they’re just as afraid of the dark as most.
As a Spiritual Director, I’ve had plenty of pastors on silent retreats and plenty who don’t want to come at all because silence is scary. It seems unproductive and too revealing…which is more frightening?! Given my years as a church staff member and years working with church staff members, both are equally so. So much so, some never dare to come or they walk away from the discomfort never to return to a silent retreat.
But discomfort is a doorway to deep transformation. And pastors can be like helicopter parents trying to shield those in their charge from the awkward and uncomfortable feelings that come with silence and darkness.
But, have you ever experienced God in silence? In darkness? I have. I’ve also watched and listened to stories of how others have experienced God in silence and darkness. And guess what naturally arises? Hope. And guess where people discover the Light of Christ? Arising in their midst, even from within their very selves!
After all, God is everywhere--within and without.
The Psalmist proclaims in Psalm 139:12, “Darkness and light are alike to You.” Then he goes on to talk about God forming him in his mother’s womb (another place of darkness where God is present and at work). No lights needed. God is there. And are we not born from our mother’s womb and continue in the womb of the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being?
Light and dark are part of every life and God is with us equally in both.
Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is in our midst, even within our very being (Luke 17:21). So we do not have to be afraid of the dark, the inner light never goes out. It just may take some time (& discomfort) to become aware of it.
14th century Persian poet, Hafiz of Shiraz, echoes this reality when saying, “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.”
For some reason this scares us, so we look to pastors to talk to us about the Kingdom rather than experience it for ourselves.
However, when a pastor (or anyone!) dares to sit in the discomfort of darkness and silence, allowing uncomfortable feelings to emerge and giving themselves permission to rest from all the doing, they begin to radiate trust.
This trust allows them to entrust those in their care to the discomfort of silence and darkness because they know God will meet each person in whatever way is needed.
Right before an overnight silent retreat a person came up to me after dinner and in all seriousness said, "I'm on the verge of a panic attack the closer we get to going into the silence, I don't know if I can do this." I replied, "I can see why it's scary to you. Know there is a nurse here if needed. And, you're free to leave, but I hope you'll give the silence a try." The person stayed and now they sign up for almost every silent retreat!
In befriending silence and darkness, the discovery is made that rather than be afraid of them, they in fact, can be a gift—an opportunity to be still and know that God is everywhere, in our mist, within our very being.
A few weeks after talking to the one pastor, another emailed me and asked if her Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, could use my liturgy for their Longest Night Service. Mine had been the first liturgy she had come across that included blowing out candles and letting people simply be with God in the dark. She thought it would be powerful, especially this year, to let her congregation experience God’s presence in the darkness.
I could not help but smile.
Advent is a time of gestation. Much like the discomfort and anticipation of pregnancy, we wait on the arrival of what is deeply hoped for and anticipated.
A few weeks ago I was in a sensory-deprivation tank floating on 1500 pounds of salt. It's supposed to be (and usually is) relaxing but that day I kept squirming around...like a baby in the womb.
Last year I went to a Benedictine Sister for both Spiritual Direction and healing touch at a monastery where I would be facilitating a retreat the following day. During the time of laying on of hands, when she got to my abdomen she said, "We are in the womb of God who is birthing us. Birth pains are difficult, but we WILL be born."
I teared up as I heard these words of deep hope, because I had been restless then, too.
In liminal space, I felt the strain of being "betwixt and between," especially in relationship with my own religious institution where the leadership continued pulling back from engaging contemplative practice with each passing year. Knowing the transformative power and wholeness found in contemplation and action, I continued to hope. What this hope looked like in regard to my faith community, I found myself full of questions with no easy or sure answers.
Her words of hope spoke to my soul but did not take away the struggle.
Contrary to idealistic views of hope, theologian Jurgen Moltmann (known as the theologian of hope), writes in Experiences of God, "...whenever faith develops into hope it does not make people serene and placid; it makes them restless. It does not make them patient; it makes them impatient. Instead of being reconciled to existing reality they begin to suffer from it and to resist it."
The Sister's words of hope gave me deep permission to accept the struggle and discomfort as part of the process of rebirth.
When I realized that it was not wrong, but natural, to be squirming in the float tank, I found myself smiling with a newfound acceptance. Instead of trying to be still, I playfully allowed my arms and legs to stretch and move however they wanted. It felt freeing.
If I could allow this restlessness in the float tank, how about other in places of my life?
After all, Saint Paul reminded the people in Athens of the perennial truth of their own Greek poets when he quoted, "For in him we live and move and have our being."
Sometimes we rest, sometimes we walk, sometimes we wriggle in the womb of God.
“Must be hard being 10 and already going through dark night of the soul,” 14-year-old, Lainey, said as the two of us drove back from her fencing lessons.
Her comment about her brother caught me off guard.
As a Spiritual Director, I companion adults going through Dark Night of the Soul, but I had not considered how children may, too. I know that children suffer depression which in adults can coincide with Dark Night, but I had not seen Dark Night through a child’s eyes (even though our most memorable moments with God often happen when we are children).
For those not familiar with the concept, Dark Night is a stage in the spiritual journey that Saint John of the Cross experienced and wrote about in the 16th century. He gave words to the “spiritual crisis” that occurs for those seeking union with God or to embody Perfect Love.
Whether happening gradually or initiated through a tragedy or hardship, Dark Night can be felt as emptiness and dryness. Our go-to spiritual practices no longer “work.” Those activities and places of belonging that once brought us enjoyment, no longer do so. We suffer disappointment, doubt, disorientation, discomfort, disillusionment, and even the utter disintegration of our thoughts and feelings about God, ourselves, and life. In experiencing this loss and grief, depression can occur.
We ask questions like, “Who am I?” “Who and where is God?” “What’s going on?” “Why can’t things go back to ‘normal’?” “What is normal anyway?” “Will this ever end?”
This liminal space is entered into many times in our lives as we find ourselves in places and situations we would rather not be (like in a pandemic!). We are in that “in-between” of who we were before and who will be after…it’s definitely uncomfortable. My 10-year-old joins the rest of the planet in this communal Dark Night of the Soul.
He’s asking, “Who am I?” “Who are my friends?” “Do I even have friends anymore?” “Will friends recognize me when I do go back to school?” “Is virtual school even school?” “Will I ever play baseball or basketball again?” “Will I even love sports again?” “Things are too stressful in the world right now, is it always going to be like this?”
Now here’s what makes Dark Night different from depression. When depressed, it’s a good idea to seek counseling and/or receive medication which hopefully helps us emerge from the darkness of depression with great relief. And while there may be inner relief from the suffering (which is something to celebrate), there may not be inner transformation. One may be grateful to simply return to oneself.
During a Dark Night, rather than seeking a way out of the darkness, we are led deeper into it (a Spiritual Director is really helpful in the dark!). This is the place where God loosens our attachments to all we may mistake for God, life, and our true selves.
It can be painful to have these attachments revealed and painful to let go of them. After all, we might really love being known as the athlete, whether spiritual or baseball! We might cherish the feeling we get in imaging and relating to God in a certain way.
However, when we emerge from Dark Night, we not only find relief but we are also transformed. We no longer see or exist in the world in the same way we did prior to the darkness. In other words, we do not return to ourselves, but are a new, truer Self!
An expanded heart is the fruit of the Dark Night. We see God, ourselves, and the world in deeper and wider ways and we are free to love God, ourselves, and the world in deeper and wider ways.
A different 14-year-old girl shared an image that came to her during our Girls’ Group-time of listening to the instrumental song, Unfolding. It offers a beautiful and striking image of what it’s like to come through Dark Night of the Soul:
I saw a newborn fawn.
The fawn had outgrown the only world it knew and she was witnessing the moment of it breaking free of the old and opening its eyes in the new one. As her words convey, the birth process is messy--so is being “born again” into a new way of being and seeing! This is my hope for our world. In the words of Matthew Fox, “A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste.”
In the meantime, we have the birth pains.
Last night I talked with my son about his struggles and the possibility of counseling. With his permission, I share what he said: “Mom, I don’t think I need counseling right now, I have no problem discussing my feelings with you and Dad. And yeah, I’m learning new things about myself, but I’m mad and nothing helps. I hate sports right now. Lainey’s discovered a sport and mine are gone. I can't do anything right. I don’t know when it will end, maybe it never will. But I don’t need any other voices right now, what I need is you.”
At 10, he’s being led deeper into the dark and I’m going to sit with him there, as a Spiritual Director and Mom. Together, in this womb-like darkness, we’ll wait and trust that the God we cannot see or feel, is truly Emmanuel, “God-with-us.”
Anxiety. Anger. Heaviness. Headache. Nausea. Nerve-pain. Tension. Tears.
My 14-year-old woke up way too early this morning and as we met in the hallway both of us bleary-eyed, she said, “Ugh, I’m feeling everyone’s collective stuff.” “I hear you,” I replied.
This is normal. We are all interconnected so you’re not alone today if you are feeling more than your normal share in this liminal space. Jesus felt his people’s collective pain. He shares in our suffering.
However, at this point, unlike Jesus, we often go searching outside ourselves for a remedy that can only come from a deeper place within. Understandably, we want a quick fix. We want to feel better and we want others to feel better.
So we are apt to compulsively scan the horizons of social media, news, books (even the most holy ones!), and other people (even the most holy ones!) looking for “good news” or at least a reminder that we are not the only burden-bearers. But no amount of memes, quotes, or conversations can offer what that pit in our stomach is crying out for.
It knows something, that discomfort, that pain. It has stories to share (for our bodies hold memory). You actually don’t need any new insights, you need to trust the ones you already have! So what do you already have? What do you know in your depths? I trust you know something to be true in your bones. What is it?
Here are some additional ways to listen to the wisdom within (God’s own Spirit dwelling within your own being, your own story, your own body).
By the way, when I asked my daughter what she knew to be true in her bones, her worried brow immediately softened as perennial wisdom rushed from the depths to the surface. She sang, "Don't worry about a thing. 'Cause every little thing gonna be alright."
Bob Marley, Julian of Norwich, Saint Paul, and Jesus, would all agree.
A couple of weeks ago, I walked into the bedroom, closed the door, and collapsed on the floor in tears.
I was done in that moment. My inner storm clouds were too heavy and calling for release.
There's a lot going on in our world, isn't there? For many, there is a lot going on in their personal world as well.
Adding virtual school to my mix and constantly hearing, "Mom!" so many times that I've begun to hear it even when no one's calling, was my breaking point.
Conversations with others who are feeling the weight of the world and going through their own personal crises have revealed a "grin and bear it" attitude. Trying hard to ignore the tension and anxiety they continue on even as they feel the inner storm clouds growing more and more each day.
One thing I've learned from my indoor cat is that if she doesn't get her playtime in, she doesn't get her anxiety out which leads to other issues (i.e. not using the litterbox). She's got to release the tension of the day through leaping, running, and chasing.
Following her lead, I've tried to be mindful about moving anxiety out of my body, too—shaking, squeezing, twisting—through at-home Zumba, barre workouts, and yoga. This release is helpful but one thing is missing...cleansing.
Crying is physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually cleansing.
It needs to be added to our personal self-care practices. It already is an ancient spiritual practice for individuals and communities called lament (though you may hear of few congregations who practice it).
It's as natural for us to cry as clouds to rain. So why do we often "hold it in"?
When I offer Distance Reiki, in the majority of my sessions, I have tears come to my eyes at some point. As parts of a client's body release, I feel a rush of energy in my own body, causing the common "lump in my throat" followed by tears. What was released inside is ready to be released outside. Upon mentioning it to the client afterwards, they always shake their head, "yes." For they either began to cry during the session or felt the lump in the throat, knowing they need to give themselves permission for a good cleansing cry sooner than later.
I once had a client that wept and shook mightily during an in-person Reiki session (with eyes remaining closed but tears streaming). Afterwards they had no idea they were shaking so much but said they weren't surprised, for they came desiring long-held trauma to leave their body and it had.
So is it time for a good cleansing cry for you? Or will you continue to hold it in and put it off?
Imagine clouds getting heavier and heavier and refusing to let go and rain...can you feel those clouds in your body?
After a rainstorm, everything feels lighter.
That's what happened for me. An hour after light crying with intermittent gut-level sobbing, my head was clear, my body relaxed, I felt at peace. I opened the door, now ready to walk out and tend to whoever called, "Mom!" first.
Facebook's "what's on your mind?" prompt has been taunting me, so here's what's on my mind. It begins with a conversation...
“You know what’s strange? Most people I see who aren’t wearing masks are Christians,” a friend who was standing over 6 feet away said to me. We both shook our heads.
Interconnected. That’s what we are with everyone & everything.
In not recognizing it, we are what the prophets lamented, “foolish and senseless people who have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear.” Which leads to little understanding of how God is present and at work in our world. After all, one way Jesus described the Kingdom of God is “like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough" (he also used the image of yeast to describe leaders’ hypocrisy).
The Reign of Love, like coronavirus, spreads in hidden ways.
We had Thanksgiving dinner at my brother-in-law’s parents’ home this past year. They live less than 5 miles away. Both were diagnosed with COVID-19. His dad died this week. My husband’s grandma was diagnosed with COVID-19 this week, too. And we await the test results of a dear friend as to whether or not he has COVID-19.
The politicization of COVID-19 and seeing people not taking it seriously infuriates me.
I can’t help but think of words found in Deuteronomy 30, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life that you and your descendants may live.”
The “you” being addressed is an entire nation of people. A nation is made of many individual “yous.” So the choice is both personal and communal, they’re interconnected. And they also impact not only those we see right here, right now, but generations to come (we’re seeing this truth with our nation’s racial injustice crying out to be healed).
Granted, the choice doesn’t always look or feel like life at the time. The path of/toward Life often does not.
In the middle of May, we decided that until the virus’ spread trended downward for 2 weeks or we could assure social-distancing measures, we needed to do our best (knowing we wouldn’t do it perfectly) to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” So we cancelled our vacation and we have not let Alex play on his travel baseball team (the latter decision harder than the former).
Does it make any difference? We don’t know. But those are a couple of ways our family has and continues to choose Life. Given our awareness of our interconnectivity to everything and everyone else, including all of you, we can do no less.
My 13-year-old daughter started animating the morning after a tornado blew through our town of Mount Juliet, TN, leaving a path of heart-breaking destruction. At first, it was a way for her to express her feelings. It then became a way for her to speak to others affected by the storm and direct people to give to The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. When she first showed me her completed animation, I was amazed by its heart and simplicity.
One scene in particular continues to stay with me. When the boy grabs hold of the extended hand, he bursts into tears. Rather than stifle them, the touch allows his tears to flow freely and the animation stops right there.
It doesn’t end on a sunny note (even though she wrote earlier in the video, “It’s going to be okay…We’re in this together.”). Having the promise of things inevitably being okay does not mean we are (or someone else is) okay in the moment. It does not mean we need to stop our tears or think there’s nothing to cry about (even if someone does have it worse).
There is a time to leap into action, to encourage each other that all will be okay, to gather in churches to sing praises and offer thanksgiving, to share Scriptures and words of hope to find strength for the road ahead.
There is also a time, especially as the shock wears off, to allow for tears, both individually and communally, and stop right there.
Today is Halloween and my daughter is dressing up like a crazy cat lady.
In the 13th century she would have been killed.
Sounds ridiculous doesn't it?
It's amazing what fear can do especially when its conduit is religion. Fear and superstition can be passed down for centuries!
How many times have you or another remarked on the black cat that just crossed your path?!
In graduate school, a man studying to be a therapist told me, in all seriousness, that demons took possession of cats so to be wary of them. Years later a woman told me that black cats were associated with witchcraft and satanism so she would never own one. A couple of years ago I told a friend how interesting it was that shortly after being trained in Reiki I noticed how our neighbor's 12-year-old cat began spending oodles of time at our house wanting to be petted. She said, "Well, you know what they say about cats and evil." Clearly she did not trust cats or Reiki!
All of these people are sincere, intelligent people, but their belief (or what they may even call truth) arose out of fear and superstition from around the year 1232.
At that time, Pope Gregory IX wanted unity in the Church so he looked to weed out heretics and heretical beliefs (people and beliefs not conforming to the Catholic faith [now remember there was no Protestant faith at this time]). He also wanted to stop local lords and their mobs from unjustly executing people for heresy before any kind of trial was held. So he initiated the Papal Inquisition thinking it would bring more order to the process and give heretics an opportunity to return to the Church before being killed. He issued the Vox in Rama to Germany's King Henry hoping he would stop the spread of the heretical Luciferian cult. In this papal bull he mentioned some of the cult's devil-worshiping practices, including how Satan took the form of a black cat. And with that document, the demonizing of black cats and their owners began.
Black cats were killed and any peasant woman who owned cats, especially black cats, was automatically suspect. Soon the killing spread to all cats as fear heightened with the Black Plague. Thinking that getting rid of evil cats would get rid of the evil disease, people unknowingly exterminated a needed predator of the rats that housed the fleas that later on many believed were to blame for the Plague.
Choosing the fear-based path can have far-reaching consequences. From generation to generation others follow the fear trail marked out for them.
Here in America, Europeans brought with them their fear-based beliefs about black cats and witches which fueled the Salem Witch Trials in the late 1600s. To this day, black cats' bad reputation continues to haunt them as shelters report that they are passed over for the brighter white and orange cats. And violence toward cats, in particular the black cat, escalates on Halloween.
So let's pause (no pun intended!) for a moment and let black cats beckon us away from the path of fear & superstition. Let every cat and their owner be a reminder that we all hold such beliefs whatever person, people group, or animal we may choose to fear, blame, and even (God-forbid!) exterminate.
In writing this post, I found I wanted to blame Pope Gregory IX but realized I needed to dig a little deeper into the story rather than automatically (and easily) demonizing him! Each time we catch a fear and/or superstition-based belief arising within us (who or what we blame may clue us in), let us become aware of the fork in the road.
We don't have to continue down the same path tread by our ancestors. Yes, it may be harder and take longer but as Deuteronomy and Proverbs urge, we can choose the path of life with discernment, wisdom, and kindness.
Black cats and crazy cat ladies will thank us. Future generations will, too.
Like a blazing sun your light shines...
my fears flee from your sight,
your fire consumes them.
Yesterday was my daughter's birthday.
An eclipse-chasing friend of ours in Seattle has been reminding us of this epic birthday since we first announced we were moving to Tennessee.
He's most certainly an eclipse prophet, for it absolutely lived up to all the hype he continually forecasted for 9 1/2 years!
Given it's the day after, you've already proclaimed, heard, or read the descriptions like unbelievable, beautiful, incredible, amazing, epic...
And having a birthday fall on the eclipse was a once-in-a-life-time event. But the scene I want to recall isn't about my daughter's "totality" cool birthday, but my 7-year-old son's experience of totality.
During the partial eclipse we sat on our porch, watching my 11-year-old open some gifts and taking "moon bites" out of cucumber slices then checking the moon's progress to see who guessed correctly. We also read Psalm 21 in Nan Merrill's Psalms for Praying. We couldn't help but laugh as we read verse nine...perfect, even the Psalms were in alignment.
My son was super excited, describing how big of a bite the moon had taken out of the sun, checking NASA's website and announcing when we could see the sun's corona in Oregon. Then 7 minutes away from totality here in the Nashville-area, he melted down in absolute terror.
With the shift in temperature and light, overwhelming fear descended upon him as he became aware that he was about to experience for himself what he had only read or talked about or experienced through the stories of others.
Being in total darkness during the daytime and seeing the diamond ring effect in-person sank into his little mind. He was nearly inconsolable as we all laid down on a blanket in our front yard to look up into the sky through eclipse glasses. All of us were trying to pay attention to the moon while at the same time reassure him. Even as he was being held tightly by his daddy, he was still yelling, "I'm scared, I'm scared!" as the sun and moon approached perfect alignment.
Then totality happened.
We took off our glasses and gazed at a sight so other-worldly that we sat bolt upright. At that very instant, his fears fled just like the Psalmist said they would!
He then proceeded to melt down because after seeing it, he wanted more than a taste (just as the Psalmist said he would)!
As a spiritual director, I witness a similar scene with silent retreats.
People sign up for a silent retreat full of anticipation. It is something unique they have never done before and in this culture it's also very rare (even among Christians). They tell friends and family who laugh or scratch their heads not knowing why someone would pay to go be in silence!
Then the day comes. It's about to become real.
Some are nearly hyperventilating due to anxiety (that's no exaggeration). Getting ready to head into extended silence for the first time brings all kinds of fears to the surface.
Yet at some point, as they slowly sink into the Silence, they begin to align with the Spirit of God within them (who has been there the whole time, holding them even as they've inwardly screamed, "I'm scared! I'm scared!").
Then totality happens.
And this indescribable union with the Beloved sends their fears fleeing.
At the end of the retreat, the very people who were so full of panic at the beginning are now in tears because they want the experience to last longer. They find themselves fumbling to find the words to describe what their tears are already saying...that was epic.
Do you really think
more thinking is
needed right now?
Especially when what
we're dealing with is a
sickness of the mind!
With sad eyes
the soul whispers
“Stop” (as it always has)
Did Saint Paul not say
the same to the good folks
With a humble heart
(admitting the -ism
existing in yourself)
sit in Silence
Without mistaking such
Silence for absence
or worse, indifference!
The soul knows
how to wait
for salvation from
And do you remember
Jesus speaking to his disciples--
What does it take for some
demonic powers to leave?
Prayer and fasting.
then close your lips and listen.
Until clenched fists open
until anxiety and anger
slip through your fingers
Until you receive
in your now-ready head,
heart, and hands
that which you are to give
for the healing of this,
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.