I couldn’t go to sleep.
Spending time in a crowded hospital with a dear friend who was dying left me restless and lying awake looking for God in the dark and finding nothing.
It was the proverbial last straw. Too much.
“What the hell?!...Does God even exist?!” I bitterly thought in the emptiness. The absurdity of being a spiritual director seemed to mock me in that moment.
Every image of God I ever held did nothing to comfort me and the absence of images and comfort left me in a place of nihilistic rage and deep sadness.
Even though I had read John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich by her hospital bed, recalling conversations we had enjoyed over the years about their (and our) experiences of love in the darkness, here I was struggling in my own dark night.
“What a waste of my life! What a charade!” I thought as I recalled my life of being devoted to God and tending to the spiritual life, both mine and others, only to stare into the void of meaninglessness (and not for the first time).
Furrowed brow, eyes squeezed shut, the rest of my body now as tense as my face, silently shouting—"Where is God in this chaos?” “Why even ask? Life is showing me there really is no God at all.”
After a while, somehow, something small slipped in through the tightness and whispered, “God IS Chaos.”
Before I could think, my brow and eyes started softening.
My body noticed the truth before my brain could think about refuting what had just been spoken to me in the dark.
Then an image appeared in my mind’s eye—Kali.
I couldn't remember much about her, only that she's the Hindu goddess of chaos and destruction leading to life. Images of her can be quite disturbing (especially for those of us Westerners who don't know the symbolism) and here she was showing up in the stillness of night! Later I would read that in Hinduism, she is the ultimate manifestation of Shakti, the primordial energy, the mother of all (watch this video for more). Kali’s dark skin stands for this chaotic, life-birthing energy.
"Hearing ‘God IS Chaos’ and remembering the Hindu goddess, Kali…there was something strangely settling in that, and I was able to fall asleep,” I later texted a friend, a nurse experiencing burnout in a crowded hospital (she went on to write a piece of prose for her doctoral class assignment based on our text thread).
The next morning, I walked outside in my pajamas. The stifling heat, sticky humidity, and earsplitting cicadas continued the conversation— I was surrounded by the sound and sensations of chaos.
I forced myself to sit in the discomfort.
From that place I wondered if I had written anything down from the Icon-Writing Retreat my dear friend and I had attended together a couple of months earlier.
I went inside, grabbed my journal, then returned to the front porch to find the dates of that weekend retreat.
In the first place, I had no time to go on that retreat. Life had been exhausting and the thought of painting anything in that state added to my overwhelm. In the second place, I wanted to spend time with my dear friend, knowing that stage 4 cancer was eventually going to rob us of time (by the way, Kali's name means both "darkness" and " force or fullness of time"). So I picked her up on a Friday morning in May and went.
There it was, May 13th-15th, along with a short entry for each day (the last one being, "I am so glad I went."). I was grateful that I had written down a few things, even though they had been forgotten in the rush of life’s challenges.
I recalled how my friend and I sat side-by-side looking at the blank wood that our icons would be painted on and while she felt excitement, I felt dread. How was I going to do this?!
The instructor told us to fill our brushes with paint and then said, “Relax, because the first stroke when it comes to painting an icon is called The Chaos Stroke!”
Immediately I softened and a hint of excitement even found its way inside my weary head.
The Chaos Stroke is named so because it represents the primordial energy at the beginning of Creation found in the first chapter of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible.
Our spontaneous swirls and waves echoed the Spirit (or Wind or Breath) of God, moving over the surface of the deep, dark waters. And like the Genesis account, step by step, day by day, things started appearing where before there was nothing but potential in the eye of the Beholder.
From the chaos within me, from the chaotic swirls on my wooden panel, emerged a rendering of Rublev’s Trinity from the 15th century!
I smiled sitting on the porch, in awe of the synchronicities…chaos, Kali, cicadas, a journal entry about the Chaos Stroke from an icon retreat attended with this friend whose impending death had ushered in another layer of chaos...
Nothing had changed. It still felt awful to know my friend was going to die (and she did, less than 24 hours later). And the things that were a mess in my life, were still a mess. Nothing had changed this, and yet…
Being open to “God Is Chaos” had strangely allowed comfort and brought the awareness that God was also “With Me in Chaos.” The latter recalls the message gifted us through the person of Jesus the Christ, who was called Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Light began shining in my darkness once more.
Holding the paradox of "God Is Chaos" and "God With Us in Chaos," I remembered the expression that emerged on the face of the center figure, the Christ, in my friend’s painting of the Holy Trinity—we laughed and called him the “Mischievous Jesus.” He knew something we did not...yet.
Even now, words fail to describe how, in darkness and in light, I keep being beckoned into the at-times-difficult, divine dance that Rublev painted years ago, his brush beginning with Chaos.
“The Tao which can be told is not the eternal Tao,” states the opening line of the Tao te Ching. Try replacing Tao (or Way) with God or Jesus.
No matter who we are, the image of the Way, of God, even of Jesus, that we hold is not the true or eternal one. Our image will never offer the whole picture or truth. A book that is an enjoyable reminder of this is Naming the Unnameable: 89 Wonderful and Useful Names for God …Including the Unnameable God.
So even though God is beyond all images, why do I still often ask people in Spiritual Direction, “When you pray or think about God, how do you image God?”
You can learn a lot from the image of God you hold. Images are powerful.
As a Spiritual Director, they can let me know why a person may have such a hard time being in Silence, praying, or trusting the Sacred Presence. They can also help identify particular spiritual wounds. Some images we hold inspire fear and shame rather than love and trust.
An example from my work:
Most often people describe a masculine image of God (usually a Zeus-like one standing judgmentally outside of them). This is not surprising as religions are chiefly shaped in and by patriarchal culture and language.
Yet one may not (or may not feel the freedom to) stop to think how a strictly masculine image of God can be wounding. Women, especially, have suffered (the extent is a topic for another time). But all of Creation (as well as Creator) suffers when parts of them (and in this case, the feminine) is ignored, suppressed, or even despised.
For some, the suffering leads to feelings of resistance to all things around God, Jesus, Church, and Scripture. Not knowing the soul is crying out for a more holistic, truer image of Divinity, many times the person feels guilty or rejects all things religion-related (but somehow some still find their way to sitting with a Spiritual Director!).
As we listen together in the Silence, the still, small Voice begins to whisper of the Divine Feminine and often images from Scripture itself arise—Lady Wisdom (also known as “Chokmah” in Hebrew or “Sophia” in Greek), Mother Hen gathering her chicks, Mother God holding or nursing her beloved child, Mother Mary who knows suffering...
Notice the “Mother” theme? It is both telling as to what the person’s soul is crying out for as well as a needed corrective for an overabundance of Father imagery.
Feel uncomfortable with that thought? You are not alone, fear can often accompany the idea of turning toward these images (it did for me!). After all, a patriarchal culture only validates patriarchal images! Isn’t it amazing these feminine images are to be found at all in the Hebrew and Christian Bible? And by the way, Saint Paul declares Jesus to be the embodiment of Sophia (see I Corinthians 2:7 as one example).
When those in Spiritual Direction allow themselves to embrace (or be embraced by) the Divine Feminine, guess what? They can pray again.
And they begin to trust in the God who is with them, and in the case of women, a God who resembles and better understands them. They discover a true Soul Friend.
An example from home:
My teen daughter is a contemplative at heart. Silence has been her way of prayer since she was tiny. And for just as long, she has expressed a disdain for overly masculine images of God. We have talked about Mother God since preschool when we tweaked her school's "God our Father" singing prayer to also include "God our Mother." But not seeing or hearing the same language in communal worship has left her with little desire for institutional religion. I cannot blame her.
While it has not been a cause for worry, I have wondered if Silence is more of an escape from religion or a hiding place from the world rather than a surrendering to the Sacred. Regardless, I have trusted God would meet her in it, even if I had no idea of the particulars. But the other day she surprised me by saying she talks to Lady Wisdom and asks for Her help all the time!
I guess she figured one mother is enough for now! She has found relating to God as Lady Wisdom to naturally be more soul friendly. And finding a Friend of her Soul, she cannot help but pray.
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.