This is often how most of us feel about our faith journey: others look like they have ups and downs - and do - even as they move towards greater spiritual insight and maturity. In reality, however, this drawing needs to be corrected so that the lower picture reads: EVERYONE'S spiritual journey. Confusion, chaos, pain, joy, hope, fear, love, hate, dreams and deeds that are both good and bad are the truth for each of us - and every family, too. In reality, I think this meme is closer to the truth.I recall like it was last week a conversation with the then Senior Minister of my first church in Saginaw, MI. It was perhaps six months after I started my ordained ministry in the local church. We were driving to a retreat house for two days of planning when he asked, "So what's the most important insight you've gleaned so far since leaving seminary?" It didn't take long for me to blurt out, "Oh, man, I am stunned by how much pain everyone is carrying around. On the surface, people look like they've got it all together. But with a little time and a little trust, the wounds just below the surface start pouring out." We finished our drive in silence.
Less than a year later I had the privilege of spending a week of study at the Hazelden Center in Minnesota. A middle aged couple sponsored me so that I might learn how to be present with addicts seeking to share a fourth and fifth step in the 12 Step process. The couple knew the prominence of pain in the human condition - and how often we mask it with alcohol and other diversions - as they were actively recovering alcoholics themselves. After our group was welcomed by the Hazelden staff, our first assignment was to spend some time constructing an honest gen-o-gram of our own family's history with addiction. I went back four generations and saw for the first time the depth and breadth of dis-ease and substance abuse that shaped my lineage. It was humbling and unsettling to objectively look at the pain, wounds, denial, damage and confusion in my family that I had accepted as normal. It was frightening, too to realize that I had not escaped the consequences of the sins (wounds) of my mothers and fathers that were now being "visited upon the third and fourth generation." (Exodus 20) At the end of the week, I sought out counseling and spiritual direction for the first time. The words of Moses in Deuteronomy 30 took on new significance:
I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you... I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days...
Candidly, I felt more like this drawing than Moses although we were both at the edge of the wilderness and close to the promised land. After that seminar it was clear that if I didn't live into and through my wounds, I would never be able to discover their wisdom.
- To give names to the wounds within so that I might learn their wisdom
- To trust that God's mysterious grace can transform my pain into embodied compassion for myself and others
- To practice contemplation as the pathway to peace
- To be quietly present with others so that when they are ready to explore the wisdom of their wounds I can share a few clues
This journey has shown me that my suffering need not be useless: grace, honesty and patience can bring to birth a bit of humility and a measure of illumination. Part two of this reflection will suggest that the resources I have embraced as essential are prayer, bread and music.