101 Charlie Smith Drive.
It’s a beautiful, sprawling ranch style home nestled among the back-roads of rural southeastern Georgia. Its 3,000 square feet of open space are inviting. Ghostly aromas of cookies, chicken dinners and midnight snacks still haunt the now still, vacant air of the spacious kitchen. It’s fine country living only an hour’s drive from the excitement of the city life of Atlanta.
The house is a thing of beauty, a tribute to fine craftsmanship, yet it houses nothing but despair. It is the address of my desolation. It is where spiritual agony puts its feet on the coffee table and makes itself at home. Once a place of great joy for me and my partner Wanda – sheltering us in the early days of our relationship, welcoming our family and friends after our Holy Union – it is now simply called, “the house.” It is a phrase often said with disdain or frustration as in, “will the house ever sell?”
The house went on the market more than a year ago after Wanda decided she wanted to return home to South Carolina to tend to an ailing relative. We quickly found new jobs in the area and took that as a sign that God had approved of our decision. We expected everything else to quickly fall into place, including the sale of the two houses we owned in Georgia. My house, in the downtown area of Atlanta, languished on the market for almost a year, finally selling at a rock-bottom price. Even so, we saw the sale as a much-delayed blessing, proving God was still at work! But “the house” has been a dark cloud in an otherwise azure blue sky. A sure sign that God was somehow still displeased with the choices we had made. If God had approved of what we were doing, wouldn’t everything fall into place? Wouldn’t the house just immediately sell as a sign that we were on the right track?
It’s an image of how God works that I have carted around with me since childhood. The Southern Baptist teaching is one of God’s great providence in our lives. If we are in the center of God’s will then all things will fall into place. It’s a teaching that has its roots in Matthew 6:33 when Jesus tells us that if we “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness … all these things shall be yours as well.” If something is wrong in our lives, off by even the slightest bit, then there will be things out of place – things left undone. Things will go wrong in some big or small way to show us where we’re off the path – that we’ve not quite figured out what God’s will is for our lives. It’s undeniable proof that we’re not seeking God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness first. So, God will withhold blessings until we figure out just what we’re doing wrong and put it right.
And so, desolation moved into “the house” – making itself comfortable, forwarding all its mail to 101 Charlie Smith Drive. It set up housekeeping, inviting its friends, doubt, fear and anguish over for frequent raucous parties. Along the way, despair redecorated – tossing out all of the images of God I had proudly hung on the walls of my soul for years.
That masterpiece image was a portrait that revealed I had to earn God’s love and protection by being very careful to remain in God’s will, seeking it at all times. This, of course, led to much paralysis. I never really knew which way to turn for fear that it would be exactly what was not God’s will, thus bringing on some terrible fate – like a house sitting on the market for more than a year, threatening total financial ruin.
The situation sent me headlong into what Saint Ignatius called “desolation.” I had all the symptoms – restlessness, sadness, anxiety, fear, discouragement and a loss of peace. I did what Ignatius said most good people do; I thought God was sending me a message that God was displeased with something that I was doing. But, Thomas Green spoke to me in my desolation, warning me along with Ignatius that, “we should never make a change or a decision in desolation unless we want the devil as our spiritual director.”
So, I entertained my desolation as it stacked dirty dishes in the sink and neglected to flush the toilet for a few weeks. The house remained unsold, and my desolation dug in its heels and began nesting.
In my desolation, all the images I had developed of God were slowly stripped away from me. The image of God as the one who swoops in and puts all things right, the image of God as the being that takes care of all the details when we’re in the center of his will, the God that smoothes the path, makes a way out of no way, without even the slightest effort from us, the God that withholds blessings until just the right time, when we’ve made all the right moves. All these images were smashed. I was left in a state of total unknowing, of only being able to utter the phrase, “God is …” I could find no other words to finish the sentence.
“What a wonderful gift!” my spiritual director exclaimed when I told her this.
“Sure it is,” I had to agree.
Indeed, it is a great gift to not have any images of God on which to hang your hat. To have one’s idols smashed is always a good exercise, one to be enjoyed, for the exercise strengthens faith and grows us spiritually.
“But,” I asked, “couldn’t God have found a less expensive gift?”
I was angry with God – angry that God had taken me to a new state, one that I didn’t like very much – and simply abandoned me there. God had put me in a financial position that was tenuous and scary. I simply couldn’t understand why God was not acting on my behalf after everything I had done – after I had picked up my life and moved it across state lines thinking it was an act of divine obedience.
The image of God as grand manipulator had to go. I could no longer believe in a God that would hold a house over my head until I figured out what God willed for my life. I could no longer imagine a testy God with his arms folded saying, “Nope that’s not the right path either. What a simpleton! I’m not going to sell the house until you get it right!”
Indeed, such a God is no God at all.
My fury with God took the form of, as Gerald May calls it “a healthy struggle, manifested by a willingness to confront one’s images very directly, to do them in if possible, or to be done in by them if necessary. There is tremendous hope in this, for often the images can be crumbled – at least temporarily – and the mystery of Truth that lies behind them can be appreciated.”
In between my rages at God, I did catch a glimpse, at least temporarily, of that mystery of Truth that lies behind all the images I hold of God. That was indeed a true gift – albeit expensive.
Thankfully, despair was nice enough to invite consolation to dinner one night. In polite conversation over dessert, consolation was good enough to quote a few words, written by Green in his book “Weeds Among the Wheat.” “[God] is not playing guessing games with us or tormenting us by leaving us to twist slowly in the wind. Such a God is no God at all.”
God was not behind the non-sale of the house. Other forces were at work – location, price, a buyer’s market – all things that, in the end, are not really controlled by God. Certainly, I believe that God wills my house to be sold, and at some point it will sell. In the meantime, God has provided – a consulting job came at just the right time, extra money came in from the settlement of two traffic accidents I was involved in a couple of years ago, tax refunds are expected in the coming months. The house has not sold, but God has not abandoned me – God still provides no matter what the situation. No matter what, “God is …” and that is enough.
This episode of desolation and consolation has brought me to a new level of spiritual awareness in my life. I still have no idea how God works in our lives or what exactly God wills in any given moment of my life, but I understand now that God is always at work in some way, most likely in unexpected, unanticipated ways.
As someone who is learning to be a spiritual director, this has contributed greatly to my understanding of the spiritual direction relationship. When I began I believed that God worked in some linear, logical way within the spiritual direction relationship. I believed that during conversations, God would make great revelations and wrap up problems somewhere within that hour that was spent together. At the very least God would give some insight – some grand revelation.
Such ideas, like my misguided images of God, deserve the nasty, painful deaths that they die.
Sometimes I feel quite helpless when I am with a directee. I feel like I’m not making a difference in their lives when I hear their pain, their despair and their own anger with a God they can’t seem to fathom. Most of the time no grand revelations come, but always, the person has told me they’ve come away from the time together at least with something new to ponder. All of them consider that progress, even if I come away feeling like I haven’t done much of anything for them.
It’s in these times that I realize that I am not in relationship with a directee to truly “direct” them in any sense. I’m not the person’s therapist or pastoral counselor – I am simply their spiritual friend, the person they can talk to about their relationship with God, and hopefully the person who can give them some bit of insight into how God is working in their lives.
As Henri Nouwen writes:
“A spiritual director in this strict sense is not a counselor, a therapist, or an analyst, but a mature fellow Christian to whom we choose to be accountable for our spiritual life and from whom we can expect prayerful guidance in our constant struggle to discern God’s active presence in our lives.”
The best sessions I’ve had with directees is when I consciously clear my mind and invite God to work through me – not as a counselor but a catalyst. In those moments that I remove ego and don’t think about how I am “helping” someone but how God is helping them are the moments that God breaks through – a flash of recognition will pass through their eyes – an inspired “a-ha” moment comes. These are the moments that I realize that my role is simply to be present, to be that open channel and to leave all the healing – all the “doing” – to God.
I fretted that my period of desolation would do me in as a spiritual director. How could I hope to direct others if I couldn’t rid myself of my own Sunday school images of God? How could I possibly be a conduit for God’s grace for someone else when I couldn’t even begin to feel that grace for myself?
But, as Nouwen points out, it is our very woundedness that can be the source of healing for others.
“No minister can save everyone. He can only offer himself as a guide to fearful people. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely in this guidance that the first signs of hope become visible. This is so because a shared pain is no longer paralyzing but mobilizing, when understood as a way to liberation. When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.”
My effectiveness as a spiritual director – as a minister willing to offer myself as a guide to fearful people – only comes when I deepen my experience of my own pain and desolation to the point where they can be shared. It’s only in recognizing that my pain and suffering rises “from the depth of the human condition which all men share,” as Nouwen writes, that I can be an effective director for spiritually hurting and seeking people. It is only in sharing the hope of consolation – a consolation that always comes, eventually – that I can effectively “direct” anyone.
As I came to this realization, despair – served with an eviction notice – packed its bags, and hope moved into “the house.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.