STORIES THAT LIGHT THE WAY
By Stacey L. Nagel
Fog—a very strange phenomenon for winter in Minnesota—enveloped the night as I made my way down dark country roads straining to see the street signs.
It served as a fitting metaphor for what I was encountering in my spiritual life. Everything that used to be so clear no longer made sense. A painful divorce had undermined my sense of self worth and the self-righteous certainty I once held had dissolved into a haze of doubt and questioning. I felt abandoned by God.
The spiritual classics call this crisis of faith a “dark night of the soul,” a time when the felt sense of God’s presence is removed in order to make way for a deeper kind of knowing. It’s a necessary darkness—many agree that it’s the spiritual equivalent of a seed germinating underground or a child gestating in the womb before new life can come forth. And the timing couldn’t have been more appropriate: It was the season of Advent, a time of waiting before the coming of the Light.
I was here because one of the requirements of the spiritual direction training program I attended was to go on a silent retreat. And so, on this dark night, I traveled to Clare’s Well, a Franciscan Retreat center. When I finally pulled up to their farmhouse I was warmly greeted by the nuns, welcomed and fed. Then the group, which had a Christmas party to attend, directed me to the House of Clare, my home for the next 24 hours.
The penetrating heat of a tiny wood“What I was being given was the ability to live with the ambiguity of not knowing. As I remained present within the tension of unanswered questions, my faith was being deepened.” stove greeted me as I crossed the threshold of the hermitage. I slowly unpacked my belongings; warm clothing, a stack of books, a journal, art supplies and paper. I was prepared for a fruitful time of reading, reflecting and recording my impressions. But aside from a snowshoe walk on the Sacred Path (no kidding, that’s what it’s really called) with Lacey, the resident collie, and a trip to the barn to visit the goats and guinea hens, all I managed to do was sit. And stare. And tend the fire.
“Is this enough, Lord?”
The question surfaced as I prodded the coals in the little stove. I added another log and returned to the rocker placed before a large picture window overlooking the frozen Sabbath Pond, and a sunless, windswept landscape. “Maybe I should read or write or try to pray?”
“No.” The word seemed to rise from the silence. “Let’s sit and be still together. Just be here with me. It IS enough. Trust that.” Slowly my heart began to warm with the assurance that somehow the silence and stillness would inform my spirit in a way that words and activity never could. So there I sat, staring at a winter landscape that mirrored the state of my heart, but cocooned in a cozy cabin, tending the fire, and my resistance melted. Acceptance began to set in: “Yes. Just `being’ is enough.”
What I wanted was the black and white clarity of the past, a time when my faith was built on having what I thought were all the right answers. If I could wrap my head around it and it felt good, I could trust it. What I was being given, however, was the ability to live with the ambiguity of not knowing. As I remained present within the tension of unanswered questions, my faith was being deepened. And as I waited in the silence I was beginning to learn to trust the mystery that God is present with me in the darkness even when I can’t sense that Presence.
Waiting. I am not fond of waiting, but I am learning to appreciate the good thing that it is, to celebrate the goodness that is available in the present moment. As I gestate in the here and now, practice living in this moment as the only moment, there is less anxiety projected into the future, and the regrets and wounds of the past lose their power. This would be an ongoing journey, but it had begun.
At the end of my stay I cleaned the House of Clare. Ceremoniously, slowly I readied the space for the next retreat. By my action and by my prayer I blessed this place of “being”.
Though not inspired to use the tired“He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge.” Psalms 91:4 little altar in the corner I did clean it. I shook out the quilt square that served as an altar cloth, dusted the candle and freshened the stones others had left there. When I visited the barn I found a beautiful black and white spotted feather from the guinea fowl. I decided it would be a fitting offering to leave on the altar. And as I built a small stone pile and anchored the feather on top, a line from a poem by Emily Dickinson came to mind. “Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings a tune without the words, and never stops at all.”
I realized that nothing much had happened during my stay here, and everything had changed. My faith that God is indeed journeying with me through this dark night, down this foggy road was renewed. I was neither lost nor alone. The darkness was the shadow of God’s hand, a necessary shifting of the light calling me to walk by faith and not by sight.
Waiting in the stillness had reoriented me and ignited the warmth of hope.
©2013 Stacey L. Nagel
Stacey Nagel is a former ESR student who says that, “After taking three writing classes at ESR, I began to see the value in puzzling my way through a writing assignment as a way of bringing deep knowing into consciousness. Writing is a wonderful way to discover and name the voice of Spirit that ushers the grace to claim and own your true self.”