Ok, so if you’ve been reading some of this blog series you might have gathered that a season of waiting, not passive but attentive, transformative waiting, can be really significant in our personal and spiritual growth. (You can read the earlier posts here). We might have been catapulted into a season of waiting by pain, crisis, disappointment or unwanted change but the season is one in which God wants to meet with you and to go deep. Monk Kidd describes the kind of waiting season in which “we become able to commune with our depths and begin to recover what is lost, heal what is wounded and become who we truly are”. But maybe you’re thinking, “that’s all well and good but how on earth do I go about this ‘waiting’ business?!”
I promised in the post before last that I’d share a few insights on how to wait from Sue Monk Kidd’s book, ‘When the Heart Waits’. Obviously if this strikes a chord with you I’d recommend you read the book yourself. This post carries a ‘longer than normal’ warning, but I hope it’s helpful, especially for those who really identify with being in a season of transformational waiting or crisis. Monk Kidd emphasises that a transformational waiting season can look very different for different people and God will guide people into varying ways of participating in what he’s doing inside them, but there do seem to be some general themes and principles that might be helpful to summarise.
If we are truly to know God and allow that deep knowledge to be in our hearts and spirits, not just in our heads, and if we want that spirit knowledge of and connection with God to transform us, we need to be still. “Be still and know that I am God” says the psalmist, the poets of the bible (Ps 46:10). It’s natural for us to align ourselves with the rhythm of the world around us, which urges us to keep moving, so it takes an intentional choice to refrain from that frenetic pace and choose to be still, going not forward but inward. The paradox Monk Kidd describes is that “we achieve our deepest progress standing still.”
Choosing moments of stillness can of course take many forms. It might be the moments of attentiveness to God lying in bed before sleep or after waking, lighting a candle and silently watching the flame and focusing on God for 5 or 10 minutes, pausing to reflect on the symbols, metaphors and words God has been using to guide you, sitting under the stars in your garden, listening to music, colouring in a picture. “The idea is to still ourselves, to draw ourselves back to the deeper life that flows beneath the surface of our days”*.
In the stillness, God invites us to find our rest in him. We often don’t know how tired we are inside until we become still. We discover spiritual fatigue within us, where pain, crisis and questions have taken their toll. Instead of striving to control our healing or to ‘fix ourselves’, we come to God to rest, to trust in his care for us and his power to transform and being prepared to cooperate with him and participate in the process he’s got us in.
The Greek word for rest is hesychia, a term that also came to mean praying. Hesychasm was a way of praying in which a person was aware of resting in the divine presence, in the nest of their heart built for themselves and God, a place to be at peace amidst the pain, conflict and struggle of the day. We are invited into this kind of replenishing rest, through connection with God.
Loving and being loved by God
Apparently, when a caterpillar begins to spin its chrysalis, it forms a spiny little protruberance at the end of its abdomen called a cremaster. That point is where the pupa is held in place in the cocoon, the anchor point, from where it hangs. We need to find our cremaster, the still point of our soul around which transformation can happen. Monk Kidd suggests that still point is the place where Spirit of God dwells inside us, the inmost centre of our being where we are deeply and profoundly known and loved by God. We attach ourselves to God, even in the midst of pain, darkness, questions and doubts, we allow ourselves to be embraced by God, even a God we don’t fully understand. Pausing in stillness we can consciously reconnect to that still point inside us, the place of loving embrace with the Divine.
And of course that love meeting goes both ways. In the quiet we can delight in God’s presence, cultivating a tenderness and passion for the one who made us and sustains us. In our lives we often let our minds trump our hearts, prioritising learning about God over being with God. Monk Kidd reminds us, “God created us in order to share the joy of being alive with us, in order to love us and taste our love, to delight in us and enjoy our delight. God wants our hearts.”
In the stillness we can reconnect with our cremaster, our still point of being loved and known by God and also offering him our own devotion, consciously turning our hearts towards him.
Stillness is not a passive and futile resignation. There is an intentionality about it – an ‘expectant beingness’ – choosing to wait in creative and expectant ways, for the hidden potential and fullness of life within us to unfold, attentive to the process. The word wait comes from a root word meaning ‘to watch’. To wait used to mean to apply attentiveness and watchfulness throughout a period of time – to wait on God meant to watch keenly for God’s coming. Today we associate waiting more with idling and tuning out than tuning in, to watch and be attentive. We need to rediscover the attentiveness in our waiting.
Eugene Petersen (author of the Message bible translation) once said, “the assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it.” We can posture our heart in a place of stillness that enables us to become aware of what God is doing so that we can gradually say yes to it with our whole being.
If we believe the Holy Spirit lives in us, we can trust that he is our inner guide who will lead us through our waiting. We can tune in to his promptings and voice, open our eyes to the epiphanies – those guiding flashes of sacred insight – which often happen when we need them most. We not only need to be attentive to the inner nudge of guidance but also attentive to the grace that appears in the world around us, the grace of the ordinary, the beauty of creation and how God can use that to bring realisations and breakthroughs.
“Ultimately, we don’t heal, transform, or create ourselves. We posture ourselves in ways that allow God to heal, transform and create us.” The emphasis isn’t on what we are doing but on what God is doing as he brings inner transformation even in our darkness.
Jesus often used metaphors and symbols to communicate, images that point to deeper realities – describing himself as the vine, the door, the bread, the water of life. “Symbols are the language of the soul. Because they give us a way to communicate with the soul, they open doors for transformation.” Monk Kidd describes how particular stories in the bible, things in nature and everyday objects became meaningful symbols that helped her to express how she was feeling or what she felt God was showing her. They “helped me express the flood of sensations I felt and release the spiritual energy needed to transform them. They were ways of creating a story for myself to live in – a story that began to hold me like a pair of arms. Each one seemed to clear a deeper path inside, one that would eventually take me to the other side of my anguish.”
In various difficult periods of my life, I have found great comfort in doing mixed media pieces of art and sculptures that illustrate a particular bible verse, story, metaphor or concept that God’s used at that time to speak to me. Often I’ve done the piece of art in faith, before my head has believed the truth of it, and through participating in the art my heart has gradually come into agreement with the truth, allowing my soul to live into it, and it’s gone much deeper than if I’d just read the words.
What are the metaphors and symbols that express how you are feeling, both the dark and the hope filled light? What metaphors, stories and images has God used to whisper to you? Can you do a google search to find a few images to print and pin up for you to reflect on, to hold on to and to allow God to use them to hold and guide you through the process? Or can you think of another creative way to express them?
Monk Kidd talks about our feelings often being like a bundle of ribbons in a box, which need to be gently taken out and untangled, allowing each strand to be seen, felt and expressed. She emphasises the need for us to “express the climate of our souls” – whether it’s through symbols, conversation, writing, dancing, drawing. I’ve personally found journalling and even poetry an extremely helpful way to do this (you can read more about that here). Drawing doodles using words, shapes and colours that express how you feel can be very therapeutic, as well as sketching in a book around the themes of how you’re feeling and what you feel God’s showing you. Interestingly it’s been scientifically proven that labelling emotions, especially using images and metaphors, reduces the intensity of negative emotions. You can read about that here.
Image: Copyright Hilary Murdoch 2014
Maybe strands that need to be pulled out could include loss, anger, in-betweenness, uncertainty, disappointment. Just asking yourself how you feel and waiting patiently for the honest answer can give you the first stepping stones and then you could write each emotion at the top of a new page in your journal and free write until you are done on each theme, trying not to judge or rush to ‘fix’ the emotions, or to add ‘shoulds and oughts’… allowing yourself to be heard and allowing yourself “to meet an expanded reality of who you are” and where you are at right now, trusting that you are held, known and loved in that place and that this season will not last forever.
When I do a process like that, writing in my journal how I’m really feeling, I usually then start a new journal page and write at the top ‘my dear child’ and then put my name and write a letter as if from God to me, what he is saying into that place of the emotions I’ve just expressed. Sometimes just a simple phrase comes to mind like ‘you are not alone’ or ‘I see you, I know you and I love you’. We dismiss it as just our own thoughts and not from God but I do find that as I trust I can hear from him and practice listening, things do come to mind that seem to be from him rather than from me. Sometimes nothing comes to mind and that’s fine to, just know that he is holding you in that place is important.
Confronting false selves
In the stillness, God is inviting us into a place of being rather than doing. The invitation of a waiting season can often be the confronting and surrendering of ‘false selves’ – the roles we play out with the scripts written for us by society, family, church, job, friends, traditions and our own expectations of ourselves. Living from our false selves is when we “live out of the expectations on us rather than living from the truth emerging within us”. Monk Kidd encourages us to name our false selves and she continues to describe her own, including the Little Red Hen with her determination to ‘do it herself’, the tin woodman with his split between head and heart and Rapunzel with her perceived helplessness. For me, I realised I’d been living with false selves of ‘the strong one’, ‘goody two shoes’ and ‘the people pleaser’, making sure everyone thinks I’m kind and helpful.
The questions we face are: if those roles were suddenly stripped away, what would be left? Who would I be then? Is there more to me than the roles I live out? Can I open up to my identity apart from them, to the knowledge that I’m more than the personas I create? “At some point, if we are to continue to grow, we must begin to differentiate ourselves from the roles we play. Often we do this when the roles that felt good initially now feel empty,” writes author Carol Pearson.
While we are frantically trying to shore up our false selves and please people and achieve, we are living in agreement with the distorted idea that our meaning and acceptance come from what we do, not who we are. But if we look at Jesus’ life, his Father affirmed him as loved before he did any ministry, and in his life he didn’t bend to please others or try to meet their expectations, he lovingly dared to be his own person. The question really is whether we can honestly face our false selves and release each one, accepting that if we cease to play the role we are still safe, known and loved by our heavenly Father and therefore our meaning and significance is secure.
Monk Kidd writes about the importance of darkness in a transformation process, like the darkness of a womb, incubating life. There was a moment for her when “the wounded and broken places in my past, the conflict in my present and the questions surrounding my future became an awful throb in my chest. I felt the tensions pull until there was a small crescendo of pain inside me. The darkness closed in.”
She describes the tension of holding unanswered questions as being like kicking a ball in the air and it never coming down, unaware it’s caught in a tree. “My life feels up in the air. I keep waiting for the answers to fall out of the sky but they don’t… I see my wounds, my conflicts, my incompleteness and my longings in heightened outlines on the walls of my soul. I’d like to be rid of this darkness. To unwrap the cocoon. Get busy. Do something to take my mind off my ‘suffering’, latch onto some easy, neon answer that will camouflage the shadows. But I have a sense lurking inside that there’s a mystery unfolding in the darkness that can’t come any other way… When we enter the spiritual night, we can feel alone, encompassed by fearful darkness. What we need to remember is that we’re carried in God’s womb, in God’s divine heart, even when we don’t know it, even when God seems far away.”
There can be very real pain as we strip away our former patterns and selves, and our illusions of who we are and who we thought God was. We may feel abandonment by God, dryness, emptiness and an intense awareness of our own hunger and need. But even in that place we need to know that even though God may seem absent, he is not, it may be that our illusions of who he is and our old ways of knowing and experiencing him are changing but that simply means he is drawing us beyond where we were before, into a new way of relating to him. He is still leading us, even if it feels like the long way around and through dark woods, it doesn’t mean we’re lost – if we keep our hearts turned towards him he will meet us in it and lead us out of it.
We are encouraged to stay with questions, even if we are outraged that the old answers no longer work. “We need to give ourselves permission to ask questions: What newness does God beckon me towards? What do I do when things are ‘upside down’? What are the patterns that need to be shed so that my True Self can emerge? What are the wounds that need to be healed? What ‘lost coin’ in me needs to be found? What ‘lost sheep’ in me needs to be shepherded?” And even the deep hard questions of, What is my life all about? Why are we here? What kind of being am I? The challenge is whether we can we live the questions, inhabit them, being patient with what’s unresolved in our heart. It’s hard to live with the anxiety and disorder of unknowing but Monk Kidd found that there was an art to living your questions. You peel them. You listen to them. You let them spawn new questions. You hold the unknowing inside. You linger with it instead of rushing to half-baked answers. … and “it’s the patient act of dwelling in the darkness of a question that eventually unravels the answer. A God-given enlightenment dawned from the inside out. It welled up out of the sacred fermenting that was taking place within me.”
We may want desperately to dispel the darkness and get back to the familiar sunshine again. But what if we can’t really go back to the old sunshine but instead we are being drawn to a new light? God invites us to identify the small flickering flame of hope inside us and coax the flame to grow stronger.
In the darkness, tensions arise. Hope and despair, forgiveness and revenge, venturing forth and staying put, community and solitude, doing and being, fearful self and daring self, career woman and nurturing mother, dutiful goodie two shoes and playful self, autonomy and intimacy, the false self that seeks ‘success’ and people’s acceptance and the self that is secure enough in who they are to just ‘be’. We need to “enter these tensions, embracing and exploring the pain and ambiguity within rather than running from them, concealing them, or anesthetizing them.” Otherwise we risk having various parts of ourselves orphaned and lost inside us, crying out to be heard. We can’t heal and integrate our inner life if we avoid pain and tension. In the moments of these tensions we can ask ourselves, Am I being true in this moment, or am I forfeiting truth to please someone or seem successful? Am I responding out of fear?
“Every false self has a wound inside that needs to be healed.” In the darkness, God wants to bring healing to the wounded parts of ourselves, but that requires us to acknowledge them and gently hold them and love them before God. We can creatively hold the pained and broken parts of ourselves, offering them our love and forgiveness and choosing to accept God’s love and forgiveness too. God often uses other people, words, experiences and metaphors to bring healing. Monk Kidd describes the process of healing the Tin Woodman inside her, the part that had split her heard and her mind, by creating a dialogue with her heart and asking herself what she was feeling in a particular moment and trying to really listen and really feel. She found through that creative process she was able to reconnect with her heart. Interestingly I have been doing something similar even before I read this book and have found it an invaluable part of my journalling, encouraging my heart to speak up.
In my experience, these wounds inside our false selves are often attached to a lie we believe about ourselves or about God, which can link to an injustice that needs to be forgiven in our lives. For example ‘I’m only lovable when I get it right’ or ‘everything is unpredictable and untrustworthy, including God’. We can journey with the Spirit and with close friends to discern what those lies are, to fully engage with what it’s meant for us and when we’re ready, to break agreement with the lie and ask God to reveal what the truth is. A creative way to do that is to ask God for a picture of what it looks like for you to live in the lie and then ask for a new picture of what his truth is for you. Where forgiveness is needed, we can take time with God to fully acknowledge the pain of what was done to us, to articulate how it made us feel and then choose to release it and forgive. One way to do that is to write a letter to the person you need to forgive, a letter you’ll never send, explaining what happened and how it made you feel, read it out, then forgive them and burn it.
But there is a warning that comes with this process of not running away from darkness, but waiting attentively in it with God. Monk Kidd talks about how this kind of open, creative partnership with God in darkness, where we confront ourselves honesty and allow it to become a place of incubation of transformation, is very different to a “neurotic suffering, in which the person takes on a self-pitying style of living because he/she gets sympathy or control or security from it.” That kind of suffering is untransforming and doesn’t lead to wholeness or resurrection but despair and alienation. If you are in this kind of season, just be aware of this pitfall and keep a check on your heart.
She ends her section on darkness by reminding us of the extraordinary truth that God is so connected with us that when we suffer, he suffers, he weeps with us and lives in our darkness alongside us, even if we don’t ‘see’ or sense him there. The choice of God to make himself vulnerable to pain and suffering is a surprising and comforting thought to meditate on.
New ways to connect to God
In a season of transformational waiting we may find that our old ways of connecting with God don’t seem to work anymore, or don’t fit us, like an oversized raincoat. This season may be an invitation to explore new ways to connect with God and to have grace for yourself in what no longer seems to fit. Last year when I was feeling very low with grief and emotional burnout, I found that I no longer wanted to bounce around my room to loud worship music as I’d previously loved to do. No massive surprise there I guess! But I learnt that I could worship and connect with God lying on my bed listening to quiet soaking music or just sitting in the garden in silence listening to the sounds of nature. I also found that just focussing on God and repeating in my mind simple phrases like, ‘I long for you, I need you, I love you’ provided a new way of connecting with God that seemed to ‘fit’ with where I was at.
Monk Kidd describes the periods of time when she felt unable to pray as she was accustomed to but she discovered that prayer wasn’t just about talking, doing and thinking but sometimes about the ‘postures of the heart’ – taking time to be still and consciously turn our hearts, attentiveness and devotion towards God, focusing on the little flame of hope God has ignited in us, cupping our hand around the flame to let it grow.
“While soulmaking can be fraught with tears, it doesn’t require the abandonment of joy. After all, nothing is so painful that laughter can’t shimmer through it now and then… In the crisis we need to hang on to God’s little jokes, to those priceless moments when something round with pleasure bounces upon us. We need to hold onto the celebration of becoming, to the bliss that wells up from the deeper places we’re tapping.”
During my hard season last year I found it hard to hold onto joy, which was particularly painful for me as a large part of my identity is bound up with being joyful, as my name means happiness. My spiritual director advised me to write a list of things that bring me joy, to make time to do them and to not feel guilty about doing that. My list included creativity (particularly making jewellery and painting), dancing, walks in nature, listening to quiet worship music, having a coffee infront of a beautiful view and spending time with mutually supportive friends. I chose to do a watercolour course during that tough time, did swing dancing classes, and got my beads out so I could make necklaces for friends as gifts. What would be on your list and are you making time for those things? We need to love ourselves through a season of crisis and transformational waiting, to be kind and have grace for ourselves, making space for sources of joy.
Another important way to increase our joy levels is deliberate gratitude. Many people recommend making lists of things you are grateful for, even writing a few things down each day. The book ‘One Thousand Gifts’ by Ann VosKamp speaks about that practice and about becoming a hunter of beauty, taking time to search for things around you that are beautiful and for which you can be grateful. I recently read that gratitude has the same impact as Prozac on our brains!!
Hope and Trust
Certainly for me, the last few years have been a massive lesson in developing greater dependence on God, some of which I willingly participated with and some of which I resisted with gritted teeth to be honest! It’s been a struggle to give up control of even my own wholeness journey and trust him to lead me.
In this kind of season of transformative waiting, especially if its precipitated by crisis or pain, we connect with “the part of us that’s stripped to our essence, sitting ragged in our need with our hands wide open, trusting the holiness of life to hold us up… We need to be jolted out of our apparent self-sufficiency into the place of real need so God can give himself to us.” In the desert, the Israelites were forced into dependence on God and they came to him with their hands open and God sent mana, not a 40-year stockpile but enough for one day. “They had to hope and trust for tomorrow’s, but it always came. God sends us the strength and nourishment to heal, create and become, not all at once but as we need it.” Monk Kidd describes how she “touched my weakness, my humanity, my limitations. In touch with my neediness, I came face to face with my dependence on God – not only for my future but for my next breath…Strength in weakness is the paradox of the cocoon.”
It’s easy to lose hope in waiting, to feel stuck, unable to believe we will find our way through, unable to trust there’s anything beyond our pain. We are encouraged to allow this disorientation, to be honest with ourselves and God, to position our hearts again towards him in stillness, in whatever way we can and allow him to reorientate us and ignite the warmth of hope in us again. We need to live with open hands towards God and shelter the small flame of hope we do have so it can grow.
If you find yourself in this place I would encourage you to make sure you don’t get isolated, make sure you have friends who know where you are at and are praying for you. And in all this, the most important thing is to trust that God is alongside you, even in the darkness when you doubt he’s even there, positioning your heart towards him, attaching yourself to the cremaster of receiving love from him and giving your love back to him, and around that still point in your centre transformation can take place, as you are attentive to what God is doing and choose to participate with his work in you.
All quotes unless otherwise referenced are from Sue Monk Kidd’s book ‘When the Heart Waits’.