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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

VII: The Road to Rome


As I discussed in the last installment, my years at Liberty University were a period of great spiritual development forme. By the time I graduated in 1995, I felt energized and excited about where Our Lord would lead me and what He would do through me.

However, with the external support and security of a self-contained Christian environment taken away from me, and being thrust out into “the real world,” I found myself depressed, lonely and struggling to find my place. I had moved back to my hometown in Georgia, but I could not find a church there where I truly felt at home. The usual format of singing a few "praise and worship" songs and listening to a preacher talk for 30 to 45 minutes no longer fulfilled my spiritual hunger as it had before. Even my own private daily devotions of Bible reading and prayer left me feeling empty. Talking with God became more and more of a struggle and trying to maintain that prior tangible sense of fervent devotion became an oppressive burden. It swelled into another crisis moment in my spiritual life.

I was not aware of it at the time, because it was not a teaching that I ever came across in my Protestant circles, but what I was going through is a commonly encountered stage in Christian spiritual development and growth: After an initial period of zeal and sensible delight in the spiritual life, a period of dryness and seeming darkness is passed through as Our Lord draws souls closer to Himself and away from self-seeking in pleasurable spiritual consolations. He brings them through this stage in order to teach them to rely more on simple faith, and not on good feelings.

But I knew none of this at the time. I only felt like my Christianity was dismantling around me and that there was nothing I could do about it. My strength was as sand and I felt lost in barren darkness. No matter what I did, I could not find those familiar sensible indicators that I was close to God. He seemed very far from me, even entirely absent, and my cries out to Him seemed to be ignored.

After many months of anguish, new light finally came to me through the writings, oddly enough, of a medieval Catholic named St. John of the Cross and his fellow Carmelite St. Teresa of Avila. I initially encountered the writings of St. John in lyrics on singer/songwriter/monk John Michael Talbot's album "Meditations from Solitude." I happened to pick up a $2 copy of this excellent album out of the bargain used cassette bin at a local (Protestant) Christian bookstore. The serene and pared-down music was a refreshing change from the zippy and emotional praise and worship fare that I had been enamored with for so long. There was a depth of spiritual longing throughout it that matched my mood, coupled with a resonance hinting at a much larger Christian experience than I had yet encountered: a connection to a long and rich spiritual heritage, along with the monastic life and a radical renunciation of the world for the sake of the higher pursuit of God.

In the liner notes, I found that a couple of the songs were based on the poetry of St. John of the Cross, of whom I had never heard. One particular song was about the painful longing a soul endures in the absence of its Beloved Lord:

Where have you hidden, Beloved?
Why have you wounded my soul?
I went out to the wilderness calling for you
but you were gone.

O Shepherds keeping your watch in the hills,
if by chance you meet with my Love
tell Him I suffer in my lonely grief,
and soon I will die...

[from "Where Have You Hidden"]

Luckily, this song, which echoed so well my feelings at the time, is followed on the album by "I Found My Beloved." This song is also based on a poem by St. John of the Cross, and relates the joyous return of the Lord to the soul after a long period of (apparent) absence.

My interest being piqued, I did some research on the intriguing medieval Spanish monk St. John of the Cross and bought a copy of perhaps his best known book “Dark Night of the Soul." Shortly thereafter, I also purchased “The Interior Castle” by his compatriot St. Teresa of Avila. I read these two books cover to cover several times and, while I did not understand everything, they provided me with new spiritual insights and made some sense of what I was going through. They gave me hope that my apparent spiritual darkness was not indeed the sad end it seemed to be, but was instead the path to a more glorious encounter with Jesus.

A strange new sweetness of intimacy with Our Lord began to grow within me which was quite unlike anything I had experienced before: profound and rich, but simple, quiet, peaceful. I discovered that a relationship with God was not always a matter of thinking about what to say in prayer, or even in always studying Biblical texts for some applicable truths. Those laudable activities are only the tools to reach the ultimate goal, which is a very real and loving union with the living God. I learned about something called “contemplation,” which is the name given to this simple serene loving intimacy with God that my soul had been craving, but had been fighting against by struggling to regain some past sensible devotion I felt I had lost.

I began to embrace this new quietude and sweetness and, for about five months, I basked in a golden spiritual Springtime. I delved into other books by St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila ("The Ascent of Mount Carmel" and "The Way of Perfection," respectively) as well as writings by other medieval Catholics such as Thomas √† Kempis ("The Imitation of Christ") and St. Frances de Sales ("Introduction to the Devout Life"). It was a marvelous time of renewed hope and illumination. I had discovered a wide ocean of spiritual wealth I never knew existed, and I endeavored to plumb its depths.

However, after this all too brief respite, I was again plunged into a deep darkness of spirit, which frightened me greatly. An oppressive weight seemed to descend upon me and I felt like I was spiritually suffocating. I tried to remember the lessons I had learned, to stay calm and to trust Our Lord even when it seemed like He was absent, but the oppression continued to grow. I became desperate to get out from under the weight of it. I began to think that perhaps moving away from my hometown and embarking back out into the world would be the sort of stimulating change of setting I needed to expand my horizons and renew my outlook on life.

I will discuss this in Part 8 of My Conversion Story: Further Down the Road to Rome.