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The Despair of Dead Ends

As we sat down for lunch, my bishop got right to the point: "You should definitely be pastoring: You preach the Word, you give good pastoral care, and your congregation respects you as a spiritual leader. But you don't belong with us. You should try to find a denomination that's a better fit."

With these words, my work in a small Anabaptist denomination headed toward its close. During the following months, I sought pastoral opportunities, first within the same denomination, and then anywhere that looked remotely possible. It all came to nothing, so we moved out of the parsonage and went to live with extended family. I was unemployed for a year, even though I continued applying for jobs and sending resumes to churches. The following spring, my oldest son was nearly killed in a mountain biking accident, and two months later, a close friend died suddenly and unexpectedly.

Today, more than seven years after that meeting with the bishop, I am still not pastoring.

My spiritual director, a Norbertine Priest, diagnosed the problem as impasse and gave me an article by Constance Fitzgerald on the subject.

By impasse, I mean that there is no way out of, no way around, no rational escape from, what imprisons one, no possibilities in the situation. In a true impasse, every normal manner of acting is brought to a standstill, and ironically, impasse is experienced not only in the problem itself but also in any solution rationally attempted. Every logical solution remains unsatisfying, at the very least. The whole life situation suffers a depletion, has the word limits written upon it….

This has been my relationship with the church for the past seven years—no way out of, no way around a sense of exile and alienation, despite much effort. Fitzgerald ties this to the teaching of the imprisoned 16th-century monk St. John of the Cross. In impasse, God is at work preparing us to know him in new ways. So, the proper response to impasse—as to the dark night—is not frantic effort, but simple, expectant waiting on God, "contenting [oneself] with merely a peaceful and loving attentiveness toward God, and in being without anxiety, without the ability and without desire to have experience of Him or to perceive Him," as St. John of the Cross writes in The Dark Night of the Soul.

There's also a song by Dan Schutte that expresses this: "as we await you/ O God of silence/ we embrace your holy night." It's easy to romanticize the feeling, but no matter how many times we sing this song, the darkness is still there. Embracing God in the darkness doesn't bring impasse to an end; in fact, it can go on for a very long time and it doesn't become more bearable with waiting. It's here that we are likely to encounter the noonday devil, or acedia. In First Things, R.R. Reno writes:

For the monastic tradition, acedia or sloth is a complex spiritual state that defies simple definition. It describes a lassitude and despair that overwhelms spiritual striving. Sloth is not mere idleness or laziness; it involves a torpor animi, a dullness of the soul that can stem from restlessness just as easily as from indolence.... The noonday devil tempts us into a state of spiritual despair and sadness that drains us of our Christian hope. It makes the life of prayer and charity seem pointless and futile.

It's not laziness, it's a sense of hopelessness that arises in the heat of midday, in the middle of one's course, when things aren't falling into place and it doesn't seem worth the effort. "What is the point of all this?" "All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day I have been stricken and rebuked every morning" (Ps. 73:13-14).

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The Despair of Dead Ends