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).
When things don't fall into place, waiting can easily slip into despair. We tell ourselves this is just the way things are, and it is never going to change. But philosopher Søren Kierkegaard reminds us that there is more: "I must never, at any moment, presume to say that there is no way out for God because I cannot see any. For it is despair and presumption to confuse one's pittance of imagination with the possibility over which God disposes."
God is present, but not in the way we expect or desire. God is at work, but he's not doing the things we want him to do. From our perspective, it's not clear that he's doing anything at all, and in the process, our hearts may grow cold and dull, insensible to the Spirit. We're tempted to wonder whether it really matters what we do and whether or not we care.
"That is where John of the Cross stands: at the threshold of uncertainty; and he assures us that what dwells beyond is not simply chaos," writes Father Iain Matthew. "The darkness bears the Spirit of God, who broods over the waters of death and has power to work a resurrection." God has power to work a resurrection, despite the uncertainty and chaos that has filled our hearts.
What is the difference between embracing God in the darkness and giving in to the noonday devil? Or how can we know when we've lost sight of God and have surrendered to acedia? Waiting on God in silence involves a sense of hope and expectancy-- not expectancy that God will do what we want him to do, but that he is faithful to his promises.
If we've given in to despair, we won't even see it when he appears, and even if we do we won't like what we see. If we're waiting in loving attentiveness, we'll be like Simeon, who waited until the end of his life and prayed, "Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel" (Luke 2:29-32).
Lew Rinard served as a pastor in eastern Pennsylvania for eight years. He has been married for 33 years and has four children. He is currently an intensive case manager in State College, Pennsylvania, working with people who suffer from severe mental illness.
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