What to do when one experiences spiritual nothingness?
When I first began meeting with a spiritual director about six years ago, I described my relationship with God to her as a void of “nothingness.” I had been in ministry for many years at that point and I had never told this to anyone. For one, no one had ever point blank asked me about my relationship with God. Don’t most of us assume that pastors are strong and must have it all together? But even if someone had asked, I am sure I would not have admitted to the “nothingness” I experienced.
It was a strange “nothingness” that I felt with God. I had a long history of knowing and loving God before this. I was born and raised in church. My mother was a committed Christian and we were at church every time the doors were open. I had a charismatic experience with the Holy Spirit when I was fifteen and from that moment on, I was on a chase to know God intimately. Unlike many teenagers, I spent my weekends at prayer meetings where I learned to pray for miraculous healing (and saw some!) and secretly begged God to give me my own prayer language so that I could pray in tongues like my Pentecostal friends. On the weekends, I was busy learning how to share my faith using gospel tracts outside of local clubs. When I wasn’t busy “saving souls,” I was sneaking into church buildings. I remember many Saturday nights when a group of us would “sneak” into the church building, light candles all around the sanctuary, crank up the sound system and worship by candlelight for hours at a time. (My friend who was a senior had a key.) In these joyful and innocent days of my coming to faith, I would wake up early every morning and sit alone in my living room while everyone else slept so that I could pray alone and do my Beth Moore bible study. I spent hours reading the bible and quickly read all the way through Genesis to Revelation many times during my high school years. The bible was a story that I would get lost in for hours.
In short, for most of my life up to this point, I experienced God as intimately near and loving and powerful. How then had I gotten to this nothingness? Where did I go wrong, I wondered? The bible was no longer captivating to me. Worship seemed dry and stale. I found myself analyzing the lyrics instead of getting lost in them. All of the former things that I used to do in order to draw near to God no longer worked. Journaling, bible-reading, worshipping, they all left me empty and then, angry. Why had God left me? What had I done that was so horrible for God to no longer respond to me when I cried out? These were the honest questions that I took to spiritual direction. And as I took my questions and the nothingness I experienced between me and God, I found the most surprising thing. I found hospitality.
Henri Nouwen says this about hospitality:
Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place…The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free….not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.
When I came to the end of my first spiritual direction session where I told her about the “nothingness” between me and God, I remember asking her,
“So what do I have to do now?”
What do you mean, she wondered? She seemed confused.
“Like, aren’t you going to give me some bible verses to read, or a prayer of repentance to pray? What about your plan to… you know, fix me?”
Do you need to be fixed, she asked?
“YES!” I desperately screamed silently inside. But instead I calmly and hesitantly asked, “Do you think I need to be fixed?”
No, she said. You are not a problem to be fixed. You are loved just as you are.
In spiritual direction I have found that this “friendly emptiness” that Nouwen talks about. It is intentional empty space created so that a new freedom can be discovered. In spiritual direction, I have discovered a new freedom with knowing and loving God. I have been invited to leave behind the past and imagine that God is not finished revealing God’s self to me. In spiritual direction, nothingness is not quickly filled instead it is allowed to exist. A spiritual director is not compelled to rush and fill the nothingness with right answers or even encouraging bible verses or a bunch of Christians tasks. Instead, spiritual direction can become a place of holy curiosity where the director and the directee can ask together, “What if God is in this nothingness?” What if God is at work even in the ways, and perhaps especially in the ways, that we don’t see God at work?
Spiritual direction is not new of course. We see spiritual leaders giving guidance to other leaders all throughout scripture. Consider Jethro advising Moses (Genesis 18). Consider Eli helping Samuel discern God’s voice (I Sam 3). Elijah and Elisha advised various kings of Israel and Judah. Paul spent his life instructing believers to work through conflict as he wrote to communities of faith throughout the New Testament. We know that believers came from all over to receive spiritual direction from the desert fathers and mothers as early as the 3rd century and forward.
Today, spiritual direction is one resource for those of us who need someone to come alongside of us in the midst of our own journey and remind us that God creates good and beautiful things out of nothing.
If you are interested in learning more about spiritual direction for yourself, I’ll leave a few resources here.