SPIRITUAL TRIAL

Spiritual Winter

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How to Survive a Spiritual Winter

by Sara Hagerty,

Sept 4, 2018

 

A tree doesn’t survive the winter without healthy roots. Neither do we.

I remember that bleak February morning when my husband and I loaded up our car and drove through the stripped-bare forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains to move into my parents’ basement. Everything felt cold, including my heart. Weeks earlier, my dad was diagnosed with a fast-growing brain cancer which we were all still dazed by.

I left their house only for brisk runs through Ohio’s suburban sprawl, and I came home to more winter as I watched my dad decline. I couldn’t escape this season. I had entered into a spiritual winter.

A Holy Season

What I didn’t know then was that this was a holy winter. God was doing something underground that I couldn’t see.

In our early thirties, our friends were taking active steps towards impacting the world for God: sharing the gospel with neighbors over shared meals, moving into impoverished parts of a city with their hammers and prayers, and starting foundations to release women from bondage. This, while I was cooking tomato soup and playing euchre in my parents’ kitchen, watching my once-strong daddy die.

It all seemed so unfair.

When God saved me at fifteen, I responded by pouring myself into evangelism. Then, in my prime, I was unable to alleviate the pain for the man who’d raised his little girl to believe that life had no limits. My offering was now a cup of soup.

Yet it was in the dark basement of my parents’ home, listening to my dad restlessly putter upstairs through the dark night, that I started to see winter as holy.

A Tree in the Cold

Psalm 1 talks about the man who meditates day and night on the Lord:

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:3)

The deciduous tree knows seasons. It shoots out nascent sprigs of life and verdant leaf in spring. They and their accompanying fruit unfurl under the summer heat, lush and alive. In fall, the mossy-green alights into gold, but only for a flash before brown takes over and winter starts her pull. This tree is disrobed in winter, but not dead. Motionless, with roots resting and waiting, it ever so slowly grows.

The tree prospers in winter, fulfilling its God-intended purpose. Though, to the unknowing eye, it sure looks barren.

Without recognizing seasons, we might only see that barrenness. We see a prospering life in God akin to the opulent tree in early spring, with leaves and fruit intertwined. We forget that this blooming comes forth because of the preparation that winter provides.

Blessed Are the Thirsty

That holy winter — when I felt hidden, unseen by friends who weren’t familiar with long hours of care-giving, passing my days without visible accomplishments and apparent fruit — I started to see that I could cultivate an unseen, private life in God. My roots were still alive, albeit concealed.

In the basement, underground seasons of my life, His Word and His whisper became fresh to me. I wanted it, not so that I could teach it or share it or sermonize it, but because I was thirsty. So thirsty. During my daddy’s restless nights, I needed God to highlight a phrase from His Word to sustain my little-girl heart.

I wasn’t changing the world; I was changing my parent’s laundry. But through it, God was changing me. With his word cracked open on the counter, he whispered words of encouragement and promise: “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . my cup overflows” (Psalm 23:4–5).

The blessed man, likened to the tree in Psalm 1, found his delight meditating on God, day and night (Psalm 1:2–3). Meditating on God’s word — singing it, crying over the pages, taking my angry heart to his word for answers and asking for a surprise rush of his Spirit’s lifting — took on new meaning when I was winterized.

In the winter, I fell in love. He became my delight — because he was all there was. His whisper, my winter song back to him. And this was to his glory.

New Practices for Cultivating Roots

For those who are in winter (perhaps even a prolonged winter), there are some reminders that might help sustain our roots:

1. Receive your season.

Rather than giving your energies towards wishing for another. The surrender, although painful, positions us to receive all that God intends for that particular season much better than if we fight against it. God is always oriented towards our growth, even in our winter. This is a truth given to us in John 15.

2. Create new spaces.

Find areas where you can fall in love with God afresh. Seemingly barren seasons might convince you that your roots are hardened. Not necessarily so.

Thwarted opportunities are a fresh chance to see God through His Word in ways you haven’t before. Start a new habit of engaging with His Word in the middle of your thwarted day. Write songs from His Word. Take walks with your earbuds out, praying a verse back to Him. Ask His Spirit to direct your eyes to the ways He is working in the small areas of your life. Winter is a time when the inside can be nourished even when what is outside feels barren.

3. Don’t forfeit your dream for fruit.

Our culture is largely oriented toward action. But dormant dreams are not dead dreams; they are often further opportunities for dialogue with God. He created you to desire fruit, and He desires fruit for you (John 15:8). Winter is a time to take those desires to God in prayer. Winter can also be a season where dreams are cultivated.

Thankful for Winter

My seemingly barren winter started even before my dad was diagnosed, and it lasted years beyond his death. But during that very long season, I had this single verse on a notecard, propped behind my kitchen sink:

“I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that I, the Lord, who call you by your name, am the God of Israel.” (Isaiah 45:3, NKJV)

Now, during a kind of spring, I see that it all proved true. He cultivated my roots in winter and gave me treasures that are still producing fruit within me. And it wouldn’t have happened without my winters.

 

If You Have Nothing

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If You Have Nothing

If you have nothing: laurel leaf or bay,
no flower, no seed, no apple gathered late,
do not in desperation lay
the beauty of your tears upon the clay.

If you have nothing, gather back your sigh,
and with your hands held high, your heart held high,
lift up your emptiness!   ~  
Jessica Powers, OCD

 

 

 

 

Let Go and Let God

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          In another stew yet again. I had, some weeks back, heard about Reparation Mondays – one Monday a month for 9 months – where the sufferings for that day were offered for sins against the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. For some reason, I felt drawn towards it – although I have a great fear of suffering. And knowing just how bad my memory is getting, I figured why wait for a Monday every 9 months. Why not just offer every Monday up for reparation and get the 9 over with. And if God wants more than 9, well, ….well, I will try to obey.

          So, timidly, I offered up my first Monday. It turned out to be a rather rough day but I got through it without maiming anyone. After that was the next Monday – a rather tame affair.

          Then, came the next. A hit when I least expected it. And ensuing almighty stew of emotions.

          I struggled and struggled with myself over the bitter sting of unfairness. I tried to pray but my anger over what I had received was so great. Yet, cognizant of my sin, I kept returning to heaven’s door – anger in tow. Every time it surged, I buried it clumsily into the Holy Hearts.

          After several hours, Someone gently nudged Our Lady of Guadalupe towards me.

Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under My shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”       Our Lady’s words to Her servant Juan Diego in the 1531 Guadalupe, Mexico,  apparitions

 

          Are you not under My shadow and protection? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? 

          Still in the binds of anger, I beseeched Mother Mary, Take me under the folds of Your mantle. Bind my heart in Your mantle.

          And then, as an afterthought, knowing how intent I was on avenging the wrong done to me, I tacked on, Bind my tongue with Your mantle too.

          Much later, busy with dinner preparations, I slowly sensed the firestorm within abate. Not trusting myself, I continued speaking to God. I told him of my anger, my disappointment with the person who had hurt me. But I also told God I wanted to do His will. Or at least, a small part of me did.

          In the midst of cooking, I suddenly saw the words, Reparation Monday. It had slipped my mind completely. So, this was why it was so bad, I acknowledged. My suffering was needed someplace.

          What do You want me to do? I asked God again. I had a couple of plans lined up.

          I heard the softest whisper,

Let Go and Let God.

          I felt the fight go out of me.

 

 

 

 

Heeding the Confessor

  

Parable of the rich man, by Rembrandt

The Rich Fool by Rembrandt

         Early this morning, the angels brought me God’s Will for the day, through the Litany of the Precious Blood of Christ. For some reason, of all the lines in the litany, today, only one glowed brighter than the rest and beamed its light into my heart:

Blood of Christ, strength of confessors, save us.

          Looking long and hard at the line, one little word lit up more than others: confessors.

          I knew what it meant, but what did it mean for me? Whatever explanation I came up with felt like blunted message board pins, which kept falling from the board. Nothing stuck.

          I didn’t have much time to ponder that because within the hour, I was at work and my superior called to see me. I generally go to great lengths to avoid a conversation with this man. Deeply insecure, he lived by the codes of self-pride and revenge. He was easily threatened by the efforts and achievements of others. To earn his favour, one had to either learn the art of mincing around him or that of apple-polishing. If you stocked his barn with the necessary plaudits, it kept him appeased and smug, and you were out of his crosshairs for a time. Blessed with none of those talents, I found it much easier to keep a low profile and stay well away from him. Despite all this, upon getting his call, I placidly trotted into his office like an unsuspecting cow.

          And was led to the slaughter of the spirit.

          He had my cooperation on a project, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted my cheering and fawning too.  I believed in obedience to my superiors as long as it did not put God second.  I was not in the business of shoring up a fool’s barn with the worldly gold of flattery and adulation. Irritated, he sought to bend me to his will. With a few swift strokes, he rent to nothing my years of toil.

         I stumbled out of the office, fiercely concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other because suddenly, it seemed I had forgotten how to walk.

          The hours of the working day suddenly seemed interminably long.

          I made it home late in the evening. Resolved to being stoic, I tried to shrug off the incident. Bravado lasted all of two minutes. And then, it all came out.

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          Later, emptied, I went in search of comfort and enlightenment. Nancy Shuman’s pearl for the day in the Breadbox Letters was Philippians 4:13 ~ In Christ who is the source of my strength, I have strength for everything. I stared numbly at the verse. Strength to do what? I felt the verse stare back at me, willing me to dig deeper.

          In Victor Moubarak’s I’m Running Out Of Priests, this lit up – “..do not judge … too harshly. Indeed, we are all sinners; some of us perhaps deserving more forgiveness than others.”

          Forgiveness. I felt a tug this time. And a weariness. I hadn’t even gone an inch past my hurt, but there was God already asking me to scale the Everest of my weaknesses.

          I looked at the picture of the Divine Mercy on my wall. In Christ who is the source of my strength, I have strength for everything.

          I forgive. It sounded false and tinny even to my ears. The words meant little. It wasn’t too hard to say them then, but I knew well enough that in the coming days, when I would single-handedly whip up a bitter storm within me with a rehashing of the hurt and the clever rebuttals I didn’t think of, forgiveness would not come as easily.

          How am I to forgive him? I asked heaven. Give me the words to pin me to Your will so I cannot run from it.

          I went to seek the words in the quotes of saints on forgiveness. At first, nothing stuck. Then, one caught my heart and wouldn’t let go:

To the extent that you pray with all your soul for the person who slanders you, God will make the truth known to those who have been scandalized by the slander.

          I flailed, I don’t care what he or anyone else thinks about me. I have been asked by Heaven to forgive him and I need the words for that. I determinedly resumed my seeking.

          Yet again, like blunted pins, nothing stuck. Finally, I stepped back from all that had been given to me, to discern what had settled on my spirit thus far. The same breeze found me:

To the extent that you pray with all your soul for the person who slanders you, God will make the truth known to those who have been scandalized by the slander.

          There was something there. I peered closely at the quote. Then, I saw who it was attributed to. St. Maximos the Confessor.

Confessor.

          The very word in the Litany that lit up early in the morning. God’s way of telling me to heed the words of the Confessor.

          Wanting to forgive even in the red tide of anger,  I had asked for the prayer I could never wriggle out from, but He gave me something else. He gave me the purpose to the prayer of forgiveness – To the extent that you pray with all your soul …… God will make the truth known. It never crossed my mind that forgiveness could lead to this!

          The veil gently fell back in place. I had been given a glimpse of something ahead. There was more to praying for this person than I might ever know. My forgiving him was the necessary first step, however bitter. But this time, I was not troubled to pursue the mystery of what lay ahead. A dew-wet peace had flooded my soul. My Jesus was before me, holding out His hands to me.

          I placed my wound in them.

          And then, I found the words.

          Blood of Christ upon me. Blood of Christ upon him.

THE WINDS HAVE STILLED

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          Time rushing past. Days filled to the brim. Lists, lists, lists. Tasks accomplished and unaccomplished. Much done, much to do. A whirlwind of activities. 

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          Black headlines. Bleakness. Fear. Loss before its time. Grief, streams of sorrow. Betrayals of loves we thought we knew. Raging winds, storms all around us. Dreams crushed, hopes dashed, trust decimated. 

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          And yet, deep inside, in a secret place hidden within, the winds have stilled. No curious breezes, no storm, no wind wild. The guardians of our soul know something we don’t – the season is ripe. Wind chimes of angels tinkle, bidding us to slow our stride and pause our rush, for the season is ripe.

         

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          Hold close the Rose Beads, ponder the Truth. Gather the children, spread the mantle of prayer. Love the erring, seek the lost, no soul left behind.

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           The winds have stilled. The angels know. The season is ripe.

TRIUMPH OF THE HOLY CROSS ~ Sept 14

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Years ago, when my eyes first traced the words – Triumph of the Holy Cross, I naively imagined the coming feast would bring me joy and revelry. As it turned out, from that first year, every time I saw the feast approaching, I remembered all we had hoped for but ultimately lost. My heart ached every time I heard the proclamation that the Cross would bring joy and that it was a sign of hope.

To me, it brought neither.

Yet, I knew that the struggle to comprehend the true meaning of Christian joy was due to my experience of pain, and not a rebellion against the truth. My feelings were an impediment to the acceptance of the doctrine of the Cross. Although I instinctively knew it was true, I couldn’t see the truth of it manifested through what we had gone through. I didn’t doubt the truth of my cradle faith, but I hurt because I could not proclaim it in sincerity in my life. And I desperately wanted to not hurt because of it.

Every time, every year the feast made its way up my calendar, the eyes of my heart watched it in wary curiosity, willing God to lift the veil and let the truth shine through, so the pain would dissipate.

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This year, on an impulse, I made the sudden decision to mark the feast. I had had enough of waiting by the wings. I began to recite the Novena of the Exaltation of The Holy Cross. It was my way of telling God, I want to know. Lift the veil, Lord.

Some days into it, I heard a voice say, Blow the Spirit of My Mother into the realms. A fleeting voice. Light. Leaving no mark within me. No compulsion that I follow its leading. An invisible beckoning to part the veil, to go beyond the veil.

I chased after the voice. I called out and waited for its answering echo. I listened out for it, day and night, trying to make out its cadences from among the cacophony of other competing voices.

Blow the Spirit of My Mother into the realms.

I turned the phrase over and over in my mind. Many dear souls tried to help me fathom its meaning. But every honest suggestion bounced off me like silver raindrops sliding into the earth. Nothing stayed long enough to resonate.

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On the 14th of September, I sat in an empty and silent church and stared at my Lord on His Cross. It was not an easy journey to make to the church, so I wanted to make the most of it. I got busy offering Him my prayers and supplications. I looked carefully at the Cross and willed Him to speak to me. I waited. There was a peaceful quiet around me, but nothing more. After a time, I decided to leave.

As I moved to get up, I was suddenly assailed by a powerful sense of gratitude for His gift of faith to me. Thankfulness flooded my spirit like never before. I had long suspected that what bit of faith I had was not of my making, but a gift from above.

But up to then, I had never before felt such a deep conviction of that. In that moment of light in the church yesterday, I was bent over in a gratitude not mine for all God had blessed me with. It was something I knew all along, and yet, it seemed that some inner eye had been opened to the gift of spiritual insight.

As I finally made my way out of church, I felt an unseen burden lifted off my shoulders. I did not know what that burden was, but I felt light within.

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Stepping into the sunshine, ready to go forth with a spring in my step, I became aware of a sudden developing aridity in my soul. In a split second, I had moved from white to dark. It felt as if my soul was drying from the edges inwards. Nothing around me had changed. And yet, some darkness had slipped in. An unseen wind borne and strengthened on gusts of fear and panic began to howl silently inside me. From the positive emotions of a scant few minutes before, this sudden change was a storm I never saw coming.

I went into pretend mode. I tried to not panic. I carved a face of normalcy and went about my day, while the storm clawed at me on the inside. I tended to house chores and cooked dinner, all the while frantically trying to discern what I had done wrong to have visited this on myself. A hundred questions. No answers.

But I knew, like the faith I carried in my heart, this secret growing desert within my soul was not my doing. It had formed unbidden in me several times in the past. It was not unknown. It was a small moment in the desert Christ stayed in for forty days. It was the desert of hopelessness, doubt, sorrow of the loss of heaven. It was the desolation of the perceived closed door of heaven. No spiritual leadings in that desert in me. No voiceless prompts to charity and rightness. No comfort, no solace, no peace. The aridity was heaven’s door sealed to me so I would leave the comforts I had grown used to, to search anew for Truth.

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It was a journey I could never not make however much I despised it. And yet, I cowed in fear because it was a journey of the soul but without clearly sensing my Lord’s guiding Hand. It was a journey of obedience through bitter darkness and fear, not being able to see in front of me. This was a journey that called for only faith and obedience. And yet it seemed unsurmountable.

As the storm inside me crashed and raged in a widening circle of tempests, I grew more and more desperate. It reached a hideous peak.

Then, a prayer slipped into me. A prayer I have never before prayed.

Mother, into Your hands I commend my spirit.

Like the faith I had, like the dryness in me, this prayer too was not my doing.

But I grasped it like one drowning. I didn’t question it. I didn’t analyse it. Over and over and over, I prayed the prayer, throwing myself in abandon into the depths of it.

Mother, into Your hands I commend my spirit…

Mother, into Your hands I commend my spirit…

Mother, into Your hands I commend my spirit.

And the miracle began. I felt something take root and bloom within my soul.

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The black ice began to melt. The darkness edged away. The storm swirled slower and slower and slower.

Mother, into Your hands I commend my spirit.

I didn’t know that prayer and but my spirit did. It was my Savior’s words from the Cross. He gave me His words and turned me to His mother to place my spirit, my will in Her hands.

Stunned, I realised whose voice it was that I had heard that day ~ Blow the Spirit of My Mother into the realms – it was Jesus’ voice.

And when I answered with a trusting beyond me, Mother, into Your hands I commend my spirit, I stepped out of the darkness. I parted the veil.

In that instant, I knew the Triumph of the Cross.