How to Survive a Spiritual Collapse
With your faith intact
In the late 90’s I was asked by my spiritual leaders to let go of a mission parish I was planting. For those who are not familiar with the idea, church planting is the process of starting a parish from scratch. Their advice was not unreasonable. I was a father of four young kids, still in seminary, working a full-time job, and planting a church. I suppose that is begging for burn out.
Stepping away from this mission created a deep sense of failure. I suppose I felt that I had failed God and myself, and that God had failed me. After all, I felt that I had given so much for God and His Kingdom. Why did he let me down like that?
The sense of failure took a firm hold on my soul and I spiraled downward. Before long I found myself in a whirlwind of anger, feelings of worthlessness, and depression. Unhealthy addictive behaviors began to re-emerge too. It threatened my ministry, my marriage, and my soul. I learned that this experience had uncovered a hidden fault-line in my life, one that my faith had sort of masked over. To understand this better, it might be helpful to give you some personal history.
I was not really raised in a Christian household and had only been to church a handful of times in my life. My parents divorced when I was 13. My mother married an alcoholic and gambler. It’s likely that she struggled with mental illness from the time I was young. Home life during my teenage years was chaotic. I dealt with this by turning to drugs and alcohol. Valium, Quaaludes, Pink Ladies and 888’s (speed), cocaine, weed (tons of weed!), and hallucinogens were all the rage in the 70’s and I did them all to excess. This also led to a few encounters with the law. That all stopped abruptly when I had a dramatic conversion to Christ when I was eighteen. Needless to say, with a background like that, it is not hard to imagine that there would have been unresolved psychological and emotional issues that had not been properly addressed.
I also came to faith at a time when the charismatic renewal was in full swing in many churches — Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and non-denominational. That movement produced some insightful leaders whose ministries focused on inner healing. People like Francis MacNutt, Agnes Sanford and Leanne Payne. Fortunately, I was exposed to these sources earlier on and that helped clear away some of the deepest unresolved pain that I carried with me into my new Christian life. Obviously, there was still more work to do.
The sense of failure and spiritual collapse that ensued from closing my little church planting endeavor was grounded in my history and in core beliefs I held about myself. I spent at least two years feeling that I was flying apart. I spent another two years simply trying to find some footing and recover. And I spent more time after that healing from the self-inflicted damage. Here is how I survived and recovered from my spiritual collapse.
From the beginning of my conversion I dealt with turmoil and distress through prayer. Within months of my conversion I found myself drawn to take long walks at night, and it was during those walks that I learned to pray in an unfettered way. I cultivated an open, honest and self-reflective dialogue with God. Without this foundation of prayer, I might not have had the basic tools to survive my spiritual collapse.
I was grounded in an unshakable knowledge that God loved me — even my worst self. This was a gift at my conversion, and really what drew me to God in the first place. God disclosed His unconditional love to a kid who thought he was utterly worthless. So, I knew that, no matter how badly I felt, or how much I had grieved God, His love was constant. I held on to that.
By the time the collapse came I had been praying the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer. I took up this discipline having learned the value of the practice through my pastoral vocation and seminary studies. While I came to faith in an evangelical context, one that taught that written prayers were meaningless, I learned through this collapse that those written prayers prayed for me when I could not pray. Every day, when I returned to the Daily Office my vision of God and myself were readjusted and strengthened. Even if only for a few hours. When I was filled with anger or despair or shame the words that I read, and pronounced with my mouth, reaffirmed God’s mercy, forgiveness, majesty and grace. I did this every day, no matter how badly I felt. I also went to church each week, again, no matter how much I felt like a hypocrite. I knew that these actions were the only hope of carrying me out of my dark night of the soul.
I sought out the best spiritual director I could find. I was fortunate because I found a Jesuit priest who taught psychology and was a noted spiritual director. He saved my soul. I opted for a good spiritual director rather than a psychologist because, at the core of my spiritual collapse, my issues were still about how I understood myself and how I understood God. Spiritual direction is concerned with our present experience and how it relates to God and prayer. The reality is that those things are everything! When we go through a spiritual crisis and the hidden fault-lines of our lives are revealed we become dis-integrated. Our crisis of faith is evidence of this dis-integration. It means that our capacity to interpret and reconcile our experience with what we know and what we believe have reached their limits. This is an opportunity for spiritual rebirth! If you can bring your present experience to God through prayer and allow another to look at that with you and offer insights from a healthy perspective, you have begun a process of spiritual formation that integrates your fractured self with your experience and with God. This process results in new revelations about ourselves, how to deal with our experiences, and opens up new avenues of love for God, ourselves, and for others.
I never gave up. I expect God to speak to me through everything and anything. I am always listening for God’s voice. One day God spoke to me through the lyrics of the song by Train, Calling all Angels. The refrain, “I won’t give up, if you don’t give up” came to me at one point like a clarion bell. I was calling all the Angels to help me, and God was telling me, “I won’t give up on you, so don’t you give up”.
An unavoidable part of the Christian path is an encounter with what St. John of the Cross calls, “The Dark Night of the Soul”. It is an encounter with the cross and a confrontation with spiritual death. Sadly, there are Christian fellowships that suffer from a sort of historical amnesia which keeps them from digging deep into the storehouses of The Faith for answers at times like these. Some expressions of Christian community are scarcely aware, or have outright rejected, many of the historic sources within the Church catholic one can draw on to aid their journey. This is deeply saddening because so many people become disillusioned with the Christian Faith without ever having been exposed to the remedies for their spiritual despair. The answers are there, in the lives of monastics and mystics and saints whose lives and writings point the way.
If you are struggling with spiritual despair or are going through something of a spiritual collapse take heart, this moment does not need to be the end of your faith. Turn back to those spiritual practices that made the saints what they were. Believe God loves you no matter how ashamed or hypocritical you feel. Take up a prayer book and let it pray for you. Go to church even if you feel like a schlep. If you can’t go to your old church find something with orthodox, historically rooted and spiritually energetic clergy that can help ground you discover a more historic expression of the faith. (That’s a whole other conversion process!). Find a spiritual director. Persevere. The dark night will one day be over, and you will emerge more whole and with a much deeper interior liberty.