Over the mountains and up through the pine woods I’ve been… to my church’s autumn retreat for my college/twenty-somethings. And now I’m back… sorry it’s been so long! I had much time though for contemplation and rambles through brooding mountain meadows so I have plenty to write about in the coming weeks. I’d been looking forward to this retreat for quite sometime, just because it’s good to get away to the mountains, listen to people talk about loving God, and worship with a lot of other people my age. I went up this time expecting fun and some inspiration, some “good times” as my friends say.
It’s funny how spiritual themes weave like a counter melody through life at times and how they can suddenly burst out into a symphony at the most unexpected moments. I didn’t expect any deep spiritual revelation, but in a way, I found it. The retreat was called “Thirsty”, as all the teaching centered around cultivating a thirst for the living God, and living that thirst out in day to day life. I found my heart responding with surprising vigor. The thought of hungering for God has been potently with me in the past month. Due to some conversations and experiences in the past year, I have deeply questioned God’s presence in my life; doubted his day-to-day kindness or tenderness toward me. I often struggle with feeling or knowing in a real way that God loves me, a feeling compounded by some of the influences of the past year. But as I have gotten home from England and immersed myself back in this home life, trying to comprehend the shape of my hope and future, I have felt my thirst for God rising up even as I grapple with my feelings. I have felt a strong sense of his call in my heart to seek him, to love him persistently even in the midst of my doubt.
The first week I was home, I went to a Biblestudy taught by a friend. He taught on Romans eight, where Paul describes the reality of the Holy Spirit crying out to God from within us. My friend went on to say that we were meant to know God, to desire Him, to love him and he challenged us to seek God hard in the confidence that He would meet us. It convicted me, helped to push me that extra step in devotions. I began to push beyond an anemic perusal of Scripture to a robust daily reading. I began to pray the Psalms. I got down on my knees and told God that I loved him, that I was determined to know him, that I would seek him regardless of my fear. And with Peter I say, what else could I do?
In the midst of that, I began to read a book called The Cloud of Unknowing, a sort of extended essay on contemplation written by an anonymous 14th century mystic. I don’t know why I am so drawn to the mystics and contemplatives. It feels at times like painful irony as my life so rarely reflects their quiet. And yet, as I read this book, I began to remember that contemplation is really about a single heart; about a will that thirsts for the living God above all other things. What really struck me though was a particular quote (which, of course, I can’t find at the moment, but will paraphrase instead): God is brought near when we love him, when our love reaches out to him. He is near us anyway, but there is something that happens when our hearts are turned to reach for him with a hunger that refuses to be satisfied.
And so, with that in my heart, I went to a retreat with a bunch of zany people and great music and found faith reviving in my heart. I found a thirst not desperate or painful, as my thirst often is, but a thirst that rose up so that I would be driven to know God. With all the thoughts and study of the past weeks grounding me, I listened as each teacher spoke of thirst. The talk that clutched at my heart though was on the second day. The speaker that day said that sometimes our thirst is met with doubt, or pain and it is at that point that we have to decide where it will take us. I understand that. It is part of my struggle; matching up the ongoing hard circumstances of my life with the idea of a God who loves me. Part of my thirst is often self driven; a need for God to answer my suffering, provide for my need. But it is at that point, he said, that we make our choice. Our thirst can lead us into a life of doubt, an assumption that God doesn’t care, that prayer is useless. It can lead us to self reliance. Or it can lead us into mystery.
Ahh, mystery. Sometimes, he said, our thirst isn’t met with instant blessing or better lives. It is met by an awesome God who gives himself as the incomprehensible answer to our questions. And then he spoke of Job and his incredible suffering and the fact that God never answered his questions, never explained why he had suffered so much. He only met him with questions that led him to embrace the grand mystery of the living God. And in that statement, I found an answer. I have so many questions, so many fears. I can clutch at them all my life and let them sap the hunger and thirst out of me. Or I can finally come to a place of saying, I don’t understand, I can’t quantify or outline or comprehend my God, but I can trust him. I can believe that he is Love. That he is with me. That he crafts hope and beauty and joy for me even in the midst of pain. I can embrace mystery by faith. I can run after him with all that I am. And that leads to… surrender.
That was the conclusion of the speaker, and it is mine as well. I have thought of thirst as something that demanded satisfaction. I think it is perhaps a hunger I surrender to a God beyond every desire I could have. I still don’t find it easy to “feel” God’s love, I still wonder about this fascinating and very broken world. But my thirst is satisfied by faith in this God so entirely beyond me. I took a long walk on my last morning at the camp and felt the sheer size and scope of God’s presence in his mountains. The first snow was dripping on the pines, icing over the tiny stream, the sky was brooding with more snow. All was quiet. Including me. My thirst was wakened and satisfied all at once and I knew it to be good.
And that was a ridiculously long post. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: spiritual realizations involve long ramblings. They are only compacted with time. So take what you can. And may your day be marked by the mystery of our Father.