When I became a novelist last year, I decided to start having emotions. Bad idea. My characters experience higher highs and lower lows than I’ve generally allowed myself in “real life”. I thought that because it wasn’t “really happening to me” I could enjoy the upside without the downside. Wrong again.
Something that happened around the same time was that God answered my prayer (chuckling in His size-40 sleeve all the while) to remove my fear of being incinerated by contact with Him. Nowadays, when I read “Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29), my response is more “Awesome, dude!” than “Yikes – where do I hide?”
Since I opened the doors of my creativity and my prayer life to let the storms sweep through, amazing things have happened. My writing has taken on new degrees of honesty, depth and mission, and my zeal to know God has increased. BUT…a lot of the time I feel like the Holy Spirit’s chew toy. Shake shake shake, plop. Tossed in a corner. I suppose that changing my temperament from constant low-grade gloom to manic-depressive is an improvement in terms of productivity, but when the post-prophetic emptiness descends, I remember why I resisted our culture’s veneration of impulsive emotion for so long.
In short, I have become addicted to peak experiences. I’m writing because I need the high of creation, or to escape from the flatness of everyday life. I drift from church to church seeking the thrill of spiritual fervor, while knowing that I will never be in a real relationship with the people who are worshipping beside me, because I don’t feel safe with their church’s worldview.
Today’s thumbnail bio at The Daily Office was of Jeremy Taylor, a 17th-century Anglican bishop and chaplain to King Charles I, who wrote this extraordinary prayer for the visitation of the sick, as found in the Book of Common Prayer:
O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered; Make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days: that, when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our fathers, having the testimony of a good conscience; in the communion of the Catholic Church; in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope; in favour with thee our God, and in perfect charity with the world. All which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Wait a moment — we’re supposed to want to be aware of the emptiness of mortal life? This can be a blessing, not just a pathology? As my Buddhist husband has often told me, even negative emotions feel much better when you stop resisting them as a violation of your imaginary entitlement to constant happiness.
And so I ask myself: Do I really long to see and speak the truth because it is God’s truth, or only because it is cool and exciting? Some truths are not fun. They’re not even scary in an exciting way. Feelings of pointlessness and spiritual darkness are also part of the package, because life is indeed short and uncertain, and evil is real.
I have been revived by the emotional freedom of charismatic and evangelical services, and will probably always dip into that world for occasional spiritual rebooting. However, I’m also coming to appreciate the discipline provided by the traditional liturgy, how it makes space for the widest range of experiences through the Scriptures yet holds them in a framework that prevents a single passion from filling the entire field of vision. This striking juxtaposition from the August 10 Morning Prayer service is a perfect example:
1 O LORD, my God, my Savior, *
by day and night I cry to you.
2 Let my prayer enter into your presence; *
incline your ear to my lamentation.
3 For I am full of trouble; *
my life is at the brink of the grave.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; *
I have become like one who has no strength;
5 Lost among the dead, *
like the slain who lie in the grave,
6 Whom you remember no more, *
for they are cut off from your hand.
7 You have laid me in the depths of the Pit, *
in dark places, and in the abyss.
8 Your anger weighs upon me heavily, *
and all your great waves overwhelm me.
9 You have put my friends far from me;
you have made me to be abhorred by them; *
I am in prison and cannot get free.
10 My sight has failed me because of trouble; *
LORD, I have called upon you daily;
I have stretched out my hands to you.
11 Do you work wonders for the dead? *
will those who have died stand up and give you thanks?
12 Will your loving-kindness be declared in the grave? *
your faithfulness in the land of destruction?
13 Will your wonders be known in the dark? *
or your righteousness in the country where all is forgotten?
14 But as for me, O LORD, I cry to you for help; *
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
15 LORD, why have you rejected me? *
why have you hidden your face from me?
16 Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the point of death; *
I have borne your terrors with a troubled mind.
17 Your blazing anger has swept over me; *
your terrors have destroyed me;
18 They surround me all day long like a flood; *
they encompass me on every side.
19 My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, *
and darkness is my only companion.
Glory to God the Creator,
and to the Christ,
and to the Holy Ghost;
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be
world without end. Amen. Amen.
After all that, we are called to praise. Whether or not we feel like it. There is a sanity to that command that comforts when emotions fail.