“All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain…If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” – Richard Rohr
My spiritual journey has certainly been shaped by pain.
The point from which we as a family tend to measure all time is 8am on November 16th 2003, when we discovered our young son Ethan had died in his sleep. Unknowingly to us he had contracted septicaemia while he had been ill with the flu.
That date, and what rapidly unfolded after it, shapes – to a greater or lesser extent – everything we do as a family and frames the way we see everything. So I tend to always begin with this event, and the feelings that have anchored themselves to it, as it looms large over all that has happened since and how my theology and faith have been shaped.
I am from a large, loving Christian family. I fell in love with Mark, married and started our family when I was 24. Ethan came along and slotted into our busy lives as we carried on serving in our local Pentecostal church. Our second son, Jonah, came along surprisingly quickly and we found ourselves beginning to struggle to keep all the balls in the air. Leading, running the youth group, singing, and helping out in various other ways left us little time to nurture our small family. I started to resent the expectations being placed on us as capable and willing young leaders.
I suspect we were heading for classic burn out. But then our trajectory got thrown completely off course when on that Sunday in November 2003 everything changed.
Slowly we began to piece back together the fragments of our relationships and family, and return to work. My spiritual journey was the last thing I could focus on. The questions I had for God seemed too big and I wasn’t sure I actually wanted the answers. It would be two years before I felt able to start picking up the pieces of my faith from the wreckage.
At this point I had drifted away from church. A new pastor had come along and things had changed. The culture of our church – future-focused and celebratory – gave little room for sadness or lament.
Fortunately, I found a more open and honest space in a mums bible study at a local toddler group.Over the next few years I began to explore what my faith really meant. I was drawn to the Northumbria Community’s Rule of Life, especially the focus on being authentic and vulnerable. This resonated with me as a grieving mum. I wanted real, authentic friends and conversations, and I truly believe that God put those very people in my life. They were Jesus to me, letting me be myself and giving me space to wrestle with questions and struggles.
Meanwhile our home church was going through its own trials and many of our friends were caught up in the hurts and fallout from this. We remained but drifted further away as I was left feeling disillusioned by the way people had been treated. And I felt that I needed to take responsibility for my own spirituality rather than rely on the church to feed me.
I began reading and searching for different ways to do church. It was during that time that I stumbled across Nomad Podcast. It was so refreshing to listen to the talks and not feel so isolated. I started reading books and exploring different expressions of church. Thin places and quiet days, Celtic spirituality and new monastic rhythms of life all allowed me to sit with my feelings, and helped me get through some of the harder days now that we had another baby.
Looking back, it was quite an intense but joyous time. The mums group I was part of was a real sanctuary. We explored creative prayer and I began to have a greater capacity to give out again. I started to volunteer at a local food bank and became a befriender for a bereavement charity, offering peer support to other parents who had lost children.
I began to realise that my grief and spiritual journey were intrinsically linked. Earlier on in my grief I often felt very alone as Mark and I grieved so utterly differently. Once I realised that it was totally normal for individuals in couples to grieve in different ways, I began to relax.
I now realise that God really was holding me during that time. I’ve now felt able to become part of a church community again, but with very different boundaries and spiritual practices that have helped me be myself and to own my own story.
It gives me a real sense of hope when I come across other people who have walked the path of pain and have been transformed and reformed by it. No longer the same person, but perhaps a more whole person. Vulnerable, alive and rich in compassion.
This has given me a desire to see Jesus in everything and everyone, and it has been an enriching experience. Elizabeth Barrett Browning sums this up beautifully.
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes…”
So now I rest in the knowledge that the mystery of faith is OK. We don’t need all the answers. God meets us in our pain, often by bringing people alongside us on our journey, people who speak life to us. God is in everything and everyone, we just need to slow down, take a look around and maybe take off our shoes every once in a while.