I might be addicted to reading, and more specifically, reading fiction. Stories reveal a great deal about human nature and are so compelling that I tend to compulsively finish one in a day—while ignoring tasks, people, and even food. There are some classics that I read every year, such as the entire Harry Potter series, but I also relish the thrill of finding a new character. All are opportunities to experience places I have never been, live in a time that I didn’t experience, and study these fascinating creatures called humans. The chance to observe the responses of the some of these characters, and the author’s explanation for them, allows me to deepen my understanding of people and the complex narratives that weave together forming lives, families, communities, and nations.
Based on this deep love for fiction, many dear friends will suggest their favorites to me. I read most of them, even if I wouldn’t have chosen it for myself, because it allows me to understand something about the recommender. I was very surprised to find myself recently resistant to a new character in a book recommended by a friend. This friend has great taste in books and I generally devour everything he has encouraged me to read. But not this one.
Reading A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman felt like a turtle slogging through peanut butter for the first several chapters. I didn’t like the main character Ove, and the author resisted the urge to make him likeable or even explain his often-cruel behavior. The writing was excellent but I couldn’t force myself to care what happened to him, at all. Until, suddenly, I did. The first piece of backstory fell into place just in time to keep me interested. Mr. Backman repeated this cycle all the way through the book and I realized that I was experiencing Ove as if in real life. I didn’t know or understand his back story until he did something that required me to ask about it, just as his neighbors did.
Many have compared our lives of transformation into the image of Christ to a journey. Oftentimes, there are pictures of a beautiful, clearly marked path through the woods and we are encouraged to keep walking. The impression is that there is a beginning to this path and an ending, with gentle streams flowing alongside and comfy picnic tables to rest. The trees offer shade, the path is wide enough for two to walk shoulder to shoulder, and it is all gentle, downhill walking. Like fiction where the author tells us what each nod or smile means, it is a lovely image! Except, I haven’t experienced it to be true.
It has been eight years since I began my adventure into the contemplative way of spiritual formation in earnest. The very first time I sat in silence, I became aware of a deep, dark pit of swirling emotions that existed buried in me. Not only had I been unaware of them before, I was terrified of them even though I instinctively knew some of their source. It would be four more years before that pit began to reveal itself as secrets needing to be told and healed. And still four years after that, more painful secrets have erupted. This journey looks nothing like an idyllic walk through the woods or even a labyrinth, with expected turns and curves.
So far, transformation has been more like following a drunk map-maker’s route through the rainforest. There is no path marked, no picnic tables, and so many trees that it is dark in the daytime. I have encountered poison ivy, roaring rapids in the river, bugs and snakes and monkeys! (oh my) I am not sure of the location of my starting point because the foliage has covered up my progress, and it is equally unclear where this all ends. This journey feels treacherous, confusing, and lonely. My faithful spiritual director has matched me step for step with gentle patience as I get frustrated. Like Ove, my backstory wants to be revealed slowly, even to myself. Growth and maturing require this knowledge, but it comes at a high price and a very slow pace.
Pastoral counseling and spiritual direction are slow, and not always steady, progress toward the goal of transformation. While initial crisis intervention is sometimes necessary, it won’t all move that fast. Save some energy for the slow burn season. This work is like that turtle slogging through peanut butter: you slip and slide for every half inch of forward motion, maybe only to discover the way out is actually the other way.
If you are someone who is interested in facilitating and supporting others’ movement toward the heart of God,
Stay here with them.
You are not expected to deliver them to a final destination point;
you are asked only to aid their discovery of today’s manna.