On a recent Sunday morning the minister asked the question, “What are you looking for?”
So often my response is “something”…“anything”…“whatever will take away the emptiness, loneliness, pain and discouragement”…“whatever will fill the void and restore my joy.”
How often I have felt what the Psalmist wrote:
Oh, God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Psalm 63:1–3 NRSV
The months from September 1995 to March 1996 were the bleakest of my life. My soul was parched and shriveled. That September my mother-in-law was diagnosed with a fast-growing, inoperable brain cancer; and about a month later I fell and broke my foot. I spent two months—right up through the Holidays—in a cast and wheelchair. A fog of depression settled over our house. When Lev came home each evening from the office, he reminded me of the cartoon character Joe Btfsplk, Li’l Abner’s friend and jinx, who always walked around Dogpatch with a dark cloud looming over his head. Lev’s grief was contagious. I sank deeper and deeper into depression.
When my cast was finally removed and I could walk and drive again, I went to the bookstore and searched the shelves of the self-help section. I bought every book on meditation that I could find. Each morning after Lev went to work, I sat at my desk, working my way through the Psalms, the Gospel of John and Philippians. I journaled for the first time. I prayed. Late each afternoon, to prepare myself for the gloom that would reenter the house when Lev returned, I went downstairs to our shadowy living room, assumed the classic lotus position of yoga and practiced deep breathing with “Je-sus” as my mantra, while my mind conjured up images of peace and serenity. The Twenty-Third Psalm, which I memorized as a child, took on new meaning:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
As I meditated, I was transposed from a spiritual desert to a green oasis, where I could rest and where my soul was nourished. No matter that the image in my mind’s eye was the small lake at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, surrounded by the green grass of the golf course, Cheyenne Mountain reflected in the water, the silence broken by the music of the carillon wafting down from the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun. There, in memory, my soul still finds peace.
Thirteen years later, that same Psalm spoke to me in a new way. During his last hospitalization, Lev had a Code Blue one evening. ICU was full of pneumonia patients, so there was no bed there for him. The kind young hospitalist on duty advised me to spend the night in his hospital room. As I reclined in the big chair beside Lev’s bed listening to the sounds of his breathing, the words of the Twenty-Third Psalm again flitted into my consciousness. This time, though, different verses spoke to my heart:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
I knew then with calm certainty that we were entering the valley of the shadow of death. I had always interpreted King David’s psalm to refer to his own near-death encounters. Now it spoke to me too. I would walk through this valley. I had to enter it with Lev, but I would come out the other end without him, for his journey would take him to a different place. I would be irreversibly changed, but I had a sure confidence that I would survive.
Scripture speaks to us where we are
At different times, at different places in life, the same passage can take on different personal meaning. After Lev’s death, I returned to the Psalms, the Gospel of John and Philippians to find peace and hope in the midst of the fog that enveloped me in my grief. When I decided to write my book—I didn’t know then that it would grow into a memoir—I carved Philippians into 28 pieces and meditated on one short passage each day, journaling as I meditated. What spoke to me, what led me on my journey from grief to joy was not the theology described in the commentaries. Today, three years after reclaiming joy, I discover new and different meaning.
The same is true of all Scripture. Though we reflected on different psalms during the Sunday worship service, my mind returned to that verse from Psalm 23:
He restoreth my soul.
In bouts of depression and grief, I absorbed the visual images of green pastures, still waters and the valley of the shadow of death. Sunday, for the first time, I embraced fully the proclamation, He restores my soul!
Porchtime at the Parsonage
Reclaiming Joy: Moving From Discouragement to Joy
4:30 p.m. Tuesdays on the FCC parsonage porch, Nantucket
July 11—Love Overcomes Fear
July 18—Unity Strengthens Relationships
July 25—Maturity Brings Wisdom
August 1—Peace Leads to Joy
Parts of this blog are adapted from the prologue to my forthcoming book, RECLAIMING JOY.
Photo: Cheyenne Mountain viewed from the Broadmoor Hotel, Colorado Springs.