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Summer 2009 | Volume 32, Number 2 | My Reponse

Lean Times, Uncertain Futures

By Emilie Griffin


Emilie Griffin
Emilie Griffin

My mother loved to tell the story of how a cauliflower fell off the back of a truck, and she ran into the street to nab it as a dinner offering. It was during lean times, the Great Depression, when she was a newlywed, stuck with a limited grocery budget. That cauliflower, in our family, became the stuff of legend. It was like the manna that fed the Israelites. Or maybe the time that Elijah was fed by the ravens.

Actually, I think the spiritual life is often triggered by adversity. When I began to get serious about prayer and solitude and daily worship, it was really a response to my own hard times. Lean times, like those seven lean years of famine mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 41:27).

I was caught in a patch of stress, not an economic depression, but a time of confusion. I had a lot of things most people want: a marriage, a job, children, friendship, good reputation — but still, my life wasn’t adding up to me. The present was hard to figure. And the future seemed worse. Turning to God seemed the only sensible move. Instinctively I felt that when I couldn’t see the path ahead, I should ask God for guidance.

Usually, in the Hebrew Bible, God promises to show his love by abundant material gifts: flocks, herds, vineyards, all that good stuff. But it isn’t wise to depend on possessions, which may vanish with the next drought, flood, plague of locusts, or hostile invasion. Life was precarious in those days. And in our time it still is.

What does it mean to enter into a life of spiritual discipline? Usually, teachers of the spiritual life emphasize practices like regular times of prayer and Biblical reflection, journaling, meetings with a spiritual director or a spiritual formation group. They emphasize solitude and silence, listening for God’s guidance, and careful discernment about the moral weight of certain actions.

All these are valuable, and affordable even in lean times. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested, there is a cost to discipleship, but on the whole it isn’t monetary. It’s about making a whole gift of oneself to God.

Spiritual practices help to form us in God’s way. That is the chief value they have. They may feel like time in the gym, but soon, as with an athlete’s training, these disciplines begin to change us, helping us to become more like Jesus.

Do we need adversity in order to grow in the life of grace? I’m not sure, but it seems to be a constant way that God prods us and gets our attention.

In “The Grace of Aridity and Other Comedies” (The Best Spiritual Writing 2004), Kathleen Norris writes: “If grace is so wonderful, why do we have such difficulty recognizing and accepting it? Maybe it’s because grace is not gentle or made-to-order. It often comes disguised as loss, or failure, or unwelcome change.”

Some of our great spiritual teachers seem to have made their best gains in difficult times. John of the Cross, an authority on prayer, was seized and imprisoned by his fellow religious. But because he was attentive to grace he felt God’s presence, even in a 16th-century prison cell, where his body was cramped and twisted.

John of the Cross had no pencil or paper. But in that terrible circumstance he was attentive to God and able to see grace in a harsh situation. In his prison cell he composed a poem that became a treasure of the spiritual life: “One dark night,” it begins. That poem, which he later wrote down after he was set free, became one of the great texts on prayer, yielding the notion of the “dark night of the soul.”

Then there is the famous saying from his slightly older colleague, Teresa of Avila. She apparently once told God, “If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!” So, as Kathleen Norris says, grace is not always gentle or made to order. Unpleasant times, like getting stuck overnight in an airport and having to sleep in a chair, can become not just moments of misery but also times of understanding and reflection.

Norris wants us to find the hidden grace in crisis, in emergency, in loss. She interprets the hideous events of September 11, 2001, seeing the power of human love, the cell phone calls, the tender goodbyes, the expressions of friendship, even the brief solidarity and unity that Americans and their sympathizers felt.

Adversity gets our attention. Somehow it makes us more creative, sharpens our vision, our hearing, our gift of interpretation. In lean times we understand fully our dependence on God. We become more aware of what God wants to say.

That is part of spiritual discipline, part of living the spiritual life. Opening our hearts and minds so God can speak to us. Letting God get our attention. So he can prod us, and express his love for us. Through lean times, and abundant times. In the most unexpected ways.

Emilie Griffin is the author of a number of books on spiritual life, including several on prayer, and an active speaker and retreat leader with Renovaré, an international Christian nonprofit organization. She and her husband, writer and editor William Griffin, are founding members of The Chrysostom Society. The Griffins live in Alexandria, Louisiana.

—Photo by Lee Celano

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