The conversation about God inevitably enters my work with clients. I usually don’t ask directly about God as I know many people are allergic to that word, but I’ll say something like, “Tell me about your spiritual connection.” The vast majority of my clients have a spiritual framework: some were raised religious and still practice their religion of birth; others were raised religious and left the religion as an adolescent; and still others have found their way to a spiritual belief system that has nothing to do with religion.
I had been working with Kristin (not her real name)* for about six months when the conversation arose.
“I used to be a part of a church that told me that God judges me for things like what music to listen to or having premarital sex or having some wine with dinner. I don’t want to connect with God because I’m scared to go back to feeling judged for my actions all the time,” she shared with me.
“That’s understandable,” I replied. “But you’re not describing your own God. I want to ask that you turn inside and see if you can connect to how you see God.”
Almost without pause, she said, “God is the Loving Adult of the world. God is everything good.”
Sometimes my clients take my breath away. And when the client is twenty-three and struggling in the deepest way with her emergence into adulthood, when she views herself through a warped lens as someone unworthy of being loved with nothing beneficial to offer the world, when she has no idea who she really is, the petals of my heart open wide and the work becomes about reflecting back an essence so beautiful that was never reflected to her as a child. My soul-sister and colleague, who I met in graduate school for counseling when I was twenty-three and in the middle of my own struggles, often reminds me when we’re discussing the therapeutic process that it’s the relationship that heals. Which is really another way of saying that it’s love that heals. Two people meet in a shared space and create a third relationship body, and when that third body is graced by open hearts, healing occurs.
The small, quiet voice
cannot be heard in the
middle of a city in the middle of
the traffic jam of thoughts that
blare out their statements
through a megaphone.
It can only be heard
in the sacred space where
mind recedes as if behind mist,
where breath meets breath and
sprite-souls rise up in a dance of healing.
The conversation about God arose out of Kristin sharing that she has been plagued by intrusive thoughts about death lately. I had mentioned to her previously that she may be suffering from existential depression, and she promptly Googled it to learn more about the term. Existential depression refers to a state of intense questioning about the meaning of life and the transient nature of existence. Children and adults become trapped in a sticky state of constant awareness of the passage of time and the one undeniable fact that, no matter how wonderful life can be, it all ends eventually with death. They become stuck in a loss-cycle and lose sight of the fullness of the life cycles, where the death and loss always transform into life and renewal.
“That describes what I’ve been going through to a tee,” Kristin said.
“Did you also learn that existential anxiety is commonly experienced by gifted kids and adults?”
“Yes, I saw that, but I didn’t click on it because I think of giftedness as those super-smart kids who did really well at school. That wasn’t me at all.”
“Yes, that’s how most people think of giftedness, but the reality is that people are gifted in many different ways. Some people are musically gifted or gifted with movement. Others are gifted at math and numbers. And some, like you, are gifted in your moral and emotional sensitivity. I don’t think you have any idea how intuitive, insightful, and naturally wise you are. It’s a gift, even though right now it feels like a burden.”
“I did read that existential depression can be a doorway to spiritual awakening. I don’t feel like I’m spiritually awake right now at all,” Kristin said quietly.
“No, of course not. That’s because you’re in dark night of the soul, and when you’re in dark night it feels like you’ll never see the light again. One of the lifelines of dark night is holding the context of transitions: that with every darkness and death comes a rebirth. You are growing right now in great strides, and it’s scary and hard. You’re becoming the woman you’re meant to be. And part of this growth process is connecting to God in a way that makes sense to you.”
And, thus, the conversation about God.
Her work now is to connect actively to her new definition of God. As painful and scary as it is, she needs to allow herself to descend into the depths of the dark night while another part of her – her loving parent – stands on the edge of the well and holds the lifeline. At the bottom of the darkness, she will find God. God lives in the darkness just as much as the light, but we must open our hearts to be able to see the glittering coins that live there. As the poet David Whyte writes in his poem “The Well of Grief”:
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning down to its black water
to the place that we can not breathe
will never know
the source from which we drink
the secret water cold and clear
nor find in the darkness
the small gold coins
thrown by those who wished for something else
~ David Whyte ~
God lives at the bottom of the well. God lives on the cold, kitchen floor, where we collapse on our hands and knees in moments of despair. God lives in reaching out to a friend when our heart is breaking with grief or when our soul is quaking in nameless fear.
God lives in prayer and in silence. God lives in loving action and service toward others. God lives in trees, rivers, creeks, sky, moon, sun, stars. God lives in a blade of grass, especially when we take time to notice a small drop of silver dew resting there.
God lives in our capacity to heal, to shed the wounded images of ourselves that we learned long ago until we see with clarity the goodness and purity that we really are. God wants nothing more than for each us to embrace this essence, to see ourselves through God’s eyes, and say yes to the privilege of this precious life so that we may unpack the gifts that each of us bears and offer these gifts to to the world.
* I’ve shared a snippet of our session with grateful permission from Kristin.