How the Spiritual Disciplines Saved My Faith

I decided, last week: this has been the hardest 6 months of my life.

But then I remembered where I was 6 years ago, finding out that my mom had breast cancer, while simultaneously balancing visits to my grandfather after a fall and my sister after several brain surgeries,in different hospitals in downtown Baltimore. Maybe that was the hardest season?

Or maybe it was the season that where we were newlyweds and naively started a not-for-loss company working in post-earthquake Haiti and also took in some heroin addicts in an effort to save them by our example of Christ’s love- only to be left basically broke and definitely broken. Was that the hardest season?

The season that broke me was losing our son. Looking back, I can see that clearly- the touches of PTSD, the panic attacks in public places, not being able to sleep, always being tired, depressed, anxious, unable to really parent or be social or have much to do with my family at all. My faith fell apart as I quickly realized that the church- or at least a church service- didn’t have much to say to me as I angrily crossed my arms during songs about God being a healer and how good He was and how much He loved me. I didn’t believe those things. Just because some worship leader with a trendy hairdo sang them or wrote them or whatever didn’t make them true. My baby son was dead and he wasn’t healed and God wasn’t good. Not then. And I definitely wasn’t going to sing about it.

So many parts of that season feel like a blur- like time. I have no recollection of several months of my life. But then, there are certain things that are so vivid- the smell of the “console” essential oil blend I would use each night before bed, the color of the himalayan salt lamp I prayed would help me sleep, the feel of putting on a new pair of leggings for the first time that I would inevitably wear for weeks as I skirted the line between “getting dressed” and “I slept in these”. The gin and tonics- too frequent, the saltwater I would drink in the morning to try to reset my shot adrenals, the smell of the ocean as I would sit on the sea ledge and cry. The two little crabs I would watch digging holes every morning- and I would say to myself, “if God cares about even these little crabs, why does my life feel like such a disaster? Why doesn’t He care about me, my family?”

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking lately about what got me out of that season- what saved me. Because, if I’m being honest, the last 6 months of my life truly have been the hardest- harder than all the rest. Moving to East Africa at 8 weeks pregnant is no joke- moving to Africa at all is no cakewalk anyway. Cultural stress, jet lag, the difficulty of finding a home and setting it up and learning where to buy things and forging a new community and a million other tiny decisions and interactions that just wear on your day after day- it’s mentally exhausting. Add in altitude and hyperemesis (thankfully mostly controlled) and a case of prenatal anxiety and depression because my last pregnancy ended so tragically- yeah, the last 6 months were a recipe for disaster. So why weren’t they?

Don’t get me wrong- I have had numerous breakdowns and “i’m packing up and leaving” moments. Numerous. I won’t lie to you, there have been multiple times where I was ready to throw in the towel. Multiple times where I basically didn’t leave my room- really, my bed- for an entire day. There have been
Netflix marathons and days of eating entire chocolate bars and parenting with TV. My family has not come through this unscathed and I have not always been okay. But then- how am I still here? After that hard season that broke me, with losing Hudson? How am I handling this?

I’ve come to realize that the answer lies in habit- routine- spiritual discipline. I got to the point with my faith where I was so burnt out from what I was supposed to believe about God and his character and what I was supposed to cling to as comfort that I just stopped, and was honest with myself. I was mad. I was frustrated with people throwing cliches my way that didn’t make me feel any better. So I stopped trying to pretend- at least to myself- and I surrendered.

While I don’t feel that I ever really got to a place where I abandoned my faith completely, I think that I wanted to. But something in me remembered those other hard seasons, and how I had found peace in them before, and that there must be something to that. So, I started looking for the things that had stood the test of time. Things that weren’t some kind of postmodern, comfortable pastoral revelation, but things that the church had clung to in times of real trial and pain. Here’s what I found:

Traditional prayers and creeds.

It was so refreshing for me to pray something that had been prayed by so many people for so many years. One of the first things I did was pray the Novena of St. Andrew for all of December. It’s a prayer commonly used in Catholic churches and particularly asking the Lord to bless the wombs of women. It felt easier and safer to me than just telling God how pissed I was about my empty uterus. The prayers of both St. Francis and St. Patrick have all brought direction and comfort in the past year as well. Even the Lord’s Prayer gave me words when, often, I didn’t have them. And the creeds- especially the Nicene Creed- helped me figure out what I believed again on a really basic level- like “okay, if I can agree to this as my foundation, maybe I can move forward”. I am still wrestling, but I am being honest about it. I’ll say them until they sink in. Until I really, really believe them again.

Meditation and silence.

This maybe started out as a more practical way to deal with my anxiety and panic attacks- to help myself start my day calm and centered and focused. But my mediation practice grew into something that I craved and needed in order to really get through my day with any semblance of mental sanity and peace. I looked at different kinds of meditation and “centering prayers” and tried many- and still practice them to this day, though perhaps with less frequency. But those times of remembering how small I was and how big God is and how out of control of everything I truly was helped reground me in the midst of a chaotic and emotionally messy season. The Liturgists have a really great Centering Prayer recording, as well as an excellent episode on meditation. I have also really enjoyed getting Richard Rohr’s daily meditation emails.

Reading the Bible.

This was the hardest for me- and probably still is, if I’m honest. Sadly, I am one of those people that comes through a Bible college with a lower esteem for Scripture than I would like- after studying how the canon was formed and the politics of it all, I just wonder, what else is out there that we are missing? And moreso, I haven’t shaken the feeling that the Bible is just another textbook for me to pull apart and study. After 7 years, it’s really difficult for me to read the Bible as a mystical, transcendent message of God’s love for us that speaks personally to me. I’m still worried about finding background knowledge and looking up greek words and ALL the CONTEXT and really, it’s just hard for me to sit down and bask and be comforted.

However- I found a little tool that has really helped. I am a big fan of Lara Casey’s productivity tools- not only are they beautiful and help women really get to the heart of what they love, but they are so centered on living a life for Christ, whether overtly or not. Last year, Lara released her series of Write the Word Journals, a simple idea in which we write out a Bible passage on one page, and then just whatever is on our hearts on the other. I’ll be honest, deciding to do this got me to open my Bible and let out some feelings, little by little, for the first time in months. Since then, it has become a staple in my routine of daily quiet and has allowed me to venture back into scripture gently, yet with some direction. I am really grateful.

Another big tool for me, has been the Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals book– and, now, the app as well. While it is meant to be read in community, I go through each day’s liturgy in my own quiet time, meditating on the centering words, reading the Scriptures, and praying the prayers. It has allowed me to have some structure to my thoughts and reading and prayers that I have craved- some direction- while still keeping time with things that I care about. I like the space given to pray for others. I like the way the selected readings and quotes are from heroes of the faith, both old and more contemporary. It’s exposed me to thinkers and martyrs that I didn’t know before- people that have paved the way. I really value that. The app includes these readings, as well as a midday and evening liturgy, which I try to pray as often as I can remember. I feel like I need to recenter myself as often as possible. Which brings me to my next tool…

The Chimes app. I don’t actually remember where I first heard of this, but it’s a simple enough idea- your phone will make a little chime noise every hour, on the hour, for whatever hours of the day you want it to. So every day, from 7am to 9pm, I will get a tiny chime on the hour. At that point, I choose what to do with that tiny wake up call- right now, I am working on memorizing the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. For a while, it was the Beatitudes, and before that it was Psalm 23. Sometimes I will recite all 3! But this little chime helps me take a second and recenter myself before I get on with my day. It’s just a minute or so out of each hour, but if I am diligent to really do it, it makes a huge difference. Sometimes that chime goes off in the middle of a tough parenting moment, or while I’m exhaustedly doing dishes, or maybe having a difficult conversation with my spouse. It’s a great reminder.

So, I’m not there yet. I’m not healed, or whole- I still feel very broken, though maybe I always should? But these things, these daily practices- they keep me grounded. They keep me stable and able to have grace with myself and handle my circumstances and relinquish control, even if just for a brief second of my day, of each hour.

If you’re here today, too- I pray that these things will inspire you or maybe give you hope, too. Maybe you can’t recite Scripture on the hour yet, but maybe you can just ask God for mercy. Maybe you don’t want to open your Bible, but you can practice some meditation. Wherever you are- have grace with yourself, keep being honest, and know that you aren’t alone, and that you are very loved- whether you feel it or not.

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4 thoughts on “How the Spiritual Disciplines Saved My Faith

  1. Thanks Karli, these are remarkable and raw reflections. You have such an amazing gift of authenticity in your writings. Don’t ever stop.
    Love you sweet girl! Mindy

  2. Thank you for this post. I needed to read this today. This hit me like a ton of bricks as my faith has been tested in the past two years in way too numerous to list.

  3. I relate to this for so many reasons! Living abroad and all of those ups and downs, miscarriage, depression, finding comfort in Catholic prayers and liturgies. None of these are super recent, but threads from the past 5-8 years of my life. I also visited a friend in Rwanda for a month back in 2008 so knowing that you are posting from Kigali makes me very nostalgic.

    Anyways, I used to do this devotional and really loved it. https://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Christian-Devotional-Readings-Lectionary/dp/0830834311/ref=pd_bxgy_14_3?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=EA1DFGK1AKDC8VMPD3CH

    Also, have you ever read Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. It’s in my top 5 books ever and whenever I read it again I glean new wisdom from it.

    Thanks for sharing your tips and things you’ve been enjoying. Really love the chimes idea. Just checked your blog for the first time in awhile and glad to see you writing again! I am a birth nerd as well and hope you enjoy the last weeks of pregnancy and a wonderful birth of your sweet babe!

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