For Richer or For Poorer

Post Author: Angie Mabry-Nauta

by Angie Mabry-Nauta

Editor’s Note: This article is one in an occasional series called “All About the Benjamins,” running this fall on Fidelia’s Sisters. As many congregations and organizations are running stewardship campaigns and lining up budgets for 2012, we’ll be taking a look at the sometimes-taboo topic of money, and the role it plays in our ministries.  This is the third in a series of articles by this author, reflecting on how she and her husband have navigated the variety of financial situations they have encountered during her ministry.  The previous articles, “For Better or For Worse” and “In Sickness and In Health,” can be found in the October and November editions of “The Ones We Love,” respectively.

One dark night, 
fired with love’s urgent longings
– ah, the sheer grace! – 
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

(St. John of the Cross, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” in
The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross) 

Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) calls it the “dark night of the soul.”  It is the journey of the soul towards God for the purpose of union with its Creator.  And in said union the soul finds its true identity and raison d’être.  In his famous poem bearing the same name, St. John speaks as the soul itself.  The entire journey towards union with God is through utter darkness, which for John (and by extension the reader) is richly polyvalent.  Psychologically and emotionally darkness symbolizes the uncertainty, fear, hardship, pain and suffering the pilgrim experiences.  Indeed, psychologist Darryl Pokea confirms the truth of this allusion, for within this “lonely, painful process” the ego is unraveling as the True Self is being born (Darryl Pokea, “The Dark Night of the Soul is the Gift of Illumination in Higher Consciousness”).

Theologically the darkness refers to the hiddeness and mystery of God.  Existentially, the darkness is a place.  The traveler’s sight removed, her other senses and intuitive perception are heightened.  She can see nothing and therefore must choose to fear or trust her environment and that which inhabits it.

In the text of St. John’s poem and the accompanying commentary he wrote delineating the mystical trip, the author makes three points abundantly clear:  (1) the process is excruciatingly painful; (2) through it is the only way; and (3) what awaits on the other side is the most profound bliss a human can experience.  Although my “house” was far from being “all stilled,” that upon which I had embarked was (previously unbeknownst to me) necessary, pertaining not only to my vocational call but my very existence.

When the cloud came upon me on that fateful Purposeful Living retreat day (please see November’s article, “In Sickness and In Health”), it hovered over me as did the Spirit of God over the dark and chaotic pre-creation waters.  Rather quickly I surmised this wasn’t something I would be able merely to shake off, self-help myself out of or sleep away.  While neither forced nor pushed, I felt compelled to enter the darkness, as if I could not not go.  I sensed both beckoning and beacon.

A strange thing happened familially as I answered God’s call into the darkness.  Typically, my family was the “Buttinskis” – my relatives would boldly and unthinkingly cross boundaries into private marriage matters if something seemed amiss to them.  Socially “sacred” topics such as finances and how to raise one’s children were just as fair game as the weather.  Conversely, Eric’s family was the silent-and-supportive type.  Even if we asked, we might not receive a completely honest answer from one of his relatives due to their overarching desire to respect our nuclear family.  But this time, the roles were reversed.  It was endearingly refreshing.

My family, for their part, didn’t comment much and was immediately supportive, regardless the direction my family and I would go.  Eric’s family, on the other hand, was uncharacteristically unable to stay silent.  I suppose that the financial calamity that my dark journey was bringing upon my family was just too much for my in-laws.  Echoing Eric’s anger, fear, uncertanity and resentment, not one, not two, but three members of his family spoke frankly to me about the vocational decision I was making.  Was I sure?  Everyone experiences low times in their career.  Couldn’t I just “suck it up,” fumble my way through and not upend my family so?  Had I thought about the ripple effect of my decision?  Yes.  No.  As much as I’m presently able.  I’m sincerely touched by your concern…onward I go, into the night.

On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where [God] was awaiting me
– [the One] I knew so well –
there in a place where no one appeared.

 (St. John of the Cross, http://www.karmel.at/ics/john/dn.html)

 Perhaps it should be said that statistics for pastoral burnout are tragic (For one list amongst many, see http://www.pastorburnout.com/pastor-burnout-statistics.html).  Additionally, the stressors to which a pastor is regularly exposed are not simply “occupational hazards,” but are greater in number and scope that those of other vocations (http://www.pastorburnout.com/Burnout-Causes.html).

These are facts to be taken seriously by pastor and congregation alike.  I am neither the first nor the last pastor encounter this.  To be sure, I described myself as “burnt out” and “overly stressed” from my almost 6 years of solo pastoral ministry at the beginning of my journey.  Yet my depletion was not the catalyst.  At work was an innate mystery common to humanity and foundational to the life of faith, yet oft pushed aside in favor of easier, less painful living.  My time had come.

Despite my strained relationship with the leadership, separating from the congregation I had come to deeply love was difficult.  Upon my return from sabbatical, read aloud my resignation letter immediately following worship.  Two Sundays from then would be my last.  On my last Sunday, I cried off and on through the service and my sermon.  The farewell reception the congregation gave for me felt heavy and at times insincere.  Red tape added to my grief as the practicalities of the separation strained the situation further.  The full amount of the loan to us from the church for our home was due, and we didn’t have the money.  A round robin of letters and mediated discussions ensued.  Suffice it to say that my already broken heart bled profusely as I witnessed what I believed to be grace-filled, Christian relationships disintegrate over money.  Thankfully, Classis stepped in and settled all accounts, but even they failed to provide appropriate pastoral care to my husband and me.  We felt isolated, and our financial present and future were as dark and uncertain as my inner journey.

Sue Monk Kidd calls it a “sacred journey.”  It is sometimes, but not always sparked by crisis and often, but not always occurring at mid-life (Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions).  The call to take such a journey is inevitable for all, Monk Kidd says, because of the way humanity is made.  It is what Blaise Pascal called “the God-shaped vacuum at the heart” of every person that only God can fill, and Augustine called a heart restless until it rests in God.  Within each person is the desire, nay need to return to the bosom of our Creator.  It lies dormant until God proclaims the person’s time come, the pilgrim ready for the journey.  Then, holy fire ignites.  For the necessary amount of time (duration known only to God), the precious one is refined through divine shadow and flame.  Upon arriving Home, the sojourner not only finds and is united with God, but discovers her True Self, who has been there all along.  Where there was once turmoil there is now peace; where clarity lacked greater and deeper wisdom now reign; and the hole that once gaped is now filled with wholeness through intimacy with God and the work of the Spirit.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with [God’s] beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.
 (St. John of the Cross, http://www.karmel.at/ics/john/dn.html)

Two-and-a-half years have passed since Hurricane Holy Spirit turned my life upside down and inside out.  My family has lived my greatest financial nightmare and continues to struggle.  We have received more than one eviction notice because we were unable to pay the rent; we were approved for state-funded food benefits; our girls are on Medicaid.  And yet, we are well.  Actually, we are more than well, as our family is better than before my journey began.  We have greater marital and family cohesion and commitment; creativity and laughter effortlessly unfurl; channels of communication have significantly fewer barriers; authenticity has increased in direct proportion to the uptick in respect for self and others; and love, compassion and forgiveness are palpable.  For this and more I am supremely grateful to God.  I’ll take relational wealth over financial freedom any day.

Vocationally, I now live my dream of writing.  I feel capable once more to return to congregational ministry, yet by choice I remain a Minister without Charge and a stay-at-home Mom with my daughters.  Through my transition I have discovered the Me God purposefully created who indeed bears a mission beyond the congregation.  Looking back, I can say that I knew this Me existed, but I was ill equipped and altogether terrified to live into her call.  It was as if God knew that I would never let her out without dramatic effect.  I was within my own prison until the darkness set me free.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

(St. John of the Cross, http://www.karmel.at/ics/john/dn.html)


Rev. Angie Mabry-Nauta is a minister in the Reformed Church in America and lives in Texas with her husband and two daughters. She writes at Woman, In Progress and is available for preaching, speaking, and teaching engagements.

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