Image: Jesus Speaking with the Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4), Basilica di St. Apollinare-Nuovo, Ravenna, 6th century
In November, a single woman in her mid-30s wrote to a columnist for the online magazine “The Cut” seeking direction for picking up the pieces of her life.
“No one knows who I am or where I’ve been,” she wrote, calling herself “Haunted” in her signature. “I haven’t kept a friend, lover, or foe around long enough to give anyone a chance … I’m not building toward anything, and I don’t have the time or money to really invest in what I care about anyway at this point.”
The piece garnered substantial online chatter, including responses from the columnist at The Cut and writers with The Federalist and The American Conservative. Their advice mainly focused on her choices related to romance and travel and ranged from vacuous to hostile to reflective. As I read each of these pieces, I felt deep compassion for this woman; it helps that I’m also an unmarried woman in my 30s, but I was struck by her sorrow over an empty life and desire to fill it with meaning, to rise from the ashes, even though she feels like a ghost. She reminded me of the Samaritan woman in John 4, coming to draw water from the well at midday instead of with the rest of her community.
“How can I make a future for myself that I can get excited about out of these wasted years?” she wrote at the end of her piece. “What reserves or identity can I draw from when I feel like I’ve accrued nothing up to this point with my life choices?”
Each of these responses focused on her circumstance but failed to acknowledge that these feelings can come to each of us in different ages and stages of life.
Think beyond gender and age; think of the man who has worked the same job for years only to have his position eliminated. Consider the couple dealing with infertility, or another who spent years raising a child who suffers a medical emergency as an adult. Remember the sting when someone you love, with whom you’ve shared friendship for years, makes a decision that betrays your trust, or rejects you because of a decision you make. Consider what it might be like to experience trauma due to terrorism, an accident, or the terrible choices of other people.
Look at these words again: “No one knows who I am or where I’ve been … How can I make a future for myself that I can get excited about out of these wasted years?”
Unmarried women in their thirties do not have a monopoly on pain; regardless of your gender, age, or life situation, I know that you, my brothers and sisters, have been or will be haunted by your own pain. Some of the spiritual disciplines of the church may provide you help as you face your own ghosts.
Practice #1: Lament
We can devise all sorts of practices to dull our pain, from busyness, to substance abuse, to exercise, but our souls need to grieve the real losses we experience in our lives. One third of the psalms are categorized as psalms of lament, including such phrases as:
“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” – Psalm 13:1-2
“If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O LORD, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope. My soul waits for the LORD more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.” – Psalm 130:3-6
In general, these psalms follow a pattern of lament over a circumstance, followed by an acknowledgment of who God is, what He has done, and what He can do, which provides solace and hope.
Scripture does not present pain or grief as an unusual situation, but the good news is that we do not enter into our grief alone. 1 Kings 19 tells the story of Elijah after he is chased out of Israel by Jezebel and Ahab. He travels south to Mount Horeb for 40 days, sustained by the angel of the LORD. There, he rests and laments over the state of Israel’s soul, and God listens and redirects his ministry. In solitude, Elijah pours out his heart, and God hears him, providing for his physical, spiritual, and emotional needs.
Psalm 94, titled “The LORD will not forsake his people” in the English Standard Version, encourages the reader in verse 19, “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.”
Start here. Pour your heart and grief out to God; lament what could have been, lament what is, and listen for His direction.
Practice #2: Gratitude
Another practice you might consider is gratitude; 1 Thessalonians 5:18 tells us that giving thanks in all circumstances is actually part of God’s will for us as His people. Whenever I feel like I can’t give thanks, I remember the story of Corrie Ten Boom and the fleas. Corrie was the daughter of a Dutch family that was arrested for hiding Jews during the Holocaust. When she was losing faith one day in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, her sister, Betsie, encouraged her to give thanks for everything, even the fleas. It turned out that the fleas became the reason that the camp guards decided not to inspect their dorms and they were able to have more freedom there!
We do not know what God is doing in our lives, but we can know that He is working. St. Ignatius of Loyola practiced a nightly routine that has become known as the Examen in which you reflect upon your day, including acknowledging when you felt close to God and far from Him, thanking Him for it, and then reflecting upon what He might be calling you to do in the next day. Little by little, these experiments in gratitude shape our hearts and point us to God, who promises that He will take care of us.
Practice #3: Community
In her piece, Haunted notes that she has friends but feels far from them because of the successes of their marriages, children, and employment, so she has cut them off from her life; in doing this, though, she is losing an opportunity to share in the unfulfilled longings of those friends. In community we can be reminded that while our circumstances are unique, our pain is not. I have been blessed to serve as a prayer minister in part because I get to hear the stories of others who are going through their own type of pain; some of these folks have been given the things that I am longing for, but that has not meant that they cease to wait for healing and restoration in their lives.
Galatians 6:12 says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The New Testament is full of examples of the early church gathering together to pray when times were difficult; prayer in community was their default practice. We can often feel ashamed of our decisions or circumstances, but the gift of community done well is when we bear the burdens of our friends, loving them in spite of their decisions or what has happened to them. There are many opportunities to receive prayer at our church and to be upheld by the body of Christ, and many prayer ministers waiting to care for you.
Build Your Life
I wish I could buy Haunted a cup of coffee, hear more about her story, and tell her mine. It seems trite to offer Christ as a solution on top of the other suggestions thrown at her. But for you, brothers and sisters, however you’re haunted by your past, your decisions, or your pain, I hope these spiritual disciplines draw your heart closer to Christ. My prayer for you is the bridge from Pat Barrett’s worship song “Build My Life:”
I will build my life upon your love, it is a firm foundation
I will put my trust in you alone, and I will not be shaken.
Start here. Pour your life out to God and watch as He builds something new.
Abri Nelson works as a freelance writer and a high school journalism teacher for Arlington Public Schools. She has been attending The Falls Church Anglican with her family since 2006 and is hosting four monthly summer book club sessions from May through August to engage with the topic of spiritual formation and waiting. For more information, click here.