“Authentic and intimate faith must often arise out of some personal wasteland.” – Carlen Maddux
2016 was the first year in my ministry that I performed more funerals than weddings. I knew such a change would come when we left Pittsburgh to return to Colorado and serve where I now serve. Regarding the inevitable memorial services that come with serving an older congregation, another pastor told me, “That’s fertile ground.”
Fertile ground. That’s because death, illness, and other hardships can become catalysts for deeper relationships with God. Not all people accept them as such. But for those who do, the “desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus” (Isaiah 35:1b). As Carlen Maddux put it in his book A Path Revealed (Paraclete Press 2016), “Authentic and intimate faith must often arise out of some personal wasteland.”
A Path Revealed recounts the diagnosis of Maddux’s wife with Alzheimer’s disease, and the unlikely but very necessary spiritual journey which followed for Carlen. I read A Path Revealed this fall while also reading two other books that related to the spirituality of aging. In Pittsburgh I co-pastored a church plant made up of mostly Millennials. At the present time in Berthoud, I’m pastoring a traditional church with people who could be the parents or grandparents of my former congregants. Maddux’s journey, I learned, is not unlike the journeys of a few of the saints in our congregation here.
Taking another step to familiarize myself with the concerns congregational demographic, I invited them to study another book with me: Johann Christoph Arnold’s Rich in Years. Like other books by Arnold, Rich in Years addresses difficult topics with remarkable simplicity.
Whether or not congregants agreed with Arnold, the book was a springboard for lively conversations about aging, death, nursing homes, assisted suicide, forgiveness, and other issues. The one portion of Rich in Years which garnered the most criticism, however, was the chapter on “Living with Dementia.” Arnold sought to focus on the a “positive aspect of the disease: the return to childlikeness” (p. 76). Influenced heavily by his namesake, Johann Christoph Blumhardt, Arnold encourages readers to consider sickness and suffering as opportunities for sanctification. Elsewhere he quotes Blumhardt:
When you suffer tribulation, keep in mind that you must do so in such a way that it is not just a victory for yourself but a victory over suffering in general. I have experienced this among epileptics, among the blind, the lame, and the deaf, and in general among the so-called incurably sick. I tell them: Be glad you are like this. Now bring something of Jesus’ death and his resurrection into your situation . . . Then you will help to gain a victory for the whole world.
Our book group found “Be glad that you are like this” to be insensitive and harsh advice. We didn’t argue with the idea that suffering can bring about our sanctification. But we were reluctant to rejoice in it, or to romanticize it in the way that some felt Arnold did.
The sanctifying power of suffering is treated with deeper empathy in both Maddux’s A Path Revealed and in Belden Lane’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. One part memoir of his mother’s final years with Alzheimer’s, one part academic history of desert spirituality, and one part travelogue, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes is a rare book. Because Lane blends rather raw narrative of his own experiences of both suffering and contemplative prayer with a studied assessment of the writings of the saints on these topics, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes was the most compelling book of these three. While Maddux and Arnold present simpler visions of the journey through personal wastelands into deeper faith, Lane’s presentation is complex, nuanced, and still mysterious. While Arnold invites readers to encounter God in their suffering, and Maddux shared his personal experience of that encounter, Lane goes beyond those levels to thoroughly introduce the reader to the practice of contemplative prayer as the place of such encounter.
Different as these three books are, their commonalities have been instructive for me as I’ve started pastoring a congregation more well “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:7). Illness, death, grief, and other sufferings can be used for deepening our spiritual maturity and sanctity. Such growth requires a willingness to yield to God’s sovereignty and God’s purposes, to genuinely encounter God rather than trying to comprehend or control him. And the place to cultivate such submission is in the desert, whether figurative or literal. Silence, solitude, and desolate landscapes remind us of the grace that God is God and we are not.