The pain was excruciating. It woke me up from a sound sleep, and I sat bolt upright with a yelp. My whole upper right side had gone into a muscle spasm and wasnít releasing.
I tried standing. I tried sitting. Lying down in any position brought no relief. I popped some aspirin and stumbled into the shower, turning on the water as hot as I could stand it. I fitfully got through the rest of the night propped up in an easy chair. It was October 3, 1985óa day Iíll not forget.
For the next month, I bounced from one specialist to another. Pain killers, muscle relaxants and physical therapy kept me barely functional. But, being stubbornóand increasingly angryóI kept working, only to get worse. Finally, I couldnít push anymore and collapsed in bed where I was instructed to stay for two to three weeks. All my defiance, resistance and refusal to give in had only made matters worse. With anguished cries of "Why me, Lord?" I gave in.
Over the last decade, I have mostly recovered., although my neck still aches when I am stressed; and lost muscle mass has not returned. But compared to many others, I have no reason to complain.
Looking back, I can see that I gained something invaluable. The pain that rousted me from my sleep launched me on a journey that changed my life. God did not give me my pain. I managed that myself. But God did use it for healing in my life.
The wounds of life have a positive, and almost necessary, function in the deeper healing to which God calls us. It can jolt us into the possibility of touching the soul, deepening and quickening it.
One central purpose in life is to be as fully aware as possible, at all times and in all settings, of our oneness with God. The degree to which this is incomplete requires healing. I call this work "soul making."
I like the phrase "soul making" because it suggests that the soul doesnít come pre-packaged, assembled and complete at birth, but that it develops through life. This is Old Testament thinking. In the creation story of Genesis 2, we read that God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and [the] man became a living soul." We do not have souls; we are soulsóliving, developing, unfolding, deepening.
Soul work is going for the bigger picture of life and discovering the breath of God blowing through it all. It involves pulling back from our experience and asking, "What does this mean?"
In soul making, we discover that the way out of pain is to go through it. The process of soul making begins when we not only admit that this has happened but surrender to it, accepting it as an opportunity for healing and resurrection into a fuller life.
Here are four steps I have found that bring about soul making.
1, Welcome the wound. Crazy as it sounds, there is opportunity in what has befallen you. I fought my pain intensely for over a month before I had to surrender to it and take to my bed. Only then did I turn my thought to what I was to learn from this unwanted experience. I had to welcome my wound.
Jim, my client in psychotherapy, felt settled and secure until his company was sold and the new owners released Jim and others in a downsizing move. He came to me because he realized his anger, hurt, fear and bitterness had pushed him into depression.
Therapy moved Jim to examine the larger issues of his lifeóhis use of time, his priorities and attachment to material possessions, involvement with his family and his lack of inner peace. This paid off. He eventually found a good job, although he may never return to his previous status and income. More importantly, he has rebuilt his spiritual center.
Jim had to welcome his firing and move through the pain and loss to something new. Barricading ourselves behind defenses of fear and anger gains nothing; a defended self cannot get on with soul making.
2. Sink into the emptiness. This is where we gently lay aside all heroic gestures of "toughing it out." The move is into quiet acceptance of what has occurred. I had to face the fear of an uncertain recovery from nerve damage. My future was unknown. So was Joanís.
When I first met her, Joan was still bitter, deeply hurt and unable to grasp how her "perfect" life had fallen apart. Two years before, her husband announced he was leaving her and the kids for another woman. Even after they separated and tried marital therapy, Joan still hoped they could put the marriage together. It was not to be.
During the time we talked, Joan began to relax into the reality of her situation. The big house would have to go, she would have to find work, and she was soon to join the ranks of single parent. More deeply, Joan let go of expectations she had always held for "the good life." This was hard, but on good days she saw her life emptying of all the "stuff" that had filled it.
Joan was doing soul work. In soul work, one lets go for the moment of all the selfís attachments. And becomes empty. The 14th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said it well:
"There, where clinging to things ends, is where God begins to be. If a cask is to contain wine, you must first pour out the water. Therefore, if you wish to receive divine joy and God, first pour out your clinging to things."
Soul making is not done by adding but by subtracting. We can enter the emptiness kicking and screaming, or we can enter with confidence in God to give new life.
3. Receive with your heart. Being empty of all outward concerns, you enter that "dark night of the soul," waiting and praying for deliverance. During my enforced bed rest, I stopped trying to figure out the "why" of my injury and began to pay attention to the empty spaces in my head and heart. I began to understand the meaning of what was happening to me: The debilitating pain in my neck suggested an apt metaphor for my independent attitude and arrogant lifestyle.
Quite literally, I had been brought to my knees with bended neck, humbled before God and others. Now I had the chance to examine my life, discover the error of my ways and begin to find healing.
Looking back at the metaphors suggested by the illness also helped Fred. He was retired, depressed and had trouble sleeping. Thirty years before, his first wife had committed suicide, leaving him with four children. A workaholic, Fred felt responsible for her death. If Iíd only been home more, he thought.
Once they became adults, Fredís children shunned their father, blaming him for their motherís death and for replacing her with their step-mother. Long estranged from his children and now his grandchildren, Fred wanted his family back.
Fredís physical health was deteriorating. Heíd recently had surgery for a double hernia. (Metaphor: Carrying too heavy a load?) He also was unexpectedly hospitalized with heart problems. (Metaphor: A heart "breaking" over his many personal losses?)
In time, Fred realized how years of denying his pain and need had blocked him from receiving any help. After a series of insights, Fred told his side of the story completely for the first time through a family letter. Once the children heard of their fatherís silent anguish, their hearts opened. Conversations were begun, and it was apparent how much all had suffered.
Fredís soul work created new connections.
4. Return. The process of soul making takes us deeper into areas of meaning and awareness than we can imagine before our pain bridges the gap between the world of our everyday selves and the world of our souls. It is impossible for us to hold these words together in every moment. But once they have been bridged, we re-enter our daily worlds having learned to look beyond the surface of life to whatís happening in our souls.
My experience was sobering and changed my life in significant ways. I will never say it was God who wounded me, but I know that in my pain God found me and brought healing. Iíve learned that the ultimate oneness we seek with God may be found in every moment, if we pay attention to what is happening in us. Itís good to know there is no escape from God.
Soul work helps us see the real possibility of meeting God mediated in and through life. It seeks Godís healing and reconciling love in all lifeís experiences.