By Kate Kennington Steer–
It’s so delicate, the light.
And there’s so little of it. The dark
Just delicate needles, the light,
in an endless night.
And it has such a long way to go
through such desolate space.
So let’s be gentle with it.
So it will come again in the morning.
‘Just Delicate Needles’, Rolf Jacobsen, trans. Robert Hedin
People in the middle of depression are beings who have to live, for a while, without a story, which is why it feels as though you’ve lost your soul. But this period is a dark room where you’re developing the next stage of your life before living it. The work will be all the more vivid if you’re patient and let it take its course.
Gwyneth Lewis, Sunbathing in the Rain
It feels like for most of this last year I have indeed been living ‘without a story’, when depression has pulled me back deep down into a grip I thought, hoped against hope, had loosened, and a virus has brought me nearly four months of voice and bed rest. This literal silence that has been imposed on me through losing my voice this summer mirrors the sense that has accompanied me since Lent that I ‘have nothing to say’. I have written no posts for my shot at ten paces blog and I have not contributed to this community since this time last year. I have felt that I cannot formulate a coherent thought, yet at the same time I have been aware that the outer silence of my circumstances has only revealed either a yawning cavern of numb blankness or the noisiness within; pent up voices from long ago have risen from my murkiest depths, and have found no outlet to express their howls in either verbal, written or visual forms. Without uttering a sound
I yell out to my God, I yell with all my might,
I yell at the top of my lungs. He listens.
I found myself in trouble and went looking for my Lord;
my life was an open wound that wouldn’t heal.
When friends said, “Everything will turn out all right,”
I didn’t believe a word they said.
I remember God—and shake my head.
I bow my head—then wring my hands.
I’m awake all night—not a wink of sleep;
I can’t even say what’s bothering me.
I go over the days one by one,
I ponder the years gone by.
I strum my lute all through the night,
wondering how to get my life together.
(Psalm 77.1-6, The Message)
I am not alone in struggling with periods of an inability to express myself in any meaningful way. Any artist has their times of ‘block’, any one with mental health needs has their seasons of such numbness it feels like isolating dumbness; most people, if they are honest, will identify occasions where they felt not, or mis-, understood; and anyone committed to exploring their faith will have come face to fearful face with the sense of God’s absence and silence.
And yet, though being locked into wordlessness through fear, stress and anxiety too often makes me feel desperate, I am left wondering whether this time of an enforced embracing of deliberate silence is a gifted reminder not only of the elemental presence and power of God as Word, but also that I need to counterbalance this presence with the elemental power and presence of God as Silence?
I wonder if perhaps I might learn to see that one of the anguishing gifts of deep depression is an opportunity to embrace ‘having nothing to say’, having ‘no story’ to tell, as paradoxically a sign of renewal, and as a confirmation that I will find a story is waiting for me in its shadows?
Just as I was succumbing to the virus and losing my voice in August, I serendipitously picked up from my brother’s bookshelf Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham’s The Spirituality of Imperfection and read:
Spirituality is not spectacular, but spectacularly simple, and that is precisely why we find it so difficult to define or describe. The profoundly simple is simply ineffable: It literally cannot be spoken. The Hebrew Bible portrays Moses and Jeremiah as protesting, when called by God, that they “cannot speak”, a claim that has been interpreted by some scholars as evidence that these prophets laboured under some kind of speech defect. This interpretation suggests two ideas: First, God chooses the least likely individuals to be divine spokespersons, and second, through this choice, God signals the ineffability – the literal “un-speakability” – of spiritual wisdom. The spiritual is simply beyond words. (38)
Rather than seeing only lack and grief in my silence, the possibility that I might have even the merest nodding acquaintance with Moses and Jeremiah’s experience of God is such an encouragement to me. I hesitate to call myself any kind of divine spokesperson, but I believe I have known the joy of being spoken through, of experiencing times of being a conduit between God and God’s creations. I long for my photography and visual art to be a medium through which others might encounter their God, discovering for themselves the infinite number of ways there are of seeing God without words. And it is no coincidence I know, that even in the midst of depression’s darkness I am being invited to see this season of Joy is present in it; and in me.
On this shortest day of winter light, and as I remember all those made blind and dumb by illness, grief, depression, torture and persecution, I reflect again on the words of I read on the first Sunday of Advent:
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion,
((Isaiah 52.8, NRSV)
The challenge of this day then for me is to choose to let the quiet of the incarnation truth – God is in this pain, here, now, with me – break into my anguish; and dare to believe that becoming a spokesperson of Silence just might usher in the return of the (in)expressible One we call the ‘Joy to the World’.
Kate. If you lost your expression you have certainly found it again. This article is exquisite and full of truth and insights. Thank you and I imagine you will go forth to enrich many from your time contemplating the silence. Many blessings.
Thank you so much for your encouragement Lisa. All Christmas blessings to you too.