There’s a story told about Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet. During Stalin’s purges, thousands of Russians had been imprisoned and she, along with others, was standing in line outside of a prison, waiting to leave food and letters for loved ones inside. The waiting was doubly frustrating because they didn’t know how long they would have to wait to see their loved ones and they didn’t know whether their loved ones were still alive or not. In the midst of this, a woman recognized Akhmatova and asked her: “Can you describe this?” “Yes, I can!” Akhmatova replied. Afterward she remembered that, as she said this, something like a smile passed between the other woman and herself. Just to be able to put words to what was happening was somehow freeing, an act of defiance.
To name something properly brings a certain peace of mind. We know this from experience. For instance, when a person we know falls victim to an accident, a crime, or a tragedy of any sort, we have no peace of mind until we know exactly what’s happened to him or her. No matter how painful the revelation might be (he or she might be the victim of an horrific accident, murder, torture, rape) we need to know what’s happened. The reality has to be named, described. This isn’t a question of morbid curiosity, but of peace of mind. The soul needs to know.
This is indeed the basis of spiritual direction. What good direction does is to help us to name properly what we are undergoing. John of the Cross tells us that the process of spiritual direction works this way: first, there is raw experience itself, the flow of events in our lives that triggers a bevy of thoughts and feelings that both stimulate and perplex the soul. This is like uncut-dough, in need of shaping. Good direction begins with that uncooked material.
Next comes the objectification of that experience. The person seeking guidance must in some way give expression to his or her experience, however crudely, through words, a drawing, a dance, whatever. But this initial expression is not yet an interpretation. That’s the next step.
With the help of the director, the person now searches for a name to properly describe what is happening inside him or her. Using paradigms drawn from scripture and Christian tradition, the one being directed tests various images, like one would try on shoes in a store, looking for a good fit: “Could this be the same thing as Job experienced? Could this be an experience of the ‘desert’? Is God testing me as he did Abraham and Sarah?”
When there is a proper fit, peace ensues. The experience has been properly named and we have turned raw circumstance into shaped destiny. To name something properly is an act of faith, an act that manifests transcendence. Raw forces are forever impaling themselves upon us, but we get to determine their meaning. We do that by naming our experiences correctly.
Psychotherapy works in the same way, except that it uses psychological paradigms rather than faith-based ones in its efforts to name what is happening inside of a person.
If this is true, then putting proper names to what is happening inside our experience is the place where we can read the language of God. John of the Cross suggests that God’s daily word is written inside of ordinary experience. Our task then is that of examining our own experiences and trying to name what God is saying to us inside these, by using images from scripture and our faith tradition.
For example, today, a group of believers might ask itself: “What time are we living in? Is this the time of the desert? Is this again the time of the Babylonian exile? Are we on the road to Emmaus? Are we meeting Jesus, along with the Syro-Phoenician woman, on the borders of ethnicity, religion, gender? Are we in the upper room, awaiting a new Pentecost, taking seriously Jesus’ counsel to not leave the city until we feel ourselves clothed with power?”
And, given our experience of being Christian within a post-ecclesial society, we might ask too: “What is God saying to us inside of a culture that is spiritual but not ecclesial, Christian but mostly bitter and grandiose about its own roots? Is this a time of pruning, of special humbling? What is our task in a time of ecclesial, historical disprivilege? What should our waiting consist in?”
To pray and to struggle naming our experiences biblically and in faith is to “read the signs of the times.” It’s also good spiritual direction, as John of the Cross defines this. Moreover, it is too, in Anna Akhmatova’s words, “an act of political defiance.” When we get it right, a smile will pass between us.
I like a comment I once heard from Richard Rohr: “Not everything can be cured or fixed, but it should be named properly.”