Conversatio Divina

Part 5 of 18

The Beauty of a Cracked Vessel

Living the Struggle of Pain, Depression, and Loss

Pat Russell

The last ten years of my journey have been challenging—physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I grew up strong and active without much sickness, but recently I have experienced several illnesses that have been painful and limiting. In 1995, a major heart artery dissected after an angioplasty. In 1999, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently underwent treatment, including a mastectomy. In 2005, my thyroid was removed because of cancer and since that time I have struggled to get my hormones balanced. Most recently I have undergone corrective foot surgery following a broken foot.

01.  Betrayed by My Body

At times I have felt that my body has betrayed the spirit of who I am. I have questioned the lovingkindness of the Lord for me. In fact, this past year I experienced a crisis in faith that came close to destroying all my confidence in him. I believe that not only was my body worn down, but my thinking and feelings became disoriented as well.
Often, I journal about my life in Christ. I write out my thoughts, feelings and meditations, including a wide range of reflections varying in length and tone. This is one day’s reflection during this time:

When I stand back and look at myself, I cannot believe that I am in this place in my spiritual life. I have been confused before, disappointed, angry, disobedient, but I do not remember in all my life trials being this disconnected. My thoughts do not turn to the Lord; in fact, I am feeling as though I have no prayer life at this point. I am not angry—at least I do not feel anger—I am simply dead. I cannot say I desire this but I also have no drive to try to change things. I think I keep waiting for You to affirm Your work in my life—not in a spectacular way, but in some way that I know is not me making it happen… I would like to know that You are truly active in my life— that You see me.

My prayers were lamenting in nature until finally, simply I became quiet. I had expressed everything I could say to God. He knew all and had heard all.

I stood in silence.

I could not sense God’s presence in my life. My thoughts told me that this could not be, but my feelings and body had no evidence his presence. I could only pray that God would guard my heart—the very core of me—while I went through this wrenching time. It was like a cloud of pain enveloped my body and mind that prevented me from experiencing the light of his presence.

Psalm 42:5 was my cry: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God,” but I was unable to feel any hope that my condition would ever change. Even my will to hope was flagging.

02.  The Garden of God’s Goodness

I live in Colorado on some acreage and, especially in the summer months, I find sustenance in the beauty that surrounds me. This past summer I worked in what I call my “Garden of God’s Goodness” which was planted during the first cancer experience. I revamped m y whole garden by tearing up the lawn. It sat for months waiting for me to continue the work bit by bit. Even though I found myself lamenting (complaining, if I am honest) while gardening, being active in creating and caring for God’s creation kept the idea of a new creation in my soul.

Often I woke up early and sat in the morning light watching the sun rise over the hill. Being in this solitude and silence regularly was very comforting. This is what I wrote one day:

I hesitate to write because I have only lowness to write about. My heart is sitting in a place of darkness. Do Your work, Lord. In Your time—“At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire. . . . [Yet] you have brought us out to a spacious place.” (Psalm 69:13–14; 66:12b, ESVAll Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). The birds are busy, busy this morning. The hummers are after sugar water; the wrens are chirping gloriously; the finches are munching on the thistle feeder, and I saw the blue bird come out of her box and perch on the roof. “Today is the day You have made. I will rejoice and be glad in it” and in the continual testimony to your steadfast love and mercy. You have given me my lot and I would be faithful to You in it.

As another part of these days, I chose people with whom to share my inner turmoil. I did not share it with many people because often people do not know how to minister when someone is in a dark place. I did not want someone to try to “fix me.” I did not want someone to give me the right “spiritual” answers, nor did I want someone to be overly sympathetic. I simply wanted someone to listen to me process what I was thinking and feeling with an ear tuned to God in prayer on my behalf. I needed someone to be able to ask thoughtful questions about my understanding of God and my prayer life in this part of my journey with Christ. It takes someone with a mature understanding of how to care for another in a dark place. I could have gone to a therapist, but my struggle was centered with who God was in the midst of these dark days and what was going on with my spiritual life in him, so I turned to my spiritual director.

My spiritual director has a medical and counseling background and understands the person in a holistic way, including the spiritual life in Christ. She met with me regularly, but at this very difficult, low time, I asked for intensive spiritual direction, so we met every other week for a couple months. She simply sat with me and listened, asked tender questions, prayed for me, and offered her insights of the spiritual life. She was a presence from God. With her I learned “suffering is not a question that demands an answer. It is not a problem that demands a solution. It is a mystery that demands a presence.”John Wyatt, Matters of Life and Death: Human Dilemmas In The Light Of The Christian Faith (Leicester, England: IVP/CMF, 1998).

03.  Finding a New Place

Today I am relieved to say that I am in a new place. I have moved from disorientation to a new orientation in life. It happened gradually over months, however. Many factors contributed to this new place within and without, the primary being God’s “fullness of time” as I practiced the spiritual discipline of “waiting.” Sometimes I waited patiently, sometimes impatiently; in this time of waiting, I believe perseverance of character grew in my soul. Also, God provided many resources for my healing.

One reason for the change in my soul came about during a visit from my ninety-three-year-old mother. She cannot “do” much anymore but her ministry is one of prayer and praise of God in nature. We sat on the deck often looking at the clouds and the trees, the birds and the squirrels. As I pondered her place in life, I wondered what God would have for her in the next life. Her life with Christ after death was a bit nebulous to me. Then I read Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy concerning the life to come. A spark of hope ignited.

This life had become a casket of sorts for me with all its disappointments. Through this holy reading and meditation with Mother, “Someone” kicked the end out of my casket and I flew out into the vast expanse of the eternal. In this time I gained a new vision for my life as a whole. What was happening to me here was only a small part of what God has for me. I knew this but somehow it became more tangible for me in these days. I can only credit this change to the work of the Holy Spirit within me. This life is, however, not unimportant. My bodily challenges were the garden tools that were shaping a new creation meant for eternal living even as I reshaped the Garden of God’s Goodness.

Another factor of change was starting a small dose of anti-depressant. I could not distinguish between my thyroid ups and downs and the chemical depletion that may have developed over the years of physical “hits” to my body and the spiritual condition of my soul. As I began this medicine, the weight on my mind began to ease. Through a new vision of life and through medicine, God led me by his Spirit to a new place.

Finally, an influence on my soul during this waiting time was the faith of a friend who gave me an opportunity to speak to a group of women about intimacy with Christ. How was I ever going to be able to do that given the state of my own lack of feeling intimate with the Lord? The friend who invited me to speak knows me well. She believed for me that God would use me in this time, in spite of my emptiness. So I went, allowing God to use even my emptiness.

Other friends prayed all night for me before I was to speak. God formed the talk within me that night. Out of my weakness, He spoke of the truth of waiting at the well for Jesus to help us fill our jar with living water. That experience of being a cracked vessel that God uses in the lives of others was a great reassurance that I was not abandoned by Him.

04.  The Beauty of a Cracked Vessel

I sense that my body and my mind have been transformed into a closer image of Christ throughout this entire struggle. I now live with a larger eternal perspective; I have a deeper sense of peace as I face continued difficult circumstances in life; I am more hopeful about the good work within me that is to come; and I am joyful—not the laughing-out-loud kind of joyful—but the quiet anticipation of all that is and will be kind of joyful.

Psalm 145:14–15 says: “The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.” How true this has been of my life!

Recently I rededicated my body—my physical body with all its issues and needs— to the Lord. I did this by lying on the floor and covering my body in a prayer shawl. I prayed, “I present my body a living sacrifice to You, Lord. May it be a show place for your greatness.” Starting from my feet to my head, I gave each part to Him. Then I got up and took a praise walk through the forest around my home. I felt connected to nature, as it waits for the revealing of the glory of the children of God—me!

I am, however, not finished being formed into his likeness. In the days ahead additional painful body issues and spiritual challenges will be a part of my existence here on this earth, but through his Spirit dwelling in my body, I pray the glory of God will be revealed in this very cracked vessel.

05.  Suggested Reading for Times of Pain or Depression

A steady diet of the Psalms

Green, Thomas H., S. J. Drinking From A Dry Well: A Sequel To When The Well Runs Dry. Notre Dame, In: Ave Maria Press, 1991.

———. When The Well Runs Dry: Prayer beyond the Beginnings. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1979.

Hamilton-Poore, Sam. Earth Gospel: A Guide To Prayer For God’s Creation. Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2008.

May, Gerald. The Dark Night Of The Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores The Connection Between Darkness And Spiritual Formation. New York, Ny: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2004.

Murray, Andrew. Waiting On God: A Reading For Each Day Of The Month. Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 1999.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Inner Voice Of Love: A Journey Through Anguish To Freedom. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1996.

Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1998.


Pat Russell has a master’s degree in Education from Purdue University, a master’s degree in Theology from Fuller Seminary, and a certificate in spiritual direction from Denver Seminary. She is currently a spiritual director, mentor, and teacher. She and her husband, Larry, live in the countryside near Denver, Colorado.