The Liturgy Saved Me

Three years ago, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving 2008, while sitting at a corner table at Panera Bread in Dublin, OH, I wrote an essay, later posted as a note on my Facebook page, which I called “I Quit.”  I remember the date because I was on my way to the hospital to spend time with my wife who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer.  Actually, she was in the hospital because the chemotherapy she had been undergoing for three months had made her so sick, she needed more care and attention than I was able to provide for her at home.  It was also the day after OSU had beaten Michigan for the seventh time in eight years.

I wrote that essay, which I have long since removed from Facebook, to explain why I had given up on God and the church.  I’d like to be able to tell you that the essay was the product of an addled mind, discouraged by circumstances, exhausted from lack of sleep, at the absolute nadir of a period in my life from which I have since emerged. Well, some of that is true.  I was addled, discouraged, and exhausted. But I was not at the nadir of my despair.  And while I have emerged, at least to some degree, I had no idea, at that moment, how much lower I could, and would, go.

In the eighteen months prior to that November Sunday, my mother had died, our daughter had become a single mother, I was fired from a job I loved, and my wife was diagnosed with cancer.  I was just about to turn 60 and had recently received my first rejection of a job application to read:  “You were among many qualified applicants, but in the end we selected another candidate who, we believe, will suit our needs better.”  (Read “Sorry, you’re too old.  Of course, if we came right out and told you that, we’d be setting ourselves up for a lawsuit.”)

I still wince when I recall that day and the emotions which gave rise to that cry of desperation.  I actually feel faint and my legs start to tremble when I then reflect on how much deeper I would sink into the “slough of despond” before I would start to see the first faint glimmers of hope penetrating into my “dark night of the soul.”

At some point, early in 2009, God got through to me.  Some small kernel of truth, which had been all but buried during the darkest months of my depression, germinated and began to grow inside me. God reminded me of the words of C. S. Lewis to the effect that Jesus Christ was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord of Glory.  My heart was still hurting, but my mind was at work.  I could not deny the truth of Lewis’ assertion.  No lunatic nor liar could affect the world the way Jesus had.  That left only one option, and while my heart and emotions yearned for more, my brain and intellect grasped that straw of hope and held on for dear life.

My faith had been restored, but I doubt that I would ever have set foot in a church building again had it not been for one thing—the liturgy.  Months before, I had bought a copy of the Book of Common Prayer.  We had been attending an Episcopal church off and on, and I wanted to become familiar with the liturgy so that I wouldn’t feel so lost in the worship service.

I began to read the Prayer Book.  It was confusing, but I loved it anyway.  I read the prayers, the order of service for Eucharist, Baptism, Ordination.  I came to see that I didn’t need to feel anything emotionally in order to affirm the truth of what I was reading.  I just consented to the content intellectually.  And slowly, little by little, the truth I was acknowledging in my mind seeped down into my heart and, like Wesley, I was “strangely warmed.”  Further, what had become a reality for me in the privacy of my study became even more real when I could finally drag myself out of bed on Sunday and into a worship service at an Anglican church.  The light was beginning to dispel the darkness.  There is still a lot of darkness to dispel, since I had sunk to some pretty grim depths.  But this is my testimony today.  The liturgy saved me.  The liturgy saved me.

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