Exchanging Calm for Chaotic
By Nancy Slack
I opened the back door of the monastery and walked down the hill. The grass slapped against my ankles, and the air smelled like rain. I sat on a dry rock next to the river and closed my eyes.
I needed this retreat. The past year had been awful. At home, my husband and I struggled with childlessness. I missed my mother, who had died the year before. At work, my department had been reorganized, and I’d worked so much I’d had little time to pray.
But here in the mountains of New Mexico, with morning air pressing like ice on my skin, I could forget the past year and reconnect to God.
I tried to listen, but the conflicts of the past year swarmed into my mind. Why had the department head dumped all of those extra meetings on me? Why didn’t the principal help?
I opened my eyes and saw the river splashing white and cold at my feet. This was a beautiful place. I wanted to enjoy it, not irritably dredge up problems I’d sooner leave behind.
I stood up and brushed the dirt off my skirt. I’d try to pray again later.
That evening I sat on a hard plastic chair in the sanctuary and listened to the chanting of the Psalms. As the monks sat quietly in prayer, silence spread over the room like a mist. I closed my eyes.
But instead of prayer, I thought of a baby shower at work. We’d sat in a circle, passing around small ruffled outfits and tiny baby books with hard wooden covers. The woman sitting next to me at the shower had peered into my face. “And why don’t you have any children?” she had said.
In the quiet of the monastery, I remembered her question. My eyes felt hot, and I blinked back tears. I shook my head.
“God, this is crazy,” I thought. “Help me.”
But the next day, the more I reached for peace, the more chaotic I felt. I sat next to a creek in the mountains, watching my husband fish—and saw a picture of my mother’s face when she died. I walked on a mountain trail, passing clumps of wild iris—and wondered if I should quit my job.
I’d come to the retreat to get close to God. But my prayer life steered like a small boat swamped by emotions on all sides: grief, resentment, irritation, and rage.
“God,” I thought, “what is wrong with me?”
That evening I walked along the bank of the river and watched the water churn over flat brown rocks. I sat under trees whose roots rippled the ground. I saw a creek seep past a dam of sticks until the water broke free and poured into the river.
After a while, something occurred to me. Sometimes chaos is normal.
I had spent the last few months with a rictus stretched across my face. I had not dealt with problems; I had ignored them.
And now these difficulties kept reappearing, especially when I prayed. Maybe God wanted me to quit pretending I was fine. Like a little kid with a splinter, I needed to sit still and let Him take care of me—even if I was uncomfortable in the process.
I remembered a verse I liked from the Psalms.
Trust in him at all times, you people. Pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge (Ps. 62:8)
Over the next few days, I needed to systematically release every problem to God. He wanted me to pour out my heart to Him, allowing sorrow and anger and bitterness to surface. I could not handle such huge emotions on my own—but God could.
So I spent the next few days in places that shimmered with light and water, telling God all about the problems that had occurred in other places. I sat in the sanctuary and repented of resentments I’d fostered in the past year. I walked a path through the meadow and forgave people who had hurt me at work. I threw rocks in the river and told God the names of children I might never have.
I swam in emotions that had been submerged so long they threatened to overwhelm me. I found solace in another verse from the Psalms.
When my spirit grows faint within me, It is You who watch over my way. (Ps. 142:3)
I wrote the verse on a notecard and stuck it in my Bible.
Sometimes, it seemed, faith could be a strange experience. I wanted my prayer life to be happy and cheerful, not this chaotic emotional mess. But God wanted me to trust Him with it all. Over time, He would take care of everything. Over time, all would be well.
The morning light shone on stark hills of red dirt and green pinyon trees as we drove home from New Mexico. In a small town in West Texas, we pulled into a roadside café.
I walked into the early morning air conditioning and stopped, struck by the words on a poster on the wall. “Darrell,” I called to my husband. “Darrell, look at this.”
We read the poster together.
Why are you surprised at the
When you have asked for
To renew you
To remodel you
To change everything about you?
I wrote the words on a napkin. The coincidence of this word on a café wall—this word that had appeared over and over in my journal that week—seemed like no accident. For a moment, in a café in West Texas, I could see that the chaos in my life was part of a larger pattern, one that was being gently controlled and guided the whole time.