‘My Heart is Troubled, My Spirit Has Failed Me’

1,

Some commentators have claimed ‘Isra-el’ means ‘God rules.’ Nothing could be more false to Jacob’s story.

Not God rules, but ‘God prevails through trouble, strife, and all that is testing, and wounding.’

God goes through it with us– this is the gift in the Old Testament.

God completes it, when we cannot go on– this is the gift in the New Testament. Christ picks up the burden where we drop it, and are crushed under its weight.

The human heart has to fight the way of the divine heart, to be reconciled to it. It is hard for us, and hard on us, in some extremity of hardship where suddenly we are, like Christ did, sweating blood.

David says in the Psalms=

‘My heart is troubled,
My spirit has failed me.’

The spirit of the human being that fails is the fire of passion. The trouble in the heart is deep; it undercuts the leaping up of the human spirit, it extinguishes the fire of our passion at source.

What is this trouble? It is not simply psychological. It is the gateway to the deepest situation at the root of the heart; it is the expression on a more conscious level of the dilemma in which the heart is inescapably caught up, in the groundlessness of its being.

2,

All the existential trouble and existential failure which David, and the Jews, went through had an initiatory effect, of ‘taking the mind down into the heart’, and introducing the person to a host of truthful reactions in the conflict of the human with God. These include terrible griefs and profound angers, and many other things, including forlornness and forsakenness. These contentions with God are honest, and not in the least sinful. They hurt deep down, all the way down, but they are in relation with God, and hence their harsh battling is authentic. William Blake’s painting of God violently taking hold of Adam portrays both parties in an agony. God’s agony is serene, unshaken and unshakable, because he is committed to the difficult way that risks everything; Adam’s agony is apprehensive and afflicted, because he is torn two ways. He already senses that the journey and battle needed to take him through this primal ambivalence to the end when it is resolved will be long and arduous. Trusting God’s hard road and making a stand on it, and acting from it, will be tough, and is not entered upon lightly. Yet, despite the inherent resistance, there is also an innate urge, a wanting and willing to ‘have a go’, no matter what. Only at the finish of the whole story can the agony of Adam attain the serenity of the agony of God.

Reforging the link in our fiery spirit to the Fire of the Spirit of God is ‘problematic’, takes time, has many confusions and much pained incomprehension along the way. Facing our short cuts, weaknesses, stumblings and falls, is vital, if we are to change in heart. The Spirit is not only inspiring us, but instructing us.

This means allowing the Spirit to seize hold of us, and shake us fiercely..

The heart’s struggle with God, in the deeps, is not to be feared as blasphemy, rebellion, disobedience.. When sincere, not game playing, it is not sinful. Sinfulness arises when we flee this contention with God, to have an easier, lazier, less intense and less fierce, existence. This is where the distortion in passion arises. Opposition to God is truthful, because of all the things that the heart must bear and endure to follow the way of God. This is why the passion that does indeed respond to God’s call, and wrestles in the intense and ferocious embrace of divine and human, is both wounded and burdened in its very foundation; thus the linguistic root for passion in Greek is to suffer a wound that is fated, and inescapable, whilst in Hebrew the linguistic root for passion is to carry a load that is also something put upon us, rather than something we choose. Who would choose such a deep pain, who would choose such a heavy weight?

The trouble and failure that is fruitful to the spiritual path is the wrestling with the ‘passibility’ of the heart– its passion can go either way, it can be deepened or remain more shallow, it can rise to the challenge set by the world or sink into the doldrums. The passible, the malleable, the changeable, the influenceable, cannot be transcended in any supposed spiritual condition that is invulnerable and inviolate. If passion as such is replaced by dispassion, then the heart in its entirety is thrown away.

At the root of all the trouble and failure, there is a strange heartbreak. To embrace this heartbreak toward God, and thus toward the world and the whole of one’s life, is actually the point of break-through, though it feels like the finality of break-down. It is experienced as despair, the victory of despair about the whole ‘venture’ of heart and passion between God and humanity.

3,

Hardest to go through are the times when God’s Spirit abandons us, for this reveals to us what would be the ultimate, and absolute, hell in the heart, and deadness of passion, if we were really and truly to opt for an irrevocable No to God’s way. We say a lot of ‘no’s to God on the path, some childish tantrums where we throw all our toys out of the pram and hope God will solicitously return them to us with a pat on the head [sometimes he does], some much more seriously adult objections which, if they are honest, God respects, but some very dishonest evasions of the whole problem which fuels sin, deceit, error, destruction. Thus sometimes God will really withdraw the Spirit from us at depth, and leave us to our own devices. Without Spirit, the furnace of hell and the pit of death bite into us, and we get a foretaste of what it would be like if our lesser heart triumphed over our greater heart, and all Spirit were absent from the depth. Without Spirit there, the depth becomes hellish and deadening in some radical way that is, in fact, terrifying to experience. The nothingness in our base, at our mysterious origin, becomes an emptiness awful in some manner we normally do not experience. This is because the Spirit usually fills the abyss beneath the heart, even when we are betraying what enables us to stand on that groundless ground. It is therefore a qualitative shock of a wholly different order when, ‘for a little while’ as the Old Testament puts it, the Spirit genuinely abandons us, leaving us to our own choices.

Hosea [5, 9-6, 6] is but one of many places in the Old Testament where God withdraws from the human depths ‘for a season’ [though for those in this condition, it feels forever]= “Yes, I am going to return to my dwelling place until they confess their guilt and seek my face; they will search for me in their misery.”

Fundamentalists, who glory in the idea of ‘reward and punishment’ because of assuming only they will get the reward while everyone else gets the punishment, have distorted this ‘punishing moment’ in its existential meaning. We are allowed, even blessed, to experience ‘what would happen’ if we persist in our determination to eject the Spirit from our depths, because of hoping not to have any depths; God does not let us pursue this road of ‘our way’ until it ends in the furnace of hell and the pit of deadness, but intervenes before that finality can be reached, giving us a dose of where we are headed in the future right now, in an effort to induce in us a ‘turning over of a new leaf’ in heart.

But ‘abandonment by God’, before the end is reached in our pursuit of our own blindness, self-love, and self-will, is the blow of the Daemonic we need to wake up from the sleep in which we are merrily and lemming-like jumping off the cliff.

Hosea continues in Yahweh’s hot displeasure with Israel, which is in reality a form of passionate love=

“What am I to do with you, Judah?
This love of yours is like a morning cloud,
Like the dew that quickly disappears.
This is why I have torn them to pieces by the prophets,
Why I slaughtered them with the words from my mouth,
Since what I want is love, not priestly offerings,
Knowledge of God, not priestly sacrifices.”

God is saying to all of humanity, to each and all of us, ‘I want your heart, I want your passion.’

We matter to God. What happens to us, each and all, matters to God. We question this unendingly, but we ignore the real question= does anyone or anything matter to us? Who or what matters to us such that we can honestly pledge that our fate is bound to their fate, their tragedy is our tragedy?

There is at least one place in the Old Testament where this period of abandonment lasts ‘three days’, a clear prefigurement of the time involved in Christ undergoing the Cross, the Descent into Hell, and the Resurrection. We are three days in the tomb, under the wrath of God. But it is not eternal, because it drives us into a ‘misery’ where we ‘search for God.’ This is tough love, no messing about. It forces us to get real, take seriously the drama and conflict of our deeper heart, and change in heart to free the passion that wants to live, and act, from a ‘clean’ heart, a ‘pure’ heart, a ‘true’ heart.

The deepest that our troubles and failures can take us is to the point where we are no longer centred upon our own existential pain, but mysteriously, through the Spirit, enter the existential pain of all humanity in the tragedy of the human condition. Until this happens, we have no neighbour, no brother and no sister. Only when we can embrace the suffering of the common tragedy can we join the fight for the redemption that has the power to change the common destiny.

4,

People who do not admit, or do not know, that they have any contention with God in the heart, which renders their passion ambivalent about its road of action in this world, are living in the pervasive forgetfulness; they are far from any heart, and are perfectly content with that heartlessness.

Yet the Sufi poet speaks for all of us in demanding from God=

“Why do you search for the heart?
For I do not know where it is.
Tell me yourself, what is a heart?
I do not find its trace anywhere.”

We cannot remember we have a heart, and so its life of suffering and rapture is foreign to us= its deepest grief in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, and most upright flame for their sake, equally lost to us.

We cannot go to the ultimate fast and straight. It is a slow and roundabout route. We pass through many degrees, and layers, of heart wrestlings and passion mis-firings before we can reach the ultimate. Every time passion fails, and the heart is troubled, this drags us, kicking and screaming, toward a new and different basis for ‘living from the heart.’ We come, slowly, and yet irrevocably, to an awakening to the heart. Over the course of many vicissitudes, many ups and downs, ins and outs, finally we realise ‘the heart is an unfathomable abyss.’

It seems peculiar, even contradictory, none the less the Jewish example should teach us the decisive lesson.

Stay grounded in the contention with God, as in the contention with other people, and truth emerges; avoid the contention and no truth is revealed. We are left with humanistic panaceas, which never work.

5,

Just as there are many kinds of anxiety, so there are many kinds of depression. However, there is a kind of pervasive depression nowadays which seems to hang, like a wet and ‘dampening blanket’, over the whole population, or large parts of it. Isaiah [40, 28-31] says that God can “give power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.” Those who know their lack will ask for God’s help, and let go what they have to let go in order to cooperate with it; whilst those who think they are self-sufficient do not need any divine aid, and will never ask for it. But so many people in these times seem to match Isaiah’s description= “Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted”, though the remedy actually pervades the malady= “but they who wait for Yahweh shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Faint heartedness produces exhaustion, and weariness, of spirit. Only God’s Spirit can renew this condition of the human spirit. “Do not faint at your tribulations but trust in God and he will not fail you.”

This depression manifests a blanket resistance, or defense against, the deeps, where all manner of disturbed states, active hurts, long-standing grudges, boil away. The lid is kept on this boiling pot, a veritable cauldron, and so the heat gets turned back on itself. By blanking off the hurts and dramatic struggles deeper in the heart, which are actively sore, we achieve a more tranquil conscious mind, but the result is that in terms of our affective relationship with the world, wherein we affect it and it affects us, there is just a ‘lowered’ and ‘hazy’ state of ‘blah.’ This state is strangely bland, given how potent are the plaints — griefs and angers, dreads and terrors — rumbling below its surface. We make a bad trade-off here, for if we refuse to embrace the heart ground on which all kinds of vibrant but challenging things are happening, then we go into a state both low in energy and undifferentiated in theme; a sort of bog drags us down into a confused mush.

Lifelong depression, in certain people, is because their heart deeps are so raw, so on fire with twisted yet still living flame, that to de-press this, to push this down, takes a concerted and unremitting effort. Depression can become the state in which we let go what blocks the Spirit and embrace what embraces the Spirit. That is its healing potential. But in certain people, depression comes and never goes, settles over their ‘inner parts’ and their entire life in the world like a dank pall. In this case, the person will not ‘descend’ into the depths, where they will encounter ‘what is what’ with the heart and its passion; they will not face it, they will not struggle in it, they won’t have trust that they can go through it, and something of value emerge on the other side. They remain forever stuck in the potentially fruitful but in actuality fruitless ‘between.’ No longer acclimatised to the normal, but no longer totally insensitive to the torments of their heart and the battering to their passion, something in them won’t jump all the way down into the deeper lodged human dilemma.

Something at the deepest in depression threatens to kill off the lie of our isolate position in existence, and plunge us into a predicament where we are all bound to each other, indebted to each other, betrayed by each other. Depression tells us we cannot return to our old life, but do we want a new life where we are fated to be subject to the fate that subjects all human beings? We can mouth pretty platitudes testifying to human solidarity, but even as we declare this we know we can bail out, we have a rear door to get us free of the common fate. Joining the common destiny means that we surrender any ‘individual’ get out clause that would ‘free’ us from the common outcome..

There are many factors in electing to defend ourselves from the depth. But existentially basic is our lack of faith that, once in the narrow straits, there could be any way through. Even more disturbing is the realisation that, if any way through were to open up, it would have to include all of us together, and in doing that, it would bind each of us to the fate of all the rest. We all stand on the same heart ground, and if anyone is excluded, it will fall through for everyone. It only upholds us when we are truly, and profoundly, ‘all in this together.’

Thus, our deepest resistance against the deeps is because we do not want to enter the ‘story’ that governs the heart ground. We want to be free to invent, to concoct by phantasy, a story of a life to our liking.

6,

The teaching of Jewish Tradition= God created because he likes to tell stories.. The story we are really in, really living, living doing, is the story of God’s heart coming to the human heart.

This is its severity of realism, yet its bottomless compassion, and immeasurable mercy, for how much this ‘story of stories’ asks of humanity, and indeed, of God.

God loves our heroism, however faltering. God loves our attempt, however far it gets, and has tenderness for the damage that stops us before we can get going.

In what the world calls depression, but which is spiritually the dark night of the soul and the baking desert of the heart, we lose in the soul all identity and selfhood itself, everything meaningful that we took for granted is swept away on inner tides, and we lose in the heart all conviction in action itself, everything purposeful that we believed in is burned up in inner flames. There is nowhere to hide from ourself, in subjectivity or objectivity. The meanings that sustained us inwardly and the beliefs that propped us up outwardly are suddenly gone.. They cannot be regained. We have no meaning, we have no purpose. Death brings both the impermanence that devastates the soul, and the fragility that paralyses the heart. Everything is flimsy in being, everything is futile in action.. Yet there is no peace of the grave, but only the unsettling and disquieting questions that cannot be answered. Nothing outside of, or other to, our suffering can help. We are alone in our suffering, as if the world had ceased to exist. It still surrounds us, but it does not connect to us, and we do not connect to it, in any way. There is no respite from the suffering which is all that is left of us. Nothing can reach us, however nourishing and illuminating, however encouraging and wise.

Something has to change within, and deep down, and it cannot be faked. We are lost, entirely, before we can find what is alive and can be found for what is worthy.

We are losing what separates us from the real story, we are losing what undermines us in the real story.

Our falsifying of this story, our loss of the falsification, and regaining of the fated threads of the patchwork of the story still being woven, is the only resolution of depression that lasts.

Even in the throes of its suffering, when it is still in the balance whether its destructive power will end us or end and remake us, there is something oddly ‘beneficial’ in what seems like a curse. “To fully inhabit our suffering is to uncover our unique presence in this life”, as one commentator puts it; yet it is also to uncover the heart-rending presences of all other beings, creatures, persons, in this life. A radical choice arrives= will I continue to try to defend my suffering, even if this adds to the common suffering? Or, will I let my suffering serve the common suffering? Will I surrender ‘my separate and ungrounded story’ for the common story wherein everyone is damaged, everyone is at fault, everyone is trying..

The common story= keen personal excitement, and a pathos that wraps up everyone.

Let go false gods= let go false stories.. This is what depression ‘removes.’

7,

The Jewish Bible is not a scientific explanation of anything– God, the cosmos, nature, humanity. Nor is it a theological doctrine about those things, still less a metaphysical philosophy concerning them. It is not simply a set of moral precepts, or laws, nor a set of yogas or spiritual disciplines for elevating the rough matter of humanity into a polished spiritual jewel. There may well be flashes of all these here and there, but essentially the Bible is a very existential, and hyper realistic, story. This story is unique, and in some sense is ‘the’ story of all the other equally necessary stories, because it is a narrative concerned with [1] God, who he really is in terms of what he is doing with us, and concerned with [2] our struggle to relate with this strange and wonderful mystery. Stories are ‘stored’ in the soul, like fishes in water; but this story can only be lived, and enacted, by the heart, walking hard ground over an abyss.

The story the Bible unfolds is far from pious, far from respectable, and far from rational. The story is passionate. It lives in intensity, it lives by commitment and engagement. It lives in the gap between promise and fulfilment, and is stretched on the cross at the place where the two roads of the Sacred and of the World inter-sect. This whole story is one of ‘difficult times’, and protracted strivings which often seem fruitless. Yet the story moves ahead, its journey and battle advances, like a caravan crossing the desert. It is full of tension, and drama; like Flamenco music, it is for life and death. To live, and enact, this story requires trust in the unknown, not certainty in the known. Not security, but insecurity, keeps this story moving ahead.

For the Bible narrates the story of a venture, a risk and a gamble, God takes with humanity, and the world; and this story will not come through the abysses it confronts unless humans give it their all.

The protagonists of this story are not nice and decent folks; they are not ‘sensible’ as England currently understands that term. They are not prudent. They have none of the Greek Stoic virtues that infiltrated the Greek Orthodox Christian monastic tradition. By sharp contrast, they exemplify William Blake’s claim= “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” They are not prudish about sex. They unapologetically love life. They will strive for truth even in strife. They sing and dance their prayers to God, as well as howl and scream at God, like an animal in the throes of death, or like a child in extreme pain who has no way of understanding it, and so has to simply sit down under it, without respite or relief; and occasionally they voice their sorrow with more searching of its depth and thus more understanding of what their situation and its dynamic is, but not with any less pain. These are people whose feet are staked to the ground, and whose hearts are learning to be staked to what is at stake in the world.

Sometimes they are in the true drama in which God, humanity, and the evil spirit, are bound; at other times existence just becomes the soap operas it is for most of us most of the time. But their errors reveal truths; their failures lead on to victories. Gradually arises that love which works through paradox and reversal.

This is what the story of our life should be like for us. Certainly, people rest and recover; they find islands of peace in which to meditate, and contemplate; but the most powerful prayer comes only when they are in deep trouble and face total ruin. The part of us that is always falling away and struggling to return is far closer to ignition than the part of us that is pleasant, charming, well on top of things, thank you very much.

Thus, the trouble and failure in our binding to the divine fire is crucial. In Japan people like the Jewish protagonists of the Old Testament story are called ‘wave tossed’, like a samurai without a master. There is no external master to contain and restrain the warrior, so he can fall prey to all sorts of error, but it happens ‘along the way’, and this error does not derail him because he is searching for the inner master — the Holy Spirit — and to that search he remains loyal, and by its exactions, he is willingly disciplined.

The wave tossed and fire penetrated men and women of the Biblical story are the ‘flawed’ people in whom God revealed the truth about the process of redemption.

To be a part of this story — not to imitate it, because with changed historical circumstances, that is impossible, and not desirable in any case — requires faith, not creedal faith, but existential faith.

For many people, lifelong depression is preferable, and a price willingly paid, for evading being part of such a story, such a living and such a doing, such an existence.

Lifelong depression is preferable to living on the edge, in the gap, at the crossing of roads= depression is what suffocates faith; faith is what crawls out of the suffocation of depression, like a too solicitous and over protective mother.

The faith which is born of the afflictions and tussles that Daemonic Fate forces upon us has a certain confidence, despite everything remaining in uncertainty, because it has resolved the ambivalence, the conflict, which is deeply lodged, and voted with its feet which heart, and which passion, it prefers to affirm.

Mysticism, vision, enlightenment and awakening, can reveal much that is wonderful to know; but they cannot reveal ‘how the story will go’, nor more significantly, ‘how the story will turn out.’

The story’s secrets are hidden; the story’s treasures are buried. By living it, by doing it, by risking it without knowing, we bring secrets and treasures to life along the route, like water from the parched ground, like fire from the burned out ashes.