Fog can be dangerous because you lose a sense of where you’re going. Same with spiritual fog, from which I have been suffering a bit recently.
Spiritual fog may not be a commonly known term, but others have written of ‘spiritual depression’ (Martin Lloyd Jones) and ‘acedia’ (Christopher Jamison). Spiritual fog is dangerous because it can creep up on you unawares and you may not even know you’re in it. It makes everything flat and uninteresting. It makes you forget why you got ordained.
Lack of enthusiasm for God, feeling that praying makes no difference, lack of gratitude, inability to see the things God has given as gift and opportunity. All these and more characterise spiritual fog. Taking a church service when in this state is really hard. I hesitate to say this but when you meet clergy who appear to be in this state more often than not, it sends a shiver down the spine. There but for the grace of God…
Is it to do with introversion and extroversion? Are introverts more likely to look inwards and become morbid? Is it overwork, underwork, tiredness, isolation, boredom? What causes it and what can be done about it?
In his classic Spiritual Depression (1959) the great preacher, Martin Lloyd Jones explores verses from the bible which deal with being sad, down or depressed, recommending we talk to ourselves, rather than being talked to by our negative thoughts:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him… (Psalm 42:5)
We need to question ourselves, tell ourselves a different story, reassure ourselves, and generally kick ourselves up the backside (my phrase, not his).
In Finding Happiness (2008) monk Christopher Jamison explains that the ‘Seven deadly sins’ were once ‘Eight Thoughts’ that the desert fathers and mothers identified as the common experience of all human beings. Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century set about trying to amend the list for lay use, and got rid of the first sin: ‘Acedia’ (spiritual forgetfulness) thinking this was experienced only by monks and nuns. Jamison writes: ‘The disappearance of ‘acedia’ from ordinary people’s vocabulary deprived Western culture of the ability to name an important feature of the spiritual life, namely, loss of enthusiasm for the spiritual life itself.’
When you lose enthusiasm for the spiritual life itself, you become a church functionary. It may be a scary thought that there are functionaries aplenty in the Church…Maybe they go about their business all the time, being ecclesiastically busy and efficient, their spiritual fog unnoticed by all the other foggy souls…
Fog can linger. It can help to tell someone if you discover you’re in the fog; if you’re not in the habit of talking in accountable ways with spiritually alert souls, you may not even know you’re in the fog. But probe, and there will be some cause, some train of discouraging little things going back several days, weeks, months (years?)…some underlying sadness which may be as yet unidentified. Something not grieved. Something not owned. Something not yet in the light. Sometimes, in the absence of people to coax it out, God is gracious and lifts the fog directly.
For me recently, the fog cleared at three words from Matthew’s gospel, from the story of the haemorrhaging woman who made up her mind ‘if I can just touch his cloak, I will be healed’. The three words were, ‘Take heart, daughter’, and they appeared at the bottom of my phone screen, as I looked up the daily reading one foggy morning – just those three words. You needed to swipe the page to see the rest of the passage. I didn’t really need to read the rest though. The fog had cleared.