The teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” I wonder if there’s ever a time to stay away from church.
That became my question this past year as I stopped going to church for a season. It’s not that I initially refused to go—but when I went I felt angry and upset. I didn’t know why.
I realized that staying away takes careful discernment, and I wanted to consider the wisdom of the church and the encouragement of my Christian community in the matters of my life and faith. So I did not take my decision to stay away lightly.
Worship is often a place of connection, hope, and healing for us—a place to share in the life of the resurrected One. But sometimes our experience is different than this. We may feel burned out from church-related activities, or we are reeling from a recent conflict in church. Perhaps we are struggling with personal difficulties or depression that has nothing to do with church. Maybe we’re angry with God, ourselves, or a family member and need to bring suppressed feelings to the surface for healing.
We need to try to understand what it is that’s keeping us away and seek healing or reconciliation. This takes time, awareness, and patience. And many times desert walks are solitary—we go alone to face the demons that fragment us. We walk in darkness for a time, not knowing if we will ever find our way. But we carry with us, also, the wisdom and presence of God.
Judy Cannato, in an article in Weavings magazine, says, “Opening to darkness can be countercultural—not only in ‘feel good’ Western culture but also in a dominant Christian culture, which emphasizes that God will reward us if we are obedient to certain standards. Maybe God will—but perhaps what we should be seeking is transformation in God, not good feelings about God. The purpose of the dark night is purification, which leads to transformation and ultimately to freedom—freedom to be our true selves, to love and live in God, and to be filled with God” (January/February 2002).
I recognized in my own life that this was a time for healing past hurts, both personal and spiritual. I discerned, out of pain and desperation, that I needed to honor my own questions because burying them failed. Ultimately, I hung on to the words, “Where can I go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
My community, for a time, became my therapist, my spiritual director, and authors that helped me to sort out what was going on. Members of my church also reached out in love through cards or other expressions of care and concern. And I took time to rest and spend some time in solitude and silence.
I’m beginning to return to church. I’m balancing my need for quiet reflection with my longing for the Word and sacraments embodied in the people of God. And I’m beginning to realize that my grounding in church has given me faith and the tools for a spiritual life.
But the spiritual journey always calls us deeper. Stepping away from church for a season and walking an unknown path has strengthened my faith that “God will never leave me to face my perils alone” (Merton) and given me a glimpse of the vast “ground of my being.” But more than that, I know that if God’s love takes root in my flesh and bone, I will radiate that love to others, even though I may not know it.