Spiritual practices for the weary heart

While wrestling with depression and a lack of clarity in her faith, Rev. Molly Smerko asks a friend, “How did you get unstuck?”. The resulting year of exploring spiritual practices has grounded her in a new way.

Photo by lilartsy on Unsplash

“How did you do it? How did you get unstuck?” I ask her, the desperation clear in my voice.

My friend is someone who went through a wilderness period, a time in her life marked by trial and uncertainty. I am still in the thick of my own wilderness, and so I am begging my older and wiser friend for a way out. She tells me about rhythms and rituals, about little things that help bring her back to God and to herself. “Each morning,” she says, “I write down five things that I’m grateful for and three positive interactions from the day before.” I scoff in my head. Gratitude is the last thing I am feeling. I feel distant from God and from myself, unsure of my next steps. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and so I crack open a new notebook the next morning and give it a try.

It has been roughly a year since I began my gratitude practice in earnest, and it has been met with mixed results. When I began, my life was operating at a purposefully frenetic pace because if I was constantly in motion, I wouldn’t have to listen. I was afraid of meeting the still, small voice in the quiet, unsure of what she would say. But I wanted to change my mental outlook more than I wanted to avoid the silence, and so I would fill the pages of my gratitude journal each day. Some mornings it was an absolute battle, a standoff between me and the blank page staring at me. There were times of deep pain, when it felt nearly impossible to think of my five things. Some days I simply wrote at the top of the page, “Yesterday was a really bad day.” I wanted to prove to myself that I wouldn’t give up on the hope of gratitude, even amid the struggle.

Like Jacob with the angel, I was wrestling for purpose and found blessing in the struggle. As the days turned into weeks, I found myself looking forward to my morning gratitude practice paired with slowly savoring the day’s first cup of coffee. I eventually tweaked my practice to add a time of prayer and Scripture reading, and I felt like I found my magic formula. The discipline of having a spiritual practice began to slowly change my life. I felt more open to possibility, looking for God’s kindness every day, as I let myself be surprised once more by the mysterious movement of God’s grace. The weeks turned into months as I watched gratitude color my days.

There is one caveat here. This gratitude practice, or any other spiritual practice for that matter, isn’t a magic fix. It won’t save your marriage or cure your depression. Spiritual practices ebb and flow, finding us in different seasons of our lives. And so, my gratitude practice worked until it didn’t. During a particularly difficult time in my years-long depression, I stopped doing spiritual practices altogether. Simply drinking that first cup of coffee and acknowledging God’s presence was all I could muster. But the long, hard work of becoming “unstuck” continued, and after some time, a new practice emerged. I met each morning by putting pen to paper, emptying my brain of as many worries as I could think of, followed by some time in the Psalms and prayer. I still haven’t returned to the gratitude practice, and I think that’s okay. It met a need in a specific season and helped me to retrain my heart and mind to be more prone to gratitude.

It has been not quite a year since that first conversation with my friend, and I find myself still slowly making my way out of the wilderness. There are days I still feel lost, but my prayer life grounds me. Praying the psalms has colored my prayer imagination and has given me words when my own wouldn’t suffice. These days, I’m especially clinging to the promise of Psalm 145:13: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.” Day by day, God has met my needs, even when I can’t see them or appreciate them. And that is enough.