A couple of weeks have passed, and even in the midst of the flurry of Christmas preparations, part of my mind is still ruminating about the funeral. Following the burial of someone in your close circle, a very intense spiritual phenomenon descends, uninvited. Whether you want to or not, you enter the strange, uncharted territories of a grieving hinterland. Emotional bleakness and mental disorientation are just the tip of this soulish iceberg: nine-tenths are below the surface. Brace yourself for a journey into ‘the Deep’. Sizeable changes or loss of control in our immediate environment seriously derail our internal gyroscopes.
Scripture refers to this as ’the season of the night’. As it turns out, this poetic description very accurately captures a significant staging area in our lives. Night seasons occur when we experience some form of crippling loss, death, trauma or tragedy. These abrupt changes of season may be initiated by the demise of a cherished dream, the scuttling of a precious relationship, or a crippling health crisis, to name just a few. It may not always involve a human death, but some form of bereavement will be inevitable. Our sense of control is delusional; any unexpectedly massive shift can send us crashing into the spiritually nocturnal.
“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven”. Read the list of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 carefully, and you’ll see that no less than ten different scenarios of loss, separation, grief, deficit or injury are listed. Life is chock-a-block with countless night seasons; even in the destiny path the Lord has for us, these agents of ambush here on earth are unavoidable. It’s a rough-and-tumble most of us are simply not spiritually positioned to deal with, even though the forewarning is clear. As I referenced in my preceding blog, this spiritual truth is not a simple, generic statement. Taken in proper context, it’s actually sacred life-strategy. The ability to acknowledge the seasons of your life, ordained in God, is a profoundly consecrated thing. To deny them, especially the dark ones, is not wise. As you can neither predict, control, or curtail, the real victory lies in commandeering them. We master riding out the storm. We learn to ‘keep vigil’.
The word ‘vigil’ means simply ‘to stay awake’. In a traditional religious context, it is the eve of a major church festival, usually involving fasting, prayer and devotional listening. However, let’s zoom in on this excellent image as a template for navigating a season of grieving. We ‘stay awake’ in the darkness of sorrow and uncertainty, until the revelation breaks through.
“I slept, but my heart stayed awake; it is the voice of my beloved! He knocks, saying, “Open for me, my sister, my love, My dove, my perfect one; For my head is covered with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.” Songs 5:2
Keeping vigil in the Spirit is to be sharply aware of the singular vulnerability that opens up within us when we are moving through seasons of loss and grief. It is simply opening our heart for the Lord to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death. It is following the sound of His voice, as we wait in the dark void of fear, brokenness and doubt.
Some of the most powerful and critical formations of my life have been forged in the crucible of a heart-rending, passionate sorrow. There’s a huge upside to keeping vigil most people are not aware of. Scripture gives us tantalizing glimpses of the true action going on below the surface. Psalm 16:7 gives insight into David’s night season and what he experienced. “I will bless the Lord who has given me counsel; My heart also instructs me in the night seasons.” Psalm 42:8 makes the unexpected statement that “in the night His song shall be with me—". The entire night process is described in Job 33:14-30, and it is considerable. In the end, most of us emerge from the mysterious chrysalis of grieving with a significant metamorphosis of some kind. That’s why taking the hand of the Lord and allowing Him to walk you through it all becomes so utterly critical, and highly productive.
In vigil, we honor the Lord and His protocols. There’s process involved, and it’s important. Grief is as holy as joy. Grief must not be denied. Grief strips off the genteel layers of social polish and political correctness, and pares us down to the vital core of our being again. We may not like what we find there, but embracing the actual truth is still unspeakably powerful. We learn how to let life’s backwash billow over us, without struggling for judgment or control. Like a ship in dry dock, all the mental barnacles get scraped off. Down in the dark, terrifying heaviness of your own soul, you must face fundamental truths. In a season of brokenness, when our defenses are pulverized, we cry out to our Maker, and He answers. No one enjoys sitting on the ash-heap for protracted seasons. We want to get up and on with life. But the fine art of closure is not only appropriate, it is necessary. Leave it undone, and open wounds fester. It’s a form of denial. Repeating patterns of destructive behavior can ultimately be traced back to an aborted season of grief.
Modern life tends to scorn the venerable traditions of grieving; of keeping vigil of the soul. As I age, I have learned to honor ancient protocols of grieving. I have come to the inescapable conclusion that an introspective and difficult season of lamentation can be the spiritual house-cleaning we require. We are never left the same once we pass through the dark night of the soul, but only the Lord has the power to transform crippling sorrow into joy (Psalm 30:5), and He always does. When our vigil is successfully traversed, it actually enables us to live and love at a far higher, purer level.