Then the lookout shouted,
“Day after day, O lord, I stand on the watchtower;
night after night I stay at my post.”
Some spiritual disciplines are routine. Some are occasional, and a few are very rare. A few are so sacramental, they are only to be undertaken when the Holy Spirit calls. One of these rare disciplines is to companion someone in the dark…closely, with few words and a rooted conviction that you are at the foot of the cross and must stay there until released. You are there precisely when most have pulled away, when the sounds of choked suffering and the smell of blood is most prevalent.
I have been called to this three times over all the years of my spiritual life. Those three times lasted for one to one and a half years. The call is always the same: “Walk with her”; “Watch with him.”
Spiritual disciplines are concrete, observable practices that form us into life with Christ. They are things we do, and the doing of them makes a difference not only in us, but in those around us. This particular and rare spiritual discipline is a long slog of presence when no other person is hearing the agony but you and the one suffering.Spiritual disciplines are concrete, observable practices that form us into life with Christ. They are things we do, and the doing of them makes a difference not only in us, but in those around us. Click To Tweet
The first time the Spirit called me to this discipline was a surprise. I wasn’t sure I had heard correctly. I was talking with a woman who I barely knew at a company Christmas party. She was obviously unhappy, so I engaged her in a conversation. I remember the sensation of our retreating more and more into a holy sanctuary of words as she told me her story. Her husband and the father of their five small children had disappeared on Father’s Day that year, and then when found days later, he was dead by suicide. The challenges afterwards from dealing with police, to being shunned by her church, to trying to get work and care for her children seemed endless. At some point during her storytelling, the Spirit said to me, “Walk with her. Keep watch.”
I didn’t understand what that meant at first, but I came to learn the nature of this spiritual discipline of being a companion to someone who is struggling in the dark. It shaped us both. Over time I understood more about what this discipline involves.
Being a regular presence
To walk with someone at this level of despair required me to be present daily in this woman’s life anywhere between five and thirty minutes, sometimes more. We didn’t live close, so it meant that I would call her on the phone at the same time every day, usually around 9 pm, after our children were settled. At first I didn’t know that I was supposed to call every night. It happened, and it was the right thing to happen. I knew it was a Spirit invitation. I was to be Christ’s physical presence to this woman for whom others had stepped over to the other side. I was to watch with Christ.
On the call every night I would begin with, “Tell me about your day. How are you doing?” And then I would listen. I rarely commented or asked questions. I did my best to listen with the Holy Spirit. I believed by listening attentively she would feel the companionship of someone who gave dignity to her reality. It was not pretty. On some calls she would cry and cry. On others she was angry at God and the church. Her despair was palpable. Every night was different depending on the experiences in her day.
My purpose was to be a sentinel watching over her journey. At the end of the call—and sometimes in the middle of it—I would bear witness to her experiences. I didn’t soften it, or explain it away, or tell her things would get better. I would usually say something like, “I’m so sorry. Of course, you are angry (or sad or hurt or confused).” Or, “This was a really horrible day for you. I’m so sorry.”
Slowly over time, I observed in her the healing power of God’s watchful presence: “I am here. I will always be here.” Slowly over the many months she was able to find the Rock undergirding her and to begin to imagine a future for herself and her children. Several months after the anniversary of her husband’s death, the Spirit released me, and I called less and less, with her consent.
This spiritual discipline requires my own soul to be open to the Spirit’s formation in me. As humans we are wired to avoid pain, find a solution, cover up the nakedness, do things quickly, or feel overwhelmed when we can’t control outcomes. What if she or he never gets better? What if? We are called to watch, to companion, not direct.As humans we are wired to avoid pain, find a solution, cover up the nakedness, do things quickly, or feel overwhelmed when we can’t control outcomes. Click To Tweet
I found that the spiritual discipline of being a companion to someone in the dark began to develop two spiritual muscles in me that I exercised over and over again. One was trust. Can I absolutely trust God to be God and to be good in the midst of such despair and injustice, without running away or trying to solve the problem? Can I stay there and listen and believe for her that her eternal Bridegroom is real and present too? This is not easy to do.
Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.
The second was spiritual and emotional courage. Do I have the courage to stand alongside someone in the dark when all you can hear is the clanging noise of his or her profound suffering? Evil lives in the dark. Do I have the strength to hold on to the hem of Christ’s robes when he seems most dead on the cross? This too is not an easy muscle to develop. Evil will try to unravel you on this journey.
A shatterer has come up against you.
Guard the ramparts; watch the road;
gird your loins; collect all your strength.
For both trust and courage I found that memorized Scripture kept me steady. I felt the hand of the Spirit on my back as I held onto this woman. I found releasing prayer necessary for this woman and for my small role in her life. I found embracing each ordinary day with gratitude left me feeling hopeful.
I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me, hear my words. Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand.
Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings,
from the wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me.
I didn’t always do it well. Sometimes I didn’t want to call. I was physically tired, or I was weary of the conversation. Sometimes I was angry with God for the ongoing challenges these persons faced. Children rebelling in their own pain. Employers inflexible with support. Churches arrogant in their lack of compassion. Poverty always at the door. My own limits to hold on. And yet with the Spirit’s help I stood watch.
I believe this discipline can be practiced by a church. Once I arrived to lead a retreat for a church’s leadership staff, and upon arrival found that one of the young leaders had died that week. The man in his thirties had contracted an infection and died within a few days, leaving behind a wife and two very small children. I shifted from retreat mode to helping the team process their grief. During the conversation, they asked what they could do for this young wife. Besides the necessities of caring for her financially, helping with her children and meals, and doing house projects, I suggested this spiritual discipline of being a companion in the dark. One of the women leaders felt called ‘to watch’ her. The church later reported to me that this long-term work of regular companionship is what made the most difference to the young widow embracing Christ and life again.
Also, there are variations to this discipline. Once I was a companion for a homeless woman who was also a meth addict, taking baby steps together at her request. Once a week for several months after church I would walk with her for about thirty minutes, and she would talk to me, and I listened. Once the Spirit invited me to companion a spiritual leader who was suffocating under a depression that wouldn’t lift. I would text him once a week. He called me his ‘watcher.’
I don’t believe this discipline is a solution. It is a Holy Spirit calling.
Not everyone who suffers wants this. I don’t think we are called to these companioning moments often, but there are enough of us who can be ‘watchers’ that no one should walk alone in the dark. We can all do this for one another, when the Spirit calls.