It was bitter-cold and about to snow. The sky was gray and heavy with clouds when I started my trip. I left Rome on Wednesday at 6:00 p.m., and the snow was set to start at 9:00 p.m. That’s why I started driving to a hotel a mere monorail ride to the Atlanta airport. En route, I got a little lost in the dark. I got off I-285 two miles too soon. I did a circle around and got back on, in the dark. Finally, I found the Springhill Suites / Marriott. It began to snow. That made the silence even thicker. I was alone in that hotel room.
I am the sensitive type, for better and for weaker, and when I left home to give several talks and to lead a retreat in Arizona, I felt lonesome. Sean said to me, “I’ll miss you,” and Kate said, “Don’t go, Mommy.” John gave me a squeeze to last me four days. I patted our soft, sweet cat Lucky one last time. I don’t know why sometimes leaving home is hard, even if only for a long weekend.
Having recently read Robert Jingen Gunn’s book on the value of emptiness, I tried to stand in the middle of this aloneness and embrace this feeling of emptiness and of profound responsibility, because I had been invited to speak to chaplains and to other souls, all people who serve others because they love Jesus. It was as simple and as profound as that.
You see, I’d been asked to give a couple of talks to a group of amazing chaplains and also to lead a retreat for an evening, a day, and a morning with the most amazing group of women I have ever met on Planet Earth. Therefore, I felt trepidation. What, I asked, do I have to say to chaplains, who give so much of themselves daily to others? I also began to ask myself, Did these chaplains minister to the victims of the shooting in Tucson? I began praying months ago for every person coming to these retreats.
At the hotel in Atlanta, standing in the middle of my loneliness, I truly noticed the woman checking me in. I prayed for her. I noticed her. I told her I thought her hotel was cool. She was happy to hear that. She showed me how to get to the monorail. I felt better.
It kept on snowing. I kept on praying for those I would meet in Arizona, IF my plane took off in the morning. I prayed and went to bed.
When I woke up and pulled back the drapes, I saw that the ground was snow-covered, but not the roads. And Orbitz had left me a text over the cold, white-filled night saying my flight was “ON TIME.” My soul smiled. I was going.
I was trusting God to give me what I needed. A few years ago I said to my best friend of thirty-two years, Beth, about an upcoming retreat: “I’m so nervous because I’m accustomed to having everything planned out and on paper word-for-word, and I feel now that I should be more spontaneous and talk more from my heart,” and Beth said with unnerving, precise truthfulness, “Well, you’ll just have to learn to rely on God in a different way, then, won’t you.”
She was right. Beth always is, actually, right, though she doesn’t think so.
So through the snowy early morning, I took the shining, silvery monorail to the airport, still nervous. I prayed for those I met, still feeling lonely. I prayed for my family at home, too, and missed them. I prayed for everyone I met, especially for the young woman in an argument with the flight attendants over her oversized luggage and especially for the young Russian couple with the precious twenty-one-month-old son, Alex, who was getting tired and fussy.
And then I was in Arizona, still nervous. But it was gloriously sunny there and warm as spring, and I had been faithful. I had showed up. Sometimes it seems that’s all God requires. (My new friend Jacqueline Bergan, whom I met on the retreat and who co-authored the bestselling Praying with Ignatius of Loyola, kept saying to me this weekend that we really only have to show up for God to work. She is right.)
And then this happened: the weekend was so full to overflowing that it was like being hugged gently and close by God for days.
That’s what nerves + loneliness + obedience (preparing and turning up and praying) + listening to others added up to for me: God’s presence.
I don’t mean that I lost all nervousness. Every time we had a session, there was another amazing woman to meet and to know: a psychologist (and poet!) with a Ph.D. from Columbia University who started an organization for grieving children and whose spirit is tremendous, as well as her kindness; a women who counseled college students for thirty years; a Federal prison chaplain; a woman who served God’s destitute in South America; and others, so many others with heroic callings in hospitals as chaplains in high administrative positions, other counselors, other chaplains, nuns serving the poorest of the poor.
Had I considered my ego over my heart, I might have faltered owing to the star-quality of the audience, but they were all so generous of soul that I kept listening to them and kept listening to God and kept on teaching. I took the low road of the heart. Each woman in that room was awesome, and each one had a remarkable story to tell of her journey in faith with God.
And, too, there were so many friends back in Georgia praying for me that I knew that the weekend was being underwritten by prayer. That gave me courage. So all I had to do was prepare and show up. And I had to keep on praying. My prayers were short, of the nature, Lord, it’s me. What do I know in the face of the heroic work these chaplains do? Lord, what do I do now? What do I teach? In what order?
He showed me, one minute at a time.
I went with several talks to mine from, as I always do. And, all of a sudden, the 100 or so books that I had read over the last year or so all came into their own. Sean kept asking me over the Christmas break, a trifle concerned over my intensity: “What are you studying? What are you writing? What are you doing? You don’t stop reading!”
I said to my husband, “I don’t know. These books feed my soul. I have to read them.”
I kept reading because these books were knitting my soul together.
I was reading Ann Ulanov, Ann and Barry Ulanov, Jung, Campbell, Winnicott, and many other amazing authors, with some novelists’ works thrown in as palate cleansers (think James Lee Burke). I also read the cheerful, wonderful philosophical theologians Josef Pieper and Paul Tillich.
I fell in love with these books. They all helped me tremendously, and Christ’s shining through Ann Ulanov’s brilliant integration of religion and psychology mended my soul in the way that we are commanded to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Ulanov became my hero. She gives us the vocabulary of depth psychology with which to understand prayer and getting to know Jesus better. She is both a genius and down-to-earth, my kind of mentor. She sent me a Christmas card.
I was teaching on lectio divina and contemplative prayer, on living with a Bible verse for so long that this “divine reading” turns into a soul’s resting in God, the Psalm 46:10 way. This praying the Scripture is actually a conversation with Christ, and who doesn’t need more rest for his or her soul? Ann Ulanov’s books gave my devotional walk with Jesus the added understanding of depth psychology. Her insights brought and bring healing to me.
So, trembling with the feeling of responsibility before I left for Arizona, I had created a sixteen-page handout for all of the retreatants, and in it I quoted lots of Ann Ulanov. I want everyone to know of her amazing work. Much of the handout focused on Ulanov’s answer to her question, “Who is feeding the feeder?” That means, who is feeding the chaplains and all those who practice the vocation of listening to others and of caring for others’ souls?
And then there was Bob. Bob lives at the Casa, where I spent the weekend in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Casa, a.k.a., the Franciscan Renewal Center, is in Paradise Valley, and it is surrounded by the most gorgeous mountains and rocks; Camelback’s my favorite.
My little apartment was next to Bob’s, and Bob and I had conversations that blessed my soul as certainly as the transparent Arizona sunshine did.
When Bob hangs the drinkers filled with clear sugar-water ambrosia for the hummingbirds that at twilight come some forty or more, he told me that as he hangs a drinker, sometimes the hummingbird’s back tail will brush against his nose and that he can feel the wind from the hummingbird’s wings on his cheek.
At that point I said to him, “You are Bob of Assisi.”
He laughed. We became friends. Bob gave me stories.
He also introduced me to his two personality-plus cats, Mindy and Annie.
And the longer I walked around the Casa grounds, all desert and orange and grapefruit trees and cacti both large and small, home to a great many hopping rabbits, I began to feel a calm coming in to my body. The nerves were transforming into the peace that passes all understanding, Christ’s calm.
And then at supper on that first night at the Casa I met chaplains whose warmth touched me deeply. They were and are so REAL. And these women had indeed ministered to victims of the Tucson shooting. I listened to their heart-wrenching stories (those they could tell). I learned precisely why chaplains are the heroes among us, along with counselors, psychologists, nurses, and nuns who serve the poorest of the poor. I told them I’d been praying for them during those hard days in Tucson, that it was good to put a face to those for whom I had for so long been praying.
These chaplains, counselors, and others are those among us who practice holy listening as their vocation. I admire them. I love them. I spent the entire weekend listening in Christ to them as well as I could, to these servants of God who listen daily to so many. Their caring, giving presences brought God’s holiness among us. We all felt it, too.
And then I met Mario, whose professor at Princeton had been Ann Ulanov’s student at Union. Mario is a chaplain, and Mario has written a book. He is going to share it with me. I envision that it will be published soon, too, because he told me some about its heart. Mario the Princeton graduate says this about his book and about his calling working as a chaplain in a trauma center:
I could make sense of the ‘theologian in me’ and appreciate the great privilege of studying at an ivy league school, but knew nothing of what it meant to enter the disenfranchised hurting that took place within blocks. . . . I used to write on the train ride home after visiting patients all day. . . . I could not comprehend the tremendous suffering people endure. But God gave me a pen and a voice, and somehow I believed it was going to be heard. From there these stories were resurrected and redeemed into a life of their own. Stories of God’s humanity, and stories of God’s reaching in and out to His people. Stories of turning ashes into a crown of beauty. And of course, stories of me, the sojourner, tripping over his feet trying to make sense of it all. Witnessing trauma day in and day out takes its toll on the soul. It was a real challenge to go from giving death notifications to watching reruns of Seinfeld—and somehow being able to sleep knowing that ‘God is still good.’ Eventually it did happen, this idea that ‘God is still good,’ but it took time and a whole lot of prayer. So that’s what this book’s about.
In between sessions that I taught on the wonderfully imperfect medieval women mystics and their sinewy, whole lives of prayer and service and their intense, genuine relationships with Christ, my prayers were short, of this nature: Lord, it’s me. What do I do now? What do I teach? In what order? I prayed for each woman there. I made new notes. I rearranged my presentations. I added to them. I drew greatly from what I had read. I recalibrated in response to those souls, those very awake, extraordinary souls sitting there in rows of ordinary chairs.
I asked these questions of Jesus especially because retreatants told me their stories in the interstices between sessions. And these stories, they squeezed my heart. I changed my teaching from moment to moment, in response to those alert souls.
The entire weekend’s experience was all an overflowing of the Holy Spirit and even now gives me goosebumps to remember. It was what a weekend! Praise be to God!