Saturday, July 07, 2007

Prodigal, Bearing Cookies

It's been over a year since I've met with my spiritual director, Sr. Maria at Carmel of Reno, but yesterday I finally made good on my interim bishop's pastoral directive and saw her again. We'd been trying to get together for a few weeks, but we both have busy schedules!

The reasons I stayed away for so long are complicated and not very logical. Sr. Maria has never been anything but my staunchest friend and advocate, and she certainly hasn't been included in my recent ambivalence towards Institutional Church. She was my rock through the crises, church-related and personal, that started in 2003; she shared my dismay and indignation over various messes (indeed, her indignation often dwarfed mine), listened to me agonize over courses of action, prayed for me and mine through the whole dismal saga, and always assured me that I was doing the right thing. I never doubted that she was completely on my side, through a very long stretch when there were -- or seemed to be -- very few people in that category.

So why, when the miserable epic concluded with a particularly painful sputter in April 2006, did I stop going to see her?

I honestly don't know. Part of it was undoubtedly the depression that was deepening then, and for which I finally went on a second medication. After a while, a lot of it was guilt: I felt awful for turning my back on her (especially when she left a loving phone message saying that she was thinking about and praying for me), and the longer I went without contact, the more awful I felt, and the awfulness kept me paralyzed. We've all been there, right?

But there were other factors too, which I haven't been able to suss out yet: deep hurt and anger at other people that I was afraid or ashamed to let her see (although, God knows, she'd already seen plenty of both), longing simply to leave the mess behind me (although I was dragging it with me like the proverbial ball and chain, and still am), and a deep-rooted, exhausted feeling of What's the use anyway?, although that was the depression again.

Whatever the factors, Jerry Lamb's kick in the keister was exactly what I needed.

So yesterday I went back, bearing cookies. Gary has always baked cookies for the nuns when I've gone to Carmel, but this time, the food was a kind of non-verbal apology. I always go to the monastery for vespers before meeting with Sr. Maria, and I was afraid the nuns would glare at me and say "Where have you been?" Maybe cookies would soften that.

Naturally, the nuns did no such thing. They weren't mad at me; I was mad at myself. The sisters smiled, greeted me warmly, told me how nice it was to see me again. That sentiment was echoed most emphatically by Sr. Maria, who said, "You can come here any time, and you don't have to bring cookies."

Our meeting was, as usual, deeply affirming. My current position is that I most likely won't go for ordination, but that I'm waiting to see who our new bishop is, just in case that changes things (although I can't imagine that it would, since the main problem is the structural one of the vow of obedience). Sr. Maria agreed with all that; as someone who's now in her sixties and took final vows when she was seventeen, she knows all about the problematic nature of promises to human hierarchies. She told me, "You're already doing the work. You don't need the title." And she compared my situation to the situation of the nuns themselves, who feel marginalized in the Roman church but who nonetheless faithfully do the work to which they've been called. (The sisters take a decidedly dim view of the current Vatican. People who think nuns are meek and demure must not know any.)

Sr. Maria was relieved to hear that I'm still preaching, since she thinks I'm good at it. And she was very interested in my continuing hospital work. When I told her about some of my interactions with unpopular homeless patients, and about having my priorities questioned by the medical staff, she said, "That's who you've always been. You've never been someone who wanted a decorous suburban ministry. You're called to reach out to outcasts."

The homeless-services complex in Reno is supposed to be opening a triage center that will address mental illness and substance abuse (at least, so they say -- but I hope it happens within my lifetime). I'd love to be a chaplain there, but this is one of the places where lack of ordination, or lack of CPE, could hinder me: I can be a chaplain at the hospital because I've had their training, but that only applies within those walls.

But the hospital's enough; it's not like I have time for much more, anyway.

Sr. Maria repeated one observation she's made before. When I first came to see her, at the very beginning of the ordination process, my life was calm and smooth, and it looked as if the journey would be an easy one. But then the problems started, and pretty much never stopped, which has to be some kind of sign.

Other people have said that, too. So we'll see if anything changes. But I think I've finally reached a place where I'd feel okay walking away from the formal recognition of what I'm already doing.


  1. Remember, Beloved, that the vocational question is not, "God, what do you want me to do?", but "God, what do you want me to do now?"

    The best advice I ever got about my ministry was to put the idea away - not to throw it away, but to put it on the shelf where I could look at it again as seemed appropriate. Listen for the Spirit, and trust your gut.

  2. Anonymous1:24 PM

    What Marshall said, and see Sr Maria more often.

    Prayers and best wishes for you on this narrow path.



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