All Those Who Wander Are Not Lost
Die to the world by renouncing the madness of its stir and bustle.
To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story,
the light side and the dark side.
In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am
and what God’s grace means.
True freedom consists in not being
attached to anything. It is in this detachment that
God seeks your soul in order to work His great marvels.
–Juan de Bonilla
After nearly eighteen years of serving our last congregation, Jeff felt like he was about to crack. He decided that we needed to get away for some time of quiet reflection and spiritual counsel. Thanks to the generosity of some dear friends we were able to go to a retreat center that is specifically designed to intervene with ministry couples in crisis, and they are legion! (We learned during that retreat that 1,500 Protestant pastors per month resign from ministry. The casualties of The Protestant Reformation fill history.) We couldn’t wait to get to the retreat. The journey into the Rocky Mountains couldn’t have been more appropriate. We felt much like the prophet Elijah fleeing to Mt. Horeb hoping to hear an answer for our deepening doubt. And we also needed to receive divine food to restore our failing spirits. Our prayer leading up to the retreat was for one thing–clarity. Our retreat was led by a godly couple that had served many years in an evangelical denomination. It was during that week-long retreat that included spiritual guidance and counseling, something gave way deep in Jeff’s person. There was a growing fissure in his spirit that he could no longer ignore. He became more willing to accept the lack of health in the evangelical Protestant position. Steps had to be taken. Neither of us knew what each of those steps was, but we knew in time God in his grace would make them apparent.
On a warm September day, we took a walk on a path that led into the woods that surrounded the retreat center. We were mostly silent, pondering the counseling session we had just finished with our counselors. As we walked it was as if God was whispering from the aspens that lined the path, “This is the way, walk in it, trust Me.” We climbed on top of a boulder to take in the beauty of God’s creation. We made decisions as we sat on that rock that day, decisions that would unfold in ways we could never imagine.
I made a quiet decision of my own one afternoon while meditating and praying at one of the several prayer stations that had been nestled here and there in the woods around the retreat center. The station was named “Grace” and a simple prayer rose up in me as I wept and grieved, “God of Grace, this does not belong to me it belongs to you.” Three things I began to pray for that day, two of which I share with you: I would abide with a quiet spirit alongside my husband and that Jeff’s eyes would be opened and his ears would hear what God desired to reveal to him. I remembered the words of Moses to the Israelites, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today…” Exodus 14:13. If I was to trust the grace of God, I was to be still and wait before Him.
The Land Between
Anyone looking at our lives from the outside during the events of the next few months after our decision to leave the Protestant ministry would describe our actions as drastic. In fact, some did! The spectators of our lives were befuddled and bemused. Seizing life in a rush and hurry to make something happen is considered a normal and commendable thing to do. Excessive busyness, control, and self-advancement are the coinage of the culture and, unfortunately, it can be the same in the church’s culture, too. To do life any other way is a curious thing indeed. We felt like curiosities. But we had a peace that passes all human understanding and an unshakable, yes even desperate belief that it was the hand of our loving Shepherd leading us down a path to only God knew where. Our resignation from the church we served dramatically changed our life circumstances and our financial position. We sold our home and moved into a small apartment near the hospital where Jeff secured an entry-level job in patient access. Our income decreased by 2/3rds and our peace of mind increased a hundredfold! We often remarked to others and to ourselves that “our exterior world has shrunk significantly, but our interior world has expanded exponentially.”
A line from a favorite song ran through our minds, “Meet me at the edge of the world…you and me love and no one near…walk me to the edge of the world..I’m waiting at the edge of the world.” For the most part, we walked to the edge of our world alone, and we really didn’t have anything left to lose. Our three children, all married with families of their own, lived in different parts of the country. As we took the deliberate steps away from what we had known for 34 years there was indeed some necessary isolation and waiting that we needed to embrace before we could turn toward the future.
Most people will not go forward until the pain of staying where they are is unbearable.
Don’t stumble on something behind you.
An immediate sense of freedom from the disillusionment that had barnacled onto our lives was liberating. We were exhausted emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Our souls cried out for attention and rest. The joy that had withered began to restore to life, we were often told there was a visual difference in both of us. We were now living where the margins of grace were wide and the goodness of God that we put our hope in filling our hearts and minds as we made room for quietness. The rest and peace of God returned. Peace had been pushed to the margins of our lives for so long as we tried to keep our heads above the tide of discontent, doubt, and despair. Now the waters of our life calmed as our struggle to remain where we had been ended.
But it was in the waiting, in the doldrums in God’s great ocean of grace, where God also had some work to do in both of our spirits and emotions. Some of the bewilderment over how life had unfolded was as easy to toss from our lives as weeds after a hard rain. On the other hand, there were roots of misunderstanding about ourselves that ran deep. Reconciling what life had come to was extremely difficult at times, we each had some spiritual climbing to do. We needed to unfetter ourselves from some internal enemies that we had dragged with us to the edge of our world. Now we were living the prelude of another transformation and the unknown that stretched before us challenged us to remain fearless. There were pitfalls and pratfalls along the way; however, the spiritual reading, prayer, fasting, and contemplation that had long been a part of the fabric of our lives became the rope that secured our lives in this new ascent of obedience. Though we were making this journey together, the struggles of the climb affected us in different ways.
God comes like the sun in the morning- when it is time.
We must assume an attitude of waiting, accepting the fact that we are creatures and not Creator. We must do this because it is not our right to do anything else; the initiative is God’s, not ours. We are able to initiate nothing; we are only able to accept. –Carlo Carretto
Because we do not rest we lose our way…Poisoned by the hypnotic belief that good things come only through unceasing determination and tireless effort, we can never truly rest. And for want of rest, our lives are in danger. –Wayne Muller
Lord Jesus, let me know myself and know Thee, And desire nothing save only Thee…Let me distrust myself and put my trust in Thee. Let me be willing to obey for the sake of Thee. Let me cling to nothing save only to Thee…Look upon me, that I may love Thee. –St. Augustine
I had some inner space to navigate in order to receive the grace of restoration that I needed in the place between what had been and what would be. My prayer from our retreat in the mountains, “God of Grace, this does not belong to me, it belongs to You,” became a mantra that enfolded and calmed me to the core as I stood by my man with a still and trusting heart. That in itself was a lesson that was taking me a lifetime to learn.
Many writers have paralleled the journey of faith with climbing a mountain. My own maturing as a Christian had sometimes meant that I ascended to Christ with some difficulty, my willful nature made for hard climbing lessons. Most of those lessons were not overly wearisome because deep within me I longed to live as a person of integrity. And when the ascent did become worrisome, the weather of adversity most often did not erode my faith, rather it increased my hope. I had been taught from an early age that we grow in holiness as we obey the Spirit’s leadership as we walk by faith; to trust was to obey and to obey was to trust.
I believe it was St. Thomas Aquinas who wrote that pride is disordered self-trust. It seemed to me that in every upheaval that had accompanied my eventual obedience there was a redemptive moment when I realized that disordered self-trust had me in its grip. If I was going to be transformed into the image of Christ through the circumstance, I had to loosen my grip on my pride. I had long fought this rearguard of delusion in my soul that grew out of the seeds of the insecurities surrounding my own mother’s chronic disease that shadowed my life. I could have never restored my mother’s health through my own efforts yet somehow in my emotional formation I came to believe that it was up to me to shield people from suffering. That delusion led to a prideful determination that I would protect anyone I loved from suffering. The great tests of my faith had always been through circumstances around what I held most dear in my life–my family. It was one thing to say, “Yes, I want to ascend the heights of grace, yes, I want to seek understanding by learning to trust.” It was quite another thing to say, “Yes, I will choose to allow my husband or child or loved one to suffer through circumstances while God teaches me to trust and I learn obedience.”
I read somewhere that suffering and death are the specters that brood and hover around the edges of fallen humanity. Sometimes they stand just outside the boundaries of living in the present moment, other times they possess us. The last 15 years or so of our pastoral ministry years had seemed possessed by personal and vocational suffering and death. Looking back now I see how our loving Father was allowing the losses in life to draw our spirits into deeper consideration of the journey into The Catholic Church. My daily journal entries expanded as I attempted to reconcile what was happening outside of me with what was happening inside of me. What I had begun to notice about myself was as my husband’s vocational suffering increased I, true to the delusion at work in me, allowed my pride to run interference for him. It was as if I believed I could shield him and protect him by carrying the burden of his own life up the incomprehensible ascent we seemed to be on. When I finally came to the place where I could pray with my whole heart, “God of Grace, this does not belong to me, it belongs to you,” on the mountain that day, I didn’t just loosen my grip on fear and pride about our immediate circumstance. I threw my hands wide open releasing years of disordered self-trust. The lightness of being that flowed over my spirit was liberating. My vision had finally cleared and what I saw about myself was not beautiful to behold. I had imperceptibly turned into a safety director for Jeff and our service in ministry. I realized that I had been doing a lot of the busyness of churchiness removed from sincere motivation or desire! The subconscious motivator was to make Jeff appear more valuable in the eyes of decision-makers and denominational leaders in a denomination I no longer had confidence in and a movement I had serious doubts about.
I had learned from reading St. Ignatius’ counsel on desolation and consolation that when the way becomes mired with confusion and frustration I need to seek discernment on where the feeling or circumstance was leading me. The doubt and despair, when offered up to God, could become moments of conversion and intimacy with God. We both desired conversion to the likeness of Christ more than anything else. Now as we were trying to find solid ground to stand on I was keenly aware that Jeff was grieving the loss of the identity he had in his vocation. My gut reaction was to make something happen to ease his own suffering, but I had finally realized that I was helpless to protect Jeff, nor was it my job! The consoling would only come through living with the desolating. The God of Grace that I put my hope in would act in spite of my efforts and in the end, I knew it was up to Jeff to offer up his own despair. I needed to remain still and put my trust in God. I soon learned that Jeff, true to his nature, was quietly making peace with the circuitous journey of his years in pastoral ministry. What appeared to me as his languid reckoning with our present circumstances in the land between nowhere and now here was in actuality another clarifying point of his own life’s conversion.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, a gentle Father and the God of all consolation, who comforts us in all our sorrows, so that we can offer others, in their sorrows, the consolation that we have received from God ourselves. Indeed, as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so, through Christ, does our consolation overflow. When we are made to suffer, it is for your consolation and salvation…And our hope for you is confident since we know that, sharing our sufferings, you will also share our consolations. –St. Paul to the Corinthians
In the midst of life’s gladness, the betrayal of others and our own infidelity at times force us by their pain to question whether there is anything or anyone worthy of trust or finally true in the world. –Catherine of Siena
The early days of living in the “land between” were filled with emotions that were bewildering. I (Jeff) often felt like I was treading water, caught in an unknown tide. Yet I knew in my gut that if I fought against whatever God was up to I would short shrift God’s purpose. A question dogged my thoughts, “Has my life come to this?” From my childhood, I had been an obedient and loyal person. I had learned well that loyalty is a fine strength and I pursued my calling into pastoral ministry with the same sense of loyalty. I did everything I was tasked with over the years in ministry thoroughly and obediently.
Jeff found that in the later years of ministry, his loyalty was constantly challenged by a series of dilemmas that caused him to seriously question in varying degrees what had happened to himself, me, and to our family. He had a gnawing realization that the more he had tried to retrofit his loyalty to please the people we served, the more misdirected he felt. Something now had to give way and that something was inside of him. Someone has said that it can take years before we discover how to fit into our own souls. We both agree. At least, for Jeff, it wasn’t until he allowed God to take the blinders off, through extreme circumstances, that he saw how ill in soul he was.
It was not until we stepped away from the ministry that he began to ascertain that his character strength of loyalty had been driven to its extreme and had become the very thing that threatened his emotional and spiritual health. The way he thought, the beliefs he once had, the people he admired, the things he had valued were all up for review. He had so convinced himself that what he was doing in his calling and service was enough for him yet he hungered for something more, he just had no idea where that hunger would be satisfied. There was some waiting, rethinking, and reassessing he knew had to be done. And the time had come for him to face the hard questions of life. The hardest one to answer was the one about himself, his loyalty, and his desire to please others.
We came across a gravestone of a fallen veteran one day on a walk through a cemetery. Its simple inscription echoed what Jeff had lived my life by, “Loyalty is my honor.” In many ways, he felt he had turned into dust because of that loyalty. Now, unlike the soldier, he had survived the skirmishes of battle and discovered that his loyalty had been misdirected. That was hard enough to admit. But the startling revelation was that had it not been for the previous twelve years of battles, he would never have given up fighting. And God knew it! The question for him then was, “If what I have worked so hard to remain loyal to was God’s way of leading me toward further conversion, then what is He turning me toward?” And what is conversion? It is allowing ourselves to be transformed. What he had believed about his call and his gifts were true, but now they had to be reordered. He determined to please God, and God alone. In leaving the Protestant movement he had not retreated from God’s call, he had outgrown where he had served Him in that call. That realization led to other questions that led him into uncharted waters and the current in those waters would eventually lead him to peace and joy. God had a chartered course that demanded his full attention. Now He had it!