Resisting the Invitation
The first Thursday of every month, I drive to the Mercy Center, a convent-cum-retreat house, and spend the evening learning how to listen to someone else talking about God. Over the course of a year I’ve participated in dyads and triads and group discussions, sung snatches of hymns, and offered up various pithy thoughts for the workshop presenter to write down on large sheets of paper with a colored marker. As I get to know the other members of the group, I decide I like the lesbian minister the best; she’s about my age, we both have two kids, and she’s assertive and opinionated, like me. The rest are a mix of older, quiet, churchy women and men, including a gay therapist who speaks openly about his cozy relationship with Our Lady, which causes me great envy, and a woman who works in “corporate” and has cancer. She’s the funniest, offering mildly caustic comments about the spiritual process, much to my delight.
I’m an intern in a three-year, Christian-based training program to become a spiritual director. Some forward thinking nuns run the program. We all had to submit a detailed application to get in; though sometimes I wonder what criteria they really used to weed us out. With one or two exceptions, we are uniformly white, middle to older aged, middle to upper middle class. Most are already directly involved in church ministry or affiliated somehow, along with two therapists, a retired teacher, and me, a pastoral hopeful.
Spiritual direction will be to the 2000s what the Recovery Movement was to the ’80s, I told my skeptical friends. Along with learning practical information about the history, theory and practice of spiritual direction in the Christian tradition, we are supposed to be discerning whether we are called to the work of acting as a companion for someone on their spiritual journey. This function has historically been nun or priest or pastor territory, but lately us lay folks have grown interested in the work, though it’s not a way to make a living, by any means. You can tell, because no one talks about money, or advertising, or malpractice insurance.
I would have gone to seminary in another life, but I married an alcoholic (which ate up 13 years) and had two children instead. Now, at 41 and in a new, sane marriage, this program seems like a reasonable substitute. If I could just get past my own reactions any time we are asked to draw closer to God.
The monthly topics vary, from adult development (boring, really) to sexuality and God. I do my share of talking (more, actually), always the good student, taking notes, engaged in the learning process, until we leave the material behind and venture out into the mystic.
As soon as Sister Dolores says the word “ritual”, I know there will be trouble. Up until that point in the evening, I’d been having a good, well, an ok time. The talk before dinner had been one-directional, no interaction required of us, the two leaders and the interns comfortably sitting in a circle, facing a small table in the middle of the room that holds unlit candles and a glass bowl of water, gardenias floating gently about inside. Then dinner with some lasagna-polenta type thing and chocolate chip cookies for dessert. “These nuns know how to eat,” I whisper to the woman sitting on my left.
After dinner, we return to the meeting room, ready to take on any interactive exercise they care to throw our way. Nearing the end of our first year as interns in the spiritual direction program, we are used to revealing our deep thoughts, our spiritual experiences, in groups of three or four. We are practicing the art of holy listening, which is a lot like any other kind of listening really, only more so. Then Sister Dolores suggests we close our eyes and sing a chant it’s assumed we all know. I don’t but I can fake it pretty good. Next we are asked to meditate while a few people take turns reading out loud some short reflections on different aspects of the program. I’m the only one in a circle of 25 people with my eyes open. I scan the room, look at the flowers and the now-lit candles, listening to the well-written passages.
I don’t fall into trance-like states when someone reads out loud. Guided meditations, poetry readings, sermons, I approach them all with an analytical and focused mind, listening to the words, the use of language, staying firmly in the present. Besides, I don’t relax in groups. Then Sister suggests we “approach the water” and share some word or phrase that best expresses what has arisen in us, what emotion or feeling, during the meditation and singing. “Oh Shit”, I say to myself.
What arises in me is a sudden surging through the barrier reef of my social self, a feeling of despondency, grief and rebelliousness, of wanting to say, “to hell with all of it!” and light up a cigarette, to chug on a beer, and say the word “Fuck” really loud.
Yet I’m in this room, I’m in this program, where I’m supposed to be discerning if I’m “called” to be a spiritual director. People are standing up one by one, dipping their hands in this bowl of water, saying pleasant things like “God is here with us” and “Compassion moves through my soul as God calls to me” and such, and I’m listening to myself silently swearing, my heart’s pounding, my face is getting hot, and my turn to stand up and do something with the water is close, its almost my turn, it is my turn, I sit in my chair, I know I won’t be able to speak, can’t someone bail me out of this, should I just sit here damn it, then I get up, I walk to the stupid bowl of water, I gasp out, through my tears, “I feel deep grief.” Then I sit down and wipe my face with my sweater.
I really hate this stuff. No one else is crying, no one else even looks shook up. I’ve cried at every ritual since the program began. I can’t shut it off, can’t stay in my adult, social persona, and I wonder what I’m doing in a program where everyone seems very balanced and suffused with God’s grace, and I’m getting more and more messed up as the months go on. I feel different from the others, more extreme in my responses. But to pretend otherwise seems impossible, and my only other choice is to quit the program altogether.
My understanding of Christianity is that it demands that we pay attention to other people, that we love them, live in community with them. I don’t do well in communities. I sabotage my own attempts to fit in. When I was eighteen, I traveled with a madrigal choir group to Europe. On the last day of the tour, at the last concert in Chartres Cathedral, I pleaded a sore throat and spent the concert in the pews, not singing. I excluded myself. When I was an active member of a 12-Step program, I would regularly leave the meeting before the closing prayer, missing out on the handholding, the chatting afterward, and invitations to go for coffee. I skipped my college graduation, cut the last day of a favorite class, bailed on the senior prom. I reenact what I perceive to be my role in life, over and over — that of the outsider, looking in at the party from outside, nose pressed up against the glass, maneuvering my own exclusion. So when I feel excluded by God, I’m right at home. I invite Christ into my heart; he declines the invitation.
In the spiritual direction program, we practice looking for signs of God’s presence in our life. In my life, I tell myself, God is on a long sea voyage, and I’m left standing on the dock, waving forlornly. Then, I feel so pathetic it finally makes me scoff at myself, “Oh grow up!” So who is rejecting whom? Am I rejecting God or is God rejecting me?
So when I find myself in a room full of kindly and gently people, using words like “luminous” and describing their delicate and symbiotic relationship with the holy, I feel compelled and repelled, wanting to walk the same quiet hallways, and yet ready to bust out a window and escape. I look around the room at those moments, comforted by the presence of the caustic corporate woman, the lesbian minister, the man in love with Our Lady. I hope they stick around. I hope I do, too.