I've been thinking quite a lot these past few days about "spiritual formation" while I'm on retreat here at OSH (Order St. Helena) in the beautiful countryside of North Augusta, South Carolina.
"Spiritual Formation" was an important buzzword 40 years ago when I was first considering a vocation to the priesthood. I hear it today, from time to time, being spoken by folks on various Commissions on Ministry.
They say the words as if they really know what they're talking about. I know I thought I did, back when I was serving in that capacity.
Truth of it is, I have come to know that a "commission on ministry" is about as close to an oxymoron as "spiritual leadership".
I remember sitting at a "Visiting Day" at ANTS (Andover Newton Theological School) and being asked - repeatedly from other, more enthusiastic 'potential seminarians' - "So, when did you get THE CALL?"
"The Call?" Does that really happen? I mean, for real? I suppose it does, but it did not for me.
For me, it wasn't one wonderful "magic moment" like some sort of spiritual or religious orgasim other folks made it sound like; rather, it was several really uncomfortable moments that I remember as clearly as I remember the name of the woman how gave birth to me.
The background music to those events, which are like pictures cascading before my eyes, is a choir of monks and nuns chanting Psalm 139: 7-12
Yes, there were moments when reality hit me like a 2x4 in the back of the head, or tripped me up like an unseen rock in the hard ground and down I went, either right on my backside or face first in the dirt and dust.7 Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
Where could I go to escape your presence?
8 If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
If I went down to the grave,[a] you would be there too!
9 If I could fly on the wings of dawn,
stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean—
10 even there your hand would guide me;
even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
11 If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
the light will become night around me,”
12 even then the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
Nighttime would shine bright as day,
because darkness is the same as light to you!
I mean, it wasn't like I was in a financially lucrative job to begin with. Healthcare is only really financially lucrative for pharmaceutical and medical supply companies and some physicians in certain specialty areas.
It was the mid to late 70s. I couldn't even get a credit card on my own without having my (then) husband or father or brother co-sign for me (Yes, children, it's true!). Neither could I hold a mortgage on a home or property without a male co-signer. That wasn't just because the pay for women was (still is) so much less than men. It was simply because I am a woman.
So, why in heaven's name (in heaven's name, indeed!) would I seek to follow a vocation where I would end up tens of thousands of dollars in debt and be so poorly compensated that I would most certainly remain in debt for decades?
Ah, yes. That's right. The psalmist says, "Nighttime would shine bright as day, because darkness is the same as light to you."
But, there were other times which were more like gentle nudgings, a quiet awareness, a sudden, silent insight - some of which made me gasp, "Where could I go to get away from your spirit?"
One of the ways my discernment was affirmed and strengthened was whenever I stopped and considered those God sent to me, to shape and form my understanding of what it means to be priest, and deepen my awareness of the challenges of being a spiritual leader in community.
Let's stop here for just a moment and think about those words for a moment: Spiritual. Leader.
Steve Charleston, one of my mentors, used to do this exercise. He'd put the word "Spiritual" on the board and ask the group to free-associate. Up would come words like "prayer," and "serene," and "gentle," and "peaceful," and "contemplative," and "humble".
Then, he'd do the same thing with "Leader". Without hesitation, people would offer words like "strong," "decisive," "bold," "visionary," and "trailblazer"
You know what's coming next. Put the two words together and you get as classic an oxymoron as "jumbo shrimp," "the same difference" and "clearly confused".
It is, as John Snow wrote, an "impossible vocation" to be what Henri Nouwen called a "wounded healer".
See also: "Where could I go to escape your presence?"
Those who were part of my "spiritual formation" did so not so much as direct "lessons" taught as a professor to a student in a classroom.
Rather, they did so more by example - by modeling behavior, even though they weren't necessarily aware that that's exactly what they were doing.
Oh, yes, there were times when wisdom came in words. For example, the notion of "Divine Sandpaper" came to me from Sr. Cornelia, OSH, my spiritual director for over a decade. She said that there were people who were just flat out annoying, who "rubbed you the wrong way".
"When you find yourself in the presence of those individuals," she would say, "stop for a moment and consider that God may have sent that person to you for the exact purpose of rubbing you the wrong way."
"How else, " she would ask, "would your 'true grain" come forth? How else would you find your own sheen? "
I remember the time I told her that I was discerning a call to a monastic vocation - mind you, this was me with a spouse and six kids!
She immediately recognized it for what it was - just a touch of transference and more than a soupcon of s/hero-worship - and tried not to let a wry smile cross her face. It didn't work.
She sat forward in her chair, liften her left eyebrow and said, "Can you imagine living under the same roof with 15-20 other women, all of whom are in love with the same man?"
She studied my face for a response before she sat back in her chair and said, "Well, you're neurotic, all right, but not neurotic enough for that!"
Many - most - of them, like Sr. Cornelia, are gone from my sight. But, only my sight. They are with me, still. I hear them whisper to me the words or images of the lessons they taught me.
Those who were best at my spiritual formation were the gay men and African American men and women who died in the early days of the AIDS pandemic in Boston and Baltimore. I learned more from them about how to be a "spiritual leader" than anyone in seminary or in an official capacity of spiritual formation.
I remember them and call them all by name often, but especially yesterday, December 1st, the 29th Anniversary of World AIDS Day.
They are among the ancestors on whom I call when I need to live into the oxymoron of being a "spiritual leader".
I am grateful for them all, these ancestors, who are gone from my sight but with me still.
I am calling on them today, as the Super Moon rises, to set my feet on the path to further discernment and that imposible vocation of spiritual leadership as a wounded healer.
I do not know where they will lead me but I I know that wherever path I am on, they will be with me, walking as fellow pilgrims.
I share with them and with you the song from CoCo - the newest film from Disney/Pixar - about a little boy, his love of music, his search for his great, great grandfather, and his expperiences with Dia de Muertos, a multi-day Mexican holiday that focues on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died and help support their spiritual journey.
I am so deeply grateful for the Ancestors I have known.
Though I have to say goodbye
Don't let it make you cry
For even if I'm far away I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart
Though I have to travel far
Each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I'm with you the only way that I can be
Until you're in my arms again