“We’re all on a journey.” You’ve heard that expression, I’m sure. I never gave it much thought, though. It was for me a bland cliché without bite or taste.
That is, until my wife and I hit the wall with her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in 1997. But even then I didn’t recognize that we were on some kind of “path.” All we wanted was to wake up from this nightmare and be told it wasn’t true. I didn’t want to know that we were “on a journey.”
After our devastating news, the first person we called was our friend and mentor Rev. Lacy Harwell. He listened with intense empathy. I wasn’t sure how he could help us, but I was willing to try anything. The upshot was that Lacy encouraged us to visit his friend Sister Elaine in Kentucky. “I’ve never met another person with Elaine’s gift of discernment,” he told us. “I’m not sure where your visit might lead, but it would be worth your time and effort.”
“What’s that going to do?” I wondered to myself. But Lacy was a good enough friend that we decided to give it a try. So a couple of weeks later Martha and I drove out of St. Petersburg to visit this Catholic nun we’d never heard of. It was about 800 miles to the Sisters of Loretto motherhouse, an hour or so south of Louisville.
As described in my forthcoming book A Path Revealed, Martha and I spent the week there, talking with Sister Elaine, walking around the grounds, sitting by the pond, and crying. Sister Elaine was quiet, dignified, full of wit and insight. However, when it was time for us to leave, I still wasn’t sure why we had come. She suggested we check out meditation and alternative medicines. But the main memory I have is her suggesting that we explore the difference between willfulness and willingness. Neither Martha nor I understood what she meant.
Yet as I reflect back on that visit long ago, I now see that these attitudes of willfulness and willingness were the defining boundaries of the path that unfolded from our visit. I bounced between those two rails countless times as I explored meditation and spiritual healing; flew to Australia and back; spent a week alone in Thomas Merton’s cabin; spent weekends in a nearby monastery; slowed down to appreciate Martha and our children; and wrote in my journal things I’d never realized about myself.
All good stuff—yet all hard stuff.
I discovered soon enough that this spiritual path was not a stroll in the woods. It demanded much from me: to forgive those who’d wronged me years before; to resolve lifelong issues with my father; to let go the bitterness I felt toward Martha’s parents; to step into Martha’s altered mindset; and to learn deep in my bones—finally, after a lifetime—that I am God’s beloved, as you are God’s beloved.
Maybe you too have discovered what it’s like to be on an authentic spiritual path. You’ll understand then what Anne Lamott meant when she quoted E.L. Doctorow on writing: "It's like driving at night with the headlights on. You can only see a little aways ahead of you, but you can make the whole journey that way."
And as you make your journey, I bid you as Anne Lamott would: God bless you real good.
I am offering a free guide, "How Can My Crisis Be Turned Into A Spiritual Journey Filled With Meaning?" which shares my experience in learning how to negotiate such a trek. To receive it, and sign up for my weekly newsletter, please fill out this form:
P.S. In closing, I remind you that I’m neither a licensed psychologist/psychiatrist nor an ordained minister. What I’m sharing in this post and others is drawn from nearly two decades of experience wrestling with the consequences of Alzheimer’s disease on our family. Each person’s odyssey is unique. As you travel your own path and encounter serious obstacles—be they mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual—I strongly encourage you to start an ongoing conversation with a trusted counselor, guide, pastor, or doctor.