I wasn’t sure why Martha and I were driving 800 miles to meet with a nun we’d never heard of. Our friend Rev. Lacy Harwell encouraged us to, so we went. Even he had no idea what would come from our visit with Sister Elaine Prevallet.
All he said about her was, “I’ve never met anyone with her gift of discernment.” He did add that he’d encouraged other friends to visit her too, especially those facing a serious crisis.
As you probably know by now, ours was serious. In 1997, three weeks after turning 50, my wife Martha was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
We met with Sister Elaine for about a week. But as our visit drew to a close, I was uncertain what we had accomplished. We had nice conversations with her. Martha and I spent good uninterrupted time together, unlike at home where we both led busy lives. We drove to a nearby monastery, Gethsemani, where we met a monk who took us under his wing, Martha especially. Sister Elaine suggested we look into meditation and explore the difference between “willfulness” and “willingness,” pointing us to a little book titled Will and Spirit by Gerald G. May, M.D. That was about it. Even though we didn’t think we’d done much, we both were more rested and less anxious as we took the slow way home.
But this question kept turning over in my mind: What’s our agenda now? What’s the plan?
Little did I realize then that Sister Elaine had pointed us to a path that for nearly two decades would unfold before us. It still does.
As I look back on this path, it certainly was not a clear, paved highway. Sometimes it was visible, other times not. It was filled with twists and turns, deep switchbacks, dark valleys, and shadowed cliffs. It also ran through open, sun-filled pastures and along foaming streams.
But no matter where Martha and I found ourselves along this path, a guide often emerged, particularly when we felt most alone.
I still don’t know how that happened. And frankly, I don’t care to know. I’m most grateful that these guides showed up.
Some of the guides emerged from my readings of spiritual books or the Bible; others were flesh-and-blood people we knew, or came to know. All touched our hearts and minds at the right place in the right time.
Occasionally, I felt like Kevin Costner in the Field of Dreams. He heard whispers in his mind: “Build it and he will come.” I heard whispers: “Now do you know you’re loved, Carlen?” Costner drove halfway across the country because of an inner urge to meet a perfect stranger, a famous embittered author played by James Earl Jones. I flew halfway around the world to visit a man I’d not met—the curmudgeonly Canon Jim Glennon. (More on that meeting here and here.)
Costner’s character wondered at times if he was going nuts. I did too. I was seeing and hearing things I’d never experienced.
I wasn’t used to doing life this way—so “accidentally.” I was the owner-entrepreneur of a small publishing business. I was used to developing a plan, executing that plan, and accomplishing it.
I was used to being in control, or at least thinking I was.
When I consider how I met Canon Glennon, I can describe it only as serendipitous. Two years after Martha’s diagnosis, she insisted—over my objection—that we go to her college class’s 30th reunion. There, we saw a mutual friend for the first time in three decades, Mary Zahl. She called me the next week to ask about Martha. After our conversation, she mailed me Canon Glennon’s book and tapes. Mary and her husband were friends with this Anglican minister from Australia. I read, I listened, and I read some more of his instruction. I asked Mary to introduce us. She did. And thus began our friendship by phone, fax, and mail. Three years later, after Martha suffered the first of several seizures, I flew to Sydney to meet Canon Glennon in person.
I can’t trace how I connected with all the guides we met. But here’s a quick rundown of a few connections:
- After we learned of Martha’s diagnosis, the one person we felt comfortable talking with was Lacy.
- Lacy, a Presbyterian minister, introduced us to Sister Elaine, a Catholic nun.
- Sister Elaine introduced us to Father Matthew Kelty at Gethsemani.
- Sister Elaine had introduced Lacy to meditation. Lacy introduced us to John Main, a Benedictine monk and preeminent teacher of Christian meditation.
- Our friend Mary, married to an Episcopal minister in Birmingham, introduced us to Canon Glennon, an Anglican minister from Australia, who introduced us to Don Jaeger, an Episcopal businessman in Winter Park, FL, who by all appearances was healed of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Canon Glennon also encouraged us to look to others intimate with the gift of spiritual healing.
All our guides, so divergent in their viewpoints, had at least one thing in common as far as I could tell: their views intersected through the life and teachings of the Christ we call Jesus.
As I encountered guide after diverse guide, Canon Glennon’s words kept ringing in my ear: “No one has a corner on the Father’s kingdom.”
In my forthcoming book A Path Revealed, I go into significant detail about the relationships Martha and I developed with guides like these, and what I learned and didn’t learn.
You too may have found someone you’ve learned to trust and listen to, who is a very present help in your deepest trouble. Do you care to share? If so, email me at Carlen@CarlenMaddux.com. Or you can follow me on Facebook or Twitter.
God bless you 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:
.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.