A spiritual path can be an elusive thing.
Our family’s path is unlike what I often hear or read: “I’m on this amazing journey.” “This is such an incredible path.” “Life is about enjoying the journey.” For me, such expressions border on the trite, making the words “path” and “journey” all but meaningless.
Our path was lonely and hard on occasion as each of us—my wife Martha, our three children, and me—faced what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles in dealing with the fallout from Alzheimer’s.
In fact, things got so difficult at certain points that I was uncertain whether I could continue.
What I am certain of today, though, is this: Our family would be diminished—if not decimated—had this path not opened before us.
Yet this is more than a path of survival. It continues to transform my view of the richness of God’s healing love, and to transform how I see myself and all of us, including you, as God’s own.
Curiously, it was not until three years ago, after dusting off my journal, that I realized Martha and I had been on this path all along. I certainly wasn’t looking for one in the beginning, at the time of Martha’s diagnosis. I knew that over the years we’d encountered much that was bad and much that was good. And I knew we had drawn on a handful of folks—some friends and others strangers who became friends—to help us through our difficulties.
But I hadn’t seen how these encounters were connected until I read back over my journal. I was surprised by the patterns that emerged. I was surprised to see how one event led to another, starting with our Presbyterian minister friend, who introduced us to his Catholic nun friend in Kentucky. I discussed the development of these relationships and their results in these posts here and here, so I won’t bore you with my redundancy.
A year or so ago, as I reflected on the sharp turns and twists over the past couple of decades, my mind flashed back to our early visit with Father Matthew Kelty in Kentucky.
When Martha and I told him good-bye, it was mid-afternoon on a beautiful autumn day in 1997. So we decided to check out some woods that are part of the 2,000 acres that Gethsemani sits on. High on a hill to the left of the woods stood a large white cross, its massive arms opened wide. A welcome sign maybe, I remember thinking as we passed by. Maybe inviting us or anyone else who feels abandoned?
At the edge of the woods, Martha and I saw a path and took it. There was nothing unique about this dirt path as it curled up a rather steep hillside. Yet what was different was Martha—she was bouncing along the path with a confidence I thought I’d never see again. At times she led, other times she fell back to stop and inspect a rock or a wild flower. And with every sun-speckled step the autumn leaves seemed brighter than usual, while the rocks and roots and wood ferns expressed a quiet joy that I’d not experienced on a walk before or since.
Not until I was wrapping up my book’s manuscript did the meaning of that walk through Gethsemani’s woods come clear to me. In so many ways, I now see, it foreshadowed what was to come.
Since that walk, our family has stepped over jutting rocks and tangled roots and moved through a wooded darkness speckled with light. We also stumbled onto sunlit clearings and paused at the wonder of it all, lingering with delight before turning back to the path set before us. This path indeed was maddening and frustrating, disheartening even.
Yet somehow this walk, our walk, had been transformed into a sacred walk over a sacred path, pointing our way toward a Presence far greater and more real than any loss we experienced.
As I reflect on how this path unfolded before us, the following thoughts come to mind. You may find some of these to be of value as well:
- First, this statement by Archbishop Desmond Tutu stands among the most enduring I’ve encountered: “In a life of wholeness we may face brokenness and endure woundedness, but our suffering will not be meaningless. Meaningless suffering is soul-destroying.” (Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference).
- Don’t try to figure out if you and your loved ones are on a spiritual path. And don’t try to understand the meaning of what you’re going through. All that’s required is to step forward and to be as attentive as you can. If you do that, meaning and understanding will arise in their own time and way. In my case, I didn’t see the path nor fathom its meaning until years later.
- Don’t focus on the obstacles and problems along the way. Learn to focus on Christ Jesus himself—beckoning, calling, pushing, pulling, pointing. This is a hard lesson that I continue to learn, learn, and re-learn.
- The path is not the object. God is. God is both the movement and the manifestation of healing. Christ Jesus is my guide along this way.
- This path is not a plan with a set of goals and objectives. There’s no way to determine the next move in advance. It requires a trust in a deep, warm Wisdom, especially when the voice you hear within, or the image you see, seems to defy common sense.
- This path serves as a transforming agent. It reshapes and redefines who I am and where I’m heading. I finally see, after nearly two decades, that our path continues to be about the search for healing and meaning.
- To discern hints and whispers along the way requires time and space outside my normal environment—time to express anguish and time to be restored. See my monastery post. It also requires space for quiet reflection. See my journal post.
- You may be traveling, as we did, through uncharted territory. It’s good to have one or more trusted confidants. For me it was vital. Mine were Rev. Lacy Harwell, the Presbyterian minister in St. Petersburg, and Canon Jim Glennon, the Anglican minister in Sydney, Australia.
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