Two weeks ago E. and I sat in a bustling Seattle Restaurant eating chips and salsa, savoring roasted beet tacos and holy conversation. Fitting that we broke bread, or rather tortillas together. Our friendship began in a dining room when we were both pilgrims in a two-year Academy for Spiritual Formation in California. At least once during each of the eight weeks we spent in residence there, E. and I would sit at a table talking long after the meal was over, engaged in earnest existential conversation.
There was something about the way E. leaned in to listen, her curiosity, the way she smiled and offered affirmation without interrupting or judging or giving advice, the way she called me “sister,” and said my writing moved her that made my soul leap. During those long lunches and dinners I spoke my heart about my church, serving as pastor, and about my family, how I sensed God’s call, and the struggles I faced as I learned the limits of my ability to care for my family and congregation.
I hadn’t seen her in five years, although we’d read each other’s blogs and Facebook posts and exchanged a few emails after the Academy ended. I knew from her blog that she was discovering her vocation for the next part of her life, and she knew I had moved to the Pacific Northwest, just across the Sound from her home in Seattle. It was a joy to walk into the restaurant, see her radiant smile, hug her and whoop, “I’m here!” To laugh, eat and converse in person. To convey what the Internet cannot. “Are you as happy as you seem?” she asked. Without pausing I answered, “Yes!” My happiness still surprises me. I used to think it was an equation––If I did A+B X C divide by D, then I’d= happy, and the parts of the equation always involved doing what I thought other people expected of me. Guarantee someone else’s happiness and then I could relax and be happy.
I told E. I’m beginning to understand at a soul level that happiness isn’t generated by any particular life circumstances––for myself or others I love––that it’s coming from trusting God/the Universe/the Higher Power and entrusting others to that power which was never mine to control. I’m learning to let go of my agenda and to look forward to––instead of cowering at––how life unfolds. It’s exhilarating with a tinge of scary, like learning inward one and a half somersaults from the three-meter diving board. There was real potential to hit the board or splat on the water, but with each “failure” came the opportunity to try again.
E.’s path has recently led her to seminary, discerning a call as a spiritual director or chaplain to the incarcerated and their families. She told me about conversations with people who suggest she keep her professional license just in case, something to fall back on, and the clarity she has that architecture, meaningful as it was in the past, is not part of her future. Her experience resonates with mine. Some well-meaning folk worried about my husband and me, and our decisions, which from the outside seemed reckless, lacking a backup plan. From the inside however, committing to the nudge and leading of the unknown means trusting it, means giving it our full attention and intention. Keeping contingency plans alive takes vital energy away from moving forward; it allows fear, doubt, and the past to maintain too strong a foothold.
Faith in the future doesn’t guarantee instant or easy success. E. spoke about a subject she feels gifted and called toward, and how her skills lagged far behind the strength of her desire. She didn’t want to drop her class, but was frustrated, wanting to learn the tools she needs to live into her gifts. I understand her struggle. My first two quarters in grad school, I produced only one piece of writing my faculty mentor deemed finished. I called it my $8,000 essay. I had to live in that painful place learning to fail and learning from my failure to inch toward the place I longed to be. I’ve made progress and I’ve accepted that I may never completely arrive.
Our lives are a long apprenticeship as we live into the fullness of who we were created to be. At times the work is lonely and we border on despair. At other times, we dip chips into salsa in a noisy dining room, celebrating with a fellow pilgrim the gift of the journey and a listening ear along the way.