Thea, I tread the untrodden path and wonder with worry where I'm headed. Then I remember that you are with me and I trust the journey, step by step by step. Teach me to be mindful in the present moment and to shed the bulk of future concerns. Amen.
If you've never had the experience of participating in a spiritual discernment committee, I invite you to consider it. After my fifth (and final) meeting with my discernment committee for priesthood yesterday evening, my committee confirmed that they heard my call to priesthood. And that's not even the extraordinary part. The extraordinary part is that, as I prayed yesterday before my meeting, I prayed for total surrender to God's will, and for the faithfulness not to run if that will was something my ego didn't like. My total surrender granted me total, deep, quieting peace. The extraordinary part is that, having let go of my attachment to the outcome of my discernment process, I happened to read (during evening prayer) the story in Matthew about the disciples who wanted to know why they couldn't heal the sick on their own when Jesus so easily could. Jesus told them it was because they lacked faith, and that if they had faith even the size of a mustard seed, mountains would move for them. And I realized at that moment that my mustard seed faith was what had moved the mountain of my ego in order to make a straight path for Spirit to enter and dwell deep within my heart. The extraordinary part is that, despite having a clear sense of call when I walked into the process, my sense of call widened and deepened and became more rooted as the dialogue went on.
The extraordinary part is that, especially in the final two meetings, as I listened to the challenging questions of my committee members, I perceived Spirit doing the asking. And as I offered my vulnerable, open-hearted answers, I perceived Spirit speaking through me. (It's fair to say that I've never experienced God's voice speaking to me so powerfully as I have in my discernment committee meetings, and for a Benedictine who hears God speaking to her through liturgy and scripture and encounters with others all the time, that's saying a lot.)
The extraordinary part is that, despite my Enneagram-three-personality-type's desire to manage a situation in such a way that the outcome is "positive," I was required to relinquish my ability to do that in order to speak plainly and truthfully. I was painfully aware that my deep honesty could at any moment result in the humiliation of my ego, and I spoke anyway. In that total risk of my ego, I realized it was not my ego that spoke, but Spirit.
When I walked out of my meeting last night, I had no idea what my committee members had heard. I didn't know what they would say. My three-ish ability to anticipate the outcome of the process failed me spectacularly. And I perceived in my failure the possibility of God's success--success in finding a way to make use of the quirky instrument that I am.
My committee is passing me on to the next steps of the discernment process, steps that will be challenging in their own ways. What my committee heard may not be confirmed by the next folks I encounter in the discernment process. But what happens next is not my concern.
The most important piece to emerge for me from this discernment process is the profound recognition that my heart--my whole heart--belongs to the one I call God. Whatever comes, I know that I will be faithful to the path God has prepared for me. I won't turn away. This is God's gig, and I am God's beautiful, imperfect instrument.
What song(s) will God choose to play through me for the uplifting, healing, and reconciling of her creation?
My Benedictine brother, Philip, made his solemn profession as a member of the Community of St. Mary of the Annunciation yesterday. In the card I gave him, I wrote this: My dear Brother Philip-Martín,
I wish you every blessing on this day of your solemn profession. The pall has been placed over you that you may be raised into new identity as a Benedictine Canon. May you always strive faithfully to uphold the Rule and the Gospel, and may you remember that in both your successes and your failures, God abides with you always.
Love and blessing, Sister Kate
The temptation of Benedictine life as I experience it is to believe that divine favor is greater when one does more--prays more, works more, gives more. But the remedy for that temptation abides within the Benedictine tradition as well. Even in death, when our will and power to act passes away, we are God's beloved. Br. Philip-Martín allowed the funeral pall to be placed over him as a sign that he had relinquished every power of his life, that God might accept his lowliness. Benedictines approach God by emptying themselves, that God might fill them. A Benedictine's success in praying, working, or giving isn't her own--it is God's. When my novitiate comes to an end, will I be ready to give my life over, to release my every power, to lay myself bare before God in a death of all that I can do and accomplish and be on my own? Will I trust, in that moment of utter powerlessness to please God, that I will be called forth to rise up again as God's Beloved?
For weeks, I've let it get under my skin. Several weeks ago I was invited to give a homily (i.e. a sermon/reflection) for Lent III, which is next Sunday. As of yesterday I hadn't yet been able to write one word of it. Think of it as a bad case of writer's block, except it only applied in this one case. I've written a dozen blog posts since Ash Wednesday alone, so it's not as though I didn't have a command of words elsewhere. The lessons for Lent III are richly evocative, so that wasn't it, either. When I'm about to do a new thing, especially a thing that's bound to make a tremendous impression on people, anything short of excellence and complete satisfaction on my part will send me fleeing in the other direction. And even though I've written and given a number of homilies in the past, I've never stood up as "The Preacher" for Sunday liturgy. It's a new thing, and it scares me. The other day I talked about how I spend one or two hours writing per day--and that's on the ample side. Yesterday I gave this homily no fewer than five hours of feverish attention. Why? A lot hangs on this, in my mind. It's a classic case of first-impression-making. If I do well, the parish as a whole gains not only a thoughtful homily, but a set of implicit expectations about who I might be and what I might do at the service of the parish in the future. If I don't do well, the parish will wish they had heard the vicar instead, and--more importantly--the leadership might see my future and vocational path in a different light. Giving this homily is about so much more than giving a homily. It's a moment in which I'll have an opportunity to prove wrong every single person who ever told/taught me that women in general--and I in particular--weren't meant (or designed!) to be pastoral leaders (and Jesus said so, forever and ever, and let the church say "Amen"). That's a lot of disvaluing to overcome in ten minutes. For the record, neither the vicar nor anyone else has said to me that my vocation is at stake in this homily--they have been generous in trusting that I will do well (I wouldn't have been asked otherwise). I trust that they trust me. Nevertheless, I can't help feeling that my vocation and the integrity and valuing of women on the whole are wrapped up in this small opportunity I have to stand up before a hundred people and speak with authority. Patriarchy and Hegemony are powerful demons in the Christian tradition, and every battle waged against them matters. My homily is ready. May I speak this Sunday with the authority of the one I call Lord, that they may be powerfully silenced in my presence.
In my almost thirty-two years as a Roman Catholic, I have never been prouder of any pope. Granted, I've only encountered three in my lifetime, but I am also a student of Christian history. You stand out among your predecessors.
You have rocked the entire world with your embodied proclamations of the good news. You kiss the wounds of the sick. You share tables with those who have neither tables of their own nor food to put on them. You warn your clergy again and again against the glamour of clericalism. Your love is abundant, like Christ's was and is, and I have seen it have a multiplying effect, even (perhaps especially) among non-Roman Catholics.
I am tremendously grateful to God for your faithful, living witness to the teachings of Jesus. Your heart is wide open, and I feel quite certain that if I happened to walk into your midst, you would smile and greet me with the warmth of an old friend, and I would greet you likewise.
I need to confess something to you. On February 16, 2014, God willing, I will leave my cloak of Roman Catholic identity behind in order to be received as a member of the Episcopal Church.
Despite having spent my entire life as a devoted (albeit flawed) Roman Catholic, I cannot remain Roman Catholic any longer. Because despite the gospel of Jesus you now proclaim miraculously through your very body, and despite the many ways in which I encounter Christ's presence through your holy example, I'm afraid there is at least one way in which you, like most if not all of your predecessors, have failed to hear the voice of God and heed it: in the calling of thousands upon thousands of women around the world to ordained ministry.
I was able to name my own God-given call to ordained ministry thirteen years ago. I was still a teenager then. I am close with several Roman Catholic women who share the same call. Yet you, like your papal predecessors, have dismissed even the possibility that women might be called to ordained ministry.
I don't understand this hardness of heart. Not from you.
What I do understand is how hard it can be to hear God's earnest whispers when so much of one's culture screams against it. My favorite psalm is Psalm 51, because it is a perpetual invitation to be changed, transformed, turned around:
Create in me a clean heart, o God. ... Then will I teach transgressors Thy ways and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.
I suspect this psalm is as dear to you as it is to me. Please, then, let God's whispers reach your ear through my meager words: God calls some women to serve as ordained ministers. That the Roman Catholic hierarchy refuses to acknowledge this (or even to discuss it) is gravely sinful. It is presumptuous to deny God's calling to those whom God has chosen.
Please, for God's sake, don't allow whatever is lacking in me cause you to be deaf to what God is speaking to you through me in this moment. If anyone with the authority to effect gospel change in the Roman Catholic Church can hear this prophetic word, I believe you can.
Please, open your heart and listen for the sake of my daughters, who will grow up in the midst of your legacy even if they never set foot in a Roman Catholic church.
Please, listen. Listen because you know better than almost anyone that God speaks prophetically through those who are marginalized, women included.
Please, I beg you from the bottom of my heart, listen--allow yourself to be importuned by me, just like the judge was importuned by the widow, or like Jesus was importuned by the woman begging for scraps. You and I both know what happened in those latter two instances. If Jesus' mind could be changed, surely yours can.
I believe that the world-wide turning of hearts to God, if you listened in this one way and acted accordingly, would be a miracle of biblical proportion.
With blessings and love in the One who creates, redeems, and sanctifies all the world,
M. Kate Allen
This letter originally appeared at parentwin.com, where I am a regular contributor on topics of religion. The letter went viral among my Facebook friends and received more discussion and shares there than anything else I've every written, anywhere. A friend of mine encouraged me to mail it to Pope Francis. I did. If he responds, I will share his response here. (Unless he asks me not to.)
I met with my new spiritual director for the first time about a week ago, and now I feel like my new spiritual dwelling has all. It's one thing to journey forth in a community; it's another to have a holy listener dedicated to hearing your story and helping you recognize divine whispers in it. Choosing a spiritual director who's a good fit isn't a simple endeavor--not all spiritual directors are good for all people. Part of discerning who might be a good fit is figuring out whether the spiritual director you meet with is the sort of person you can imagine yourself either wanting to be or called to be in some respect. My spiritual director is a female Episcopal deacon, and I have long felt called to ordained life as a female, even though my own female identity has prevented me from pursuing ordained life for my entire life as a Roman Catholic. Meeting with someone who shares (or who can adapt to) your communication style helps as well. If you're forthright and want to hash things out in an objective way while your spiritual director is highly sentimental, you may feel as though you're talking past your director. Compatible communication styles help bring forth the substance of the conversation rather than serving as a barrier to it. That being said, meeting with someone who isn't exactly like you can sometimes be the most helpful thing of all--someone who is older (or younger), someone who's from a different faith or spiritual tradition, or someone who has had major life experiences that differ from your own may be able to lend a fresh perspective to your context. For me, the most important aspect of a spiritual director is always my gut feeling about that person: Is this someone I trust? Faith and trust are of the same root, and one can hardly develop one's faith with another if one doesn't deeply trust that other from the very beginning.
My spiritual director shared a poem with me that I had never heard before as we began our first conversation together, and it seems to me to be a perfect encapsulation of what one experiences when one is ready for a spiritual director.
In out of the way places of the heart Where your thoughts never think to wander This beginning has been quietly forming Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire Feeling the emptiness grow inside you Noticing how you willed yourself on Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety And the grey promises that sameness whispered Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled, And out you stepped onto new ground, Your eyes young again with energy and dream A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not clear You can trust the promise of this opening; Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning That is one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk Soon you will be home in a new rhythm For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
-John O'Donohue, "For a New Beginning"
A spiritual director, or spiritual companion, is someone who bears witness to what is stretching and unfolding in the midst of your life and heart. A spiritual director is someone who walks with you, not to guide you, but to help you name how God/dess is guiding you.