Mary and the Franciscan Renewal Center—
In the mid-90s my life seemed to be spiraling out of control. I was at the top of my game; I was asked to lead the operational life of the College in a time of great risk; I was emotionally on edge and physically not well. The job was demanding but not impossible, but my health complicated my ability to sustain its demands.
The deeper struggles were spiritual. I was out of sorts and my journey with God had grown cold in face of the challenges of my life—it seemed to me that God was on sabbatical. (Yes, I know, and knew then, God doesn’t do that; but it is one way to characterize my state of being. It is how it felt.) But, like so many of us, I chose to address a deeper spiritual problem by ignoring it and pretending it was something else. So off to the medical doctor. I spent a great deal of time at Kaiser with a Dr. Kono who was a very good and caring doctor—he took me seriously and resolved to find out what was wrong and fix it. Just the kind of doctor we all want. His methods were exhaustive and exhausting. I’m fairly confident that all orifices of my body were probed, every piece of equipment available to him was used, and every possible kind of test was administered. (He did find an insufficiency of thyroid and did correct that.)
The wake up call began about the third of my on going weekly visits when the good doctor asked me a set of questions; he asked the same questions again the next visit; then, the next. I admit I am slow on the uptake and finally asked why these same questions week after week? His initial response was “hospital protocol.” “Protocol?” “Yes.” “Protocol for what and why now?” Here’s the alarum bell: “Protocol for persons who might be suicidal.”
I don’t think I was; I think I’m too much of a coward. But it was a very loud alarm. What to do? Clearly I needed help; where was I to go? I needed someone and I was pretty clear that it needed to be someone who did not know me, know about me—and did not know the Church of God or Warner Pacific College. I won’t go into all of that except to say that I had a fairly profound sense that if I were clinically depressed—and I’m pretty sure I was—that some (or a great deal) of the cause of that was tied up in all of above.
I remembered a colleague in chapel at WPC talking about his own journey with spiritual direction; I thought my problem was spiritual—or at least had deep spiritual roots. I had some limited—and as it turned out narrow—understanding of direction. It fit my sense of what I didn’t want and had the lure of something new. So I called and asked to speak to the spiritual director at the Franciscan Renewal Center, in the West Hills of Portland, near Lewis and Clark College.
One of the most important phone calls I have ever made. It saved me.
As a result of that call, I met Sister Mary Smith, a diminutive, tough, feisty, and lovely “Clare”—a Franciscan sister. Mary was a trained and gifted director. I wrote a poem about her that hints at who she was to me:
she walks within a light
from within, without;
inviting others to the Light
and their light
from within, without.
a gentle light, soft, hinted at
playful light, daring across and
she treads lightly along
the darkling paths—
a companion of seekers and
journeyers lost among mazes
of their own construction,
hidden from others
hidden from self,
and provides a threaded way
out of worn and weary
like another Mary she
opens wide a heart light to
the mysterious God whose
darkness is light
births new life
where sterility and formless
chaos holds sway:
let it be
according to your word.
For nearly a year and a half, I met with Mary in her cozy, private, relaxing, incensed space with a view of hydrangea and trees and grass. It was a holy space. She asked me what I hoped for; I told her about the genuine, loving little boy I was before the “prison house” of my own egotisticdefensiveintentionalharmful choices closed about me. I told her about the boy who knew no strangers but who chose to become an alien. I told her about the boy who, for all kinds of reasons, grew into an adolescent who never felt he belonged anywhere and, upon reflection, never had anyone around to help him find his own way. The boy who chose the wrong path to individuation and, now, ironically, felt trapped in every other person’s expectations. I said, I want to get back to that boy. The journey took a long time. Honestly, it is still not over—I still struggle with the who am I question and still seek recognition and reward in unhealthy ways.
But, I am no longer determined by those desires. I know what they are and can name them, call them out, and dismiss them (well, usually, dismiss them). Mary’s tender loving companionship, her “simple” questions—and her willingness to simply let me sit and cry, sometimes she just held me as I sobbed unable to put feelings into any other kind of “words.”
Few days go by that I do not remember Mary, think of her fondly, miss the visits, and pray for her. I do not know where she is, but wherever--and I do mean wherever--she is changing life for the better.