The first time I saw Carole, she was sitting relaxed on a lobby sofa, looking slightly hippy-ish in a blonde kind of way. She reminded me of our country’s hippy years when women had long straight hair, sometimes ironed on an ironing board. They wore all things denim and loose floral skirts. Pierced earrings dangled from their ear lobes. The earrings are immensely popular still, but women today flatten their long hair with an electric straightener, getting rid of every glorious curl and natural wave, taking on a different persona. This heated, too straight trendy hair doesn’t look great on every woman, but we girls do like to try a new fashion. Carole was a natural beauty in every way. Simple. Classic. Hippy was far from the gracious woman I was about to cherish.
I picked her name from a list a friend had written for me. There wasn’t a name I recognized, but I had to make a selection so I chose the first one. I was starting a three-year training at a nearby Franciscan Center that required every student to meet monthly with a spiritual director. We understood that the first appointment was for seeing if we and the spiritual director were well-matched for this new journey. Some met as many as three times before making that decision.
My first meeting with Carole was in her church lobby. She was recovering from breast cancer. I was unsure of what I had said “yes” to. I certainly wasn’t expecting that eleven years later I would be celebrating her life at a memorial gathering this week. Carole had such a profound impact on my life. In only a hundred or so hours, she enriched my life perspective and validated my faith so greatly that I entered a somewhat contemplative faith. Contentment was an unexpected result, an added blessing.
There are many explanations for what spiritual direction is about. Class text books told me that. If you search online you could read about it for hours. For now, I’ll simply say spiritual direction is a sacred relationship with someone who prayerfully listens to your life to help you discover how God is moving, even when God seems absent. It’s a reflective process, whether you’re falling apart or feeling whole, whether life is in mundane or spectacular mode. Deepening one’s relationship with God through prayer is one of its goals. It’s quite different from counseling and therapy in that one’s life story is listened to with a discerning ear for movement of the Holy in the everydayness of life. The relationship is not the same for everyone, but it does follow a church tradition that began centuries ago.
Carole and I met nearly every month for an hour, switching eventually to meeting in her beautiful, peaceful home. Left of her double front door is an immense monastery bell that indicates a personal choice she made on her spiritual journey. The house doorbell itself is the kind of chime that tells you a warm and welcoming person is about to open the door with a smile of delight that you’ve come. Her attractively decorated home revealed that she had a thriving family life. I always arrived as a client, not a family friend. In eleven years I only saw her husband twice.
I spoke about my ordinary and sometimes challenging life, my God queries and joys, the ebb and flow of my family life, responses to the training I was receiving. Carole listened attentively, as if there was nothing more important to do each time we met. Occasionally she asked evocative questions. “Can you say more about that?” “When you pray about that, what’s it like?” “What do you see on Jesus’ face?” “Can you sit with that for a while and listen for what God wants to say?” Never a solution. Sometimes a suggestion. Rarely speaking about her own journey. She offered only a sacred listening that helped me discover God’s presence and calling in and through my life. When is the last time you felt listened to that considerately?
Early in my sessions with Carole, the Holy Spirit revealed that the teacher and servant leader in me was going to be deepened and re-formed. He also invited me to surrender grave clothes I didn’t know I was wearing. Into the deep we went. Month after month. However the Spirit was leading, I was stirred every time by this profoundly spiritual woman’s invitation to be an imitator of Christ, to watch how He loved and to do likewise. She taught me to observe biblical scenes from a contemplative perspective and take my direction from how Christ responded in each setting. She was the first person to bring the scriptures alive for me in a way that said, “Enter in. Listen to what you see.”
Audire (Latin for “to listen”) is the name of the program I was in for training in spiritual direction, the program where Carole received her training. While I was learning to listen, I heard God call me to be a spiritual midwife and say that my living room would be the birthing room. Women still come frequently for bible study or to be mentored there. Carole was a compassionate companion in this genuinely intimate journey. She helped me welcome the Spirit’s calling and came alongside to sing a midwife’s song. Whenever I needed a midwife to take me through a life experience, she graciously accepted that role. It was her joy to enter God’s birthing process. And it delighted her greatly when she came to my 70th birthday party (above) to meet 39 amazing women who I had the pleasure of pouring into from the cup we shared every time we met.
Trust continued to grow through the years. God had provided me with a spiritual companionship like no other. In every successive year’s meeting with Carole after my graduation from Audire, I was affirmed in God’s preparation for me to be a spiritual director, to weave it into ministry I was already committed to. Though I’m flawed, though I am far from finished, He unfolded the way one revelation at a time, often through Carole’s gifting.
In the last few years especially, while I’ve been in chemo mode, Carole received my brokenness with the tenderest love, with grace flowing abundantly. My eyes were opened to see the love of Christ being poured into my pain, to say “yes” to Him wanting to work through my entire life’s content. Whether I arrived with an experience to explore or came with nothing at all to talk about, we waited together for the Holy Spirit to guide the hour we shared. I always felt refreshed, hopeful, even expectant, when I headed home. Where do you find the fountain of refreshing?
There is nothing God doesn’t want to be part of, to talk about, to listen to, to bless, to be seen. Even in our cancer journey. I’m in my sixth year now, battling a third diagnosis. Carole was a cancer survivor for years, and was eating more healthy than ever when a new cancer showed up and took her life this month. Now her heart is in fullest delight! She is with the Lord. It’s all she wanted. To be with Jesus. She loved Him with every part of her being. Her faith was strong, her joy infectious. Life was always brought to its simplest truths with Carole. And every truth found its source in Jesus Christ.
Our sharing days are over now, but all that I learned in our sacred time together will continue to help me discover where God is at work in my life, extending invitation after invitation to welcome the mystery of His presence. I’m not done listening. Carole has much more to tell me. There is much to cherish from the eleven years we shared. Until we meet again, I am greatly encouraged by this truth: The Holy Spirit is my true midwife.