“But do you believe in you?”
The question landed like a punch in my mid-section, my throat constricting around the rising emotion. “I am trying,” I croaked in response as I attempted to force down tears.
The question was posed by one member of the commission charged with interviewing prospective Priests like myself, those who believed God was calling them into the holy vows of ordained ministry.
I told him how I ended up in that very interview carried on the belief of others, because I chose to listen to what they said they saw in me. I never would have entered the discernment process last year if other people had not spurred me on, saying they saw gifts in me that I couldn’t yet see in myself.
It was the year in which the word “explore” was embodied in every area of my life and I was discovering new lands at every turn. The Priesthood was not a destination I ever imagined for myself, but I committed to following the arrows God placed before me, like the compass that pointed ever true North.
Now at the threshold between years, I look back on the year of exploration, content. I didn’t reach a destination, but I found something more precious: myself.
I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to fit myself into the mold others made for me. I floated between roles in the church and non-profits, and between countries and cultures seamlessly. The adaptability that has been a gift in my ministry across denominations and on three continents has been a curse, too. My chameleon skin, able to take on the color of my surroundings, has changed so many times I didn’t remember the hue of my own flesh anymore.
As I peeled away the layers of others’ expectations, my own fears, a lack of boundaries, and the need for control—I found someone I had forgotten.
She loves God fiercely. She is a gifted communicator. She lights up when she’s among people who have a similar disdain for small talk and want to go deep in spiritual conversation. She loves to help and serve, but she is also a leader. She is a learner at heart but enjoys sharing what she’s learned with others. That makes her a teacher. She’s a bridge builder, able to reach across divides. Her smile is contagious. She has the gift of faith, and can see God working in places others overlook.
It is work every day to believe in myself, to trust that this is who God made me to be, and admit the good things God is working out in me. But after two decades of shrinking back and making myself smaller, I am planting a stake in the ground right here.
Parker Palmer said before we can tell our lives what we want to do with them, we must listen to our lives telling us who we are. “I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity,” he said, “not the standards by which I must live—but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”
My word for 2023 came quickly and firmly into my mind in late December. It feels like a risky word and I admit it scares me more than a little.
We call them the kissing trees. Today they are featured in the middle of the open yard, the only two hardwoods still reaching for the sky after the whole acre has been cleared. They weren’t always so noticeable. Their bases used to be surrounded by brambles and weeds, their tops crowded out by less hardy but more demanding pines.
It’s why they lean so—they had to curve around the stingy evergreens to find the sun. They aren’t perfect; in fact, they’re quite awkward. There are dead limbs hanging off of one that need to be trimmed. Their growth is uneven. But we couldn’t let them go when we cut the rest down to make way for pasture. They’d fought so hard for their place here...like we did—Sadie and me.
Sadie bought this land and well-worn house before she turned 18, the promise of a bright future, even if it was going to take a little work. We were young, optimistic best friends with barely any life behind us and we thought we knew something of the world. We were wrong. But Sadie was right about buying this house. It has gone through as many changes as our lives have. It’s constantly under renovation, an ever-present reminder of how our lives are renovations, too. The other thing we she was right about is that we’d be friends forever.
Over two decades later we’ve weathered our shares of brambles, weeds, demanding circumstances, and uneven places of growth. Individually and as friends. We met at only 14. It was a decade later when I moved into the basement apartment of her house, thinking it would be for a short time. All in all, over the course of three times of moving out and back in, I've spent eight of the last sixteen years living on the same property as my best friend, watching our lives bend toward each others in irrevocable ways.
Our families have grown and changed and we’ve both left this house and returned to it. It’s seen our two families collectively through a divorce, death of loved ones, chronic illness, loss of jobs, recovering relationships with long-lost parents, losing relationships with long-loved friends, and so much more. It’s been witness to movie nights and bonfires, egg hunts and prime rib dinners, and more laughter than these walls can contain.
This week Sadie took scrap wood from under the shed and cut it down into boards for a new farmhouse dining table. She brushed away mold and rot, a spider web or two. They were tossed there a year ago when we pried them up to pour concrete for a porch. For over ten years they had supported the weight of those who came and went from the basement apartment.
When we brought our firstborn home from the hospital, we only had a gravel drive and dirt entrance outside the lower level of the house where Lee and I lived. We spent a lot of time out there though as Sadie’s back porch steps met our front entrance.
Lee spent the first week of Nadia’s life building that porch where we later hung her first swing. That yard is where we sat late into the night with Sadie and Ben watching the fire die, where the kids played and we laughed at the five dogs between us chasing each other. It is where we shared cups of coffee every morning when we were each other’s only “bubble” members as we weathered the lonely Covid pandemic. It was the center of our collective lives.
That cast aside wood is becoming the top boards of the table we will take with us when we move this week into our new home less than ten minutes away. Ten minutes between our two families, instead of just a staircase and a yard. That life we built here is changing again, as all good things must do. We know it is for the best. It is the space we need to allow our families to grow and become what they should be. But every new season carries with it a grief we can’t always name. Every new season comes with the death of the season before it.
New seasons begin and the landscape changes, but some things will always remain: the strongest trees that learn to bend toward life when the odds are against them; houses with good bones that hold generations of stories within their walls; the ties that bind friends into a kind of family that cannot be broken.
“In Your mercy confer on me a conversation pleasing to You, the patience to wait for You, and the perseverance to long for You. Grant me a perfect end, Your holy presence.”
– Saint Benedict of Nursia
He intimidated me on that first day I met him. He must have all the answers, I thought. Surely he knows the secret things of God, learns them in his five daily prayers.
I sat in the back of the room as the Trappist monk spoke about how his free-form writing had helped him encounter the dark spaces of his own soul. He’d stroke his chest-length white beard as he laughed. He seemed so casual and approachable at that moment. I imagined if I were to see him out in regular clothes, I might wonder if he was a biker. Yet here in this place, he seemed otherworldly.
Brother Mark is one of the dwindling number of Cistercians that make their home at the monastery I visit a couple of times a year. It’s less than an hour from my home and yet when you enter the sprawling grounds, you feel like you are entering an inherently sacred space. From the Abbey Church’s towering ceiling to the rolling lawn and lake nestled between massive Georgia pines, you truly feel minuscule against the backdrop of the testament that the monastery is to God’s majesty.
I had come for a retreat in which several of the brothers taught about writing and journaling. Brother Mark shared with our small group about his struggles with anger and the temptation to squabble with the men he chose to live his life among.
What—monks arguing? Of course, deep inside I knew this must be true. They are only human, after all. And yet, I had this image in my mind of the holiness that must set them apart, the pedestal these men must belong on for having chosen this life. My mind couldn’t wrap itself around the paradoxes of Brother Mark.
That evening my mother, sister, and I sat in the common room of the retreat guest house. It was the period of “the Great Silence,” the time after compline—the last prayers of the day—when the brothers retreat to their cells until the bells again call them to prayer well before dawn. Yet Brother Mark sat chatting with us about writing, faith, miracles, and dreams. I don’t know what all we discussed; I just know it was the night my illusions shattered...