This morning, my friend Tricia and I made good on a challenge we gave ourselves: we spoke to a group of people not as the “experts” our job titles make us, but as Jen and Tricia, two people trying to fear less in our lives. It was a little daunting, but it also felt like a step I was ready to take after sharing so openly on this blog.
I shared with them a story that I haven’t shared with you all, yet. And I think it is about time to do so.
A few years ago, I went on a retreat at Prairiewoods, a Franciscan Spirituality Center here in Cedar Rapids. What attracted me to the particular retreat was that it was led by an Iowa writer named Mary Swander and based on the themes of her book The Desert Pilgrim (read a review, here). The book is set primarily in New Mexico, and the retreat was intended to look at Christian mysticism and healing. In reading the book, I discovered some interesting ways in which my life and Mary’s intersected, and that we shared a love of some of the same mystical places, such as the Santuario De Chimayo.
The retreat was an interesting experience, and I was very much enjoying being at Prairiewoods. On Saturday morning, the Center had offered retreatants the opportunity to schedule massages prior to our evening prayer service. I was given the last massage time slot, which would mean entering the evening retreat activities a few minutes late. During the massage, I was physically uncomfortable, had difficulty breathing, and became concerned (as did the massage therapist) about how I was feeling – especially since prior to getting on the massage table I had been fine. The therapist was highly intuitive, and laid her hands on my back, saying, “I want you to know that, whatever issues you are dealing with, there are many people in this world and the next who love you. They want you to know they are with you, and care for you.” I felt significantly better after that, and as the massage ended, I felt ready to join the rest of the group. The massage therapist asked if I would be alright, and I replied that I was fine.
After dressing, I stepped outside into the frigid but clear February night, on my way to the building where my group was meeting. Suddenly, I was struck with what can only be described as an interior lightning bolt and I fell to my knees on the sidewalk – overcome with the certainty that I was going to die. And I don’t mean the existential concept that we all will someday die. I mean, the actual very real certainty that I was going to die that night. I was terrified. I only managed to get up from the ground because I didn’t want to die outside, alone. Once inside the retreat building, I realized that I was both crying and hyperventilating and that these facts might be too disruptive for the quiet prayer service in progress. I detoured to the ladies room.
Once locked in a stall in the restroom, I couldn’t shake the certainty of my own death. I imagined myself falling to the floor, and once again found strength to act by simply not wishing my last moments to be alone on a restroom floor. With a great deal of effort, I brought my breathing under control and dried my eyes. I joined the prayer service, luckily conducted by candlelight, and the calm and prayerful atmosphere helped to settle my nerves a bit. Still, my heart was racing and I could feel my fear as a palpable thing.
At the end of the prayer service, while the lights were still out, another retreatant said, “Mary, I sometimes get these messages while in prayer. Usually they are for someone else, and I don’t necessarily know what they mean, but I believe I’m meant to share them. I received two messages during this prayer service, may I share them?” Mary threw the question to the group. We looked around, realizing that we were strangers to one another – and none of us had known this man who spoke prior to that morning when the retreat began. I suppose it was mainly curiosity that led the group to give its consent. He said he had a message for another woman in the group, and stated what that was. Then, he turned to me and said, “Jenifer, God says: I have a new path for you. Be ready.”
Given my internal state of panic and fear, I took this message as confirmation that I was, indeed, going to die that night. When we finished the formal activities, the group went its separate ways. I went to my room in the adjoining building, locked the door, turned on every light and took a seat on the bed. I sat up all night, waiting for Death. As I write this, with the perspective of time and distance, and after a great deal of thought and soul-searching, I realize this sounds somewhat dramatic and a little silly. But I am, as earnestly as possible, attempting to convey my experience of that literal “dark night of the soul”.
When morning arrived and there was light outside my room (as well as the electric ones inside it), I had come to a realization. I had a choice to make. I could either change my life, or I could die without ever becoming the person I wanted to be. Which did I fear more? Truth be told, I feared them both. But weighing more than 350 pounds, I knew there was a very real chance of the second coming true. I didn’t know whether I could change my life, but I knew I didn’t want the only “new path” available to be one in the afterlife.
Looking back, I can see that this event was the first in a long string of moments which have allowed me to rebuild my life. I am slow and stubborn, so God has (unfortunately) had to send more than one painful and/or frightening message my way. But I realized, preparing for our presentation this morning, that the one I received on that retreat was absolutely true: God had a new path for me. Each day, one step of that path is revealed. My job is to take that step or learn the painful lessons that come from allowing fear to choose otherwise. Slowly the shape of the path is revealed, and slowly I am preparing myself to be ready for what comes next.