The Guest House

A week ago Sunday evening, I drove a college van to the small town of Vinton, Iowa. We were a subdued group on the drive out, befitting the nature of our trip: to attend a visitation for the father of two of our students. At our arrival, there was a line out the door of the church. When we were finally allowed inside by the local fire department, I was stunned to see several hundred people waiting to make their way , single file, past the open casket and through the line of close family accepting condolences. It took our little group two and a half hours to process through. Along the way, we learned a great deal about the man whose death had brought us there. His was a story of love, engagement with the community, commitment to the people and activities of his life. While maintaining strong relationships outside the home, he also  supported and encouraged a truly loving family and helped raise some pretty wonderful human beings. Through the course of that day, literally thousands had come to pay tribute to his life.

On Tuesday of that same week, my sister underwent major surgery. When we spoke late on Monday, she was attempting to get one more workout under her belt before having weeks off her regular routine. What surprised me, throughout the process of determining the nature and extent of the surgical response to her cancer, was that every conversation included her words of gratitude for the blessings bestowed: that the cancer had been caught early; that she had competent and up-to-date doctors and surgeons in her small town; that she had trust in God and the unfailing gentle-kindness and support of her husband. After the surgery – more of the same, in a slightly more tired voice.

Adeline Bell Finnegan was born on Thursday, January 12 at 7:06 pm. She weighed in at 8 lbs 12 oz. and was 21″ long. My great-niece was welcomed into this world with much rejoicing – on the part of her parents (Ben and Elsa); by her aunt and uncle (Tim and Nikki) who arrived for her trip home from the hospital; by her Grandma Chris whose (almost) only verbalized complaint about her cancer recurrence was that she wouldn’t be there in person to welcome Ada. And by the rest of our “clan”, as my sister Annie posted on Facebook.

Sunday through Thursday – five days. But in those five short days, so much to learn, to process, and to celebrate. Three of the major human life events: death, illness, birth in such a short span of time. Those five days touched me profoundly, in ways I don’t have the grace to articulate. Luckily, the great poet Rumi said it for me, centuries ago. He tells us to welcome every experience which comes our way, even “if they’re a crowd of sorrows…treat them honorably”  because each experience brings a gift as well. And so I am practicing being the proprietor of the guest house of my heart – throwing open the doors to all who seek admission, with gratitude and welcome even for the difficult guests.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


Fearing Less

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.