May you respond to the call of your gift and find the
courage to go follow its path.
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “spiritual journey”? Many people immediately think of difficult lessons, painful realizations, heartbreaking sacrifices or the frustrations and abject loneliness of unanswered prayers. I call these my “intimate conversations with the ceiling.” But difficult lessons and unanswered prayers are part of Life’s required course, so it’s easier for me to search for a tiny Divine hallmark in a challenge or difficulty, much as a jeweler might mark gold or silver.
When something happens that hurts or throws me, particularly when I’ve prayed long and hard for a certain outcome and it doesn’t happen, after the sharp intake of breath, I’ve learned to say defiantly: I’m calling you a blessing. I’m calling you a blessing. I’ll repeat these words aloud for as long as it takes for me to slow down my racing heart and restore my balance. Then I’ll probably muffle a scream and not give a whit who hears me. But since I’m always alone when I have these reactions, the only One who matters has heard.
This reframing and renaming of events and outcomes was taught to me by my beloved friend, the Irish mystic and poet John O’Donohue (1956-2008) and is so eloquently expressed in his last book To Bless the Space Between Us. “The creation of the individual is a divine masterpiece. We were dreamed for a long time before we were born. Our souls, minds, and hearts [were] fashioned in the divine imagination…One of the fascinating questions is to decipher what one’s destiny is. At the heart of each destiny is hidden a unique life calling. What is it you are called to do?”
I was born into an Irish Catholic family which means I was born into a world of black and white and veils of one kind or another. Every Sunday, religiously, as one would say, we went to Mass. However, after the Latin Mass and frankincense were exchanged for American English and folk music in 1965, I felt as if I had been born into the wrong side of the aisle. I found peace in the mystery, wonder, beauty and awe of ritual; reverence in words that I might not understand, but responded to in my heart and soul on the deepest level.
Of course, I attended Catholic high school during the mid-sixties, when the word “vocation”—from the Latin vocare—meaning “to call”—was frequently heard and synonymous with entering a religious community; always suggested as the first choice for a life path. This was extremely distressing because I really wanted to be an actress. My life was to be in the theater or the movies. Good gracious, I had a dozen stage names by the time I turned 12. Then, like most teenage girls at that time, I also knew that someday I would be swept off my feet by a handsome man, get married, have a big family and live happily ever after in Great Neck, N.Y.
I must confess that although I was dead set on becoming an actress, I found the notion of being “chosen” by God very magnetic, even hypnotic. I also thought the nuns' black-and-white habits incredibly romantic. How much I was influenced by Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story (1959), I can't really say, except that Sister Luke pushed every emotional button I had. Hepburn was playing a young woman who enters the convent to become a missionary nursing sister in the Belgian Congo during the 1920s. She is so certain of her path, until she isn’t and you just know what’s coming even when you don’t. I just love watching favorite movies every decade or so, because it’s always a different film than the one your Younger Self remembers. I wish one didn't have to grow older to become wiser, but there you have it.
Well, as I stated emphatically to my parents and Mother Superior, my life was going to be on the stage. The way I figured it, the theater was about as far away from God as I could get. Do you want to know how to make the angels laugh? Tell Heaven your plans.
So I went to New York and discovered that there was The Actors' Chapel at St. Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church. Hmmn. Then I traveled to London seeking my fame and fortune and found The Actor’s Church at St. Paul’s Covent Garden (Anglican). I also discovered that the theater and church share a passion for language. I love the language of the King James Bible (1769 version, please, I’m very modern), the services of Morning Prayer (Book of Common Prayer 1928, thank you) and Evensong. I love ending The Lord’s Prayer with “For Thine Is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory. Forever and Ever” and never forgetting that All Things Come from Thee, O Lord and of Thine Own have we given Thee. I felt safe. I also thought I stashed my spirituality into a box that I could handle. I kept the Divine Mystery at bay.
Obviously, I did not become an accomplished actress. Rejection, self-doubt, financial insecurity and public criticism are all part of an actress’s daily round. I briefly became a playwright and wrote a one woman show about Sarah Bernhardt which was panned so virulently I took to bed for a week. So I became a theatre critic but couldn’t do that for very long because editors don’t really want raves; flops inspire such creative turns of phrase. It’s so much more colorful when you spew derision instead of encouragement. Break someone’s heart with your words?The poisoned pen really is sharper than the sword. But all artists “spread their dreams under your feet” (thank you, W.B. Yeats) and I could not “trample” on another soul's dreams.
Then I stepped away from the footlights and was blessed with a beautiful baby girl I cherished and I got the role of a lifetime as her mother. When she was about four, since I had never left her overnight, I asked her father if I could have a week-end away to collect my thoughts. I really had visions of a hotel, sleep and room service but then someone told me of an Episcopal convent which conducted weekend silent retreats. Perfect. The moment I drove into the convent grounds it seemed as if a spell came over me; by the time I walked down the hushed stone hallway to enter the chapel, I knew I was home. It was very unsettling.
After a silent weekend spent praying and working besides the cloistered, contemplative women who had answered God’s call so dramatically, I felt compelled to finally try and reconcile the irreconcilable. Yes, I confessed to God that I had been called and I turned away from Heaven’s request to serve. But now I had an even greater calling, I was a mother. I had been entrusted with a precious child to safeguard as best I could.
On Sunday, at the conclusion of that life-changing week-end, the guests were invited to speak to one nun in a confessor role about anything that was troubling our hearts. We were to unburden ourselves. A beautiful nun about my age sat with me in the convent garden bathed in the golden sunlight of an exquisite Indian summer day. I shared with her that I believed I had been blessed with a spiritual calling and I had said “No” to God. My sorrow was not that I had taken the path that I had, but that I did not possess the courage to even consider, never mind pray, about my true vocation. Now it was too late because my path was resolute: I was to be the best mother that I could be. Oh, yes and I wrote a bit, too.
Sister was silent for a few moments with her eyes closed and her hands together. She sighed. And then she asked me to look at the families greeting each other and coming together after a weekend apart. Look at the smiles. The hugs. Hear the laughter. Take in the bliss of their connection and communion. She confided that there were some Sundays when she wondered if she could not have served God better in the world as a wife and a mother. Then she asked me quietly: “Why do you think that you have not already answered God’s call? God needs mothers. God needs writers. There must be some special work that only you can bring forth into being. Perhaps, my dear, your convent is the world.”
“The notion of vocation is interesting and rich. It suggests that there is a special form of life that one is called to; to follow this is the way to realize one’s destiny,” John O’Donohue reminds us. However, “the faces of the calling change” and so we must play many roles during our lifetime. “To be born is to be chosen.”
And who knows? The role in Life’s drama that frightens us the most, may in turn lead to a gold star on the dressing room door and a dozen unexpected curtain calls, not to mention a favorite pew in the Actors’ Chapel.
Blessings on your courage this week, darling readers.