Some days ago, Christine over at Abbey of the Arts suggested that we adopt the ancient spiritual practice of seeking a word as a source of life for the next year. It's Advent, which marks the beginning of the new year for me, and so I immediately responded with what I thought would be my word: confluence.
It seemed to me that the wriggly tributaries of my life were beginning to merge into what might be a varied and surprising whole: seminary and ordination exams complete, and call process approved and underway; a little bit of a spiritual direction practice coming to life; the opportunity to teach a college religion class during the spring semester; the waves of terrible grief that had overwhelmed me for months beginning to soften into gentle swells that roll gently in, over, and around my life so that it has become possible to accompany and care for others, and to organize and teach and preach, within this context of unfathomable loss.
And so the word confluence made some sense to me. I thought of the merging Willamette and Columbia Rivers, over which I have flown en route to visit The Lovely Daughter in college in Oregon. I thought of the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, which I have observed from a ledge on a hike high above Harpers Ferry, West Virgina. And later I thought about Pittsburgh, where I attended seminary, and the Monongahela, Ohio, and Allegheny Rivers. Perhaps the recent geographic confluences in my life might serve as a model for the year ahead.
And yet, I was a little dissatisfied with that word, and couldn't seem to get around to writing about it.
Yesterday, as I said below, I spent some time visiting with First Spiritual Director, in town for the holidays, and he mentioned a homily he'd preached at a celebratory mass for a young man who's facing down a major life challenge. He said that in his homily he'd talked about the gospel as frontier rather than boundary, as an invitation to the liberty to explore and discover rather than as a series of border checkpoints.
I hadn't even asked and there it was:
Frontier. I have my word.
It isn't that I've felt trapped, but I have felt lost in the wilderness, as if I've been traipsing across an endless windswept desert, hemmed in by boulders and mountains, unsure even of where to look, let alone walk. Where were the hidden passes through the mountains; where were the shaded streams of running water?
Now, after nearly twenty-eight months, I can look back and see where some of those markers stood, obscured by the blowing sands of grief and darkened by thunderclouds clouds of anguish.
Most of them came in the form of people who opened their doors and their emails and their hearts. Some came in the form of assignments: read this and write that. Some in the form of professors and friends, who hung in there with me and refused to let me sink when the academic material became entirely personal, or who shared their own devastating losses. Some in the form of invitations: Will you preach next Sunday? Will you teach a confirmation class? Will you accompany me through the Exercises? Some in the form of the courage of a husband and surviving children, stepping gingerly onto the shaky ground of the future. Some in forms I'm sure I have yet to recognize.
And so here I am, for the new year, standing at the frontier of the good news ~ of exploration and discovery of all to which God might still be inviting me.
My son is still gone, and I still have to face the heartache of his death and his absence every day. I don't see any of that changing. But somehow the capacity to integrate that terrible reality into a life of hopeful ministry is emerging, and the only possible word for it is: Frontier.
Image: Columbia River Gorge, May 2009