We met six years ago as would-be spiritual directors on the first night of our training program, which began with a week-end retreat. We finished up two years later at another retreat, and with four other members of our class formed a peer supervision group ~ which means that we meet every month or so for conversation around our experiences as spiritual directors. Some time ago, three of us realized that we would all be turning sixty this year, and this week-end we managed to pull off a mini-retreat as a way of being intentional about the "final third" of our lives.
The three of us: Two Catholics and one Protestant, two employed in church positions and one doing major volunteer work related to spiritual direction, two married and one single, six children, work experience including missionary in El Salvador, teacher, lawyer, pastor, psychiatric nurse, and diocesan staff for pastoral ministry ~ and spiritual direction, of course.
We spent a very small amount of time each of us on her own; mostly we talked. And talked and talked and talked. A few hours Friday night and nonstop from breakfast through lunch today. (We never left the dining room ~ midmorning, one of the staff members at the retreat house stopped in to ask if we knew that lunch wouldn't be served until 12:15!)
We used Paula Huston's book A Season of Mystery: Twelve Spiritual Practices for Embracing a Happier Second Half of Life, which provided a great springboard for conversation. I think we all agreed that it was particularly relevant to the third third of life; we found the topics pertinent and helpful and challenging. I would highly recommend the book to any group of people seeking to look reflectively and unflinchingly at these final decades and to approach them as a time in which to live prayerfully and authentically.
We didn't think to take a picture! But here's where we went.
It's a long way in the past for me, that first day of college, but the memory has been jolted by some emails as a friend's daughter heads off to Bard this afternoon for her first day.
I was an old hand ~ two boarding schools behind me, one of them really just down the road in western Massachusetts. Add three summer camps in three states, and I was well experienced in starting afresh, in a new place with new people. (Too experienced, perhaps, which might explain why I haven't budged from Cleveland Heights in thirty-six years.)
But I was terrified. Go figure.
My dad took me to college, to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts (from which I would eventually transfer, but that's another story). The landscape was familiar ~ the rolling hills brushed with a faint tinge of autumn color, the hundred-year-old dorms and classroom buildings, the tiny town. I knew it all well from my boarding school life. The all-female population represented my accustomed milieu. But I was bursting with anticipatory anxiety, and could hardly believe that my dad wanted to stop for lunch in Amherst. He had gone to Williams, an arch-rival of Amherst's in football, and I'm sure that he was re-living his own college days ~ but I wanted to get on with it.
And so, finally, we arrived on the steps of Pearsons Hall. (And yes I found a picture! My room was in the middle section, I think on the third floor.) I remember two details: the sweat dripping down my belly under my flimsy and very short dark green and brown patterned India Imports dress (purchased in neighboring Northampton a couple of years earlier), and the sound of Rod Stewart's Maggie May emanating from an open window. ("Wake up, Maggie, I think I've got something to say to you . . It's late September and I really should be back at school . . ".) I always think of the first day of college when I hear that song.
My roommate was from St. Paul. A boarding school friend materialized, miraculously, down the hall; she was from Greenwich and her new roommate was from Brooklyn. (In high school, she had roomed with a girl from Florida.) Another girl from Ohio and three others from New England states made up the group of eight who were to become my primary crowd for that freshman year.
Months afterward, one of those girls would remark that she had been in awe of my self-confidence when, later that afternoon, I breezed into her room to ask if anyone had a pencil. "I was hiding out on my bed, and you acted as if you owned the place," she said. "That's boarding school," I laughed. "You're scared all the time, there are always new beginnings, and you just plow forward."
Good luck to Hannah, and Lucy (headed for Northampton!), and all the other young people plowing forward in the weeks ahead!
I had been planning to continue The Great Library Re-organization. In fact, I had probably spent an hour on it, as well as some time on Sunday's sermon, when the call came: Could I come down to the hospital?
And so instead I spent the afternoon there, where a Jewish-Christian extended family had already made all the decisions on behalf of the husband and father who'd had a serious accident earlier in the week.
I always leave with the same question. How is it that I am called, again and again, to sit with families in the final hours of their loved ones' lives, to ensure that prayers are said, to try to alleviate some of the fear, to affirm the decisions made, to offer assurance of resurrection? How is it that this happens, again and again, when I could do none of it for Josh?
This appeared on the Alliance for Hope site today. I share it because I am spending some time with new suicide survivors these days and because I have been reminded repeatedly recently via comments of others that they have NO IDEA what it is we live with; that they don't know that we know the following about people we loved more than life itself, that we have had to absorb this knowledge about their lonely suffering into our beings and into our lives, and that we know this, all the time. And no -- the reality of my child's suicide does not control my life -- but only because I have learned how to carry this around along with everything else. From AFH:
"Richard Heckler on 'The Suicidal Trance'
Richard A. Heckler, Ph.D. made a fascinating study of individuals who survived suicide attempts. In his book, Waking up, Alive, he has described the decline toward suicide.
'As these stories unfold, we can identify critical components of the decline toward suicide. The stages of the descent are these: Pain and suffering remain unaddressed …. The person then withdraws behind a façade designed to protect himself or herself from further hurt and to cloak the suffering underneath. However, the façade only intensifies the slide toward a suicidal trance. Ultimately the trance narrows the person’s perspective until the only inner voices that can be heard are those that enjoin him or her to die. … Early in the withdrawal phase, people still make some effort to stay in touch with the world and hope for at lease some promise of better things. But when hope finally dies, people no longer see or hear anything outside their own minds --- the tight spiral of thought that tells them to die. While this shift may occur just moments before a suicide attempt, it can be months or years in the making. A colleague of mine from Louisiana, an experienced therapist for many years, contemplated suicide for over a decade. She describes this mental state as 'an almost totally separate reality, in which your world may not look or feel so limited and painful to anyone else, but it does to you. You enter a very powerful trance.' During the latter stages of the descent, people lose faith that their predicament will ever change. Their strength is depleted and they are deeply stressed. Some people are never able to leave their chronically destructive surroundings. In other cases, there is just no one able or willing to push past their facades. In yet other instances, people are no longer able to recognize support when it is in fact available. … The trance is a state of mind and body that receives only the kind of input that reinforces the pain and corroborates the person’s conviction that the only way out is through death. The trance marks the moment at which the world becomes devoid of all possibilities except one: suicide. …Despite differences in detail, everyone who attempts suicide enters the suicidal trance. …
Suicidal trances can be identified by certain common characteristics.
They appear extremely logical, with a premise and a rational series of arguments that encourage suicide as a reasonable response to pain. These arguments are powerful, especially when created by someone who has become emotionally deadened --- whose reservoirs of faith, trust, and hope have run dry.
Suicidal trances appear as resignation, in which a person stops caring at all about the state of his or her life. They are frustrating and frightening to family and friends: it seems as if there is no force strong enough to persuade the person to act on his or her own behalf.
Suicidal trances 'beckon.' As the trance intensifies, it becomes more insistent that the person finally complete the act. These urgings most often take the form of voices entreating him or her to take the final step, or of images presenting a picture of the final act.
Finally, this type of trance includes a particular vision of the future: an illusion of eternity in which the future is projected as an endless repetition of the present pain and disappointment, never-ending and hopeless.' "
Richard A. Heckler, Ph.D. is the Director of the Hakomi Institute of San Francisco, and a trainer for the institute throughout the U.S. He is an Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology at JFK University (Orinda, CA) and is on faculty at CIIS (SF, CA) and the Union Graduate School. Richard is the author of Waking Up, Alive! and Crossings: A New Psychology of the Unexpected.
In Ignatian spirituality, an experience referred to as "consolation without cause" refers to the sort of moment in which one is flooded with a deep sense of awareness of God's love and a response of unmitigated joy , an experience that seems to come out of nowhere, to be disconnected to that which immediately preceded it. It was, for centuries I believe, thought to be a rare occurrence, something "granted" to only a few select souls ~ an understanding which has changed as it has become clear that, while not an everyday routine for any one individual, it is not at all an event or episode in the spiritual life limited to a select few. The critical denominator in this experience is found in the term "without cause." Consolation without cause would not, for instance, refer to a sense of God's all-encompassing love found in a long walk at sunrise on the beach, a walk which might indeed be spiritually consoling, but in which the causes of consolation would be evident. Yesterday a newcomer to church told me that he had been "struck powerfully in the core of his being" and "bowled over" by the way in which one of the scriptural passages had spoken to him ~ I would identify that as consolation "with" cause. His experience and response were unexpected and a profound surprise to him, but the cause was apparent. A couple of days ago, driving from here to there, my pondering all over the place, I experienced what I can only term a "recognition without cause." The thought that suddenly appeared, as clear as if it had been a cartoon bubble, was that "I can live without Josh." At that particular moment, I had not been thinking about anything at all related to Josh; in fact, an observer of my thoughts might have described them as fairly desolating, as the day was not one to which I was looking forward ~ quite the opposite. Nevertheless, there it was, out of nowhere: "I can live without him." It was such a surprising thought to me that I can describe it only by saying that it is as if the quality of the very air has changed. This summer I've occasionally but insistently imagined making a trip to the Madeleine Islands ~ not because I've ever been there, but because they have seemed recently to call as a beacon of light and clarity, a place in which the sun and the sky and the land would be simplified, somehow. A place in which I would be able to breathe. A place which would feel much as I have felt for the past two days. It might sound rather obvious to someone else, this idea that "I can live without Josh." From the outside, it probably appears that I have been doing so, with a mixture of more and less success. But in reality, for these five years I have been able to find only one of two alternatives imaginable as a long term possibility. Either he will come back, or I will die. Case closed. I don't think that I will ever believe that he will never come back. Even the writing of the sentence . . . no, I would not survive the bone deep knowledge of such a bleak reality. But apparently I will live in his absence, and I will live in a clear, blue, and sunny space. This is not a conviction that I would want to refer to as consolation without cause. There is nothing consoling, either spiritually or psychologically, about having to move on without my boy. It is a terrible, terrible reality. But doable, and not merely badly doable. So I will call it recognition without cause and move forward. And start planning next summer's journey to the Madeleine Islands. I think that I probably need to go there.
Not much of a walk early in the morning due to the persistent rain.
Started pulling material together for Sunday's sermon.
Visited three people in a nursing home. Watched a little bit of an ancient Clint Eastwood movie with a gentleman who had a stroke 1.5 years ago and can't accomplish much in the way of communication. Prayed with a frail elderly lady who had shared a story of a lifetime of loss and disappointment with me the previous day. Sat in on a planning meeting for a heart patient going home next week and perhaps helped move things along. (Or not!) My folks are not assertive in medical situations, and I . . . am.
Sun came out and so I went for a lovely walk on the muddy trails of a local park. So did a number of dogs, accompanied by apologetic humans.
Planned a graveside service and took care of some miscellaneous church things.
Found a place to stay in the Berkshires en route home from our vacation in Rhode Island in a few weeks. A very simple motel. Prices are astronomical, and all we need is a bed for one night.
Talked to my son, who'd just finished Day 2 of the three-day bar exam. He felt dismal, but I know that everyone does.
Went to a party for St. Ignatius' Feast Day and spent the entire evening talking shop with a Methodist pastor who came out of the same Methodist church to which I used to belong. Let's just say that the path to ordination and ministry has been considerably different for us than it seems to be for young men. And I don't mean that in a good way.
Came home and realized that we are about to experience the empty nest for a second and difficult time. The first try came when our daughter went off to college, putting all three kids in different cities. Three years later, Matt came home when his brother died, and has been here ever since. Obviously, at nearly 29 he needs to move to his own place, which he can do soon because he has! a! job! But, while neither of us is around much, I will so miss his late night appearances in the living room, studying done, to watch some tv with me. Photo: Life in Ashland County. The goat is no doubt a Republican. And, I kid you not, there were sheep in the back of the truck as well. P.S. A couple of weeks ago I posted on FB a Life in Ashland County photo of an ad on the grocery bulletin board for Free Chickens - 6 months old - All Colors. A friend from NYC said that her first response was: Why would anyone want six-month-old chickens? It hadn't occurred to her that they were live chickens.