My spiritual director has what feels like go-to questions. She’s too experienced to use go-to questions. In reality, she listens to me and to the Spirit and follows those cues.
Her questions hover with where I am. What they really show are the basic questions I keep needing to return to, revisit, and re-hear. They repeat because I’m still needing to hear them.
The particular question–because there are a few that occur to me in this way which I’ve scribbled into my soul over our eight years together–is “And, Michael, what do you need?”
I can hear the questions the way I can hear my breathing. Usually after running or exercising or working hard, I hear what’s been there, unacknowledged and unnoticed. I hear my breathing. The questions are like that. The longer I’m in direction the more this happens: I find Lucy’s words coming up. She is a means of grace in that way. God speaks through her to me. And I’ve been hearing that question. Michael, what do you need?
It turns all my energy, energy I often direct toward being good for others, ministering to others, caring for others in the church, home, and hospital–all that meaningful energy comes to me in a question. It’s hard to pay that kind of attention to yourself when you serve others. Until you have to. Sometimes you don’t realize you have to until it comes up in a good question.
So, here it is for us: what do you need?
Sitting in pain. That’s a phrase I hear often. I see people doing it, sitting in pain.
Sometimes you can look into a person’s face and see it. Pain takes many forms. It’s good at masking itself, staying hidden, but it leaks out too. It’ll snatch the face you were trying hard to hold. Pain will break the exterior guarded smoothness of your made-up self. Pain has a way of having its way.
I think what honors pain–and I do think that pain like other feelings should be honored, respected–is giving it due room. When it comes, you can’t make it go away. You can’t force pain to leave. Even drugs numb the senses rather than remove the pain itself. No, pain needs space. Pain that’s respected is pain that’s given space.
Clear the field of your soul. And if you see pain rising in that field, give it the whole place. Sit with that pain. It may take over, hijacking your life for a while. It may feel scary, burdening you with new fear. It may be suffocating, taking the breath and life out of you. But pain, after its done, will pass. Then, you’ll see what’s next.
The pain on her face disrupts and unsettles me. I think about her expression all day long. She is the wife of a patient and she’s remained at his side.
She’s smelled the stink of his excrement until the scent of his insides is normal to her. She’s listened as medical team members file in and out of the room.
Each time a doctor rounds with students, the patient’s spouse is in that familiar seat, waiting and doing her best to love her husband. She is an image of how to love, and I keep her in mind.
At first, in the words of one of my students, she haunts me. And I think better of it. I think of her the way I suggested my student might see her patients: as friends.
My patient and his wife become friends to me. And they walk with me through the quiet halls of our hospital. They sit with me at my desk as I reflect upon my ministry today. They wait with me. They tell me how waiting is an expression of my pastoral care.
And I believe them. And I settle into myself. And I give thanks for them and for her and for the image she offered of how to love.
Spend some of your quiet moments with yourself, considering yourself, thinking about you.
Not the job. Not the task. Not the vision. Not the project. Just you.
Your mind, dutiful as it is, will resist it. Your spirit may feel anxious. It’ll feel like a small robbery, this giving of yourself back to yourself and not giving you away to some other thing.
Take it in and feel what it’s like. You need those moments. They will make you and re-make you after you’ve spent you. Those moments are prayerfulness. Those moments are times of contemplation and rest. You need them.
The day may not go as you planned, and that can be a great gift. Surprises abound when you loosen your hand around your schedule, your time, your to-do list, your hopes. You don’t know what you’ll get, and you can approach that unknowing with anticipation rather than fear, curiosity not apprehension.
Someone once asked me what happened to my pastoral care when I couldn’t control things. It was a rich question. It helped me think about the essential way any pastoral practice is unknown, how it’s an act of faith to serve people as a minister.
The question also helped me remember to pray for surprises in my work. To ask God to open me to surprises. To make me sensitive, like some of my best teachers of ministry have, to the interruptions.
The surprises are the ways I keep wondering into a world of faith and excitement. How poor I’d be if everything went the way I thought–or even hoped–it would. I hope you can embrace the surprises today.