Luke 1: 57-80
I received word this week that Sister Teresa Ann had died.
We had not been in touch these last several years. Still, she was an important influence in my life at a difficult time. In fact, in a much more gentle manner, she served as my ‘John the Baptist,’ clearing the way so that the grace and love of God could reach me. She did so entirely without judgment, but with kind and pointed questions: the sort that a wise and faithful spiritual director brings to bear.
As I said, I had been going through a particularly rough stretch. The details don’t matter so much anymore, but at the time it felt as though I was suffering one defeat after another. For you see, I had decided it was time for something ‘new’ in my life, but for reasons which were slow in becoming clear to me, the old wasn’t letting go. The new was taking its time in opening up.
And so month after month I drove out to St. Mary’s Benedictine Monastery just outside of Rock Island, Illinois and hour after hour I would sit in her presence and tell my story. And time after time she would listen to me and pray with me and for me. Most of those hours are a blur to me now. But there is one that stands out, for in that hour she was ‘John the Baptist’ in the being of an 80-year-old woman.
I had been describing what was going on and as always she listened with much the same empathy and kindness that a whole host of friends had been showing me for many months. Only this time I went deeper and exposed some of what was happening beneath my pain and outrage. As I recall, I spoke words something like this, “I’ve been through hard times before, but in those other times I could place the blame squarely outside myself.” (You know, the sorts of disappointments and hurts that come with loss and grief.) I went on to say, “This time though? I’m wondering if somehow this is my fault. If maybe I’m the one who is doing something wrong.” She didn’t pause long as she said to me then, “So what if it is? What if it IS your fault?”
Oh my. As you can imagine, this was not the sort of question anyone else on my ‘support team’ had dared to articulate. They had, without a doubt, been exactly what I needed them to be — they had listened to me, cried with me, and expressed entirely appropriate outrage in my behalf over and over again. But there was no one among them who could ask that kind of question. At least not in a way that I would have been able to hear it.
Only, of course, Sister Teresa Ann was not my friend. She was my spiritual director. She was paying attention to the health of my soul and much like a good physician tending to the physical well-being of her patient, she used the best gifts she had at her disposal. She said what needed to be said so that healing and hope could find its way again.
Now please know Sister Teresa Ann was not necessarily agreeing with my deepest fears. She was not saying I was guilty or at fault… not in the fashion that John the Baptist did later in his prophetic ministry in the wilderness. She was, however, honoring my question. She was inviting me deeper into my own darkness so that when by the ‘tender mercy of our God the dawn from on high would break upon me, ‘(Luke 1:78) as Zechariah’s song has it, I would recognize it for all that it was: God’s own gift. And I suppose she was also pointing to what is always true. While the larger circumstances of my life at that point may not have been appropriately named as my ‘fault’ — she knew that, like all of us, I was certainly not without sin on this journey. If nothing else — and this was no small thing — my resilience was wearing thin and I was starting to wonder if God’s tender mercies had abandoned me altogether. My ‘fault’ may have only been that, that I was no longer trusting. That I had begun to stop feeling grateful. That I certainly was not availing myself of the hope that was being offered me.
Whatever else may have been true, those were words of grace to me that day for with a simple question my stubborn pride was cleared away and God’s own love was able to make its way into my soul again in a way that I could feel it once more. For I was finally able to rest in the sure and certain truth of my own humanness. As a result, I was able to take a deeper look at myself to see if perhaps there was something I should own in all of this — and to name it — so that I could then more fully receive and experience God’s forgiveness. I could know God’s tender mercy breaking in on me like the dawn from on high.
Sister Teresa Ann was my John the Baptist. You probably can’t see it when you look at her picture above, but trust me she was. She named the Truth and asked the hard questions so that I could simply rest in God’s grace again. You can be certain I will always be grateful.
It seems strange, of course, to be considering John the Baptist in the warmth of summer. In fact, I’m certain he wouldn’t have come to mind at all except his day of commemoration falls on this coming Sunday and we are treated to these lessons in the pre-printed bulletins to which our congregation subscribes. And yet, my need for John’s prophetic voice as foretold in Zechariah’s song at the time of his birth is not confined to a few weeks every Advent. How do you find that to be true for you?
- Who do you especially give thanks for on your journey of faith? Were they truth-tellers?
- Who has been your “John the Baptist?” How did their words clear the way so that love of God could be experienced ever more fully?
- When have you most needed to experience the “tender mercy of our God?” How did that mercy make itself known to you?
- Have their been unexpected periods in your life which you would describe as like Advent? What made this so?