Over the past few months, I've been directing a sizable slice of my creative energy toward our parish's retreat team. It was a really joy-filled responsibility, and it was kind of a lot of work. I wasn't sure how I would keep the balls in the air once the semester started, but I figured I'd muddle through somehow.
Last weekend was the retreat, and there are a few things I especially want to remember about it. I was our team's spiritual director, which meant that I was in charge of spiritual formation during our preparations. On the weekend, I was expected to be available for women who needed to talk. The big difference between those two things is that the former offered me lots of opportunities to work in advance. If I wasn't quite sure which direction to head in when I had an idea, I could chew on it and pray over it and eventually come to a conclusion. You can't really do that with a person in the throes of a spiritual crisis.
So here is the weird thing: each of the three women who wanted to talk to me over the weekend needed something that I felt prepared to offer. It wasn't the conscious, deliberate preparation I'd been doing for our team meetings. It was the preparation of past sufferings, of shared experiences.
The weirdest part of all: for a long time I have battled anger and bitterness about one of the substance abusers in my life. If you added up the number of times I have thought about smacking her, it would be a large number. If you added up the number of tears I have shed over her, it would even larger. I have never prayed more faithfully for anything than I have prayed for her to be free, but she is not sure she would like to be free just yet. I did not really want to read all those dumb books about substance abuse, but I pored over them anyway in hopes of finding something useful for her. As I prayed and as I learned, compassion snuck up on me.
On the weekend I spoke with someone who needed that painfully acquired perspective. Until recently, I could not have spoken with genuine compassion about the issue that was weighing her down, but I believe God used my past sorrows to lighten her load in a small way. I understood at least a little bit of what she needed that night, and why. I was able to offer some concrete judgment-free assistance in the moment, and to run interference for her the next day.
I have complained so fiercely about the relentless willful folly of the person who has taught me most of what I know about substance abuse. I never suspected it might be preparation.
The next morning I mused to the retreat director over breakfast, "You know, Veronica, God is so good and so surprising."
I'm still thinking about that.