Recently I met with a mother and daughter from our parish to conduct an interview for the local Catholic newspaper. Chris and her teenaged daughter Katy had attended our diocesan women’s conference together in 2011 and I was curious as to how a mother managed to cajole her daughter to give up a Saturday to gather with mostly older women and learn about her faith. After a lively hour the interview was over and Chris and I lingered over coffee and muffins to share tales and concerns about our spiritual lives. The time flew by and we knew by the time I left that we would do this again.
Our hearts and minds connected instantly, finding so much in common. We bonded through our common faith and deep desire to grow in love of God.
Ever since I was a teenager, I have craved such relationships. Throughout high school I was blessed to have been part of a regional non-denominational youth fellowship run by a famous Protestant church in Boston, Park Street Church. Twenty-five kids from our high school belonged to this group including my future husband. Every Friday we’d get together and play volleyball, sing at the top of our lungs and listen to inspirational preaching about what it was like to have a personal relationship with Jesus. Fellowship with other Christians was an integral part of this group and it left me with a lifelong desire for such friendships. I moved on from the group after college and marriage but I never lost my need for a community of believers. It haunted me for years to come.
My rebellious years arrived during my twenties. It didn’t appear that way on the outside as my husband and I faithfully attended mass and got ourselves involved in various church activities. But inside I wandered aimlessly. People at our church were very nice but they were so much older than we that we found little common ground. My husband and I had not yet learned to share our spiritual lives with each other so my faith withered in isolation, much like the seed on dry ground. My thirst for Christ and for other Christians gnawed at me endlessly but I had no clue how to quench it.
Each year just before Easter, Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic “Jesus of Nazareth” miniseries would air on the TV and I would fall in love again, crying copious tears. I wished fervently for those feelings of love to remain alive. But, in an instant they would pass and I’d return to my cold isolation.
A breakthrough finally came in my mid-thirties. At that time I was a mother of two young children. I worked the second shift at a local daily newspaper, often coming home after midnight. Faith at that time came down to the perfunctory attendance of mass each week, no more. A new passion had taken over as I poured myself into my job, wishing to advance up the ladder. In the process I offended a colleague whom I had been friendly with. She in turn wrote a disparaging letter about me to another colleague and strategically left it where I could find it on the computer. Late at night as I was finishing my shift, I read the letter. In stunned silence I could feel a pressure on my chest as hurt, anger and confusion welled up inside. Desperate to keep my feelings secret I rushed to the ladies room, breathing heavily and sweating profusely. My supervisor caught wind of my plight and followed me in, asking what was wrong, and I shared what happened. Her kindness dispelled the anxiety and I was able to get ahold of myself.
That letter was a gift in disguise. The next day, still distressed over what my colleague had said about me, I turned to a book by Chuck Swindoll called Simple Faith and read a section about forgiveness. I fought vehemently against the notion, crying out to God that I could not forgive this woman. It was then that I finally realized my need for God to take over and I asked Him to help me forgive her.
God was tremendously gracious to me. He filled my head with many practical ideas as to how to make amends. This woman had no idea I had found the letter so I could act clandestinely. I remembered things we had talked about in the past, especially the soap operas, and chatted with her about them whenever we were together. I found my mind opening up again to God’s grace and my heart softened, becoming pliant, and ready for whatever He wanted. I left that job two months later, walking out the door with a bottle of champagne and best wishes from that colleague.
My relationship with God restored, that longing for fellowship with other Christians burned inside of me. Knowing my need, He led me to a morning bible study at our parish. I struck up a conversation with another mother who eventually invited me to a rosary prayer group. In the process, I met a precious new friend in the Blessed Mother. Shared the rosary and our lives together, my thirst for Christian fellowship was being quenched after eighteen years of wandering alone in the desert. The grace of those friendships poured over me like a balm, healing the wounds brought on by isolation. My pride and arrogance began melting away as I turned over my life again to God.
Over the years I have continued to seek out and develop relationships with other Christian women with whom I could share my faith. These relationships are some of the most precious gifts God has given me. My friendship with Jackie, a homebound woman, is one I particularly treasure. We spend a couple of hours together each week chatting about our interests and eventually, sharing deeply about our growing love for Jesus. That time together is a comfort to our souls and a light to our minds and hearts. The insights fly back and forth, fast and furious, with deep joy and passion. We laugh, cry and learn from each other.
My husband’s discovery of his vocation as a deacon opened up his heart and deepened his zeal. As he read and studied, he began sharing with me what he was learning. His insights taught me and my feedback helped him to better understand what he was learning. Sharing our faith lives together has deepened our love for each other and created a wonderful sense of harmony in our marriage
More than ever I am convinced that we are never meant to walk with God alone. The day that Jesus began His public ministry, He called Andrew, Nathaniel and Simon Peter to follow Him. While He would retreat to hilltops in the middle of the night to pray alone with His Father, He was never far from His friends, even walking on water to be with them. After ascending to heaven, He provided the Holy Spirit, to bind together His followers in love and unity. He foresaw the difficulties and dangers of following His path and thus freely gave of the Spirit to them.
A favorite icon by Rublev of the Holy Trinity best describes why faith in God can only live and grow in community. In the icon, we see three angelic figures, each looking at the other with indescribable love. Henri Nouwen described it as an endless circle of selfless love, a circle that each Christian is invited to join. The Trinity is the symbol of perfect and live-giving community, the Church that Christ has given to us through the Holy Spirit.
Long ago God had planted that thirst inside me for friendships with my spiritual brothers and sisters. He is continually calling me into that circle, just as He calls all of us. Faith cannot grow, cannot live without that vital food. It took me eighteen years of aimless wandering through the desert to figure out what I had already known and experienced as a teenager. I’m always amazed how dense I can be!
My new friend Chris is now a part of my circle and I look forward to the growth of our friendship as God continues to reveal Himself to us.
Copyright 2013 Susan Bailey