Riding out life's storms

by Virginia Herbers

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I have the great privilege of being a spiritual director.

This means that in accompanying another on her journey with God, I am invited onto that holy ground that is the meeting place of the Spirit and the soul. It is a sacred space, a spiritual landscape that requires me to "take off my shoes" before the power of God working in, with and through another.

In my years of receiving spiritual direction, I know all too well how vital and comforting is the companionship of a good director. As a spiritual director myself, I am also very familiar with the other side of that relationship, which needs to be one of profound humility, reverence and stillness.

Ignatian spirituality teaches us about the discernment of spirits, the spiritual exercise in which the soul listens for the movements of the Holy Spirit, attempting to distinguish what is of God and what is not. This is an exercise requiring more than just my own experience, interpretation and judgment. For most of us (I suppose I can exempt the saintly from this requirement!) the discernment of spirits requires a faithful and faith-filled spiritual companion or director.

Recently, as a result of my conversations in spiritual direction, I have spent much time thinking about and praying with the distinction between perception and reality. What is real is invariable; it can never be made unreal. What is perceived, however, is conditioned by a multitude of factors and can oftentimes not reflect reality accurately.

Example: There is a deer in my backyard. I might look out my window and not see it, but that doesn't mean he is not there. My perception is conditioned by my senses, my judgment, the direction of my glance, the strength of my glasses, the cleanliness of the window, the light inside and out, and so forth. Not every one of my perceptions reflects reality well, and actually, it would serve me and everyone around me well if I became increasingly familiar with what distorts my perceptions on a regular basis.

Let's play with another example. Back in May, a tornado ripped through a very narrow portion of the town where I live, doing terrible damage to dozens of homes and neighborhoods. The winds picked up centuries-old trees right out of the ground and threw them crashing through roofs and garages. Streets that were once peppered with beautiful oaks and spruces are now bare, with vast expanses of debris and branches still being cleared.

One of my spiritual directees was sharing with me his experience of the storm, as his home sustained a tremendous amount of damage. Since tornadoes are rare in this part of the country, he didn't realize how dangerous it was to stand at his window watching the storm come in until he saw a tree in his backyard get uprooted and seemingly tossed right through his living room.

After taking shelter in the basement, he marveled at the speed with which the storm seemed to come — and then go. When he returned upstairs a few minutes later, he realized how fortunate he and his family had been to escape any injury or harm. The window at which he had been standing was shattered, and — because two large oaks had come through his roof — the rains were pouring into his living room, kitchen and bedroom.

Fast forward two months. The roof has been replaced, the damage to home and landscaping repaired. But what remains is a new perception. With his permission, I share with you this insight.

"I used to love sitting at my kitchen table looking out at my backyard. I have worked for years to make it beautiful and rustic. There is such a variety of wildlife that shows up back there, and being able to enjoy it with a cup of coffee in hand has always been a place of prayer and refuge for me. But now, the trees scare me. They never used to do that before. I never used to look at them and see danger — I only saw their beauty and majesty. But now I fear the power they have to destroy. I don't like seeing them that way; I want my old vision back."

What a profound insight indeed. How many of us can relate to the desire to undo something, to un-know something, to un-experience something that radically altered the way we perceive either persons or situations? This can be anything from the sublime to the ridiculous.

I learn that someone I have long respected has resigned from the College of Cardinals due to scandal; I discover that something I have done with the best of intentions has been interpreted wrongly or has been received negatively; I realize that something I have long-loved and enjoyed has the power to hurt me (I learned this the hard way with the ocean and jellyfish last summer!)

I want my old vision back. I want my old perceptions back. Am I not really saying this: I want my trust back.

God is funny sometimes. As the lives of many saints demonstrate, sometimes the closer we become to God, the more elusive God becomes. This is not to say that God disappears; rather, it's our perception of God's presence that changes.

The reality is that God is always with us, always caring, always providing, always loving. But our perceptions don't always match that. Sometimes God seems frighteningly powerful, alarmingly absent or horrifyingly ambivalent. I want my old faith back.

My dad used to say that life is a one-way street — no turning back, no dead-ends, and one clear destination. There is no "getting back" old vision, old faith or old trust. There is only moving forward with the vision, the faith, and the trust of today. And that is, day-by-day, a new and living trust.

I think Maya Angelou agreed with my dad, when she said, "History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, Need not be lived again."

The book of Lamentations contains the outpouring of the human heart's dashed hopes, lonely outcries, and desperate pleas. When we are in the midst of those moments as well — when we are recovering from the damage of life's storms — let us remember what is real despite all other perceptions: "The Lord's mercy and compassion are never spent; they are renewed each morning." (Lamentations 3:22-23)

[Virginia Herbers is an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She has master's degree in pastoral studies and has ministered in education at both the elementary and high school levels in Connecticut, New York, Missouri and Taiwan. She currently serves as the vice-provincial for the United States Province of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart.]