To begin, Mary Grace would always light a candle.

I’d sit in the chair opposite her, and she would rock back and forth slowly, creating a rhythmic patter that would be the “white noise” for our session.

I’d take off my glasses and twirl them in my hands, and after some unprompted deep breaths, she’d speak.

Whether a poem or a thought, some sort of frame would be placed around our time together. She would read from Ted Loder, Mary Oliver or some obscure poet she kept hidden in one of the books on her shelf.

Afterward, she’d sit back and wait.

Then the words would pour from my mouth. I never went in knowing what I was going to say or what topic I’d want to pull up from the depths of my spirit, but something would always emerge.

I sought out Mary Grace as a spiritual director almost two years ago. I knew I was wrestling with some spiritual turmoil, and I wasn’t sure how to process it. In trying to cover all my bases, I was also seeing a therapist, who was, and continues to be, very helpful in digging into my past.

But Mary Grace was keen at digging into my present. My soul.

During one of my long rambles, I delved into my nagging and uncomfortable feeling that something was coming for me and my work but I didn’t know what. Mary Grace looked at me and said softly, “Tim, I think I hear you saying that you’re being called away from parish ministry.”

Her words sucked the air out of me.

I’d seen myself only as a parish pastor after taking those vows 10 years ago. It certainly wasn’t all roses and rainbows, but what else would I do?

“I’m not sure,” she said, “and neither are you. But whatever you will do next will come. If this is truly the call, our process will be working on keeping you open to it and keeping your soul alive until it materializes.”

Monthly we worked to keep my soul going during the liminal stage between two worlds: the world of now and the world of not yet. We discerned how to be present in one while open to the other.

Tending the soul requires someone to consistently—and wisely—inquire about it, help you see it and ask you the honest questions about what you think it needs.

It was sacred and holy time. A spiritual director isn’t a therapist or a coach. They’re not a mentor and they’re not a consultant. They’re a companion on the journey who tends your soul as you look at the map of your life.

Quaker educator Parker Palmer calls the soul “shy.” In his speeches and writings, he’s likened it to a wild animal. You must be quiet for it to emerge, and you must remain quiet if you’re going to study it, know it and feed it. This is why all spirituality, whatever the tradition, is grounded in prayer and meditation.

Mary Grace, as she rocked and listened, was entering into the woods of my being with me, encouraging me to keep my hand out, palm up, so that my soul might show itself and be fed by our time together. In most other moments, it was struggling to be fed.

Tending the soul requires someone to consistently—and wisely—inquire about it, help you see it and ask you the honest questions about what you think it needs. The process is as slow as making whiskey and as delicate as blowing glass.

And it’s difficult to describe without tripping over your words, which is why any soul-tending speaks through silence.

My call has changed. I’ve moved from being a parish pastor to working for the church but without a parish. The transition happened just as Mary Grace’s own transition happened.

An avid kayaker who loved the water, she was on a trip in China when her vessel capsized in the rapids and she was caught in the waves.

When I heard the news of her death, I was just preparing to email her to set our next session and tell her that what we’d been paying attention to had come to pass. I would never speak these words to her, which I’ve come to grips with now. Our time together was filled with as much silence as speech, but there were still words I wanted to say.

So, I did what she would have done, I think. I lit a candle and read a poem—“When Death Comes,” Mary Oliver’s reflection on life and death. “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

I gave thanks for the one who, in my wilderness journey, kept me married to amazement instead of despair. I gave thanks for the companion who wouldn’t let me forget that I was the bridegroom carrying the world of my soul in my arms, and who wouldn’t let me drop it.

And I gave thanks for the art of spiritual direction—this strange mix of ancient wisdom, contemplative ritual and the modern imperative of saying the things that need to be said in a moment of confusion and need.

Mary Grace, full of grace, blessed are you among soul-tenders, and blessed is the fruit that we bore together. Thank you for tending this soul.

Tim Brown
Tim Brown is a pastor, writer, and ELCA director for congregational stewardship.

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