Today I sit down and take a deep breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. It is not exactly the start to the day. It is actually 5:30 p.m., but it does not take me long to realize that this was the deep breath with which I should have started the day. I arrived a few hours earlier at Our Lady of Grace monastery for a ten-day stay, my second this year. God bless Eli Lilly for his funding of grants for pastors from which I am benefiting with this time. After a most welcome nap (it was a Monday after all and a 3:30 a.m.wake-up call coupled with a long Sunday—worship, visits, deacons meeting, budget discussion, and a broken copy machine—had taken its toll), I “begin” my time at the monastery with evening prayers. Along with the nuns at the monastery, I pray looking back upon the day. We sing Psalms of petition and blessing. I breathe in the goodness of community, of time set apart, of wondering how it is that I forget to breathe like this at home, of grace.
And then I begin to unpack. Not the physical things I brought with me, those were back in my room. I start to unpack all that I don’t need to hold on to while I am here.
First the little things of a typical church day. As they began to walk across my mind, I smile with relief. Here, I am not in charge of the thermostat. So it’s a little warm in here—I’ll take off my sweater. My room is a bit chilly? I’ll put another blanket on the bed. It may be that others think it’s too hot or cold in the building. I’m not in charge of that. I unpack it, and let it go.
My smile broadens as I realized I am not in charge of the silence here. During all our prayer times as we finish singing a Psalm or hearing a scripture, there is silence before the next element. I never once look at my watch to time it. I’m not wondering how long it’s supposed to last, whether people are starting to shift or cough, ready for the service to move on.
While I’m at it, I also unpack any worries about whoever is supposed to read next and whether they remember that. I leave noticing the burnt out light bulb—and wondering again how we usually reach something that high up—to someone else. I tuck away wondering how I could not have seen that bulletin typo the third time I carefully read through the order of worship before printing. Here I am not in charge of ringing the bells. I’m not in charge of wondering whether the service is going long.
Leaving these things aside gives me space, space to be struck anew by what is often in front of me that I don’t see for my distractions. As we sing each Psalm, I’m struck anew by the raw honesty and lack of pretense that they hold. It almost takes my breath away how God is questioned and cajoled and begged and pleaded with, the way God is blamed and remembered and loved and longed for. If someone was looking to paint faith as only that which gives strength and purpose and not instead something that gives power for speaking honestly about life in all its suffering and doubt and delight and horror and regret and joy and disappointment and renewal, they’d need to leave out the Psalms.
Somehow realizing this prompts me to think about unpacking a number of deeper things that I so often think I’m in charge of that I’m not. After a hard year of loss in our church, I need to unpack thinking I’m in charge of people’s grief. I need to unpack thinking that if I’m a good enough pastor I can prevent dark nights of the soul in congregation members. Or myself. I need to unpack thinking that it’s my job to mediate all of the harsh passages of the Bible, much less the harsh realities of life so that they don’t seem that bad. I need to unpack thinking that somehow it’s weakness ever to be broken open by the pain I encounter.
I know that these are not rational thoughts. And much of the time I would know they are not mine to do or anybody’s. But I forget.
To be fair I don’t do all of this in one prayer time. But the rhythm of each day here will help unpacking these and so many other things. I head to bed and rise the next morning for morning prayers, for classes with other women pastors visiting here with me, for meals shared, walks taken, perspective shared.
I know it will take me a few days in the rhythms of this grace-filled place to unload all that I have brought with me. But I also know that slipping back into rhythms I all too easily let go after I left here last time will act as the midwife for getting me there. Just as I know that the radical hospitality I experience from these sisters will help me when I leave to discern and pick back up what is mine to carry with a new sense of purpose and love. The big and the small. The journey of grief, not the responsibility for it; sharing the journey, not managing it. And, keep this to yourself, but I’ll even welcome back the thermostat.
Dorisanne Cooper is pastor of Lake Shore Baptist Church, Waco, Texas.