Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Mom, Mystery, and Metaphor: My Search for a Spiritual Practice

A women's leadership group I am a part of is discussing "spiritual practice," ways we as women, as leaders, and as individuals can connect with spirit in order to realize greater perspective and deeper meaning in life.

I've got to be honest. The phrase gives me the heebie jeebies.

The spiritual practices I am familiar with come from my young adulthood, steeped in evangelical tradition: attend church, participate in corporate worship, memorize scripture, fast, tithe, serve, and do "devotions" (private Bible reading and prayer). Those prescribed activities still reek of homework (at best) and prerequisites for salvation (at worst).

Another reason I struggle to place value on spiritual practice is the life and death of my mom. Her faith was the most compelling I know of. Mom was one of those rare individuals who lived her beliefs in a tangible way. She didn't talk about patience, compassion, unconditional love, or believing the best about people, she personified those traits daily. She treated others the way she wanted to be treated. She credited God for the blessings in her life. She lived humbly and sacrificially.

But despite being BFF's with Jesus, Mom's life ended due to an incurable and debilitating disease. In December 2006, a month before her 54th birthday, Mom was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's disease. For nearly seven years, my dad and siblings and I watched her deteriorate. Her earliest symptoms (sudden inability to balance her checkbook, getting lost while running routine errands, lack of simple recall) quickly morphed into more serious concerns (inability to read or write, requiring help to dress herself, constant fog of confusion). She disappeared one day while taking a walk through our neighborhood and didn't turn up until hours later, 13 miles from home. She was tired, disoriented and dehydrated, but unaware she had caused panic for the whole family that resulted in a missing persons report with the Sheriff's office.

In 2011, we moved Mom into a nursing home. She continued to lose motor skills, language, and resemblance to her former self. In the two years she was there, she aged an equivalent twenty years, her body seemingly on a fast track to total dependence. She died September 1, 2013, bedridden and infirm.

I hate what happened to my mom. I hate the fact that she was stolen from us - not only the morning of her death, but in all the losses along the way. She, of all people, never deserved to have her mind and body slowly turn against her. She was robbed of the chance to attend her firstborn son's wedding, to see him blissfully in love with his bride. She lost the opportunity to cradle and play with her first grandchild. She'll never be able to celebrate retirement, travel, or enjoy an empty nest with my dad, her adoring, devoted husband of 36 years.

I'd like a few words with the God she worshiped. I want an explanation for the humiliating, slow-motion death of a woman who was a powerhouse of kindness and creativity, who made every person she came in contact with feel valuable and worthwhile. Why was that light extinguished? What's the use of being faithful if there's no dispensation from suffering?

The years between her diagnosis and death were like an ongoing storm. As a family, we were constantly covered by dark clouds, continually in a state of emergency. I didn't know whether to board up the windows and hunker down, make an escape to higher ground and run for the hills, or give up and be swept away in the rising flood waters. It was a seven year natural disaster.

And yet.

In the midst of those stormy years, despite the fear, sadness, confusion, anger and profound loss, there were periodic sun breaks. There were rainbows. Every visit with my mom in the nursing home was a gift. Her sweet spirit buoyed us, even when we were trying our best to be strong for her. Her sense of humor lasted longer than her ability to tell funny stories. Her smile still lit up the room. She hummed and harmonized long after she forgot the words to her favorite hymns. My family rallied around her and our love was solidified. The storm of grief raged on, but we were anchored to one another.

We had the opportunity to practice the qualities we'd seen in her: it took unconditional love to carry on one sided-conversations. It required patience when she moved slowly. We drew on compassion in order to sit with her in unfamiliar surroundings, in rooms filled with ancient strangers. We borrowed her joy when all we wanted to do was collapse in tears. Those holy moments of connection to her were beams of light shining down between shifting rain clouds.

My simplistic, cause-and-effect understanding of Christianity has been shattered. My happy-go-lucky faith in a god who "works all things together for good for those who love him" has been called into question. I used to think that any reference to spirituality was an hommage to The Holy Spirit, whether theologically correct or incorrect. To say "I'm not a religious person, but I am very spiritual" was just a cop-out for those unwilling to claim a specific dogma.

But now, I believe Spirituality refers to something much, much bigger. It is somehow contained in those indescribable interruptions of love and light, the sunbeams and stillness during the storm. Maybe it comes from heaven, or eternity, or God, or the universe. Maybe it's generated between people whose love for one another transcends words of explanation. Maybe it simply resides in human souls. I don't know. My 16 year-old Christian self is screaming "heretic! Stop with the New Age mumbo jumbo!" but her pat answers don't satisfy me anymore. I'm no longer threatened by uncertainty. In fact, I'm allured by mystery; by the paradox of loss and love and how fully I experienced both simultaneously.

I'm going to keep an open mind. However I end up defining it in this stage of my life, spiritual practice will be the place where I explore these mysteries. Maybe meditation will become my metaphorical surfboard on life's tidal waves, or mindfulness a hot air balloon ride during a lightening storm. Maybe it will all come back to fasting and kneeling in prayer. I'm going to allow myself some time to ponder.

And I'm pretty sure Mom and the trinity are OK with that.


  1. I would suggest that your blog is a "spiritual" practice, connecting you to yourself, others and God. :)

  2. The paradox of love and loss. I have a daughter who's AWOL. I have lots of friends with AWOL adult kids. I don't understand it. I will NEVER understand it! But when I take it to God, I hear "Yeah, I get that all the time." He's not diminishing the loss. But all of those who refuse His offer are AWOL. He is STILL unable to love us any less. It pains Him so deeply to have his tenderly crafted creations turn from Him, and it astonishes me that He would add to that pain with what happened on the cross.

    What happened to Vicki is unthinkable in our human understanding. But having read your musing (thank you!), what I see is that when all else got pared away from her, what was left was what God had done, and it was pure and holy. The paradox of love and loss.

  3. Well said. Thank you. You, your siblings and your dad continue to be in my prayers.