Conversatio Divina

Part 7 of 19

A Place Along the Way

Marie Loewen

Michael sat quietly, clutching the papers that were a flimsy excuse for yet one more visit to the insurance office in which I worked. We had met several months before, after the heart-rending death of his daughter in a car accident in which he had been the driver.Name and some details have been changed. I had arranged for a physiotherapist for his injuries and a grief counselor for his guilt and anguish, and organized a myriad of other details. In the course of our conversations, I asked if I might make a referral to a clergyperson. That suggestion was politely but flatly refused: he did not believe in God, thank you very much. He was a scientist, and he was convinced that science and faith were incompatible. We did not speak of religious matters again, although many of our conversations had spiritual undertones, and I prayed for him often.

Our business was now almost completed, but the frequent visits to my office continued with ever more transparent excuses. More and more often, we spent long periods in companionable silence. Today was one of those days. After a while, Michael roused himself from his deep reverie and looked up, blushing a little. He had no real business reason to be here, he confessed. The papers he was holding were as unnecessary as the last three batches he had delivered. “Do you know why I keep finding reasons to drop in?” he asked. I suspected that I knew the answer, but I asked him to tell me. “This is the only place I feel any peace,” he explained. “When I am here, I feel safe, and I have a sense that I am not alone. When I am here, the pain seems to ease, and I feel like I might be able to survive all of this. It is just so strange. What is it about this place?”

I smiled and replied, “Well, you know that God you don’t believe in? He lives here. What you are sensing is his presence and his love for you.”

At the time, I wasn’t sure where my answer came from, but it felt right. After he left, Michael’s question echoed in my mind for quite some time. It encouraged me to think deeply. I was aware of times when I had experienced a similar sense of safety and hope in someone’s presence. Occasionally, now, it seemed that people would walk into my own life for a time, find something there that drew them closer to God, and then continue on with the trajectory of their own journey towards God altered in some way. What was happening?

01.  The “Stewardship of Pain”

Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book, Wounded Healer, gave me my first clue. I found myself fascinated by his concept of “hospitality.” Hospitality is, he suggests, “a central attitude of the minister who wants to make his own wounded condition available to others as a source of healing.”Nouwen, 90. Without exception, those in whom I had experienced this sense of hospitality had at some point experienced a profound loss or some period of deep crisis. I did not always know the details of their lives, but the sense of shared experience would be strong. They had offered me a place along the way, a safe haven where I might rest and discover the presence of the Great Healer. Yet not everyone who lives through some sort of difficulty can offer that powerful combination of safety, hope, and challenge.

A number of years ago, I was hurrying to make dinner. I chopped the vegetables and tore lettuce for salad. Unthinking, I swept the trimmings into the garbage. My daughter, the gardener, was distressed. The trimmings were not garbage, she reminded me. They were the stuff of precious compost. How would I ever grow a good garden if I persisted in throwing away just what I needed to enrich the soil? She was absolutely right. Just so, the parts of our lives that we would hurriedly discard, the pain we would deem garbage, is exactly what can become the compost that enriches the soil of our lives.

More elegantly, Frederick Buechner speaks of the “stewardship of our pain.”Frederick Buechner, “The Stewardship of Pain.” 30 Good Minutes, The Chicago Sunday Evening Club, program 3416, aired January 27, 1991, accessed March 8, 2022. There are many things we can do with our pain, he suggests. “The most tempting is to forget it, to hide it, to cover it over, to pretend it never happened, because it is too hard to deal with. It is too unsettling to remember.” We can use our pain to gain sympathy or use it as an excuse. We can become embittered by it or trapped in it. All of these, he tells us, are ways of burying the pain, and if we choose to do so, we will find we have buried our life right alongside it. “If the life is buried, if the pain is somehow covered over and forgotten, instead of growing, you shrink. You become less; you become diminished.”

Buechner suggests there is another way. We can embrace the pain as Christ embraced the cross and find “that out of the greatest pain, endured in love and faithfulness, comes the greatest beauty and our greatest hope.”Buechner, “The Stewardship of Pain.”

02.  Making Space

When it is properly stewarded, pain stretches our souls, expanding them beyond the limits we ever thought possible. But while our wounds remain raw and weeping, our anguish fills the space, and we have no room to welcome others. Before we can offer a place along the way to others, we need to clear away our own clutter. This may require some courage. Facing our own pain is daunting, but when we determine to open our wounds to the Great Healer, the resources we need are supplied. These may take the form of helpful friendships or skilled caregivers, such as a spiritual director, a pastor, or a counselor. Inevitably, there will be much prayer and reflection involved in the process, and the Scriptures will be a precious guide.

As we offer up our own wounds to Christ and they begin to heal, we find the pain receding, but the space it once occupied does not disappear. Our souls have grown wider and deeper and fuller. The edges are more flexible and accommodating. The space that was once dark and filled with fear has been rebuilt; now it has windows open to the light, and the fresh air of the Spirit blows through. In the space where pain once ruled, we are now able to offer a place where there is warmth and safety and hope, a place where others, whether shattered by living or pregnant with doubt and possibility, may rest and recover. We offer a place where they may find enough safety to hope for healing themselves.

The memory of the pain remains, though. It does not disappear, nor should it. Now it lives in a corner, like precious ointment in an alabaster jar. From time to time, as we welcome a guest, we find it helpful to remove the lid of the jar to release its fragrance into the room. The fragrance reminds us of our own time of despair and healing, and from this memory comes both compassion for the other’s pain and the confidence that healing is possible. The fragrance graces the guest as well. She may not recognise the delicate scent, but its comfort will be expressed.

From time to time, we may even need to break the alabaster jar open and anoint the feet of our guest with our own tears. These tears are not for our own pain, of course. They are the embodiment of the love of a God who chose to suffer with his creatures rather than be separated from them.

I have a very clear recollection of sharing a deep and throbbing memory that had remained unspoken for years. I looked up, frozen by my shame and embarrassment, to find my host’s eyes shining with unshed tears. Someone dared to be touched by my pain, to stand at the foot of my personal cross, and the terrible loneliness I had lived with melted away. In that silent moment, my host embodied God’s love for me, and I began to hope that healing was possible.

03.  The Incarnation of the Hope of Healing

Hospitality of soul is incarnational. It is a willingness to share a safe place where others may come to rest and explore and heal as we embody the reality of God for them. Some years ago, I met weekly with a group of young mothers. They were bright and funny and committed to growing in Christ. Our times together were marked with much laughter and much soul-searching. I wondered, though, what I really had to offer them since mostly my ministry consisted of just being with them. One day I asked why it was they wanted this middle-aged woman there. “Oh!” exclaimed one of them, “You are the incarnation of the hope of life after small children—and, boy, do we need that!”

In a very real way, when we open the door of our souls to another, we become for him the incarnation of the hope of joy after pain. We become the incarnation of the hope that the present suffering will not be wasted but will be of value someday. And we incarnate the hope that life will again be good. Most importantly, we incarnate the reality that in the dark and despair of our guest’s personal Gethsemane, someone stays awake with him, and in the cold, predawn hours, God is with him. When she cannot hear God’s voice of comfort, we who have learned its cadences well will hear it for her.

This hospitality of soul mirrors God’s incarnation in Christ. Just as the Christian God chose to express the God-self in the body of a man and live among us, sharing the joy and tears of the human condition, so we intentionally choose to make ourselves completely present to those who walk into our lives. And the self we share is the self-in-Christ that has been formed in our own Garden of Gethsemane.

04.  Be Still and Know

The space where we offer ourselves is marked by stillness. The host is still in body and open in posture. The stillness, though, is not just a cessation of movement, but also an attitude of the soul that is marked by a sense of expectant waiting. It is deep, rooted in a sense of the presence of God; “Be still,” says the Psalmist, “and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). The host has met God often in this spot in her soul, and now she invites the guest to wait with her until the Presence becomes palpable to them both.

This is a quiet place. Words are often few, but the guest has a sense that any words he does choose to speak will be heard without judgment or censure. Here is a place where the silence and tears that cause such embarrassment in our society are not only safe but even welcome. Laughter is heard here as well. It is the sound of hope that the guest’s own soul-space that is being carved out by pain will someday be filled with joy.

05.  Windows and Doors

The hope is a window through which the guest can look ahead to the road that lies before him. It may be a bit dark still, or shrouded in the fog of uncertainty, but the path is there, and the host will help him see it. This is a temporary stopping place, a place to rest and heal and gather strength and understanding. It is not a staying place, and it is essential that both the host and guest be aware of that, lest the place that is a haven become a prison for them both.

The job of the host is to introduce his guest to the Guide—and then trust the Guide to take the guest on to the new life that awaits him. This is not to say there may not be an ongoing relationship between the host and the guest. In fact, deep and abiding friendships are often formed where the relationship is not restricted by the appropriate bounds of professional caregiving. However, this is not an expectation or a given, and there will be many who pass through our lives, resting for a while and then carrying on. We must welcome them with open hearts and send them on their way with open hands. When we begin to hold on, to grasp at the relationship, we have changed the essence of the experience.

This is a subtle danger and easy to misread. For this reason, it is essential that the soul-room we offer have a door as well as windows. From time to time, the door will need to be closed. When we allow ourselves to be touched by another’s pain, we must allow ourselves time to deal with that pain and find our own safe place to let the Healer do his work again.


Our own lives are not lived in a vacuum, and our personal circumstances will change. Spouses change jobs, and we move. Children bring us joy and exasperation. Parents age and become ill. We face our own health concerns. Our own spiritual well runs dry from time to time. We, too, need a place along the way. A spiritual friend or director is not a luxury for those who offer hospitality of soul, but a necessity for them and for the good of their guests. Times of solitude and reflection are equally crucial. Without these, we lose perspective. We fall prey to the danger of allowing our worth to be invested in those we “help” rather than in our self-in-Christ. The room we offer becomes cluttered with our own pain and questions, and we lose our stillness as we become Marthas, “burdened with much serving.”

Some years ago, I had the profound gift of introducing three women to the Healer as each of them prepared for her death from cancer. All three were dear friends before we began this poignant walk together. In a short period of time, they all died. I accompanied two of them in their last few moments here. The oldest was just over fifty. My own grief was deep, and I miss them still. However, since I was not family, I did not recognise the need to let my own grief surface and to find a place to speak of my own pain.

Shortly after, I was asked to spend some time with another woman who was dying, and I did so. I pray that I was some comfort to her. After her death, her husband rightly hoped that I could help him learn to know the one who had become so dear to his wife in the last days of her life, but I found myself much too busy to interact with him. I put off the telephone calls that would have offered comfort and the visits that could have opened space for him to heal, and, worse, I did not make arrangements for anyone else to offer this to him. I spent a number of months in frenetic activity until a friend faced me with the pattern she was seeing in my life and reminded me that it had been quite some time since I had spent any time in solitude. I recognised the wisdom of her gentle correction and took myself off for a few days of retreat with a skilled director. The grief that surfaced was intense, but the healing began, and the stillness of soul returned.

When I felt able, I contacted the husband, but it was too late. I had broken his trust, and he would never find his way through my door, nor was he willing to accept my direction to another place that might be more comfortable for him. I continue to pray that God will lead him to another place. My own hubris and lack of insight had added to his unbearable pain. When we fail to close our doors enough to do our own souls’ housekeeping, we put not only ourselves but also others at risk.

A number of my friends have operated bed-and-breakfast businesses. They all agree that when one offers to share one’s home with travelers, it is essential that some space be declared off-limits to the guests. Without this, the family has no space to be apart and to keep their own relationships healthy. Just the same, there needs to be places in our lives that are off-limits to those to whom we offer hospitality. We, and our families, need time and space to play and love and live that is ours alone. We need activities that meet our own needs for creativity and re-creation and rest. The God who gave us the gift of “Sabbathing” expects that we will use it.

Margaret Guenther reminds us that “spiritual directors, confessors, spiritual friends, and retreats—[are] all quite spiritual ways of keeping our house in order! Yet it is easy to overlook the more ordinary gifts of creation as aids to wholeness. Blessed are those who number babies and animals among their friends.”Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 1992) 13.

Blessed also, she advises, are those who find solace in the aesthetics of art and music, in hard physical work like chopping wood or scrubbing floors or baking bread. I find such re-creation as I walk the beach behind our house or work in my gardens. In the days when I dealt often with folks who had suffered serious injury, I always followed a visit in the intensive care unit with a few moments of looking through the glass of the nursery on the maternity floor.

06.  The Ministry of Presence

Offering a place along the way, or hospitality of soul to others, is really a ministry of presence. Unfortunately, often the word ministry conjures up an image of a paid professional, and certainly, the ministry of presence is an essential element of the work of a spiritual director, chaplain, or pastor. It is, however, in no way limited to the professionals. Rather, it is the capacity of any individual who has come to know a soul-deep connection with God and God’s healing presence to communicate the possibility of such a connection to others. Hopefully, this kind of sharing is often found in the context of the church or institutions of care, but it should just as often be found in more unexpected spots.

The church where I now find myself serving is no more holy than was the insurance office where Michael and I shared those first few moments of his realization that God was making tender and gentle overtures to him. The pastor’s office where folks come now to speak to me of life, love, joy, and pain is a sacred space indeed. God’s presence is often palpable there, but no more so than the local coffee shop where I meet my young friends who are trying to make sense of their lives, or the stool at my kitchen counter where soul-secrets are shared along with recipes and laughter.

Michael, who gave me the great gift of sharing a holy moment in his life, walked through my door in the everydayness of my life at that time. I have not seen him now for a number of years and may not again. The last time we spoke, he talked with joy about the ways in which he had begun to perceive God’s movement in his life. And I thanked him for asking a question that made me think. I thank him now for reminding me that in the midst of the unending ordinariness of our days, we may find ourselves offering a place along the way—and finding such a place for ourselves as well.


Marie Loewen is an Anglican priest, serving in Northern Ontario, Canada. She is married, with grown children and their spouses, and three grandchildren who are the joy of her life.