Conversatio Divina

Found by Grace

Barbara Hudspith and David Benner in Conversation

Barbara Hudspith & David G. Benner

Barbara Hudspith is a spiritual director and elder in the Presbyterian Church of Canada. Although we first met when I spent a year living with her and her husband as an undergraduate student at McMaster University, our paths have crossed only a couple of times in the decades since then. Hearing recently that she and her husband were running a retreat centre in rural Southern Ontario not far from where I lived, I knew it was time to reconnect. This interview was the result.


David:        I’m dying to ask you about your training in spiritual direction and hear where your involvement in Ignatian spirituality has taken you in recent years, but perhaps we should start a bit earlier. Since we are going to be talking about your ways of experiencing God, perhaps it will be helpful to put that in personal historical context.

Barbara:    My family were Anglicans—more because of their British roots than their religious convictions. But when I was ten, both my mother and her sister had dramatic conversion experiences and became very particular about the brand of Anglicanism they then embraced. They were told by those who had been instrumental in their conversion that only the evangelicals within the Anglican fold knew the Lord. And so, we switched to a church that advertised itself as scripturally based. There were only two such churches in the city, and I grew up believing that all other Anglicans were non-Christian and needed to be evangelized. I received a thorough, though heavily nuanced, training in the Scriptures there, and enjoyed a deep and lasting relationship with an extraordinary woman whose teaching and example helped me to thrive.

What is also rather sad is that men played almost no part in this early formation. It was always the women in my family who involved themselves with the church, and only the women in the church who took an interest in children.

My God-consciousness began much earlier, however. At the age of seven, I attended a denominational school that placed a strong emphasis on the Ten Commandments and the unforgiving nature of God. Terrified by a looming presence, I lay awake at night pondering the heinousness of my crimes—particularly those I might unknowingly have committed—and waited for the axe to fall. Coupled with this obsessive fear, however, was a realization that I was loved and valued unequivocally by the gentle woman who was my teacher—a woman who ached so deeply for the pain of the world that she shed self-conscious tears as she read us Uncle Tom’s Cabin aloud.

David:        That represents a pretty potent cocktail of love and fear at a rather vulnerable age. Did your experience with this woman rub off on your view of God in any way?

Barbara:    I was about to say, “No, and I wish it had!” But the fact I have remembered her and that incident for more than half a century makes me suspect that she has always been there, tucked away in my unconscious mind since grade two. In the fullness of time, she emerged and became Christ to me. Thank you for that question. Another example of grace overlooked, eh?

David:        What other parts of your early religious upbringing left an important mark on your early spiritual journey?

Barbara:    Raised from age ten to see myself as saved because I understood the correct formula and had asked God into my heart, I also saw most of the people around me as enemies of God and in need of enlightenment—certainly not the adults in my church, but definitely the majority of my family members, my school friends, neighbors, and on and on and on. If they couldn’t describe a moment when they had suddenly—the more suddenly the better—felt convicted of sin, repented with hot tears, knew their burden lifted, and then experienced the indwelling of the Spirit, they were suspect. I could neither abandon nor trust them. We could not be close because they were dangerous outsiders, but on the other hand, I had to stick to them like glue in case God was about to use me to convert them.

But as I matured in the faith, I also realized that even though I had appropriated salvation in the acceptable manner, it could become a slippery commodity. I was responsible for maintaining daily fellowship with God and for figuring out—this was the hair-raising part!—what life path God was guiding me into. Getting saved was one thing, but the fine print on that contract was daunting. If I blew it, God would no longer walk with me. The love of God, unlike that of my grade two teacher, was hardly unequivocal.

And as for the pain of the world, well, it was caused by me! And try as I might to feel sufficiently repentant, the concept became an impossible burden, one that grew heavier and more complex with age.

This disturbing and unsatisfying worldview did not go entirely unchallenged. As I later explored liberation theologies, made forays into the feminist movement, and entered graduate studies in religion and theology, the limited tenets of my early faith no longer served, and the foundations began to shake.

David:        How has your experience of God shifted since drinking the waters of liberation theology and feminism? I am sure this shifted your theology and ideas, but I wonder how these experiences impacted your actual experience of the divine.

Barbara:    I had to face my own doubts, ask the unaskable, and not be afraid that God would disown me if I did. I had to trust that God loved me that much. I had to come to terms with the patriarchal overlay of the Scriptures. I had to recognize that there was a “preferential option for the poor” and struggle with the fact no one in my evangelical past had ever noticed it. I had to let myself wrestle in a new way with the Scriptures and actually doubt their veracity and inspiration—and still feel loved. Those were frightening times.

David:        I recall your once telling me about a serious illness and the role it played in ushering in an important shift in your spiritual journey. Remind me about the details of this.

Barbara:    While traveling in Ireland in 1995, I was hit with a virus that attacked my nervous system. Returning home to deal with the unbearable pain, I realized that this was a liminal experience, one that had serious implications for my soul. I became an invalid overnight, and every ounce of my energy and conscious thought was diverted into coping with the pain. With the help of friends, I found Sister Barbara, a spiritual director with the Sisters of St. Joseph, and she began to help me listen to my life. Nothing was verboten. Nothing irrelevant. Nothing too mundane or profane. The assumption was that God already dwelt within me and was perpetually wooing me into a place of greater intimacy with him. Listening to these urgings required a heightened awareness of God’s spirit within and a letting go of my tendency to concentrate on the cerebral elements of my faith.

David:        What difference did it make to begin to look for God within rather than outside you? Maybe you could give an example of what it means to find God within.

Barbara:    Yes, I can actually think of an example that began in Ireland. On the night before I fell ill, we stopped at a farm B & B. Next morning at breakfast, we sat at a table that looked directly into the fields, and I saw a rather odd and perplexing sight. It was a tiny black calf with front legs that looked as if they had been sawed off at the knees, and it bobbed and jerked around its mother in tight little circles. It was pathetic, and I saw it in stark contrast to the healthy calves that bounded happily around the adjacent field. The landlady said it was born deformed and otherwise healthy, so they decided to keep it. But it had to live in a protected environment with its mother always by its side. I realized that this was more than sentimentality—milk-fed veal being the price it was!

Anyway, I carried that macabre image around with me for days, feeling it had something to do with me, but wanting to put it out of my mind. Months later, as I lay at home wrestling with pain and fear, it came back in living color, and Sr. Barbara encouraged me to take it seriously and to pray with it. This was a totally new experience for me. I came face to face with my terror of being invalided permanently and living in such a tiny, restricted “paddock.” And I had to give that fear to God to transform for me. I began to notice, as I prayed with the image of that calf, which I now recognized to be me, that I was not just a poor, maimed creature, but also the only calf in the field that was permitted perpetual intimacy with the one who loved me best. I was the calf that didn’t have to fight for its clover, the one that was suckled and nuzzled day and night. And that mother cow was God, and I could feel the heat of her breath and the roughness of her tongue and just bask in the moment.

I knew that the black calf “within me” had been placed there by God and that Sr. Barbara was taking it seriously. What transpired as I prayed with that image was not manipulated by me. It was pure grace and gift. And though no physical healing occurred, my spirit began to grow and thrive in ways I had never imagined. And the love I felt engulfing me was unrivaled.

David:        Wow! What a wonderful gift of grace! But given what you have told me about your background, I suspect that the move toward finding God within must have been challenging.

Barbara:    This new way of approach, while energizing and life giving, also caused great anxiety. Raised on heavy doses of original sin and total depravity, I had bristled at the notion that God dwelt within me and desired to woo me. Though I recognized both concepts as being scripturally based, it was impossible for me to trust what came from within or to know myself as the beloved.

Gradually, I began to value and respect my imagination, to see it as part of my created self, and not to fear it. Ignatius of Loyola’s wisdom on the use of the imagination in prayer has blessed me immensely. And the whole idea of praying the Scriptures has expanded my horizons like nothing else.

David:        Learning to see ourselves as the beloved is enormously difficult for many Christians. What helped you make this transition?

Barbara:    I think it was chiefly because I grew to trust and respect my director and her gentle approach to prayer that I dared to listen to the voice within. And in listening, I found a resonance already there and vibrating. To my great surprise, I met the God who was too good to be true, who wants what is best for me, who knows me better than I know myself, and whose desire is to have greater intimacy with the beloved. That stubborn juxtaposition of fear and love just came unglued—without my help!

David:        I’d like to follow up on the fear and the anxiety for a moment before they recede too far from your experience. Ignatian spirituality is famous, of course, for encouraging us to seek God in all things. What have you learned about the presence of God in the midst of your fears and anxieties? Is God really to be found in these places, as well as in the moments of intimacy with the Beloved?

Barbara:    Absolutely. God is there in ways I would never have imagined. My repertoire was too limited. What I had previously expected was for God to fix my problems, teach me a new truth, convict me of a besetting sin, and to comfort and rescue me. This is no longer what I look for. The little black calf did nothing but frighten and worry me. And yet it was God. It sat on the back burner of my consciousness for months. Then when it did begin to speak, it neither fixed my pain nor taught me a lesson. It took me to a place where I had to face my fears, and it led me into a deeper intimacy. To attempt to capture that experience by naming and packaging it would be a travesty. I am learning to live in awe and to resist the urge to categorize and comprehend.

David:        Let’s come directly now to the question of the means of grace. What things serve to bring you most directly and immediately into contact with God?

Barbara:    God is assaulting my senses with grace. I have become aware that I have lived too long in my head. I’ve read far too many books and limited myself to the God of words and theologies. I am experiencing a reawakening of the visceral, such that color and sound and fragrance can move me to tears and suddenly speak God to me.

The hard part is weaning myself off my cerebral addictions and just opening myself to these new graces. I was lost in the desert a few years ago, and every time I took shelter in a shaded place, I detected a fragrance there. It calmed me in a way I cannot explain, and I do not know to this day what it was. But it spoke God to me in that fearful place and took me entirely by surprise.

I guess the answer is that I don’t know how to find grace. Grace finds me. Silence helps but does not guarantee anything. I seek out opportunities to go on retreat, sometimes with a spiritual director, but always with the assurance that I can have at least three days in total silence—a week or more if possible. There is no substitute for this. I can sleep and wake in constant conversation and companionship with God, and the lack of distraction and busyness, though difficult to adjust to, always enhances my awareness of God. Someday, when I have the freedom and the finances, I’ll do the forty-day Ignatian Exercises!

David:        I like your emphasis on grace finding you, not you finding grace. And I also know the important place that silence and stillness play in grace’s being able to get my attention. Any additional thoughts about why they are so important in this process? Or any other things that make you available for the grace that is there, simply not noticed or received?

Barbara:    In times of chaos and frenetic activity, I sometimes find myself standing back and observing my own reaction. And it disturbs me to see that while God continues to pour grace into my day, I am unable really to attend. I recognize the gift and try to tuck something of it into my pocket, but I miss the tenderness and the poignancy and come away with mere shreds. If I’m lucky enough to remember the encounter later, then I can revisit it and pray with it. But if I’m not, it weighs heavily on me, and I go around with a vague sense of sadness at my loss.

I’ve recently become aware that there are serious hormonal shifts that affect us when we can’t stop multitasking, and I wonder if my inability to attend is linked to this. It’s virtually impossible for me to take myself in hand and decide to be more mindful and spiritually attuned. It’s more like shaking an addiction—my body and my psyche have to be weaned away from all the manic activity I get caught up in, and depending on how far gone I am, this can take days or weeks or months. It’s not until I have gone through this unconscious transformation that I find myself becoming receptive again and able to give my full attention to the movement of God in my life. Those old saints like Cuthbert, who turned hermit and paddled off to God-forsaken islands in the North Sea, might not have found them to be so God-forsaken after all. Finding silence and stillness is paramount.

David:        Finally, I’m interested in how this all works out in spiritual direction. How do you help another person be found by grace? What can you do as a spiritual director to help others make themselves available to being found, that is, to experiencing the divine?

Barbara:    One of the most painful things for me as a director is to companion directees who cannot put their busyness aside and enter into stillness. I can walk with directees for years and bring it up over and over again, yet they cannot bring themselves to detach from their families or their work or their roles for even eight hours. Avoidance of silence and of being still before God is epidemic. And yet, once the die is set, the longing to be alone with the one who loves us more than we can ever imagine never leaves us.

What I do to help my directees experience the divine, as you put it, is to encourage them to tell their stories and to have the boldness to name the places in which God is already speaking and appearing to them. While I offer an extra set of ears so that together we might hear God, my chief task is to attend with utmost care to what is being said, as well as to the nuances of emotion that come through so clearly when someone knows he is being heard and when the presence of the Spirit becomes palpable in the room. As Elizabeth Budd Ellmann puts it, spiritual direction takes for granted that telling stories is a sacred act and that each day of the week is teeming with holiness. Just sitting there together “listening to a life” creates in us both a place of receptivity—fertile soil for God’s grace to rain down upon.

Footnotes