April 2019

The gift of spiritual companions

Sr Patty Fawkner SGS

God sends spiritual guides into our lives, reflects Patty Fawkner, who are messengers and mediums of the divine flow of God’s presence in our lives.

BY Sister Patty Fawkner SGS

I attended Pauline’s funeral the same day I read Daniel’s last column in which he spoke of his imminent death. That day it occurred to me how we need, and how God does not fail to send, spiritual guides; “guardian an­gels” if you will, that help us navigate that somewhat precarious journey which is our life.

Pauline Ferguson, a Sister of St Joseph, was my spiritual director for 13 years. In many ways the process of spiritual direction is simple. I would have an hourly session with Pauline – perhaps eight or nine times a year. Often I wasn’t sure what I wanted to discuss with her, and we would begin by me simply telling her what was happening in my life.

There was a quality about Pauline’s listening – that of real attention. She would ask a few questions, in a “decluttering” kind of way, leading me deeper into my experience, helping me reflect on the movement of life and of love – the movement of God’s Spirit.

I think the focus of our meetings was somehow dispelling the illusion that whatever was happening in my life – be it marvellous or mundane – I was not separate from God. God was in the mess and the mystery with me.

There was nothing guru-like about Pauline, and nothing esoteric in our encounters. But there was something artful in the simplicity of our sessions. Perhaps it was the sacred space created by her listening and our mutual trust. I just know that each time I came away feeling a little less fragmented and a little more whole; a little more certain about who I was, and Whose I was.

Pauline died a few days after another spiritual guide, Daniel O’Leary, the Irish priest, author, retreat giver and mentor to the tens of thousands of people who read his regular column in the UK Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Pauline was a confidante whom I met with regularly. Daniel I met only once socially as we chatted over a relaxing meal with a mutual friend. Pauline used to tell me that “she was in my corner” and I loved her for that. So too, without knowing it, was Daniel. Both were messengers of wisdom and encouragement, speaking or writing the word I needed to hear at that particular time. That’s what “guardian angels” do.

Daniel was not an academic, and mercifully never spoke in “churchy” language. But I loved his incarnational theology (which indeed sounds “churchy”) and the fresh language he used to explore our humanity as the place of encounter with the sacred and divine. He had a “nose for God” and the things of God. He eschewed anything that made a false dualism between divinity and humanity, heaven and earth, grace and nature.

I warmed to Daniel, long before meeting him, when I read his delightful reflection on learning to swim. It’s worth sharing in full:

I was 50 before I could swim. Even though I lived near enough to the Atlantic I was slow to commit myself to the water. There were two reasons for this. I did not trust it, and I was trying too hard. For decades I struggled around the shallow end of the pool, in the baby part of the beach, fearful of letting go. When I did work up enough courage to take a tiny risk, I would swiftly sink in a hopeless and counter-productive flurry of flailing arms and legs, my mouth filled with water and my heart with panic. Clinging to the safe railing of the pool, gripping the bar for learners at the three-feet-deep limit, how I envied the swimmers.

One May day I slid into the pool and swam. It was effortless – so natural. I was overjoyed. It was so easy. Maybe it was because of a lovely friend who swam beside me. Maybe on that day I was ready to listen to the wisdom of play. Whatever the reason, the graced moment happened and it was a special blessing to me.

This speaks to me of the gift of the spiritual guides I have met along the way. I have encountered “lovely friends”, lecturers, authors, retreat givers and homilists who help de-centre me in my earnest efforts in seeking God and trying to live an authentic life. My spiritual seeking is askew if I focus too much on me, my failures or “flailing” efforts, or if I “beat up on myself”, as yet another spiritual guide used to say. Rather, can I trust the medium, the divine flow of God’s presence in my life? Can I hold it all lightly, even playfully, and believe with Daniel and Thérèse of Lisieux that “everything is grace”.

This is not to sugarcoat life. Daniel’s final days were, as revealed in his palpably desperate final Tablet piece, a “terrible hell of darkness” full of “deeply wearisome waiting”. “How do I survive? Do I pray? I have not asked God for a miracle, or to cure me, or to shrink my tumour. Only to open my heart as wide as it will go.”

Daniel and Pauline’s authenticity shone in their non-sentimental approach and their humble acceptance of their own flaws and failings. They both knew deep intimate love. They loved God, they loved life and they loved people. They have both gone yet something of their love and their “take” on life will continue to resonate with me.

I am certain that God sends and will continue to send spiritual guides who are messengers of love. Who are your “guardian angels”?

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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