“Ant!” my four-year old son yells as he grabs two empty yogurt containers from a bottom drawer in the kitchen. He turns and runs back to the ant, placing the containers on the floor and trying dutifully to coax the ant into one of them. I taught him how to save ants when we had a massive infestation in my kitchen last spring. It came on the heels of me ruthlessly and obsessively killing as many ants as possible, using any number of pesticides and ant traps only to discover that my organic cleaning spray killed them on impact. (Nothing like the power of plants!)
One afternoon in a moment of pause, followed by a touch of panic, I realized that I was not teaching my son any reverence for life. So we started scooping up ants into yogurt cups and walking them outside. “The ant is happy to be home,” I told my son confidently as we watched the bewildered ant crawl into the grass. “They live outside,” I explained. “Not in our house, mama?” he asked for clarification, and I nodded in affirmation. That next week, I alternated between saving the ants when my son was looking and killing them when he was not. Until one day the ant infestation disappeared altogether. It was rather unexpected.
The ants returned this winter though, much to my dismay, and slowly migrated across our apartment into the bathroom. In the midst of our nighttime routine, when I honestly want to put myself to bed more than my son, I taught him how to let the ants swim. Thinking that this was a clever euphemism for flushing them down the toilet, I was quite surprised to discover that ants do actually swim. (Try this only in the safety of your own home, please!) So I switched tactics and decided to work on accepting their presence in my home, trusting that at some point they would once again disappear. And they did.
I’ve learned to welcome the unexpected as a gift from beyond. Eight years ago this summer, I was commissioned as a spiritual director. It was not something I ever imagined in my twenties. Nor was it something I’d ever heard of, for that matter. But the morning of my commissioning, I was brimming with nervous excitement. I stepped outside to breathe in the freshness of June. On either side of my front stoop sat my two flower pots bursting with color: purple delphiniums in the center, tall and lanky and fragrant, with hot pink geraniums circling all around, and tiny yellow and white blooms billowing over the side.
I snapped a picture for my mom. She had been there with me, at the nursery, mapping out the design, and later on my front porch, digging her hands into the dark soil next to mine. I wanted her to share in their glory, as that too was equally unexpected. Three years earlier, the summer that I turned thirty seven and learned of my infertility, I let every one of my plants die. The summer after that, I couldn’t plant at all. My pots languished in the garage, turning into havens for mites and daddy longlegs. Bags of dirt sat beside them, unopened and useless.
The summer after that wasn’t much better. Wanting to believe I’d born my grief, I drove to the nursery, hopeful. I filled my cart with yellow impatiens and ornamental grasses. My pots seemed light and cheerful, promising even, until my forgetfulness turned into neglect and sudden bouts of overwatering killed them all. I pulled up their limp, languid bodies and replanted, only to do the same, dragging out their demise over the waning days of August. I wasn’t sure my pots would ever hold life. But I was wrong.
Standing on my stoop, breathing in the earthiness of my geraniums, all my reservations about becoming a spiritual director came back to me. I had dreaded spending my Thursday evenings in the basement of a church for two years. I don’t even like going to church dinners. And, then being one of the youngest in my cohort made me question my choice even more. Perhaps, at 38 I was simply a novice in the realm of the divine. But the idea of holding people’s stories intrigued me, especially listening in a way that invited them to honor the wisdom within themselves and discover the sacred in their lives. I, too, ached to know God in new ways.
I suppose on some intellectual level we all know that our ability to listen to others is directly related to our ability to listen to ourselves. But my classes made that connection real for me. Week in and week out, I heard the same question asked of us: “What got stirred up in you?” For a long time I thought it was a rather odd question and one I didn’t always like answering, especially when the answer was loss. But the more I listened to my internal dialogue and made friends with what was being “stirred up,” the calmer I became inside. The more present I was to others, and to God, and the more I felt my heart grow and expand. All of which was rather unexpected. And quite beautiful.
Becoming a spiritual director has taught me to embrace everything. That, in truth, my fears sit right next to my intrigue, my losses right next to new and unimagined callings. Over the years, I’ve learned that every part of us has value. And every part brings us closer to God. Sitting in the cool grass with my son, setting yet another ant free, I am reminded that the unexpected is where the sacred lives.