Twelve years ago I boarded a plane at Albany Airport on my way to visit my brother, Steve, who was living in La Jolla, California at the time. I was going to visit him because my heart was broken and often when I am in a difficult place in life I find that I want to be near him. He's a peaceful, wise person, and also very funny. Richard, whom I had been dating at the time, had broken things off that summer, in a way that was painful and unexpected. On the day I was traveling a mighty storm was blowing through the area, causing my flight to be delayed, so I wandered off to a quiet part of the terminal and sat down near a window. A minute later I watched a bolt of lightening hit the tarmac outside the window and the power in the airport temporarily shut down. Eventually everything passed and when we boarded I found that I was seated next to a nun. Over the course of our flight to Philly I came to know who she was: Sister Alma Coughlan, and that she had been on a retreat in the Adirondacks and was on her way back to Scotland to open a small retreat space with another nun. She knew that I was in pain, and she let me talk about what I was going through. Before we parted ways, she gave me a prayer to carry in my heart, and she said, "It's a small prayer, but it's powerful." A few weeks later, after I had returned home from California, I received a package in the mail from Sister Alma. It contained a journal, a blessing and a photocopy of a picture of a barn she had gotten from Vermont Life Magazine.
Needless to say, I have never forgotten Sister Alma, nor have I ever stopped being in complete awe that she was right where I needed her when I needed her. The prayer she gave me has stayed with me always, and I recite it often. I've needed it a lot lately, to get me through some hard hours. Life is reconfiguring itself once more and my heart is aching as we head into the cold days and long nights of winter.
Father Jack, fearless leader of my CPE (chaplains in training) group at the hospital keeps telling us this: "You will get the patient that you need...you will get the patient that you need."
Does life give us what we need when we need it? I'm afraid so. Even when it's something we don't want. Even when it doesn't make any sense. Even when it hurts like hell. There are some shrubs in the forest whose seeds won't germinate unless they're cracked open by fire, right? Pay close attention, though, and you will find that the gentle Scottish nun will show up, too, to help you through the hellfire days. It somehow truly is a big, beautiful and elegant mystery.
I will be boarding a plane on Thursday. Heading out to Denver for a few days. I can't help but wonder who my seatmate will be this time.