My friends Becky and Jane are ministers who tend the souls of United Methodist clergy and others in Mississippi. They refer to the participants in their soul care for groups as “Journey Partners.” I find this a satisfying naming for what I have sought in my own life and within our contemplative communities. And this is what I wrote about in my first book: Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture, published by Wipf & Stock. The story below hints at the importance of finding journey partners.
Contemplatives seek God. We do need periods of retreat from others for solitude to focus on that seeking. But only the rare individual is called to stay on that path alone. Most of us are seekers of God within community.
Being made as we are, most of us need the company of peers for the journey toward the Divine. Even when this journey is as short as the distance from the head into the heart, we still need each other’s mutual seeking to encourage us in making the journey.
Carolyn came to visit with me after visiting our Parker United Methodist church a few times. On the first visit she slipped out of the service briefly to cry. After the third visit she offered her gifts as a gardener to trim the flowers in their pots by our entry doors. Then she asked to talk.
“I’ve never asked to talk with a minister before,” she said, her eyes already moist. “I think I’ve found a community here,” and the moistness became tears, an attempt to clench them in, and a whispered apology, “I’m sorry.” When someone has been lost in a solitary spiritual desert for a long time, the sorrow of that loneliness and loss, mixed with the joy of finding a spiritual home, produce a maddening flow of tears that solitaries think they should withhold. But we can’t.
The lonesome journey has been too long and terrible. The quiet joy of finding the solace of actual communion is too wonderful. Tears and gasping for breath are a given. But some solitaries have been away from community too long. We don’t remember that we all cry on the human journey, and that we all need each other so much.
What Carolyn said after that clarified the main point: “I’ve been looking around for a church community since my parents died a few years ago. I used to attend with them. I was their caretaker for ten years. Since their loss I’ve been…adrift.” More tears and gasping for breath visited in the quiet space between us.
Holding back never works in sacred moments like this. But we usually try, as though it is impolite for Southern white people to have honest emotion in public. We get so accustomed to our emotional suppression that we are disarmed by free displays of honest emotion. Our brothers and sisters of color could be our teachers for sharing emotion freely in community.
Carolyn was in too deep, like wading across a river up to your neck, so the current of emotion could in no way be held back through propriety. And there was something delightful about her own unique expression of our human condition. Her words came straight from a broken heart and voiced our common human need and spiritual journey: “I’ve been adrift” and “I think I’ve found a community here.”
Carolyn and the many of us who find our way into open-hearted spiritual communities are truly “journey partners” for these two reasons. After you put aside any efforts we make to seem like we are “just fine,” we have all been adrift for much too long, and we seek the shelter of a community of seekers.
Now we need journey partners: warrior monks who have also found the hidden courage to touch vulnerability and share raw human need in the company of others, and warrior nuns who are converting suffering from the lonely searching for way too long into empowered truth-telling, even when we whisper.
Now we are journey partners. This is what the people in our spiritual communities are finding. We have been adrift, but now we are in the boat together, which eases our suffering, helps to mend our wounds, and lessens our fears, since we are all wandering together. Solidarity works wonders for us.
Some religious communities might be people of the answers. They can “name it and claim it” and feel totally secure that they have the right and only truth and salvation. But journey partners on a contemplative path of seeking God’s presence are of another sort.
We are just glad to still be on the journey of asking good questions with each other. We cherish the rich diversity of each other’s responses and spiritual stories. If there are twelve of us together, we hope to hear twelve unique ways of seeing this journey openly expressed. We are enriched by multi-layered meanings. We might even have a good laugh together over the idea that there is only one right question and one right answer.
And so, Carolyn, welcome to our community of journey partners. May we all be guided by your courage to be real, vulnerable, and willing to come together on our way from being “adrift” to finding our own community.