Today is my 55th birthday and so, as one is prone to do after another year orbiting the sun, I paused this morning before getting out of bed to do a little self 360 on my life thus far.
The first thought that popped into my head was being on my silent 8 day retreat this past summer. Towards the end of the retreat, during one of my daily meetings (without silence!) with my beloved spiritual director, I exclaimed that the time had been a slot machine of graces. As any good spiritual director would do, she asked me to tell her more about what I meant. I said that during the silence I had been able to see the myriad of graces that God had so generously given me over the course of my life. She looked pensively at me and then gave me a homework assignment (yes there is spiritual homework sometimes on retreats). My assignment was to write down all of the graces from God that I could think of. I thought to myself “Oh that is an easy assignment, I got this - no problem.”
That’s what I did the rest of the afternoon and evening. In my trusty journal, always with me while on retreat, ready to hold my deepest thoughts and prayers, I began a list of graces. As I wrote, the list began to grow and take shape. I finished one column and began to write another column on the right hand side of the page. My mind, rather my heart and soul, were on fire with these graces (aka gifts from God, freely given). Soon I found myself starting a second page, also in two columns. At some point, which remains vague in my mind, I came to a natural pause and put the list aside (most likely to eat or move or seek out another life-giving location to write).
That first day of my writing, I realized ironically in retrospect, was July 4th. Though I didn’t put it together at the time, that list was my independence, or more specifically a gift of freedom. What exactly was I free from? By realizing and acknowledging these graces, I was free to trust God fully and completely, hopefully for the rest of my life. I was free from fear, worry and angst...that little voice in the back of my mind that said stubbornly, “No, Ellen, you can’t do that.” I was free to dream my wildest dreams and imagine a life that God and I were co-creating, according to his mysterious will. Most of all, I was free to be the true and authentic me that God created 55 years ago.
My list continued to grow the next day and the day after that, spilling onto a third and fourth page. As a matter of fact, it’s still growing today, almost three months later, being added to just a few minutes ago, starting a 6th, 2 column page. Because I am a bit of a closeted geek, I did some quick math and realized my list of graces is 250+ and growing. Wow! Could this be right? But there it is, in black and white, page after page.
You may be asking what exactly is contained on the list. Well, at the very top is my Mom and Dad, for bringing me into this world out of their love for each other and giving me life. Next are my children, and from there I list individuals, events and experiences that have formed me and cumulatively made me the person I am today.
There, in my own handwriting, was my slot machine of graces, with every grace like a coin in an actual casino, overflowing into multiple buckets. So many buckets of graces/coins, I cannot possibly carry them all away, which is ok, because I don’t have to. They live on in my heart and journal.
What, if any, wisdom can I glean from this powerful homework assignment while on retreat? My first thought is that quote, oft-used in spiritual circles, that God draws straight with crooked (or as I like to say, squiggly) lines. But what does that really mean?
For me, it means that in addition to the graces, there have been a plethora of left turns, big setbacks, backwards steps and loss, lots and lots of loss (too numerous to count). Yet, within these two diabolically opposing experiences of grace and loss, I have heard the voice of God. And what does God whisper to me, when I permit myself the silence to listen? God says, “Keep pulling the lever Ellen. Keep on going - give it just one more try. I am here. Keep trusting. I promise life won’t be all crooked lines. I will lead you forward. Come, follow me. It’s okay. Keep taking a chance on me. Though you may not be able to see it now, the buckets of coins will, in the end, out measure the losses. I am with you. I love you. You are mine. I delight in you and danced the day you were born.”
And so it is, as I began today my 56th year, I will keep pulling the handle in this gamble we call life. God willing, no matter what is to come, I will keep adding to my slot machine of graces and weather the crooked lines.
Ellen Kelly is a spiritual director. She earned a MTS from The Jesuit School of Theology