On the pilgrim way: The wants of life
When I was about 14, I wanted to get married and have 12 children! I had been reading a silly book called Cheaper by the Dozen. When I was about 20, I was very serious about spending my life in some kind of sacrificial service and I thought teaching in Burma would do it. However, once I was tied to this country by getting engaged to be married, I settled for a rough (even violent) Glasgow school.
Once the demands of marriage, motherhood, church and community commitments, and – later – teaching again, took over, I no longer asked the question: “What do I want to do with my life?” But pulled up short by my eldest sister’s death at 49, the question surfaced once more and I candidated for church ministry. Very soon, the question disappeared again under the daily demands of church and family; asking myself what I really wanted seemed a selfish question. It was also rather a scary question: What if what I really wanted was to live alone? What if what I really wanted was to get away from family and church demands? I was beginning to realise that suppressing the question was making me depressed and resentful.
A wise spiritual guide helped me to see that honestly acknowledging my various longings, both serious and trivial, meant I could weigh up what to do about them. She also pointed me to Jesus, who so often asked a sufferer: “What do you want me to do for you?” and to the mystics whose deepest desire is for God.
I am at a different stage of life now. I still want to be of service and I am now grateful for the “demands” of family and church. I am still a little afraid of articulating my wants – to continue to have my husband, family and friends, and my own health and independence – because I know that time will take them all away. A friend has decided to stop the chemotherapy which was making her feel so ill, and to spend the last months of her life paying attention to her deepest wants. She is planning her funeral, sitting in the car looking out to sea, and spending time with friends and family.
Last Advent I found a poem by the mystic, St John of the Cross*, which begins: “If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road pregnant with the holy, and say: ‘I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart.’” I can’t get that “if you want” out of my head. I long to respond, honestly: “Yes – I do want.” Time won’t take that holy one away.
*“If you want” by St John of the Cross can be found in Love Poems from God: Twelve sacred voices from the East and West by Daniel Ladinsky (Penguin, 2002)
Sheila Maxey is book reviews editor for Reform
This article was published in the December 2014/January 2015 edition of Reform.