Soul Friends

Soul Friends January 9, 2013

“One’s ‘spiritual life’ isn’t apart from the rest of one’s life, something that goes on in the prayer room alone, but it is our life. Life is spiritual.”

My spiritual director, the Merton scholar Fr. William Shannon, said this to me during one of our meetings—after I’d been seeing him for about a year. That was in 1986. He died last spring, at the age of ninety-four. Since then I’ve been slowly reading through the journal entries that I wrote after every one of our quarter century of monthly meetings.

It’s my way of keeping him with me, of continuing to benefit from his guidance.

Bill (as he was soon inviting me to call him) wasn’t trained as a spiritual director. He was a theologian on the faculty of Nazareth College in Rochester, NY, founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph. When he retired, he became the Sisters’ chaplain, living in their Motherhouse.

It was then that people started coming to him for spiritual direction. Word got around that he had gifts of compassion and insight. I was a new Catholic, baptized in my late thirties, in 1983, and I knew I needed wise guidance in my fledgling spiritual life. I asked a mutual friend to fix us up… and that’s how I met the person who has formed my life more than anyone except my husband.

At our very first meeting, in February 1985, Bill talked about what spiritual direction is. It’s not, he said, someone directing or showing you the way. Rather, we both discern together God’s will in my life. He picked up a book from his table, Soul Friend, by Kenneth Leech, which had first been published in 1977. “This is what a spiritual director is,” Bill said. “A soul friend is helpful because anyone is too close to him- or her-self to be able to see clearly God’s will, and someone else has a bit of distance to help see this.”

And soul friends are what we truly became.

At each visit, I’d pour out whatever was agitating me at the moment: a neighbor’s noisy dog, my distractedness at prayer, a loved one’s suffering with cancer, my distress at being short-tempered with my husband, my anxieties about money—all things great and small. But Bill never classified them that way: as “great” or “small.” All of life is spiritual, he’d repeat; and he’d act on that dictum, treating each of my concerns with equal importance.

As our soul friendship deepened, he would share his own concerns as well.

In my journal of March 26, 1996, I wrote:

Bill & I “shared” today. He asked, “So how’s Peggy?” and I said, “Very good, though sorry that Lent is ending. I’ve liked the little discipline of attending to gratitude—for instance this morning, exhausted from only four hours sleep, I worked happily on the tedium of checking permissions for my current book, grateful to have a concrete task that connected me to the working world.

Bill picked up on my sleepiness and called it ‘my Cross.’ Then somehow he started talking about his own sense of diminishment—of accepting the limitations of age. And he talked sweetly about having felt shy when he was younger. Also about wishing that when he was teaching he’d had the wisdom of age.

We were both writing books as our main vocation. One day in May of 2000, I came to him in a dither because my publisher had taken my latest book out of print scarcely a year after they published it. (This was before the era of print-on-demand, e-books, etc.) Bill’s first response was to share his own stories of frustration with publishers: how he had to call his current publisher to get them to advertise his book, and had to email Amazon himself to get the book listed.

Then I told him how awful it felt not to be able to stop raging at my publisher, and also how confusing it was to distinguish how much I’m propelled by ego and how much by justified indignation. His response: “Those very observations and concerns are the mark of a mature spirituality.” Well, if it was mature, I knew that it was his fifteen years of spiritual direction that had done the maturing.

My journal entry of March 12, 2002, is simply: “Saw dear Bill just now for our monthly meeting. Mostly anguishing together over the war-mania, the terrifying responses of so many Americans to 9/11. The blessing was sharing it all with Bill, urging one another to do what we can…”

November 19, 1993: “Bill was a dear, of course. All my concerns came up naturally, peacefully, in the Spirit. In fact, Bill said at the start that he sees the Holy Spirit being present in a special way in a relationship of spiritual direction.” He was always, in my journal “dear Bill” or “sweet, helpful Bill.”

Before one of our meetings in the mid-1990s, I noted in my journal:

I see Bill this week. Almost daily since our last meeting, I’ve been wondering how to articulate my need for him. My sense of Bill’s role in my life is that he’s God’s gift to me for discernment. Also for steadiness and security: knowing I’ll be checking in with him monthly allows me to pocket confusions that come up in the normal course of things… Whether I’m explicitly asking “Did I do wrong?” or “How should I handle this?” his response is a guidepost. “Seek counsel from every wise person,” is the Morning Prayer reading on Wednesday, from the Book of Tobit. What a grace that I have this wise person to seek counsel from.

When did our soul friendship turn into love? Impossible to say. Impossible to say when any love begins. But the time came when Bill and I would end every session with a deep, warm hug.

God blessing me, I’d always feel.

I still do.

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  • What a lovely expression of love this is, Peggy. What a marvelously deep friendship you keep present in your reading of your journals. I think what you enjoyed and do still is something rare.

  • Well, after Bill died, I pretty much stopped journaling. I guess I’m in a phase of life where reading them over and over is what’s most useful. But I’m sure grateful that I kept writing the journals during all those years of spiritual direction.

  • What a blessing to have this type of long term mentoring. It seems like it is so difficult to find someone who will take the time to speak into you life like that. And the journals, what precious gifts.

    • Yes, Anna, “blessing” is the word. How is it that one’s life becomes graced by another’s wise attention? I have no idea. Only gratitude. And the wish that everyone be similarly blessed.