We sunk into the sofas in the lounge in the pause between evening prayers and dinner – the delicious smell already drifting down the hallway from the kitchen towards us – and watched the light fade from the sky outside, the darkness approaching steadily from the North Sea to the east.
He was not who’d I’d expected to be spending my retreat week with. A punk in his fifties, an impressive red mohawk the first thing you noticed about him. He spoke with a disarming honesty and directness and he was kindness personified.
Now, on our last evening together here, he asked me what I’d heard from God in these days. I wasn’t sure really how to reply. It had been an uncomfortable and wonderful few days. I was still trying to sift everything through my thoughts, watch closer for those flashes of gold. (Even now. Still now.)
I said something about recognising my need to start accepting myself as I am, not as I want to be, wish I was, think others wish I was. To learn to simply be who God had made me, who I was in this moment.
“Yes”, my new friend replied, “because that’s the only you God knows and loves. The others don’t exist.”
He had a way of saying surprisingly profound things when I least expected them. (He went on to tell me a story that began, “when I fell down a sewer in Indonesia…”)
He was right. I have concocted dozens of identities. There’s the me that is tidy and organised and disciplined (oh I wish). There’s the me that finds meditation and contemplative prayer easy (sigh). There’s the me that always has the right words to say to the people in my life who are hurting (instead it comes out like blargh). There’s the me that is sure and confident of her faith. There’s the me that never procrastinates her dreams because of fear or laziness. There’s the me that is indispensable to everyone around her.
But really, there’s just the one me. It’s the me that is excellent at procrastination, frustratingly bad at being tidy, who doubts more than she believes, who is more worried about what other people think than she would ever care to admit, who worries that becoming a mother (a long held dream) will force all the other dreams into early retirement, who says yes too often in order to feel needed and appreciated, who longs to be a contemplative but struggles to sit in silence for even a few minutes.
I sat in the garden that afternoon on my favourite bench under the apple tree, reading my way slowly through a thin book by Henri Nouwen and watching the horizon.
“The praying woman is she who comes out of her shelter and not only has the courage to see her own poverty but also sees that there is no enemy to hide from, only a friend who would like nothing better than to clothe her with his own coat.” – Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands
When I try to pretend to myself that I am those other me’s, I am hiding. Hiding like Eve in the Garden. Hiding because I am ashamed of who I have become, which is sometimes far from who I would like to be. I’m hiding and hoping no one will see the real me.
But here’s the shocking and beautiful truth – that me, the one hiding in the shrubbery, is the only me that is deeply and eternally loved. Not for anything I could be, but for everything I am right now.
I imagine learning to dwell with myself in love and kindness rather than disappointment and regret. To come out of hiding and walk in the garden with my dear friend, who sees me and likes all that is seen. Perhaps this is the greatest challenge of my one word this year, the call to courage to stop denying who I am but instead embrace it all, wholeheartedly.