A beginning, a middle, and an end.
Every spiritual-direction relationship has these, though now and then they overlap. Like the time I passed the Professor of Ethics coming out of the bathroom at the seminary and wondered if she was about to ask me to be her spiritual director. Beginning, middle, and end, all contained within the wisp of a fantastical thought that flitted through my mind and mine only, as far as I know.
I have one directee with whom I seem to be stuck in the beginning, even though she sees us being in the middle. Once in a while the end of a relationship arrives when it feels to one of us as if we’re just getting started. But I’ve never had a directee who seemed to be in a different place than I am in time itself—until today.
Elspeth has been unremarkable for four years, as directees go. She’s easy to sit across from. Our conversations ordinarily find their way to the depth dimension of things; God “shows up,” as church lingo would have it. Elspeth has never bewildered me, or even been late.
It’s quarter past ten, and I sigh, checking my phone for an email. Did our signals cross? Should I dig out her number and call? But Edward stirs in his cat bed and pricks up his ears, and I hear footsteps, loud and slow, on the outside stairs. A knock on the door, and there’s Elspeth.
“Good to see you,” I say as she comes in. “I was beginning to wonder.” As I speak I realize that something much weirder than lateness is afoot. Both of her eyes, the wandering light brown one and the regular dark brown one, gaze at me in coordinated tandem as she sits, barely resting her weight on the front edge of the recliner. Her hands are flat against the fronts of the chair arms, and her feet are in the ready position, like a track runner on the start line.
I take a longer look. Is it a fluke, the wandering eye just happening to land in the right place at the right time for once? Her skin seems more drawn than I last saw it, and her hair is … yes, there’s no question about it, her hair is six or seven inches longer than it was when she and I met four weeks ago. That’s some fast hair.
I decide to let it go. What do I know about hair? Maybe it’s extensions. I think of Saint Ignatius and try to be like a balance at equilibrium, not preferring one version of Elspeth over another. So far so good. But her eyes? Well … that’s harder to settle down with. I’m used to concentrating on her right eye, letting the wandering of her left fade from my awareness. But now her dark eye and the light one are staring at me together, in cahoots, from under lowered brows.
I hope I don’t look as tense as she does. She’s silent, facing me, poised like a raccoon frozen in the porch light and about to bolt. She hasn’t answered my statement (but really question) about how I’d been “beginning to wonder.” I’m past beginning now; my wondering is well underway.
Edward exits the room through the cat flap, which closes behind his tail with a thump, and I take that as my cue to press on. Oh God, help help, I think, shooting my pleas upwards and downwards and every which way heaven might lie. I suddenly think of a flu-shot nurse I encountered years ago. When I told her I was nervous, she said, “Well, I’m not nervous at all.” It helped. Maybe Elspeth will feel calm if I act calm.
“It’s good to see you again. I’m glad you’re here,” I say calmly, looking away from those eyes with their oddly parallel gaze. It’s what I almost always say before I do our candle ritual. Now I turn to face the candle. “I’m lighting our candle as a reminder of God’s presence here with us,” I say.
I light the candle, and the smoke from the match swirls around my hand. Elspeth inches further into the recliner. Her hands move into her lap.
“Would you like to take some silence as we begin?” I ask. It’s what I always ask Elspeth at the start of our session, after we’ve chatted and settled down, after I’ve lit the candle. Usually she nods, we’re silent for a few minutes, she breaks the silence, and our conversation begins. We’ve been doing it this way for four years.
So today, yes, she takes some silence. She hasn’t stopped taking it since she walked through the door. She looks slightly less ready to bolt, but she’s still gazing at me—staring, really. Her too-long hair lies forward over her shoulders, obscuring what’s written on the front of her dark blue t-shirt. Finally I make it out: “+20 Shirt of Smiting.” Elspeth is a gamer? Since when?
My Spidey sense is tingling, my “uh oh” is “uh oh”ing, the air horns of my intuition are blaring—in short, I’m troubled.
I lower my eyes to a spot on the floor in front of Elspeth’s boots. Knee-high black boots? Elspeth is more of a slip-on sneaker kind of woman. I coax myself into taking three slow breaths before I glance up at her face. She’s still staring.
I lower my eyes and count my breaths for another half a minute, trying to get a grip. Finally I concede that no grip is coming, and I look up. “Would you like to begin?” I ask.
Silence is an interesting element spiritual direction, and after a session is over, I sometimes reflect on its presence or absence. Was there much silence? Did I rush to fill it? When I left the silences undisturbed, what happened? What came out of the silences? And what was the quality of the silences—were they resonant? natural? awkward? thoughtful?
I would call this one excruciating.
“Is something bothering you?” I finally ask.
Elspeth’s enthralled stare breaks at last, and she turns to look out the window to her left. “I was going to ask you the same thing,” she says. “I was here on time, but you were … you were ….” Is she about to cry? “You’ve changed!” she blurts.
I’ve changed? I manage to make this sound slightly more neutral as it comes out of my mouth: “I’ve changed?”
“Well, maybe this isn’t what you’re supposed to talk about in spiritual direction, but … your hair.”
“It’s too long.”
“Too long?” I’m doing a great job using mirroring, that tried and true tool of listening.
More silence. What to do? “Can you say more about that?” I ask.
She blinks. “Look,” she says, “maybe this is too personal, but I find it really distracting, so I’ll just say it. I was here at ten o’clock and saw you through the window. You were … you were wearing pajamas and eating a bowl of cereal in the chair where I always sit. Obviously you weren’t ready for me, so I thought it would be polite to leave and come back later. Your hair looks like you haven’t cut it for ages, even though it was above your shoulders last month. And you say you’re beginning to wonder about me!”
I sit in silence. I’d call its quality stunned. I move a hand to my hair, which is coiled in my lap, and which indeed I haven’t cut since I was seventeen years old. Is Elspeth mistaking me for someone else? Who is this short-haired woman she saw last month?
The cat flap opens and Edward pushes his silky black head through it, then squeezes his body into the room. But it isn’t only Edward coming through the flap—a weird blue light shines in from behind him, glowing around the sides of his ears and body. Why didn’t I notice that spectral blue light when the door was open before? Or has it just started shining?
The cat flap closes with a thump, and the light is gone. That’s odd. The flap is transparent.
No time to think about that now. Edward sits on the floor between my chair and Elspeth’s, looks at Elspeth, looks at me, and then puts his head between his front legs and begins to lick his stomach. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I say to Elspeth. “Cats are so rude. I can put him out if you—“
But a voice interrupts from the floor between my chair and Elspeth’s, a voice coming from Edward’s direction as he opens and closes his jaws, exactly as if he were in fact speaking. “Oh please!” says this mewling voice, in a tone that might be the cat version of sarcasm. “Put me out? If you put me out, who will put you two back in?”
And with that he blinks his bottle-green eyes, fast, for maybe ten seconds. It’s hypnotic. As his eyelids flutter, I can’t stop watching. I don’t know what Elspeth is doing, but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing anything but watch Edward. My eyes unfocus, the floor under his sleek cat body blurs, and something shifts. It’s like the pressure has changed—the right side of my head, for a moment, doesn’t match the left side of my head. We were under water, and now we’ve come up. We were upside-down, and now we’re right-side up. We were out, and now we’re back in.
Edward trots over to the cat flap and we hear the familiar thump as he disappears. There’s no blue light.
I hear my breathing restart and realize I’ve been holding my breath. I look up and almost jump out of my seat: I’m facing Elspeth, my Elspeth, the one who visited last month. This is the woman I had expected to arrive at 10 o’clock on the dot. Her t-shirt says “Duke Divinity School,” her hair is its proper length, and her boots are now grey sneakers. Her eyes are wide open, and the left one stares at some fascinating speck on the wall behind me while the right one stares at me. Her mouth is ajar. I bet mine is too.
With a shock I realize that my hair is missing—almost all of it, it seems. My head feels light, as if I could float up out of the chair. Am I bald? I press my hands to my head, feeling this strange, soft, shoulder-length hair. The room starts to spin and I feel myself slump forward, Elspeth’s hands catching me before I fall to the floor.
With some effort she pushes me back into my seat, and we return to staring at each other.
“I think our time is almost up,” she says at last.
So it is; the clock by the window shows two minutes to eleven. What is there to do but what we always do?
I take a deep breath and bring my awareness to my feet on the floor, my groundedness, my body. I look for a moment at Rublev’s Trinity, the icon on the wall behind Elspeth, and I remember the presence of God: the loving Creator, the gracious Redeemer, the sustaining Spirit. I choose to calm myself and gaze at Elspeth with softer eyes. All is well.
“May I pray for you as we close?” I ask, as I always do.
“Yes please,” says Elspeth, as she always does.
I pray, and we both say amen. She hands me a check, we put another date on the calendar, we comment on the weather, and we say goodbye. Much like we always do.
Elspeth calls back to me from the steps: “Thanks again. See you next month.” She stops to look at Edward, who’s waiting for her on the bottom step. “Goodbye, Edward,” she says, reaching out a hand. He rubs his face against her hand and gives a quiet little meow. As he always does. ◼