Some time ago, one of my close friends launched into a diatribe against Catholic education. She's not Catholic herself, but her ex-husband is, and she had a lot to say about the damage inflicted upon him by ruler-wielding nuns.
After listening for a few minutes, I said, "You know, I went to a Catholic boarding school for three years (grade seven through nine) and I don't see that it did any damage."
Her eyes widened. "You did?" she said. "How can that be? I didn't know that! You've always seemed perfectly normal to me!"
"It may have been easier on a non-Catholic," I responded. "Not that I ever saw any nuns whacking people with rulers. But I had no buy-in to the faith they were pushing, so no doubt I felt less in the way of emotional pressure than a Catholic might have."
All by way of introducing the fourth reason I believe what I do: mentors. I would not have recognized most of them as such until recently; they were just people being who they are. But now I see that I have had some significant support in my Christian journey, much of it occurring long before I would have identified myself as a person of faith.
I've aready written about Sister Collette, the nun who taught my junior high religion class and presided over my first Seder after she concluded that all of us, including herself, were completely ignorant about the religions of the world and needed to investigate. To my list of school mentors I should add Mr. Smalley, my senior year teacher (at another religious boarding school) in religion and society. Thanks to him, we read Freud and Marx and Bonhoeffer and Frankl. But the most significant conversation I ever had with him had nothing to do with the course. As we walked through the snow toward class one dark winter morning, he inquired about my college choices and then berated me for provincialism, telling me in his southern drawl that we all needed to look beyond New England. (I later discovered that his B.A., M.Div., and Ph.D. were from Vanderbilt, Chapel Hill, and Duke, although not necessarily in that order. No wonder he was frustrated, probably by the snow as well as by the endess profusion of New England colleges.)
Both of them, Sister Collette and Mr. Smalley, offered a clear message, albeit one of example rather than exhortation: the world is full of all kinds of people, people who find God in all kinds of ways. Get out there and talk to them. The life of faith is one of expansive and bold questions; engage with it!
Religion played no part in my life for about ten years after my high school graduation. Fast forward to the Methodist minister who baptized me and welcomed my husband and me into church membership. I had no idea what I was doing. In retrospect, I am so grateful that our minister was, other than a brilliant and much-in-demand preacher, a warm and kind presence who, like every significant mentor in my life, refrained from imposing his views or beliefs and stood out of the way of the Spirit. If anyone had asked me what I was up to in my late twenties, the most I could have come up with was that I felt moved to make a public and official connection with a church. More questions, or an insistence upon anything beyond the most tepid of membership classes, and I would have been out of there in a flash.
As our family vacationed at Chautauqua each summer, I began to acquire a whole new list of mentors, some of whom I knew -- those individuals who taught various week long classes in journaling, for instance, some of whose names might be known to readers here -- and some of whom I didn't -- that long line of preachers who come to Chautauqua for a week at a time, as they have for more than a century. Chautauqua is where I first encountered Barbara Brown Taylor, the Episcopal priest who caused me to look up in astonishment and say, "That can be preaching?" At the time, she was still a parish priest in Georgia and it was my stepsister, one of her congregants, who had mentioned that their priest was some kind of preacher and that I would want to see whether she was at Chauatauqua when we were. I'm linking one of my favorite BBT sermons ever, although it's better in the listening. I don't think that my very, very, very favorite, preached at Chautuaqua maybe five years ago, is online anywhere.
The pastors in my present, Presbyterian, church, are astonishingly adept mentors. They are each tremendously gifted at the many tasks of ministry, but they are especially gifted in helping the rest of us to grow. Their leadership never insists upon their being front-and-center; although they usually are, they are eager to create space for everyone else in the church to do its work as well.
Creating space, space in which we are graced by encounter with God -- to my way of thinking, that is the most significant thing that a person can do in life. Some people do it as preachers, some as businesspeople, some as litugists, some as lawyers, some as neighbors, some as teachers. The person I know who does it the best of all is my spiritual director, the Jesuit who guided me through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and continues to help me with my life of prayer. It would be impossible to describe someone who, despite being possibly the busiest and most accomplished person I know, showed up at 8:00 am, the only time consistently convenient for me, one day a week, week after week, to listen carefully and to occcasionally ask, "What about this?" or to suggest a novel, or a movie, or an idea ~ each time nudging me just a little bit further into that encounter. If the invitation and context found in the words, "Come and see!" have any meaning for you ~ well, that describes the attitude and bearing of the person who has been my best mentor for the past couple of years.
This has been an interesting post to write. In the nature of blogging, it barely grazes the surface, but one point does leap out at me: everyone whom I count as a mentor in faith has been a person of gracious invitation, a space-maker. To the extent that there have been people in my life who have said, "This what you must believe," or, "This is how you must approach God," or "This is the only way," they have left no lasting impression. Well ~ a few have left negative impressions. But they are not people whom I would count as mentors. The people who have guided me and shared something of themselves have, it seems, always been people who have understood that their role is to create the space; God does all the rest.