Companion God, you gave Ruth to Naomi, and Elizabeth to Mary. Surely you know our needs before we ask for them.
I think God must have slumber parties because some of the things God orchestrates in the bible stories (like the timely pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth) makes me believe that God knows a thing or two about how essential girlfriends are to any kind of holy enterprise, whether it’s praying, griping, imbibing or birthing prophets and saviors. This brings me comfort because it has to mean that I’m not weird for imagining that some of my most sincere experiences of God are channeled through my galpals.
I have a small handful of girlfriends I need to see regularly in order to keep breathing. On somewhat of a regular basis I find a way to see these women. They show up in their white lab coats and usually really cute shoes I undoubtedly covet, carrying steel briefcases with oxygen pumps and masks. And I am able to breathe for a little while longer. Nessa is one of those friends. When she and her husband left Durham and moved away to San Francisco I considered asking her to leave him and runaway with me to Paris and then maybe one day we could all reunite on the Jerry Springer show. Deep down I know she would have thought about it.
I hate to admit it but Nessa is one of those women I didn’t like as soon as I laid eyes on her. She’s long and pencil thin in an Audrey Hepburn kind of way, with a similar sense of style- classic and unassuming, and she always looks like she just blew in from a windy day, except HER weather tousles her up just enough to be refreshingly beautiful and breathless. Most normal fallen women would not like Nessa upon first glance. But it gets worse. She happens to be fabulous: witty, insightful and painfully perceptive, kind, gentle and full of love for anything with breath in it. Nessa also happens to be in the process of becoming an Episcopalian priest. A former New York editor, she moved back home to the South to finish her seminary degree. She worked part time as a chaplain’s assistant and part time as a pastoral intern at a small country church where the men say things like: “You sure preach good for a girl.” So all those Sundays I was lying in bed skipping church she was getting gussied up for another day as the priestly intern at St. This Old Church or Another.
It is an odd blessing to be a church delinquent and have some of your closest friends preparing to commit their professional lives to the peculiar ways of God and God’s people. The oddness of it is that you get to see genuine faith mirrored back to you and sometimes it kind of resembles what you yourself understand about faith, that it comes and goes along a bumpy road of self-doubts, deep frustrations and genuine bewilderment at how to reconcile the harshness of life with the adoration and praise of the holy. And there’s a blessed beauty in such a reflection because it offers you hope that maybe if we’re all in this together, together we can figure out a way to get each other further along the bumpy road without losing sight of God. Together we can talk and cry and probe for God.
I remember when Nessa was trying to think her way through her first miscarriage and I was trying to feel my way through the end of my long-term relationship. We spent endless afternoons in her garden, she pulling and tugging at weeds and digging up ancient bulbs that never bloomed, and me trying to hold my balance in the hammock I was constantly flipping out of. One afternoon I watched her as she stomped about her dry garden, every movement a determined force to root out everything barren and lifeless. Her long matchstick legs sticking out of small baby pink shorts, you know, one of those old, favored pieces of clothing from eighth grade that some folks, like Nessa, are still lucky enough to squeeze into. Her white ribbed tank top was smudged with dirt and long loose strands of thin wavy brown hair fell through the loose-fitting pink bandana tied carelessly around her head.
“I think I’m struggling with letting go of all the failures in my life” she blurts out, putting on old oversized ski gloves over her tiny hands.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“”I’ve been having these strange dreams and they’ve got me thinking.” She says. “I mean my body seems to know how to naturally get rid of it’s failures right? So I’m thinking why can’t my mind do the same thing, instead of holding on to every darn mistake and screw-up I’ve ever made in my life.”
It takes me a minute to realize that we are now calling her miscarriage her “body’s failures.”
“I mean why can’t I let go of all the past failures in my life that keep me from being who God wants me to be?” she asks.
I cross my right leg over to the far left side of the hammock, shifting my weight as I turn to face her. I am wary of another fall. She has plopped a white footstool beside the hammock and is ripping out weeds from the clumpy earth in front of her. Her hands reach and grasp determinedly pulling with a force that seems to ripple through her slight frame.
“Why don’t you write it out?” I ask, offering the one therapeutic tool I’m familiar with.
“I can’t seem to write right now. I just can’t.” her voice is clipped and frustrated. “My friend Steph, says it’s because I’m in denial.” She pronounces it “denaal,” her Nashville accent pushing through like weeds through broken ground. “She says if I write it down I’ll have to admit it and I don’t want to admit it.”
I’m not sure if we’re talking about the miscarriage or other supposed failures.
“Well maybe she’s right. Once you write it down it’s real in a new way. But that’s okay. Sometimes we’re just not ready to admit certain things. When my father died I stopped journaling for six months.” My comments fall unnoticed to the ground like the clumps in her dirty gloves.
“Everyone in my ordination discernment group is into journaling and writing down their thought processes.” She moves her fingers dramatically back and forth in front of her face when she says this, as though suggesting a touchy-feely self-discipline she both covets and mocks. “I mean should I be doing that?” she asks. “Should I be obsessing even more over how I can’t believe God’s called me to be a priest? How I can’t figure out why God thinks that somehow I’m capable of this job? I can’t even hold onto life he puts in me, let alone try to work through the fact that he thinks I can offer life as a priest.”
It’s a rhetorical question and she’s not even looking at me. I don’t know whether to encourage her or join in the pseudo mocking.
“Would that somehow make me a more committed Christian or something?” she continues. Again the note of questioning sarcasm.
“Why do you think you’re holding on to your failures?” I switch the conversation back to what I know is buried under all this chatter. I have learned that the role of curious inquisitor is most helpful for certain people. It allows them room to seek after their own answers in the safety of friends.
“I don’t know, because it’s safer that way? She replies. “At least I know who to be, how to define myself, and what feelings to expect. If I let go what will be my story?” She asks. Before I have a chance to answer she continues. “It’s much easier holding onto our crippling stories than it is trying to narrate news ones. Isn’t it?” She stops pulling weeds and holds up her dirt-caked gloved palm, a handful of tangled bulbs and roots and clumps of dirt. She looks up at me in the hammock, an expression of pained confusion mixed with defiant certainty.
‘Definitely,” I say. “Did you plant those last year?”
“No,” she says matter of factly. “These are someone else’s failures. How typical of me to be cleaning up someone else’s mess.”
The conversation, the circumstances seem almost orchestrated. I morph into my Shirley McLane inner goddess and smile at the universe, the beautiful raw, painful honesty of creation journeying together. Before I can say anything she throws a tiny rock nonchalantly into the hammock.
“Here you go.” She says. She’s dug up an old stone about the size of an elongated quarter. I turn it around in my palm and see that carved into the rough surface is the word TRUST. This time I laugh out loud.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I say. “Where the heck did this come from?”
Somehow Nessa misses God’s playful move. She replies without even looking up from the ground. “I just dug it up. Here’s another one.” She tosses another stone into my lap. This one says DREAM. The whole thing is ridiculous. I don’t know what to say or do except to just keep turning the pebbles in my palm. Before she is through Nessa throws three more stones at me, each one with a new word carved into them, HOPE, BELIEVE, PRAY. Neither of us know what to say so we pretend like it’s the most normal thing in the world to find these message filled pebbles. “I guess the last person who owned this house buried them in her garden,” she says.
All I can say back is, “huh, interesting.”
“Bishop in the Church of God, on behalf of the clergy and people of the Diocese we present to you Vanessa Lydia Martin to be ordained a deacon in Christ’s holy catholic Church.”
I am standing before the altar, behind Nessa and with the other three presenters. Nessa has asked me to be a part of her ordination ceremony. I can hear Fred, her 2 month old crying in the pews.
“Has she been selected in accordance with the canons of this Church? And do you believe her manner of life to be suitable to the exercise of this ministry?” the Bishop asks. I want to say out loud, “by manner of life do you mean the way she takes care of her two little boys and supports her husband, following him around the country through medical school? Do you mean how she’s gone through seminary in three different states following her hearts deep desire to love and listen to the God who calls her to the priesthood even though she’s scared of not being worthy enough to baptize and serve Eucharist and care for the sick and the dying and proclaim people as husband and wife?”
But instead I join the others and say, “We certify to you that she has satisfied the requirements of the canons, and we believe her qualified for this order.” And I decide not to tell anyone that I have no idea what the “canons” are. I watch Nessa in her white alb, the only one of the three women being ordained who isn’t wearing her ceinture belt, and whose hair looks like she simply ran her fingers through it after a shower and then stuck her head out the window of a fast moving car. I smile, relieved that even on the edge of the priesthood she still exudes that slight wisp of disarray, a lover of God trying to keep her many ducks in a row just like the rest of us. If God was getting another priest he was getting her with her diaper bag and her laundry list and somehow I felt that the kingdom of God would be the better for it.
The other day Nessa found her first free hour away in days from Fred and Tom, or “The Infant” and “The Toddler” as I like to call them. And she telephoned me. On her way to get a massage she called me and left me a message telling me she loved me, five times. I listened to her message five times and started breathing again. Sometimes God is in a hurry and has to get to the point. I bet Nessa was wearing really cute shoes.