by Callie E. Swanlund
A few years ago during this Epiphany-tide, I set off on a solo pilgrimage and spiritual retreat. I was going through a season of death and dying in many areas of my life. A particularly important dream of mine was quashed, and with it went my sense of personal enoughness and my passion for creativity. The previous year had also included the death of two family members and stock taking in my marriage. I was craving rest and renewal at the deepest level, but I also knew I had an important task ahead: as someone who was accustomed to holding other people’s emotions, I was on a journey to quiet all of the voices other than my own and God’s. After months of individual and couples therapy, my spouse and I were at a crossroads and I needed time in the wilderness—all alone with God—to listen to what was next for us.
During this time, a couple of things guided me—the brave journey of the Magi following their Epiphany star and the words of Mary Oliver. In her poem The Journey, she begins:
One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice – though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. “Mend my life!” each voice cried. But you didn’t stop. …
I knew what I had to do, and began. That isn’t to say I had a clue about my destination, but I knew that I needed to start paying attention to my heart. I didn’t know it when I set out, but my whole trip would become a giant metaphor for letting go. To start, I arrived, but my luggage did not. I’d packed my bright green bag with such care, thoughtfully choosing the tools that would accompany me on my first ever silent retreat: a journal, books, knitting projects, slippers, essential oils, tea, scripture, and more. I had to let go of the idea that being intentional in my preparation—just as I had done at every step in my life and marriage—prevented calamity from happening. My bag ended up arriving at two the next morning, but not before several phone calls with airline representatives who unhelpfully sighed and said about the missing bags, “Oh no, they usually turn up by now!” (I mean, how does a neon green bag go missing?)
I eased toward my retreat by first spending a few days with friends and exploring a city of my past, eating at favorite cafés and walking familiar streets. I visited the church I still consider my spiritual home, though a decade and three thousand miles separate us. I met with my spiritual director to talk excitedly and anxiously about how to immerse myself in silence for five days and to be honest about the heart wrenching work I had come to do: divorce discernment. I didn’t love the word divorce and still don’t, but I knew that if our relationship was beyond repair, we needed to discern divorce with as much intention and care as we had discerned marriage as young twenty-somethings.
On the morning I was to set out for the monastery, I got a call from Isaiah, one of the Brothers, who told me rains were causing flooding in their area. This meant the roads were closed and might not reopen for several days. I sat in the back pew of my friend’s church and wept about best laid plans, dashed hopes and expectations, and the stretch of uncertainty that laid ahead. Letting go and trying to figure out what in the world God had in store for me was much harder than I thought. If this was the unpredictable path of my supposedly restorative retreat, what did this foreshadow for my relationship?
Thanks to supportive friends, I had another retreat center booked by midday, though I had to let go of the vision of the monastery that had literally come to me in a dream. I prayed in earnest, asking what I was to make of these ever-changing plans. Was there a big sign I was supposed to see? My spouse and I had been walking down this path of discernment together and, like any story of life lived in relationship, we didn’t always see eye to eye. The thought of going our separate ways brought us both to tears, but our day-to-day reality was not reflective of the deep, abiding love we were called to in our marriage vows. And yet … how was I, someone who plans my life in ten-year increments, to know whether it was time for us to practice letting go?
Extreme flooding meant a lot of time inside my hermitage, my heart and mind swirling with my own prayers and thoughts. But one morning as the weather cleared, the ground dried up enough to go on a hike. As I walked on the trail, I looked ahead and realized that I couldn’t tell which way the path led. Was it down and to the left or up and to the right? Two completely different possibilities, with no way of distinguishing the right way. The only solution was for me to take a single step before the next could be revealed. So I took one, and another, and then another. It was in those steps that I understood the heartbreaking and yet somehow life-giving road ahead: I didn’t know the next ten steps, or even the next three, only that the next faithful step was to begin the process of letting go. The next step was separating from the kind and thoughtful person I had been married to for over a decade, hopeful that in doing so—in spite of our shared brokenness—we might find a way forward that would make each of us whole.
Mary Oliver concludes The Journey with these lines:
. . . You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations, though their melancholy was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones. But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do – determined to save the only life you could save.
I once told my therapist that while I would never counsel someone with these words, divorce just wasn’t an option for me. When she encouraged me to explore that idea further, I told her I’d committed to lifelong relationship, that I had never set out to divorce, that I didn’t want to hurt our families. She helped me reflect on how holding on to a marriage where one or both of us was hurting—never at the intentional hand of the other—was not upholding our vows, either. Separation or divorce or severing the ties of intimate relationship isn’t the solution for everyone. For us, letting go took just as much work as hanging on. We continued in couples counseling for months, intent on separating well. All we wanted for the other was wholeness.
My story may resonate with yours or my story may challenge yours … but each of us has our own journey to travel. And often, there’s a point in our life where the only life we can save is our own. During this season in which we remember the Magi leaving their home and traveling thousands of miles to arrive at the place where Jesus was born, and during this New Year's mentality of stock taking and intention making, I am reminded that sometimes it is letting go that saves us. Letting go of relationships that no longer reflect the love Jesus models for us, letting go of the deeply held perceptions we believe about ourselves, letting go of the burden of hurt once inflicted upon us. Letting go can feel like an impossible task, but it can be holy work. We don’t have to do it all at once; it can begin with a step.
The Rev. Callie Swanlund is an Episcopal priest serving half time in a church and devoting her other time to leading retreats, gathering community, and helping others find their spark. She created a film called How2charist: Digital Instructed Eucharist and leads individuals and groups in the work of Dr. Brené Brown as a Certified Daring Way Facilitator. Callie is a mama, creator, lover of Jesus, and dreamer who is currently building missional space in Philadelphia for others to discover and use their creative gifts. Find out more at CallieSwanlund.com
Featured image credit: Morgan Harper Nichols.
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