Regarding Relationships: When Saving Your Life Means Letting Go

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 expectati