When I was a little girl, I was in the second or third grade at the time, my father, who traveled extensively for his work, brought me home a very generous gift. It was a hand-made cowboy (or in this case, I guess, cowgirl) hat. It had a beautiful, delicate black velvet ribbon at the base of the crown.
Upon receiving it, I began to cry, and I continued to cry my heart out for days.
I had never felt more insulted in my life.
I was crushed.
This simple act began the destruction of my relationship with my father.
I don’t think that I ever forgave him.
I’m not making this up.
That my father would think that I would be grateful to receive such an obvious display of materialism taught me that when he looked at me he didn’t see me. That after the years that we had had a relationship, he didn’t know me.
But, then, why would any parent think twice about buying something for their child as a gesture of love?
A few days after the “incident” I got practical and figured a way out of feeling the hurt: I turned around and gave the hat to my friend who was beside herself with joy. Of course her parents, thinking my gesture inappropriate, turned around and informed my parents, who, in turn, said absolutely nothing to me about it all. They just stared.
It was the only time that I can remember my grandmother not fully articulating her complete disapproval of my behavior, my failure to behave as a proper girl. She, too, only stared.
It ended rather sweetly, really, when my mother, not a woman who cherished the reality of mothering children, asked me what I would like instead of the hat. And it was she who braved the then embarrassment of being a good and proud Protestant and going into a store that sold Roman Catholic goods to buy me ceramic figurines of a nun and of Saint Francis.
I did not understand for many years how unusual my reaction had been.
And it was many years beyond that that I realized that no one was helping me to put my most unusual way of being into context. No one was giving me the message that I could be understood, and not just stared at. No one was showing me that there had been others who had lived their childhoods upside-down and inside-out.
In short, no priest was teaching me about God and about me.
Not only did I never hear what I was being taught about God through my visions from the pulpit, my feelings of cherishing everything about church were most certainly not reciprocated.
In the one place where I felt I belonged, where I was at home, I was most shut out by the people around me. Except when I sang in the choir. Then I got to be one of the gang. Just not one who could talk about what I wanted to talk about most.
Like my relationship with my father, my relationship with priests deteriorated with the multiplication of the experience of not being seen, not being known, not being understood by the people who I felt should be the ones to see me, know me, understand me.
When I was a young mother I wanted to smooth out all the rough resentment for priests that I kept buried inside me. I was led, perhaps by God, to a very kind dean at the Washington National Cathedral.
I don’t cry very often. But I cried that day in his office, recounting how angry I had grown against the men of the church. This dean said very little. He got up, took a book from a shelf, and handed it to me. He told me to return it when it was convenient for me and dismissed me.
It was Evelyn Underhill’s, Mysticism.
I kept that book with me like a person in a sinking boat holds onto his life jacket. I was never without it.
From her writing, I learned, for the first time in my life, about the existence of priests who serve as spiritual directors. The idea hit me hard. There were people in the world whose job it was to talk with people.
People like me.
Well, maybe not people like me. But people. And I am a person. So in that way, at least, people like me.
I breathed in the possibility of having a formal relationship with one of those good guys in black, of talking about certain things in my life that had confused me, of actually hearing words of response in my own ears. Responses to things that I had to say.
It was a possibility too good to be true.
So after a while I tried.
A few years ago I wrote about what this experience was like for me. I wrote that I felt like the skunk, Pepé Le Pew, all dressed in my finery, walking into the room just to watch the priest scramble to find the nearest exit, in desperate flight, even through the closest window.
In reality what I experienced was truly striking. One priest set a date for the next session, then never showed up at the church; instead he worked on his rectory next door and pretended not to see me.
Another met me not in his office, but in an open common room. Others were at the church at the same time, including some children, and as I was their Sunday school teacher, they were thrilled to see me and wanted me to play with them. The priest just shrugged.
I just left. And I cried some more.
The most dramatic response to having met with me, a time wherein I shared with this priest my experience of being part of a healing miracle, was when, having waited in the receiving line after church, this priest that I had met with the day before, as I approached him with my hand outreached, spun on his heel, turned his back on me, and waited for me to pass him by to turn back around again.
Even I was able to understand the context of that insult. I needed no one’s added insight on that experience.
And so I find myself, today, with the very real assignment of having to find a spiritual director. It’s something I’ve been told to do. Not by God. He’s probably given up on me by now. His freak of a mystic who can’t even find in herself the ability to sit in the same room with a priest for more than two sessions without making the man regret making even the first appointment.
So it’s my prayer. It’s why I write this.
It’s a prayer that I pray even though it breaks my heart.