I went to see my spiritual director yesterday. Actually, she is technically my “former” spiritual director, a 95 year old School Sister of St. Francis whose name is Mary Dingman. When I was elected Bishop of Iowa, I knew that I would need a spiritual companion, preferably one who was “outside the system” of the Episcopal Church. I had been in intentional spiritual direction for over a decade and knew how important such a relationship could be.
One of our priests introduced me to Mary who, at that time, along with a Jesuit colleague ran a small retreat house and spiritual direction ministry in downtown Des Moines called “Emmaus House.” We hit it off immediately and, for the thirteen years I was Bishop of Iowa, we met on a monthly basis, often coupled with a day of reflection on which I would show up at Emmaus House early in the morning (usually on a Wednesday) check into a small room on the second or third floor of the old house), spend the morning in prayer and study, have a simple lunch of bread and soup, spend an hour with Sister Mary in conversation, and wind up the day just before supper time when I would return home.
These days were life-giving for me. Mary saw me through crises of diocesan ministry (including painful instances of disciplining clergy for sexual misconduct), agonizing wrestling with how I would cast a vote at General Convention on some of the most vexing and controversial issues facing the Episcopal Church in those years, and finally walking with me through painful family issues including the death of my first wife in 2000.
Mary always listened carefully, cared deeply, and was able to bring out of her storehouse of a lifetime of prayer and Bible study just what I needed to hear and learn on a given day — whether that was advice, encouragement, challenge, or counsel simply to “wait on the Lord.” I do not believe I would have been able to survive those difficult years, at least spiritually but perhaps even physically, had it not been for this faithful friend.
She is frail now. And she met me at the door of the modest home next door to a beautiful Roman Catholic Church in the rural village of St. Paul, Iowa where she lives in retirement with her sister. She was wearing a nasal catheter attached to the oxygen supply she now requires after congestive heart failure last year.
But she is as sharp as ever, and we spoke of my life in retirement, the state of ecumenical relations these days, our shared horror at the political situation in our country today, the breath of fresh air Pope Francis is breathing across the church and world, and what it is like to grow old. She said, “You know, one of the hardest things for me entering the convent at 25 was giving up being with my family and living on the farm in southeast Iowa.”
Now, with permission from her order, she is living with her own sister in a tiny community only a mile from the old family farm which her nephew and niece still own and work. “At the end of my life,” Mary said, “God has given it all back — family and the quiet rural life I so loved. Isn’t that amazing?”
“And, you know, even serious illness brings new occasions for prayer, ” she observed, gently touching her oxygen tube, “Before this, I never thought to give thanks for the air.”
Perhaps not, dear Mary, but I have never ceased giving thanks for you.