Be My Guide To Know Your Path

When I was elected Bishop of the Diocese of Iowa in 1988, I knew that my world was about to change in more ways than one. I was moving from a growing diocese in Central Florida to a demographically challenged one in the Midwest. I was coming into a totally different ministry than anything I had ever experienced before (contrary to what some believe, being bishop is not like being rector of an even larger parish; it is much more complicated than that). And, I was leaving a wonderful support system of friends and colleagues and, most of all, a trusted spiritual director.

Among the first things I did was to contract for monthly sessions with a young clinical psychologist whom I had met while he interviewed me as part of the screening process and medical/psychological exams required of bishop candidates. I liked him very much and he agreed to let me check in with him regularly to see if being a bishop had made me any crazier than I already was! The next search was for a spiritual director.

One of the priests in the Diocese of Iowa suggested Sister Mary Dingman who was then about seventy years old and a sister of the School Sisters of St. Francis out of Milwaukee. For a number of years then, she and a series of Jesuit colleagues ran something called “Emmaus House” in a struggling urban neighborhood in Des Moines. Mary and her colleague opened the house for retreats and quiet days, offered a daily mass, and often provided a simple lunch for their guests. They also engaged in spiritual direction and led retreats and conferences all over the Midwest.

I made an appointment to see Mary and we hit it off immediately. She was one of those deeply-grounded, gentle, progressive spirits which one can find in so many Roman Catholic women’s Orders. For the next twelve years, I made almost monthly “days of recollection” at Emmaus House. I would arrive early in the morning, be assigned a simple room, and spend the rest of the day reading, sleeping, praying, journaling or whatever else I needed to do to refresh my body and soul. In the afternoon, I would meet one-on-one with Sister Mary and she would gently listen, guide, encourage, and sometime challenge me to take the next steps on my spiritual journey.

Mary walked with me through diocesan crises, dealing with clergy sexual misconduct and putting in place procedures to handle such tragedies, wrestling with whether or not I should let my name be submitted as a candidate for Presiding Bishop (I had been asked by several as Ed Browning’s tenure came to an end), and finally — most significantly — the sudden death of my wife of thirty-two years, the grieving period that followed, and the putting back together of my life in a variety of ways in the following years.

I lost touch with Sister Mary a bit during the nine years that my new wife Susanne and I lived in New York, but got back in contact with her (now officially “retired”) when we moved back to Iowa as part of the “regional-ization” of some staff positions at the Church Center in 2009. We did not resume the same spiritual direction relationship, but simply met together, as dear friends, every so often when I would drive down to the little town of St. Paul, Iowa for coffee and conversation.

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by a niece of Mary’s and told that she was very weak and might not have long to live. The next morning I drove to St. Paul and found her sitting up in her recliner with a nasal oxygen catheter, but strong enough to have a brief conversation, a prayer together, and a gently kiss as I departed. On August 26 at 1:15 in the morning Mary’s spirit-filled heart gave out and she died.

Again, I was notified immediately by the family and was able to attend a Memorial Mass for her at St. James Catholic Church in St. Paul on Saturday September 2. Her funeral and burial the day before had been in Milwaukee at the Mother House of her Order. In St. Paul, I was welcomed warmly by the family who seemed almost as glad as I was that I had been able to see her and tell her how much I loved her and valued our friendship in those last days. The priest who presided at her Memorial Mass was kind enough to mention that “the retired Episcopal Bishop of Iowa” was among the many ecumenical guests and colleagues in the congregation.

I quite literally do not know what I would have done without the ministry of this devoted sister. Perhaps this prayer from the School Sisters of St. Francis which graced her service bulletin says it best:

Be my guide, God of love/ Lead me daily to search my heart.

Be my guide to know Your path./ That I may follow You each step of the way.

Grant me courage to trust and risk/ That I may have peace on my path to You.

Amen.

 

 

One Response to “Be My Guide To Know Your Path”

  1. Cynthia J Hallas Says:

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts and your remembrances, Chris – what an inspiring, faith-filled woman! Condolences for the loss of your dear spiritual friend are mixed with thanksgiving for her presence in your life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: