There are aspects to my vocational life that are surprising; things that I experience which are unexpected. One thing that has taken me by surprise is falling in love.
Oh, there are people in my life that I love deeply – my darling C, my children, family members and a small, tight group of friends. But most of the other people in my life I have never really loved. Not really.
I liked them very much, or found them pleasant company, but if you had asked me some months ago if I loved them, I would have looked askance at you and reply “What an odd thing to ask!” Of course I don’t love them, not like my C or my children; in fact, I would have found the question intrusive and impertinent: “My relationship with people is personal, a bit distant, and none of your business,” I would have said. “ May we change the subject now, please?”
That was then, for many, many years. Now, it is different.
I have, for the past two years, been falling in love, and I barely knew it. I did not know it either because I have never experienced it before, or never allowed myself to experience it. I’m not sure yet. I am just beginning to understand it.
I have experienced a period in my vocational life that perhaps many deacons do not, which is the long-term absence of the parish rector. She is on leave and will be gone for about five months, taking care of some very necessary personal business. I have been “standing in” as primary pastoral care-giver at the parish.
People have shared their pains with me, their angers and conflicts, their fears and joys, sharing the most intimate aspects of their lives with me. We are the two friends walking to Emmaus together, “talking with each other about all these things that had happened”, but rather than talking I am simply listening, as I should.
And there are the thank-you’s. They have thanked me for listening, or affirming them, or being there. Real thank-you’s. Not the polite, perfunctory thank-you’s that are appropriate and appreciated, but the heartfelt thank-you’s of someone who has been heard and recognized and unburdened. Other than my C and my children, I have never really been thanked very much like that, though I admit I have given people little cause to thank me in the past as such.
All this has changed me.
As I lean into their lives, they open up a part of my heart that I did not know before, to learn about an aspect of love that is neither romantic nor familial, but quite real none the less; that I could love them not like I love C or my children, but could love them in a new and different way for me.
My training and formation as a deacon is one of compassion on a grand scale, task-focused, not intimately one-on-one. We love by doing, either hospitality or justice work or support…but simply loving people? Falling in love with them, caring about just them and not the larger issues or problems…when did that happen? How did it happen and how could I have missed it for so long? It crept up upon me like morning fog on the pond, rising from the grass itself unseen till I was surrounded by it.
This love is tenderness for them. I’ve no other word for it; a tenderness that is not pity, but deep concern and selfless interest for them. And now I understand the quandary of many of my priestly friends, who spend year after year laboring in one parish or one place of the faith community, years beyond self-care…it’s love, eventually. They fall in love.
And I wonder what will happen next, when the rector returns and I must focus again on the tasks at hand instead of the people. I wonder where the love will go, if it does go, and what happens then. Will it be painful? Will it stay? God knows; I do not. We walk by faith and not by sight.