Well, things did not work out. I did not become a priest. Instead, I’ve spent the last 20 years exploring my vocation and experimenting with alternatives. Long after that seminary weekend, for example, I found myself in Boulder at Naropa University trying, this time, to become a contemplative psychotherapist. Alas, that didn’t work out either.
I kept getting stripped by the storms of life. Like a tree standing in a hurricane, and losing all my leaves.
At 58, sometimes I wonder: Is it too late? I don’t think so. Why? Because of a wise and vibrant woman I remember from that weekend, so long ago.
Her name was Martha. She sat across from me during lunch, tucking a strand of grey hair behind one ear, glowing like a firefly. I had just asked her how she ended up at the seminary, a second year student on the ordination track. I didn’t add, “at your age,” but it seemed fairly obvious. She was 63.
“My kids grew up and left home,” she explained, staring off in the distance. “I felt kind of empty, and tried to figure out what to do with myself. Late at night, when the house was silent, I kept hearing something like a tiny voice inside, whispering words I could barely make out. It took years before I understood what it was saying.”
Martha had long felt drawn to the priesthood, especially after the first women were ordained in the Episcopal church back in the 70s. But she had never allowed herself to take her sense of calling seriously . . . until, that is, her husband suddenly passed away. In the void that followed, the still, small voice—and the rightness of what it asked of her—became clear.
“If all goes well,” she said, with a wink and a grin, “I’ll be ordained right when I turn 65—an age when most of my friends plan to retire. Not me. I’m just getting started!”
“Bravo,” I said, awestruck at the spark of life still burning in her soul. She saw 20 years of meaningful ministry ahead of her. I have never forgotten the lesson.
It’s never too late. Not, at least, until you stop breathing.
For some things, writes Mary Oliver in her poem “Hurricane” (A Thousand Mornings, 2012), there are no wrong seasons.
A hurricane savaged the coast where she lives one summer. “The wind/tore at the trees, the rain/fell for days slant and hard,” she reports. The trees, stripped of their leaves, were barren as telephone poles. “But listen,” says Oliver, with a touch of awe not unlike what I felt listening to Martha, “. . . toward the end of that summer they/pushed new leaves from their stubbed limbs. / It was the wrong season, yes, / but they couldn’t stop.
“And,” she adds, “after the leaves came/blossoms . . .” Amazing. It’s never the wrong season, if you’re still alive.
Well, I’m still alive. A late bloomer, perhaps. But still filled with sap.
David Whyte asks: “What shape waits in the seed of you to grow and spread its branches against a future sky?”
In May, I will graduate with another master’s degree. And I’ve been gestating another crazy idea about what to do with the rest of my life—to integrate everything I’ve learned over the past 20 years into a whole new career as a “midwife of the soul,” helping others give birth to callings, dreams and goals that matter deeply to the soul.
After everything else, it just feels right. If you’re curious, take a look at my final portfolio project for grad school at http://jayevalusek.weebly.com. I’m not quite ready for a “grand opening” or anything. But it’s spring. Isn’t this the right season, if you’re in sync with nature, to give birth to something new?
—Jay E. Valusek