an introduction to the idea of spiritual direction via e-mail
based on the books of Robert J. Cormier (www.thefaithkit.org)
It was the most glamorous of jobs in science. It was the least glamorous of jobs in science. To be one of the two resident scientist/caretakers at the atmospheric observatory at Point Barrow, Alaska, at the top of the world.
The Point Barrow Observatory is located on the Arctic Ocean five miles North of the town of Barrow , population 3,000 more or less. It is a very isolated place. Thus, it was not just because of the work-load that there are always two scientists assigned to the facility. And they better get along, especially in the Winter when it is tough to get to town.
Fortunately for Paul, George was a great guy. Unfortunately for everyone, George's brother needed a kidney, and George had the only extra that would probably work. He was going to have to leave the facility for almost a month. He was leaving on January 2, in the dark. The sun had not been up for almost six weeks. (There was twilight from about 11:30 a.m. until about 3:30 in the afternoon.)
A month was about the limit. Any longer and the Administration would have sought someone to take George's place. More than a month was just too long to leave a man alone in the dark at the top of the world.
As it was, Paul had to present a plan for what he was going to do to keep himself sane. He said that he would make sure he got into town at least once a week, that he would call the Administration at least once a week, and that by phone or e-mail, he would communicate with someone every single day.
It was part of his plan to communicate regularly with Father Mike, his pastor back home. When first he had e-mailed Father Mike about his impending solitude, Father Mike suggested that he take the time as a retreat. Father Mike offered to keep up an e-mail conversation with him, to react to his thoughts and questions, and to suggest things that might help him accomplish something spiritually. Father Mike had two suggestions right away-that he post A Practical Creed where he would often see it, and that he keep a journal of what might happen within him. This is his story:
Monday, January 3: George left yesterday. It was great of him to staythrough Christmas and New Year's. He didn't have to but he didn't want me to be alone for the holidays. We had some good meals (what else do you do?) and we had some good talks. It was tough to see him go. For me, and for him too. I know he's a little scared of this operation (I see it in his eyes) but he knows he has no choice.
Father Mike says I should post the practical creed (which I did) and that I should say the Our Father once a day like I mean it. He says that Thy kingdom is heaven and that Thy Will is His plan. I tried once already but it didn't really do anything for me. I will write to Father Mike about this later.
Tuesday, January 4: Father Mike says "look again." He says that if a person prays to go to heaven because he really believes there is a heaven, and he really knows that heaven is by far the best thing, he is sure to be excited, and less stuck on things here. He says that if a person really wants whatever God sends because he really believes everything we go through happens to get us ready for heaven, he is sure to have peace. This makes sense but when I tried to think of this as I said the Our Father I still came up a little cold. I think this means I'm just not sure. I wish I could be sure but I'm not and I'm not sure what to do about it. At least I have something to write about today. (But first I have to go outside and check those lousy cables. It's been pretty windy and I know the noise I am hearing is not good.)
Wednesday, January 5: Father Mike sent me "Try". I like it. It's simple. It makes sense. But still, if the truth is so obvious, why doesn't everybody see it? And is the first question really fair? I mean, if the universe just exists.. Why not say the universe just exists? Lately we're seeing a lot of stars almost all day up here. I've been looking. I know it's a lot but if the universe is just here, so what if it's big and complicated? And just because we want to live, how does that prove that we were made for life? It's doesn't really look like we were made for eternal life. We are here to get ready? It looks like we're just here. What we do here mostly is try to be happy. How is this really preparation for anything? And I have even more questions. It's kind of amazing how much I never really thought about before. I sure hope I can figure something out. Being thoughtful and honest with yourself isn't much fun if it just makes you doubt.
Friday, January 7: I missed a day yesterday. No choice. The cables were coming loose and if we loose them there's no point to stay here. Besides, Father Mike gave me a lot to think about.
I liked what he said about God and the universe. That you don't just look at things from a distance, that you need to get real quiet within yourself and actually experience yourself looking at things, even regular things right around you. I tried it. (I have the time and it is real quiet here already.) It is kind of amazing that things are here. It is very amazing that we are here, and that does seem to mean something. I like the idea that "creation was signed".
That makes sense. And if you buy it, it also makes sense that we were made to live with God. I mean God must be good, and He would not be too good if He created us with this big desire to see Him basically just to torture us.
I still have problems with the idea that we are here to "prepare" for heaven. I guess I understand the idea that we are here to become our own person (I can see that this is the one thing you have to do yourself) and I like the idea that this is God giving us a chance to be like Him as much as we can be (no one made Him Him) but I don't see people working on this (most people don't even know about it) and if it's so important how can this be?
Saturday, January 8: Father Mike said that if it were obvious what we are here for, everyone would automatically do it, and life would not be about growing from ignorance and selfishness into the image of God. He said that the real work of growing is ours as a family, and even though not every individual is working on it consciously, clearly our family is growing into something greater. He said that the farther back in history you look, the better you can see it. He said that the deeper into yourself you look, the more clearly you can see the eternal purpose of our life. I will have to think about this some more but I have a sense that it is true.
I am going into town tonight. Funny, I'm going because I know I should-not because I really feel the need to. I thought this week would have been harder.
Sunday, January 9: I didn't really have a very good time in town. I had a few beers with the guys from the rigs. We played a little pool. But I didn't really like what we talked about even though I was talking about it too. Came home to find that Father Mike sent me a summary of his talk at church. I guess Mass was about Jesus being baptized. Father Mike said that Jesus was baptized so he would be an example. He said that everything in Jesus' life happened so he would be an example. Then, I guess, he told the people a story about the life of Christ. It was interesting but it gave me a few more questions. Number One: Why do we have to be Christians? Number Two: Are we just reading into Jesus what we want to believe? I hope these questions don't offend Father Mike.
Monday, January 10: Father Mike surprised me. He said that we don't have to be Christians in the sense that if we're not, we're not saved. (I guess I should have figured that out. We really never talk about anyone being damned.) He said that God wants everyone to be Christians because He wants everyone to be part of one big family of faith. He said that working for this is one of the ways humanity is growing up. He said that this is how we know that Jesus rose-because if he did not, we would not know who God wants us to follow and humanity could not become one family in faith.
Father Mike didn't really answer my second question. He said I should be able to answer it for myself. He told me to look at the cross, to think about the life of Jesus, and to pray and ask Jesus myself. I guess I am on retreat.
Tuesday, January 11: Today was a hard day. I had all the instruments to re-calibrate, a load of data to send off, and almost no time to think about anything else.
Wednesday, January 12: The clearer things get, the more confusing they get. The more answers I get from Father Mike, the more I wonder if this whole system isn't just too cooked up. I mean we have answers for everything but nothing is really so obvious. And besides, if people really believe that their eternal quality of life is up for grabs, why isn't this the ONLY thing on their minds? I mean they like to believe but they still live like life here is the only thing they are really sure of. I hope Father Mike won't think I am going backwards. I don't think I am. I think I am just getting in touch with what I really wonder.
Thursday, January 13: Father Mike was good. He said he understood my "suspicions" as he called them. He said that when people first hear about some of these things everything is new and it seems too complicated to be true. But then (he says) as people get used to seeing things in deeper ways, they begin to see how everything fits together and things become beautifully simple-just as you would expect. He said that this is the way you would expect things to go if we are meant to grow into the truth.
His answer to my second question was more challenging. He said that people do more or less with their lives. He said that everyone here is still on earth and still has to balance between the present and the future-which is what everyone has to do anyway. He said to me, "where are you?"
Friday, January 14: "Where am I?" I'm not sure. I want faith, for sure. But I'm not sure what more I'm supposed to do. How do I feel that I have taken my stand? (And when I find out, will I be able to do it?)
Saturday, January 15. I'm not going into to town tonight. I just don't feel like it. Father Mike has given me work to do. He says I should ask myself "If I really believe, how will I live differently?" He says that it doesn't have to be anything really dramatic. It could be a commitment to pray or read (something spiritual) every day. It could be a commitment to stop with X and Y. (X will be harder than Y.) It could be a confession. (Haven't done that in a real long time.) What should I do?
Sunday, January 16: Once again Father Mike sent me a summary of his talk in church. I guess the gospel story was about Jesus calling the fishermen to be his disciples. In the story Jesus calls them and they drop everything to follow him. I guess Father Mike told the people that few of us are called to drop everything to follow him, but all of us are called to drop something.
Father Mike says that he feels bad that I can't (don't) go to Mass. He also sent me a story about how Mass works. I guess he feels the more I know about it, the more I will want to go.
I'm not there yet.
Monday, January 17: I may not be at Mass but I got up today thinking I want to go to confession. I'm not sure what I'm thinking. Maybe I'm not sure what I believe but I am sure that I've done some bad things and I want to say "I'm sorry." I just want to say it, and not just say it to me. That would be too easy. I think confessing to yourself is like NOT admitting something.
I don't know if I can confess by e-mail, but I want to do this now and I don't think there's any other way to do it-not that I would be comfortable with.
Tuesday, January 18: Father Mike was cool about it. He said that normally we're not suppose to do it but considering the circumstances.. He asked me NOT to include my confession in my journal, and to delete my message and his as soon as I read it. (I have done this.) And now I feel better. It was a little embarrassing to tell Father Mike some of that stuff. (Maybe e-mail is the way!) But I said what was bothering me, and now it does not bother me. Father Mike wrote back that God absolutely forgave me-as though nothing had ever happened-because I confessed and showed that I had learned from what I did and now there is more quality in me, not less. He told me he already blessed me but that I should say this prayer which I will probably use again "Dear God, thank You for loving me, and for being willing to see me for who I want to be and not for what I did. I thank You because I know that Your forgiveness is even more complete than I can imagine, and I know that I can come back to You again tomorrow. I understand that You understand me and my struggles, and I also understand that all You ask of me is that I strive to do my best, and show to others the compassion I am now receiving. I promise I will try, and I will not accept failure. Help me."
Wednesday, January 19: My confession was good. I think it was a step. But now what? Father Mike asked me "to take advantage of my confession." He said that now that my conscience (should be) clear, I should feel freer to ask God for faith. He said that this would be one time I could pray for something and expect to get exactly what I prayed for. He said asking God for faith is really looking for God where He is, within our spirits. Worth a try if I can figure out how to do it.
Thursday, January 20: Today was interesting. At first I didn't know what to do so I just got as quiet as I could and then, in my mind, I started to say "God, please, let me know you're there." I said it again. I said it again. Eventually I noticed, I just didn't feel alone. I didn't feel that I was just talking to myself alone in the dark at the top of the world. This feeling was so clear, I can even say that I don't think I could have felt un-heard even if I wanted to. I would like to write to Father Mike about this, but I am not sure I have the words or know where it's going.
Friday, January 21: Dear God, You were there again when I got up. And this is the top of the world, far away from everyone else. Still I have Your complete attention. And not just Your attention but I think I feel Your love. This makes me feel different about me. Very different. And it's funny. I don't know how, but I understand that Your attention to others is like this, but takes nothing away from Your time for me. I guess this is how we know that You are God. You ARE God. Is this faith?
Saturday, January 22: Thank You, God, for a great day. Thank You for helping me keep cool when everyone wanted their data at the same time. Thank You for giving me good words to explain where I am to Father Mike. Thank You for getting me into town, and letting me be with the boys but not judge them, and even share a thing or two that might even help them.
I am tired now.
Sunday, January 23: Cool coincidence, Lord. I had forgotten all about it. But here I am trying to make Sunday a little bit special, saying my Our Father and meaning it too, and that was the most beautiful sunrise I ever saw.
For the most beautiful sunrise you'll ever see click here.