My wife and I are calling this the Summer of Love.
Both of Jeanine’s parents and both of mine are still living—three in their upper 80’s, one in his 90’s–and they have all had a rough ride the past three months. Among the four of them, they have endured one elective knee surgery, three emergency knee surgeries, one heart attack, chronic, severe arthritic pain, impaired vision, and the loneliness of having a companion of 60-plus years hospitalized or in a skilled-nursing/rehabilitation facility for weeks on end.
Jeanine and I, our siblings, their spouses, and our children have taken turns as physical therapists, nurses, cooks, housekeepers, chauffeurs, bill-payers, and medical navigators. For one 20-day stretch, I was with my parents 24 hours a day for 14 days. Each day was non-stop caregiving in the various ways just named. And most nights, unable to fall back asleep after an early morning call for help getting to the bathroom, I was getting three to four hours of sleep. I’d come back to Asheville for a three-day “break” (to see clients in my therapy practice), and I’d sleep in giant, ten-hour gulps.
But as much as I’ve ached for these dear ones who are suffering, and as physically tiring as it’s been to provide round-the-clock care, I treasure these months. They have been among the most emotionally and spiritually nourishing of my life.
Some of the nourishment, it feels to me, is coming from being in proximity to human authenticity. I’m an authenticity junkie; it’s why I love being a therapist. And each of these people is being so real. They’re having to be. For decades, their bodies (mostly) complied with the wishes of their minds and hearts, and they’ve all lived big, generous, remarkable lives. Now their physical capacities are diminished, they can’t do everything they’d like, and they’re experiencing levels of vulnerability and dependency they do not want. And they’re all meeting this reality with their own beautiful and messy blend of resistance and surrender. It’s as real as it gets, and it’s nourishing to be near people facing reality, feeling vulnerable, and being real.
But the greater share of the nourishment—I feel and know this deeply—is coming from love. There is a tenderness and intimacy in each of these relationships like never before. With one of my parents and both of Jeanine’s, we’ve crossed that threshold where bathing and toileting happen as a two-some rather than solo. “No, this is not what either of us would wish. But yes, together, and with God’s help, we can do this. We are surrendering to the reality and requirement of the moment. And we love each other all the more for it.” The kind of love happening here is not self-generated; it’s a grace and gift of Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Nor is it one-directional—one person giving to another. It’s a spherical, omni-directional, radiant energy that blesses everyone in its vicinity. It takes me to a place deeper than I can describe, but I can tell you this much: the energy of sorrow and joy there is powerful enough to handle anything, and I understand what St. Paul means when he says that “love bears all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
This Love is always present. All the great spiritual traditions say this, and I believe it. But it doesn’t always feel that way—not to me, anyway. I am not always aware of it, and I don’t always feel nourished by it. So I’m curious why, now, I feel so affected.
My assumption is that, when any of us feels cut off from Love or insufficiently nourished by it, it’s because we’re doing something that clogs or blocks the pores of our spiritual receptivity. What eventually opens us up is some grace, but it’s often shrouded in mystery. I do not know with any surety what that grace might have been for me, but one possibility—and the connection here is likely correlative rather than causal—is that, sometime during these months, I began practicing the monastic discipline of obeying the abbot.
In many monasteries, the monks elect one of their members to serve as abbot (from the Aramaic word abba, or father). Once elected, the abbot directs all aspects of the community’s life together—their spiritual life, their work life, the visitors they can and can’t receive, and much more. If the abbot says, “do it,” the answer is “yes, abbot.” No questions asked. It’s an exercise in trust and obedience.
Over the past three months, I’ve come to think of Jeanine’s and my parents, as well as the needs of this time in their lives, as my abbot. Whatever they say, whatever they ask, whatever the circumstances require, my answer is “Yes, abbot.” I probably don’t need to tell you that this is not the way I typically live. My usual modus operandi, for better or worse, is to organize my life around my wishes, preferences, and plans as much as possible. When something inconvenient or undesirable comes my way, I try to negotiate my way out of it. But at some point in this Summer of Love, I realized that this season was presenting me an opportunity to shift the center of gravity of my life, to practice obedience to a will other than my own, and I’ve elected my parents, Jeanine’s parents, and their needs as my abbot. “You want pillows under your legs? Yes, abbot. It’s 2 AM and you need help getting to the bathroom? Yes, abbot. You want less ice in your water? Yes, abbot. The first surgery didn’t work and there needs to be a second? Yes, abbot.”
A spiritual director once told me, “Your spiritual life is none of your business,” meaning that I’m not in charge of, and I can never know with any certainty, what Spirit might be doing in me, with me, or through me. But while I do not know what’s really going on in my spiritual life—and don’t need to–I do know that something is a little different. I feel freer now than I did three months ago. I’m spending less energy trying to bend circumstances and other people to the shape of my will. I feel less irritated that reality does not obey all my unwritten rules for it.
Please don’t hear me recommending this practice to you—obeying the abbot. You have to find your own way to live the Serenity Prayer (“God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”) in the particular circumstances of your life, at this particular moment in your life.
Hear me only bearing witness to a grace that’s nourishing me. And asking: where, when, and how are you being nourished in this Summer of Love?
Russell Siler Jones is a psychotherapist in Asheville, NC, Director of CareNet/Wake Forest Baptist Health’s Residency in Psychotherapy and Spirituality, and Developer of ACPE’s Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy Program. He is author of Spirit in Session: Working with Your Client’s Spirituality (and Your Own) in Psychotherapy. Visit his website for more information: russellsilerjones.com.