A Divine Invitation
Several years ago, I was invited to a small, but prosperous mill town in South Carolina to lead a 3-day women's retreat on "The Emerging Face of Women's Spirituality” for a group of 150 women. I flew to South Carolina the Thursday before the retreat and was met at the airport by two lovely women who took me to dinner and tucked me into my hotel.
During dinner they repeatedly thanked me for coming to South Carolina and doing the retreat. At first, I thought their unstinting appreciation was a reflection of Southern hospitality, but as the evening unfolded and the “thank-you’s” continued, I had the sense something more was going on. So, I asked them to tell me what was “special” about their group.
They looked at each other for a long moment with a noticeable degree of unease that told me something was, indeed, "special." Their church book club had read and enjoyed a book I'd written on women's spirituality that prompted them to invite me to do the retreat. When I accepted their invitation, they thought it would be a great idea to invite women from the other churches in their community to attend the gathering.
"The thing is … this is the first time in the history of our town that we have had any kind of inter-racial gathering. Some of the women coming to the retreat worked in our homes as nannies and housekeepers for our families when we were growing up. We've never been together in a social situation. When we read your book, we thought this was a way we could remedy that."
It was 2005. I grew up in Detroit. I attended integrated schools all my life. I lived in California for several decades. I had friends, collaborators, and heroes all my life who were African American. What they told me about their community was not my lived experience, nor had it even occurred to me this would be part of the retreat dynamic.
I paused for a moment to take it all in. And then another. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and waited for the right best words to come to me in response to what they said. The elephant was in the room, at the table, sitting on all three of our chests!
And then, it hit me! Their lavish gratitude really had nothing to do with me but was an expression of their unspoken hope to change things for the better. They understood this change would come through the women in their town. And they had the courage to reach out to a stranger 2,400 miles away to help them make this happen. This whole thing was a Divine invitation! Wow!
I opened my eyes and smiled. "O.K, " I said. "O.Kaaaaaay. I’m in!" I had absolutely NO idea what I would do with all this, but as the poet Hafiz says:
You have been invited to meet The Friend.
No one can resist a Divine Invitation.
That narrows down all our choices to just two:
we can come to God dressed for Dancing
or be carried on a stretcher to God’s Ward.
At the opening session Friday night, I stood at the door and welcomed all the women—looked them in the eye, held their hands in mine, told them I was glad to be with them. The black women sat on one side of the church, the white women sat on the other. This was by habit, not by design; a reflection of the uncertainty and vulnerability that’s part of every courageous next step.
We settled ourselves in with a breathing exercise—into the building, into our bodies, into our hearts and into the unspoken journey before us. These women were mighty. These women were brave. We were ready. I could feel it. It was time to rock and roll.
I said, "The emerging face of women's spirituality emerges when women make the space within our own hearts for change to happen with and around us, when we see ourselves as sisters with a rich, shared history that brought us to our knees and taught us how to stand unshaken, and when we individually and collectively let go of what never served us in the first place.” We were off and running.
During the retreat, when we worked in dyads or small groups, I asked each woman to choose a partner they did not know before. We had conversations that mattered. When we shared our stories, I asked, “Has this ever happened to you?" We created "inventions" that could transform women's spiritual lives. We journaled about what each of us could do to deepen our own spiritual connection to the God of our hearts. And so on and so forth. It was fabulous.
When the retreat ended on Sunday afternoon, a beautiful, elderly African American woman I had my eye on during the gathering, crooked up her finger at me and beckoned me to come to her.
"I've worked in some of these women's homes since I was fifteen. Even had a hand in raising some of these younger ones. All my life I've wanted them to see who I really am inside. Thank you for making that happen."
It was my turn to offer thanks.
This story came to mind when I was listening to Brené Brown talk about vulnerability and uncertainty; specifically, about how to unlock action in the face of limitation. Brene` defines integrity as “choosing what is right for you over what is comfortable, fast, easy, or pleasing only to others. If we are guided by what we’ve always done or by what others might think or our need to be accepted, we do not belong to our Self.” If we do not allow ourselves to be vulnerable and ask for help in the midst of uncertainty, we "miss out on some extraordinary moments in our life.” And we do not move forward into the full depth and breadth of our own possibilities.
Her words made me wonder if learning to be comfortable with uncertainty and our own vulnerability may well be another lesson Covid can offer us.
Margaret Wolff is a writer, storyteller, art therapist, and retreat leader. Her work celebrates the ways in which the collective wisdom and storytelling reveal the truth and beauty of our inner lives and connect us—heart to beating heart—to each other.
COMING HOME: Finding Shelter in the Love and Wisdom of Paramahansa Yogananda (White Pearl Press, May 20201), is a curated collection of 14 modern-day stories of spiritual awakening that reflect “the most creative and transformative experience life can offer—developing an intimate partnership with the invisible God of one’s heart.”
Available wherever fine books are sold.