My dearest friend, Amy, is Jewish. She’s even employed by the synagogue community that is her spiritual home. Beyond that, she is a seeker. God has been the subject of many of our best and most challenging conversations in the 20 years since we met as freshmen on the very first day of college. We know the intimate twists and unexpected turns of each other’s faith journeys.
A few years ago, on my fortieth birthday, my family surprised me by delivering Amy to our front porch (she lives several states away). My husband Todd had arranged a three-day girls’ weekend for us, finessing the complicated schedule for our family of eight in my absence.
The Importance of Retreat
Amy and I arrived in Fredericksburg, eager to sample the local wineries’ wares and to catch up on months of history. As much as we talk about the everyday happenings of our lives, from our children’s quirky habits to the foibles of teenaged marriages, the faith question is never far from the forefront of our conversations.
A great deal of the conversation was about our youngest son, Oscar, who had been diagnosed with multiple lifelong disabilities. Amy had walked in lockstep with me through the valley of that impossible year of Oscar’s sickness and diagnosis, with an intimacy tempered only by distance. She knew the absolute and blackest depths of my despair.
She knew, too, the giddy heights of my soul’s rebirth, the wild and unbridled joy that was born during a miraculous pilgrimage to Lourdes that Todd, Oscar, and I had taken a few months before this getaway—a joy that persisted despite medical setbacks and uncertainty.
And she found it all… curious. Compelling, but a source of more questions than answers.
I love talking about Faith with Amy; the conversations are always complex and challenging. She is outside the echo chamber of my life surrounded by orthodox Catholics and homeschooling moms. She forces me to consider, to explain, and to question my assumptions, a process that always ends in fortifying some, amending others.
These days of freedom were a gift to both of us, a time to reconnect with each other and wrestle with the most important questions in the world.
Living the Life of the Beloved
I had always thought she would love Henri Nouwen’s book, Life of the Beloved, written as an attempt to explain the basis of Nouwen’s Catholic Faith to his Jewish, agnostic friend, someone who did not share a common background and vocabulary. The first night in Fredericksburg, after we had retired to drink wine and do a jigsaw puzzle (which is just something that happens when introverts go on vacation, in case that sounds weird to you), I handed her my own dog-eared copy of the book.
Over the course of the next few days, she read the entire thing. At the end of each chapter, we talked. She pushed back. I wrestled out loud, with this sister of my soul, around the age-old, elemental questions of what it means to be chosen. Blessed. Broken. Given. The four moments of the Eucharistic prayer, which are echoed in our own spiritual lives.
While I was making sense of the “given” stage of my journey, the ways in which I was being sent forth to share what had been poured into me in Lourdes and was now running over, Amy was struggling with the idea of being “chosen” at all.
“I just don’t see what it means,” she argued. “I guess I don’t believe in a personal God like that, the kind of Creator who knows and cares about us intimately.”
“Don’t believe it’s possible at all, or don’t feel it in your life?” I questioned, as gently as I could.
“Maybe the second. But I’m not sure, it might be both,” she wondered aloud.
A Deeper Understanding
Like the Jewish friend to whom Nouwen was writing, Amy wasn’t convinced, in the end, by the book’s central message. But as we talked, two things happened. My own understanding and certainty coalesced into something stronger, and Amy seemed to accept the transformation that had happened to me at face value. God had taken my doubt, my despair, and redeemed it with His love.
Even if Amy couldn’t believe in a God who loved her like that, she conceded that what had happened to our family was not imaginary.
Testifying to the Truth
In the years before and since, we have volleyed tough, tender questions. “How did your spiritual life change between your reconstructionist synagogue and your conservative one?” I asked when she changed jobs and, by extension, faith communities. “What does it mean to you that President-elect Biden is Catholic?” she wondered after the election.
With every question and answer, we aim together at Truth; as fallible humans, we can only approximate it, never quite reaching it on this side of Heaven. We hold each other accountable for our fallacies. We build up our common, interfaith sense of divine wonder and trust in providence.
We are living in the time before the Parousia, the bringing-about of Christ’s eternal kingdom. Christ was revealed to the world on the first Christmas; He is revealed anew every day. The revelation of the Mystery continues, not through His very person, but by our own witness and testimony.
In my own witness, I’ve admitted to Amy that of course, I’d love for her to convert… because I want my two best friends to get to know each other.
I wish I could bottle up belatedness—my deep love of the Eucharist and my friendship with Jesus—and sell it on the street, or at least pass it across the table to my best friend. All I can do is to keep talking about it… and not only to the people already sitting in the pew next to me at our parish or across the table at a Catholic retreat.
To testify to His wondrous love, by telling my own piece of the story, one intimate conversation at a time.
Christy Wilkens, wife and mother of six, is an armchair philosopher who lives in Austin, TX. She writes about disability, faith, doubt, suffering, community, and good reads. Her first book, a memoir about a Lourdes pilgrimage with her husband and son, will be released by Ave Maria Press in 2021. You can find out more about her here.