Considering the lilies

Two potted plants with gardening gloves and trowel.
The pilgrimage into retirement invites us to learn letting go, slowing down, trusting, being more than doing, watching more than acting.
 on January 30, 2024
The Rev. Canon Lucy Reid

I was asked recently if I had been on another pilgrimage, having done one a few years ago. My answer was no in terms of a literal pilgrimage journey, but yes in terms of a metaphorical one. In June 2022 I retired after 41 years of ordained ministry, first serving as a deaconess in the Church of England and then as a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. My husband David Howells, also a parish priest, had retired the previous year and had been working on renovations to a little house we had bought. Three days after saying farewell to my parish, our belongings were loaded up and we moved from Toronto to Guelph.

Even with congested traffic the journey can hardly be called a long one, but metaphorically it was huge, and almost two years later I still find myself ruminating on the vastness of the pilgrimage from full-time work to retirement.

My generation is retiring in record numbers as we Baby Boomers enter that stage of life, so there is plenty of advice, wise and otherwise, on how to retire gracefully. For clergy there are also protocols around leaving a parish cleanly, without trying to hang on to relationships forged during a ministry. Pastoral relationships are different from friendships, we are reminded. And yet after years of serving in a church community, having the privilege of entering deeply into people’s lives at times of great sorrow and great joy, seeing little ones grow up and elders die, friendships do form. A strong web of relationships develops. And the pain of walking away from that is real.

Leaving any ministry or job can be painful. But there is something additionally poignant about the pang of loss that comes with retirement, precisely because it is final. Perhaps that explains why many of us take on part-time roles after retiring, so that we can carry on doing what we did for so long. And churches need these newly retired people as volunteers and as interim clergy. I remember how much I valued that cohort in my own parishes over the years. Yet a friend in Guelph had warned me against jumping back into ministry or volunteerism too soon, for the sake of filling the uncomfortable, unfamiliar gap. And so I promised myself that I would do nothing for the first six months other than settling into Guelph and travelling to the UK to see family.

The other reality was that I was burned out after my final years of ministry during Covid and a huge church renovation project, and my husband had been suffering from memory loss for several years already. It was time for our world to shrink to a more manageable size and for our energies to be focused closer to home. In the metaphor of a pilgrimage, our roads needed to be smaller, slower, shorter, heading not outwards but inwards.

At first, I felt most acutely a huge sense of relief that I had put down the weighty responsibility of my work. A parishioner had told me that her husband, on retiring, had described his new life as heaven on earth. I got that. Our work demands so much of us, for better and for worse, and parish ministry in particular is a complex blend of leadership, service, management, pastoral care, liturgical expertise, teaching, preaching, and much more. It had felt at times like spinning an impossibly large number of plates on sticks, while trying not to let any fall. And yes, I knew it was God’s church, not mine. I knew I was a minister, not a messiah. I relied on the guidance and strength of the Spirit at work among us all. Nevertheless, it was a weight of responsibility that I was deeply relieved to put down.

As we settled into the home back in the town where we had raised our children, and as we reconnected with old friends there, a slow trickle of energy began to return. We visited family in England and spent a month in Scotland, hiking in the hills of Skye and walking through the chain of islands that make up the Outer Hebrides. Unlike our pilgrimage three years before, when we had walked some 500 kilometres from Lindisfarne across Scotland to Iona, we were not walking all day and camping by night this time, but instead had a car and a comfortable caravan. It was much easier, freer – another metaphor for transitioning into retirement.

And yet there was also a pang of grief under the relief. As my energy returned, I found myself missing the work and the sense of purpose and identity it gave. I missed the life of the church community, with all its ups and downs, challenges and joys. I missed the friends I had made there. My husband noticed that sitting in a pew on Sundays as a parishioner, rather than standing behind the altar as a priest, rankled with him and made him restless, critical, sad. And we both found ourselves antsy on Saturdays, as though we were forgetting to do something, after four decades of gearing up for Sundays.

So the honeymoon period of retirement as heaven on earth turned out to be more complex. Retirement (on a pension, with a home of our own) was a gift and a privilege, and yet it also involved loss and disorientation. It was hard to get used to not being busy all the time. With colleagues still working, some struggling, I felt guilty for having slipped into the slow lane. But my friend’s words about not jumping into busyness too soon, allowing some fallow time instead, stayed with me.

The same friend is a gardener, and he turned up on my birthday in the spring with a car full of perennial plantings from his garden. He knew I had great ambitions to turn our large empty lawn into flower and vegetable gardens. My family gave me ten rose bushes as a birthday gift, and around the same time I bought vegetable seeds and seedlings from a local organic farm. The fallow time was about to give way to a season of planting.

Somewhat to my husband’s alarm, I began digging up sections of the lawn, creating new, curving spaces for the flower beds and business-like raised beds for the vegetables. I pictured a riot of colour throughout the summer and copious food to take us into the winter. But gardening is a long, slow game. The perennials took their time to root. Some were unable to cope with the toxins produced by our two large black walnut trees and had to be moved. Others grew but put out few blooms. While my neighbour planted beds full of annuals for instant colour, which I glanced at enviously while digging up yet another piece of the lawn, I was discovering that perennials take time and care.

The vegetables, too, had lessons to teach me. We had copious lettuce and an abundance of green beans, but the peppers were reluctant to thrive, and the tomato plants grew leggy and weak because I failed to prune them. The squash played a game with me where they multiplied under cover of their leaves. Just when I thought the last one had been picked, more were discovered hiding in the shade. I forgot I had a packet of carrot seeds and tossed them into the ground late in the summer. They yielded a small handful of miniatures in mid-November.

Gardening invites you to slow down and notice. There is some strenuous physical effort required at certain points, but mostly it felt last year like a matter of getting to know the little piece of land we had settled on, and the plants I was bringing to it. As we were rooting into our new stage of life, the plants were embodying a parallel process. As I tended them, watered and weeded them and enjoyed their bounty, I was also aware of settling myself down, focusing on one thing at a time, instead of spinning multiple plates. Often I just stopped and smelled the roses.

Two of our adult children have also moved back to Guelph, where they grew up. We see them often and delight in being able to drop in on each other. Our youngest one lives in Mexico and often reminds us that in traditional cultures we would be regarded as elders who have entered into a chapter of life typified by wisdom, a slower pace, a handing off of responsibilities. That reminder has been helpful for me, conditioned as I am to being productive, busy, in control. Doing nothing more than smelling the roses and observing the vegetables grow can be a spiritual practice.

“Consider the lilies,” said Jesus. “They neither spin nor toil, yet even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” So I took time to consider the lilies, and the roses, and the beans, tomatoes and squash. I gave myself permission to keep my calendar relatively empty. I practised patience – not a strong suit of mine, but increasingly important as my husband and I cope with his memory loss.

This pilgrimage into retirement is a journey to a new destination. Ultimately of course, and naturally, it leads to death. But along the way it invites us to learn letting go, slowing down, trusting, being more than doing, watching more than acting.

In his book To Bless the Space Between Us, teacher and poet John O’Donohue has a blessing for retirement, which includes these words:

You stand on the shore of new invitation
To open your life to what is left undone;
Let your heart enjoy a different rhythm
When drawn to the wonder of other horizons.

Have the courage for a new approach to time;
Allow it to slow until you find freedom
To draw alongside the mystery you hold
And befriend your own beauty of soul.

Wonder, courage, freedom, mystery, beauty. These are gospel words of wisdom and good news at this stage in the pilgrimage of life. And Christ, whom Mary Magdalene mistook for a gardener, tends our souls with loving care.


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