The Reverend Canon Audrey Conard
The church lost a priest and I lost a friend this week—The Reverend Canon Audrey Conard. Audrey was a colleague, mentor and friend. She was my husband Dan’s and my Spiritual Director through the most intense years of our lives: as we married and got ordained and later welcomed our first child; as we figured out how to be priests and spouses and parents, then how to be priest-spouse-parent all together; she supported us through four moves in five years, and the most difficult thing, the loss of Dan’s father.
The word that kept coming to mind as I processed this loss, as I thought about Audrey, was the word “small.” It took me a while to understand why.
It certainly wasn’t her laugh that was small. Her laugh was full and musical, seeming to fill any room with the delight that Audrey took in life, her utter presence to the people, the stories, the circumstances in which she found herself and therefore her ability to see the joy and humour surrounding her. I ache to hear that laugh now. It wasn’t her heart or her spirit or her courage or her generosity that were small. And it wasn’t her faith either. Her faith that was expressed with a beautiful and big flow of words – real, vulnerable, strong and true.
And yet, there was something so intimate, so close, about being in her presence. “She made you feel as if you were the person who mattered most to her,” was the comment in one of the funeral eulogies. She had the rare gift of truly listening, not thinking ahead to how she would respond, not assuming that she knew the direction your thoughts were going to go, but actually attending to the person and story being shared. Audrey was a poet, she played with words, savoured words, and gave herself to the art of following the leading of those words into naming truth. Audrey was able to honour the gifts of others, to give without expectation of receiving (and Audrey, you gave so much to me when I had so little to offer in return), to surrender herself into God’s embrace, to hand-write letters sharing wisdom and insight and thanksgivings, to suffer through many long years of cancer treatments, to hope and give thanks and be honest even when her body was riddled with pain and illness. There is something big and generous about a life like Audrey’s, something that expands from one human life into the eternal life of God in these faithful actions and choices. But somehow in order to make room for others, to give yourself fully to the present moment, to attend to the art and precision of words, to trust God even when the news isn’t good and the pain is unbearable, one has to allow one’s life to be small. One has to assume a posture of humility in relation to the depth and height and breadth of God’s great love; to hold lightly affirmations and objects and powers and needs which so easily fill up and bulk out a life.
In the last few weeks, we have been delving into a crossroads in Jesus’ life. He has become a powerful healer. He is a sought-after teacher. Jesus’ life could become Superstar BIG. His followers, in fact, are banking on that. They want to ride his coat tails to greatness. A show-down with Rome, a complete and utter upheaval of life as they know it, triumph and glory, this is what they hope for in a Messiah. King Jesus.
Jesus pops the balloon on all of their hopes and speaks instead of suffering. He speaks of the slow collapsing journey ahead: one foot in front of another, speaking truth, loving the unloveable, making visible the invisible, his life held in the hands of God, even as that leads into utter humiliation and great suffering. Small. Jesus’ life will stay small.
As is so often the case in the Gospel accounts, realizations and teachings are followed by examples. Jesus’ disciples are arguing on the way. They are mirrors for us. They act out all of our most common human insecurities. They have reacted to the fear and uncertainty of where Jesus is leading them in the most common of ways: they are in denial. And in order to prop themselves up in that denial, they try to make their lives bigger, more certain, more durable, more, more, more, than they really are. Who among us is the greatest? They represent this basic seduction of expanding our status and power and accomplishments and acquisitions into a big enough life that it blots out all that isn’t working, all that feels exposed, all that hurts, scares and challenges.
And in response, Jesus takes a child into his arms. “Whoever welcomes one of these small ones, welcomes me.” He speaks of servanthood as the only path to greatness, and he offers love and welcome to one who can’t offer him anything in return. This child will do nothing to make Jesus’ life bigger, grander, more. And embracing this child anyway, embracing the small, Jesus says, is of utter importance. It is the same as welcoming God.
More than I care to admit, I am those disciples arguing on the path to Jerusalem. I fall into all of the traps all of the time of wanting to puff my life into a bigger version of me, a version of me that is going to be enough to quell all of the fear and anxiety of a life that, in the end, is very fragile and can never, on its own, be enough.
Thankfully, there are those who have reached out to me with Christ’s loving embrace. Thankfully there are the small ones with which God graces our path. Thankfully there is Audrey’s musical laugh and hand-written notes and quiet attention offered to my pain and my joy, and thankfully that has forever shaped me — even at some of the most critical junctures in my journey.
As I give thanks for my friend, and as I face the grief of a world without Audrey’s voice and wisdom and warmth and love in it, I have a prayer. May you and I keep meeting and welcoming those Small Ones who bring us back. May you and I always come back to arms who name us as loved, as welcome. As small.