Spiritual Resiliency in Older Women: Models of Strength for Challenges Through the Life Span


Janet L. Ramsey & Rosemary Blieszner

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Introduction to Spiritual Resiliency

    Part II: The Stories

    Part III: Conclusion

  • Dedication

    For our mothers

    Carlene Amelia Geske Lauchnor


    Mary Clare Lamb Blieszner

    You showed us how to be women and you taught us how to listen for God


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    This is a book about hearty old women and about the faith that makes them strong. It is neither a typical self-help book nor a book strictly for persons with academic or clinical interests. Rather, it was written for anyone who wants to learn about spirituality and strength, about aging with the support of an ageless faith. Although we wrote this book for a wide audience, we did include many specific clinical and scholarly discussions. Some guidance on how to read the book according to your own interests is, therefore, in order.

    Part I consists of an introduction to the cross-cultural research project that inspired this book. Chapter 1 is basic and important for all readers, for it states the purpose of the book and explains the topic areas that the research project was designed to explore. In Chapter 2 we review both the clinical practice and academic intellectual roots out of which our research grew. The third chapter will be of interest chiefly to our academic readers; here, we give a brief summary of the methodology used in conducting the study.

    Part II is the heart of the book, for it presents both quotes and interpretations based on our long interviews with the old women. Research adventures and data from both the focus groups and individual interviews are presented in this part, followed by a discussion of the basic findings and our scholarly interpretations of those data.

    Implications for general readers, clinicians, and academics are elucidated in Part III. Chapter 10 will be of particular interest to clinicians and Chapter 11, to academicians. Our Postscript describes how the research continues to affect both the old women and us in the present. Finally, the Appendix contains the spiritual journal written by Jan Ramsey during the time she conducted the initial interviews. It includes descriptions of her personal faith journey along with insights she gained from conversations with the women.


    It is our great pleasure to express thanks to the many people who helped to make this book possible. Robert Benne, Director of Church and Society at Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia, wrote a letter of introduction to Germany and thereby got our research under way. Henry C. Simmons, Director of the Center on Aging at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia, graciously made available to Ramsey the resources of the Center's extensive library on aging and religion and shared many useful suggestions for this project. William J. McAuley, now at the University of Oklahoma, spent much time helping with the proposal for this research.

    The assistance of two parish pastors was invaluable, for they made many practical arrangements that enabled the conducting of focus groups and interviews. Heartfelt thanks to Pastor Robert Maier, of Glade Creek Lutheran Church in Virginia and Pastor Karl-Wilhelm Steenbuck, of St. Bartolomäus Kirche in Germany. Pastor Steenbuck and his wife, Frau Selma Steenbuck, not only provided important cultural and practical help on a daily basis, they also extended to us friendship and Gastfreundschaft (hospitality) during two visits to Wilster.

    A grant from Lutheran Brotherhood helped in meeting travel expenses for this project. Dr. Gudrun Freeman, clinical partner of the first author and a native of Nüremberg, Germany, proofread Ramsey's translations of the German interviews. Karen Carter, Brethren pastor and a native of Berlin, carefully and rapidly transcribed most of the German interviews. Roswitha Jarrett, also a German American, transcribed the interview with Elisabeth on very short notice. Dr. Margaret D. Cohn read and commented on the entire manuscript. Diana Axelsen, Senior Production Editor at Sage, offered warm and encouraging support. We are grateful for all of their assistance.

    Many thanks to the older women we met at workshops, our colleagues at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and especially Dr. George Hillery, who all encouraged us to write a book to share our work with others. We appreciate, too, the spiritual guidance and encouragement of our pastors and friends, Pr. Mark Radecke, Fr. Donald H. Lemay, and Deacon Michael J. Ellerbrock.

    Finally, we appreciate the support of our husbands, Joe and Steve, and our children, Jason, Benjamin, Leigh, Katherine, Brian, Suzanne, and Mark, who graciously tolerated our strange schedules during both the conducting of the research and the writing of this book.

  • Postscript: The Gracious Encounters Continue

    Writing this book has not only led to a series of gracious encounters, it was built on them as well. As we planned this work and then listened to women who listen for God, we participated in experiences of personal dialogues on a variety of levels. Some of these meetings were between the two authors. Some were interviews between the women and us, and still other encounters occurred among the women themselves, drawing them closer to one another.

    But throughout all of these, we experienced another dimension as well. We believe that our human comings-together took place under the care of a Holy Presence, that God, too, encountered us. To our eyes, this divine dimension gave depth and power to the human meetings, and we find evidence that we are still being strengthened in this way today.

    There were many times when the long interviews were difficult for the participants, when old sorrows reappeared and brought tears. Yet overall, the women have reported that this experience has deepened and enriched their own faith. As we discovered months later during our trips back to Blue Ridge and to Wilster, the women had found some questions to be troublesome yet growth provoking. “They were not easy to answer, but they have made me think and draw closer to God,” was a comment we often heard.

    Although we, too, experienced times of discouragement, worry, and dryness while we conducted this research and wrote this book, we believe that God was present with us, perhaps more so during difficult times than during those that were easy. The lives of our spiritual nominees suggest that this was so for them as well. Just as they could see, looking back on their lives, that God was their strength and the source of their resiliency, so we see now that God was present with us, even when we did not realize it and were too caught up in the moment to sense it. A typical journal entry, written soon after I (Ramsey) arrived in Wilster and before the first interview in German, certainly reveals need for this help.

    But will the women trust me enough to open up to me? Why should they? I guess I'll have to leave that concern to tomorrow, and to God.

    Looking back on our conversations with these strong women, we can now see how God met and supported them as they spoke and enabled us to listen. While we recognize that not all readers will have this point of view, we risk labeling this as “a gracious encounter” with the ultimate Source of resiliency.

    Since the time of the first interviews, the Steenbucks have met Rosemary Blieszner and served again as gracious host and hostess to us both. They traveled to Virginia and became acquainted with our families and our communities. Karl and Selma's contributions were of major significance, and it is no exaggeration to say that the German part of the research could not have been conducted without their help. It has been great fun for both of us to become close friends with them, to be addressed now as du, the familiar form of “you.”

    We were delighted to discover that the spiritual nominees extended gentle gestures of friendship across the ocean, expanding their Christian community in the process. In response to a letter from the American focus group, the German women wrote to their sisters:

    Dear Women of Glade Creek Lutheran Church,

    Splendid thanks for your greetings which we received at Christmastime. We have much joy concerning our conversations with Jan Ramsey. We send you many greetings from Germany.

    [Signed by the members of the focus group.]

    Another delightful layer of continuing encounters is the increase in friendship bonds experienced by the old women themselves as a result of their coming together for this project. In Germany, particularly, the group that met for the first time as a focus group when this research began has been meeting on a monthly basis ever since. Together with their pastor, they discuss how their spirituality can be increased and woven into matters of everyday life. They support each other during times of crises and doubt, and they sing, laugh, and share faith stories. Needless to say, we are very pleased that this has occurred!

    In Blue Ridge, the women have not met again but have gotten to know each other better through reading about each other in the interview transcripts we shared with them. When Lovey died last year, Pastor Maier read sections of the transcript at her funeral so that her own words of faith and encouragement could help her family and friends deal with their grief

    We could never have anticipated that the focus group in Germany would continue or that the interviews would become the stuff of funeral sermons. But by far the most exciting spillover occurred far away and was not known to us for some time. On our last trip to Wilster, we learned that Anna had been having difficulties in her relationship with her daughter for some years, primarily as a result of misunderstandings that arose when her daughter entered psychoanalysis. When the English-language transcript was mailed to Anna, this daughter translated it into German for her. After her daughter did so, they had some new dialogues, and an improved relationship resulted. It is nice to think that seeing Anna and her many gifts through our eyes may have helped.

    When we visited Germany in the summer of 1997, we met with the spiritual nominees for feedback on the research report and we also participated in one of the monthly discussion meetings. Each of the four spiritual nominees proudly introduced herself to me (Blieszner) using her pseudonym; each had a copy of the section that summarized aspects of her spirituality. Anna's youngest daughter and Emma's son had translated their sections into German (the son had said he would do it when he had a chance, but he actually completed the translation one day later!). Karl translated Inge's and Elisabeth's sections orally for them.

    First, we had a chance to speak with the four spiritual nominees. Jan asked the women to tell us their perceptions of the accuracy of the summaries and how they felt when reading about themselves. All four agreed that most of the description was accurate except for some minor details. Anna stated that the description of her as a model of faith was too grand, too complimentary—she does not see herself that way. The other three women were also very modest and said the descriptions of them were too kind. Elisabeth mentioned that she had not shown the transcript to her husband at first, but then she did later. Anna showed hers only to the daughter who translated it. But that daughter made copies for her siblings to read, and then they had a family meeting to discuss it—they were so proud of their mother!

    Anna said that participating in the study gave her the possibility of reflecting on and seeing the fruits of her life. Then, reading the transcript was like looking into her life as in a mirror. All the struggles she experienced now have a new meaning because other people will know about them. Furthermore, Anna appreciated the way the research experience helped the women of St. Bartolomäus Kirche form the ongoing discussion group and enabled them to have interesting and meaningful conversations. She said she was honored to have been involved in the project, and she presented Jan with a letter expressing her joy at meeting her and her affection for her.

    Inge mentioned that participating in the interviews had been difficult because the questions were more abstract than the topics she usually discusses with others. Thus, she had to concentrate hard in order to stay focused on the interview. All the women agreed that no one asks these questions in daily life. They have continued to think about these matters since the interviews had taken place. Overall, Inge thought taking part in the interview was a very enjoyable experience.

    Emma came to realize how important her faith is and believed that participating in the study strengthened her faith. She showed the transcript about her only to one of her sons because her children do not share her faith or understand the depth of it. She and Inge wore the Holy Spirit (dove) pins that Jan had given them two years ago. Elisabeth said hers had “flown away!”

    The women wanted to know why anyone would be interested in them, so we explained how we have used the stories in speeches, counseling, teaching, and in this book. We emphasized how the stories inspire and help people.

    Our next meeting was with the members of the original focus group and some additional women who have since joined the monthly discussions. When I (Blieszner) entered the parish hall where the meeting was to take place, I was overwhelmed at the beauty of the room and tables. Inge and Selma had worked hard to make it look special. They had placed the tables in a large square and covered them with crisp white damask cloths. The tables were set with white china, bright yellow napkins poking out of the cups like big flowers, yellow lighted candles, and bouquets of huge-headed yellow and purple pansies. There were candles and flowers on the altar at the side of the room, as well. One of the women played the piano as everyone gathered and greeted one another.

    Karl claimed everyone's attention and explained that first they would sing Jan and me a welcoming song, then he would introduce us to them, the women would introduce themselves to us, and we would discuss the research project. The beautiful song, based on Psalm 104, gave praise for the beauty of summer. The women sang in harmony—what a special moment! Then Karl interpreted for them my explanation of my work and our plans to write a book based on this research. The women were very curious about their American research project sisters and indeed, about how older adults fare in America. In introducing themselves, some women mentioned how much they appreciated the opportunity to meet and talk together every month.

    After an interlude with coffee, pastries, and much animated conversation and laughter, Karl once again called for attention and asked Jan to speak. She told the group about her research and the fact that the journey continues, as evidenced by their ongoing meetings and by her use of the stories in her therapy sessions and speaking engagements. She described the three themes that emerged from the data analysis—the importance of community, affect, and personal relationships—and made some comparisons across the German and American women. In closing the meeting, Karl invited everyone to pray the Lord's Prayer and he blessed us all. The women sang a song of praise, again breaking into harmony spontaneously at the third verse, which gave me goose bumps. They arranged the meeting date and discussion topic for the next meeting and went out to the garden to take photos.

    Our relationship as joint authors has led to many extended conversations about other aspects of our respective personal and professional lives, yielding an enlarged sense of our own spiritual community. Jan often told me (Blieszner) about her efforts to help clients in therapy write different narratives of their difficult situations by using examples of coping and resiliency from the women in this book. She has also found sources of inspiration to share with clients from our conversations. For example, one day I recounted to her a powerful religious experience that I had had: During Lent, our pastor asked the congregation to write their concerns, frustrations, sins, and other woes on small strips of muslin. The idea was to offer them to God as a way of releasing them. Each week, the strips were tacked to a cross that was carried in and out at the beginning and end of Mass, and the woes were woven into prayer petitions sung during Mass. More and more strips were added to the cross as the weeks of Lent progressed. During the Good Friday service, Father Lemay took up the strips, which had been sewn into a long narrow length, and while a hymn was sung, he wound the wrapping around and around the crucifix, until the figure of Jesus was completely bound up in woes. The crucifix remained shrouded until the triumph of Easter Sunday. Jan has used this story with several clients, all of whom have wept in response to the paradoxical idea of so much sadness borne by Jesus but then transformed into joyful relief

    This book began with an invitation to listen, and it concludes with one as well. After reading the stories of these eight remarkable senior women, we invite you to make a practice of listening to old persons, both men and women, and to the life stories they have to tell. In congregations of many faiths around the world exist powerful, healing models of spiritual resiliency—old people of strength and courage. Their stories not only instruct, they inspire. As you can see, these venerable elderly not only teach about coping during losses; their stories build friendship and hope. We hope that you have learned with us something of how the discipline of careful attending can have its rich rewards, particularly when one listens to women who listen for God.

    Appendix: Research Journal

    The following pages contain the research journal written by Ramsey during the course of planning the study, conducting the focus group meetings and in-depth interviews, analyzing the data, and interpreting the results. Researchers keep such a journal to record their observations during and reactions to the investigative process. Such notes become a source of data to be analyzed as well as a check on the veracity of the interpretations offered in the discussion of the findings. Recording responses in a journal enables researchers to separate their own feelings and reactions from those of the study participants. We present these notes to aid readers in understanding both the research process and the person who conducted the main interviews.

    September 20, 1994

    This morning I've been reading John's version of Jesus's conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4:7ff), and a strange verse stood out for me, verse 27: Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or “Why are you speaking with her? “

    Not one of his disciples gave Jesus a hard time about breaking both the gender (and the racial) rules. They probably thought plenty, but they didn't say a word. The Samaritan woman ran off to tell everyone what she had learned and that Jesus might be the Christ. She wasn't sure, but she was excited enough to go tell everyone, just in case ….

    So often I see, or think I see, the same kind of look that I image was on the disciples’ faces that day. “What are you doing, wearing that clerical collar …standing up there by that altar …even parking in the clergy parking lot?” I get so tired of it, of seeing the unspoken questions on faces. But I overreact, I am easily hurt.

    Why I am so touchy, so easily bruised? Why can't I just ignore it and go running off, like the Samaritan woman, to tell everyone how thrilled I am that my Lord stopped for a while and “talked” to me, explained things to me, that He took a hard look at my life and told me to worship you “in spirit and truth”? No less incredible that He would do that with me than with her: I'm not Jewish, or male, and my marital history, like that of this woman, is less than perfect. Yet He has come to me, He gives me “the time of day,” and so much more.

    Sometimes I feel just as free and excited and spontaneous as she was that day, and those are the times I'm listening to God. But inside me, too, are places were I hurt, where I'm afraid and insecure, where I'm afraid that maybe I just don't measure up.

    Lord, be with me through this day. Let your peace stay with me, guide me, give me security and the assurance that you care for me, want me to be yours. Forgive the stupid, petty times. Continue to heal the scars I've gotten from rejections by others and from self-inflicted wounds. Draw me near to you through the keeping of this journal, through my writing, through this research. Still voices within and help me to listen to your voice.

    December 29, 1994

    I've just finished my first interview with a spiritual nominee. It was a good experience; I feel privileged to have listened to Rebecca, the 93-year-old woman I met, and to have been let into her life.

    I also feel somewhat sad. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm afraid that lives like Rebecca's are a thing of the past. The simplicity of her lifestyle, the firm values she holds, the lack of materialism in her environment, the peacefulness: how different and remote it all seems from our family life. Driving home after the interview I wondered, “Can I, can anyone, have a faith as strong and sure as she has in a world that has changed so quickly and is so much more complex than the one in which she grew up?”

    Her struggles were in no way less serious than my own: caring all those years for an invalid husband, not having any children in a world where bearing children was expected, the frail health she has now. Yet it seems, on the surface, that her life was so much more quiet and that the distractions from the spiritual life fewer. I came home to write this and found the stereo blaring out from my 22-year-old son's room, the usual raunchy song, and I thought about Rebecca and her worries about people living together before marriage today. Our world has changed. Does she even guess all that is going on, how extensive those changes are?

    I kept thinking about the quiet of Rebecca's world. She's no doubt still sitting there, in her chair, listening to a tape. Later she'll eat a simple supper and go early to bed. Yet she's happy, content. My children complain constantly about “boredom.” My life is packed with activity and people, every moment of every day. Will I someday sit and remember as she does, my childhood, my family, my church friends and experiences? Will I ever know the kind of peace that she seems to know. “My life is very pleasant,” she said. “It's the contentment,” I wanted to say. Others would sit there and feel bitter. “I'm alone, but not lonely,” she added. What a gift. Oh, how I want to be more like her. I was so alone after my first marriage broke up; growing into being OK with being alone was a real struggle. This trip that begins in two days to Germany will include many alone times, especially when I'm not in Wilster. Will I be able to be alone but not lonely? Do I have a quiet center, like Rebecca?

    December 30, 1994

    I'm packing for the trip to Germany and preparing myself for this adventure. I have such a sense of people going with me, even though I'm traveling alone: Joe, family, friends, the women at Glade Creek and friends at Christ Lutheran. Through all of them, I have a sense of God's presence as well.

    I have many anxieties about being able to complete the project in a land with another language and a less-than-familiar culture. I'm anxious, too, about being a burden on the Steenbucks, even though they must be very kind people. It makes me feel so connected to the church, being welcomed like this across the ocean by a pastor and his family. I wonder what life is like for people who have no church roots, connections? That sense of community has always been there for me, and I know often I've taken it for granted. I don't now; an experience like this really helps me to understand how wonderful it is to be part of the Church.

    Meanwhile, I pray that my family will be safe and happy while I'm gone. I hope Joe's health will be good and that the children will all thrive. There's always so much to worry about with five kids, all of whom are at different places at different times. I feel none of them has the spiritual center and lifestyle I would wish for them, but I know part of that is their life stage. How ironic that as I study older women, it is my adolescent children who are so much on my mind. Maybe that's a good reminder that the women I'll meet in Wilster, and the women at Glade Creek, were once teenagers, with some of their own emotional and identity struggles. But what a different world they knew. But there must be strengths I can learn from women who grew up so long ago, in such a different world, that would help me and later my children to live courageously in this world, now.

    I spoke to a former client who is very bitter about a divorce after a long legal struggle and who always has troubles with holidays. She spoke of the brokenness all around and I agreed, but after last night I wanted to add—but it's the brokenness, and our need for wholeness, that Christmas is all about. I don't fight that idea so much anymore, that the world is broken and imperfect. I don't romanticize my life, my family, as I once did; too much has happened. And I know now that it is the brokenness that makes Christmas necessary—for my family, for me. That includes the brokenness in me, the mistrust and greed and fear. How can you be almost broken by life and yet be whole? How can you “grow back,” as Esther said? Maybe that's another reason I want to learn about being resilient. This work is about me, too, much more than I first realized when I picked a topic for a dissertation. Divorced yet happily remarried; disillusioned with my romantic dreams for life, yet hopeful; fearful and filled with doubts, yet believing and listening; clearly, this topic picked me.

    January 2, 1995

    I am in Wilster at last. This has been a hectic day of travel from Frankfurt, with the stress level compounded by missing luggage. But the good news is that Wilster is a complete delight and my host family is friendly and gracious. They treat me with warmth and courtesy even though they know me only as “Bob's friend” and as the woman who wrote them letters in simplistic German. Their two sons are also friendly. Michael is quiet and studious, studying to be a lawyer. He gave me an excellent tour of the church but speaks only in German to me because, as Selma, his mother says, he is a bit genau (precise). Hearing my German errors should cure him of that! Raphael, “Raf,” is his opposite—outgoing, artistic, a long-haired guitar player in a rock band. He will speak English with me and does so very well. I suspect that Michael will do so too as time goes on. I'm trying not to panic, even though the luggage has not arrived by bedtime. Inside the bags is everything I need to do my work here, including cassettes, recorder, translations, laptop computer. I'm telling myself that I certainly need trust, not so much God (my bad planing is not God's emergency) as German efficiency (the bags were lost in the United States, but the German airlines promise to deliver them to our door).

    There was interesting conversation with my hosts today despite the language differences. We were trying to get to know one another, especially checking out values and viewpoints. Being Christians doesn't necessarily mean that any two people are in agreement on social and economic issues, obviously. As it turns out, Karl and Selma are liberal in their views, much as I am. I think that increased our comfort level with one another somewhat, but from my point of view, anyone who serves incredible pastries like those I ate here today would be quite acceptable!

    I called home for the first time tonight since arriving in Germany. Joe and Brian's voices had an echo, reminding me that there's a great distance between us. Yet love really does keep people close, and I feel my family's presence just as I had hoped I would. Does that mean that when God seems distant it's because our love has grown dim? Surely God's for us never does, so when there's a feeling of isolation and loneliness, it must be because we have tired of loving God and gotten lazy about working on that relationship. So when God has seemed distant to me in my life, it's been because of a failure of love on my part. Those are difficult words for me to say, even to write down in this journal: “I have not always loved God.” Yet why should they be more difficult to say than “I have fallen short and sinned.” The second statement is abstract; the first is personal. Faith is about this personal relationship, and if I could keep it more on that level in my life, I would love God more and sin less, because it's a lot easier for me to go against an idea than a loved one. Yet it is God whom I hurt when I turn away, God whom I fail to love.

    From time to time I feel pangs of loneliness at being in such a strange environment. I keep trying to reframe this as a growth experience. When I start to feel blue, I think about how I'm proving to myself that I, a woman alone, can really do this. And it helps even more to remember Rebecca, the spiritual nominee in Glade Creek, who sits there, alone in her home, blind, 93, and who said to me without a trace of self-pity, “I'm alone, but I'm not lonely.” Already one of these woman is a model of strength for me, and the project has just begun. I am so excited to think what stories I'll find here. But will the women trust me enough to open up to me? Why should they? I guess I'll have to leave that concern to tomorrow, and to God.

    January 3, 1995

    Today was much better and less stressful. Not only did my luggage finally arrive late today, but I have mostly gotten over that slightly nauseous feeling of jet lag. For the most part, it was a quiet day at home, getting acclimated. I took two walks around the neighborhood and felt very much the stranger. But the beauty of the snow-covered town and the regular ringing of the church bells remind me that I am no stranger to God. The Bible says we are all strangers in this world in a sense, since its values are not our own, not Christian values, and never will be. But because God made the entire earth, for all his creatures, I'm really no more out of place here, in an ultimate sense, than I am in Virginia. Culturally, though, and humanly, its quite different. There are so many things to get used to: the way that Germans eat so quickly (I'm always the last one to finish), the proper way to shop (you bring your own sack and bag your own groceries), the way to behave with strangers and acquaintances (don't speak, just nod to strangers who are sharing a close space with you). Of course you say Guten Tag (Good day) to acquaintances and Angenehm (pleased to meet you) when you meet someone new. Tschuss (so long) is for when you're leaving. I am anxious, worrying that I will do something to displease my hosts. If I feel insecure, it's because I'm so dependent on them, I guess; it certainly isn't because they have been anything but fantastic to me. With Selma I feel particularly comfortable. We communicate very well despite my poor pronunciation and her lack of English. It's as though being women and mothers (and overworked!) gives us much in common. We laugh together at women's kinds of issues; like me, she is a feminist but also very committed to her family. Karl is a wonderful person, intense and committed. He loves the church and is very interested in many things; he's so bright and quick, I really enjoy our conversations. He's given me a Barth book to read while I'm here. I can understand his German better than anyone else's because he speaks so succinctly. Yet sometimes he makes me a little anxious because I feel as though he hasn't made up his mind about me yet. I get the feeling that my informality and spontaneity make him a bit uncomfortable.

    For my devotions tonight I finally have my own English Bible. It was slightly bent en route but looks so familiar and comforting. When I took it out of the suitcase, it was like seeing an old friend. I found myself yesterday realizing that this old leather Bible would be the personal object that I'd miss most if the suitcase didn't arrive, even though the tape recorders are what I most needed.

    God, I ask that you use this experience to work with me and to help me grow spiritually. May even the moments of homesickness and anxiety I feel be reminders that I need to be stronger in my sense of self as your child, and that none of us are ever completely at home in this world.

    January 4, 1995

    This morning I woke up sick with a cold and had to cancel my plans to go to Hamburg to explore the city on foot. I couldn't risk spending a day outdoors and being sick tomorrow for the focus group. My hosts were as kind and solicitous as always, and Selma brought me fruit and yogurt in my room in spite of my protests. I must admit that it felt good to be nurtured. I keep thinking the same thing over and over, how small the world is for Christians. If I can travel half way around the world and be accepted here, made to feel part of the family, then that's what we mean when we talk about the “body of Christ.” Yet so seldom do we actually experience this unity in a practical way.

    Tomorrow is the focus group and my first meeting with the older women of this parish. Will they accept me as the Steenbucks have? Will they talk to me about their lives and their faith? I keep thinking, why should they open up to me? Why should they tell me anything personal about themselves? Will the language and cultural barrier make this experience very different from my conversations with Rebecca? My experiences outside this household have certainly not all been so positive. The train conductor overcharged me by several Marks for a cup of coffee and told me the wrong track number (deliberately?). The postmaster yelled loudly at me when he thought I did not understand German. Why should the women be different? Yet my hopes are that they will be, that they too will approach me as a fellow Christian and be kind and cooperative.

    At each step of this adventure, I have had to learn to trust again that all will be well. Each difficulty seems to shake my confidence unreasonably. First, at the Roanoke airport, I thought I might not get to fly at all because of the weather. When the plane was announced as a “go,” I had such a strong sense that God was helping me. Yet at the very next problem, the loss of my luggage, I had trouble trusting again. Now that I have my luggage and that all is going well with my stay here, I again have trouble trusting God. I keep thinking everything is up to me and my skills, yet I also have a strong sense that I have God's support with this project, that I am being used here in spite of my poor faith and many insecurities. Prayer helps; I find that when I take my concerns to God honestly and confess my anxieties, they diminish on the spot—not disappear, but diminish.

    God, I ask now that you be with me on this day, and tomorrow. May my meeting with the German women be not only helpful to me, but to them. May they feel affirmed and strengthened as they realize what You have meant in their lives. May they grow through their cooperation with this project, as they realize how important they are to others. May I use all my talents and gifts in this work. Thank you for all that has brought me to this point. May the church bells I am hearing at this moment be a symbol of your presence and love, and may they ring in my heart when I have gone back home.

    January 5, 1995

    This afternoon will not be soon forgotten. I just returned from the focus group here in Wilster. To say that it was a success does not begin to capture the experience for either me or for the participants. It is definitely one of those rare times of my life when I feel absolutely confident that God's purposes took over and things happened far greater than I could have ever imagined. When the first woman, Inge, began sharing with me, telling me that she identified with Mary the mother of Christ because she, too, has lost a son, I was surprised and touched. That was only the beginning of my surprises. The emotionality of these women is so deep. They have been through terrible experiences. Being with them reminded me of being with the Vietnam vets last summer in one way: I felt respect for the seriousness of what they have survived. When one woman spoke of not knowing for days whether she would live or die, she cried. I suddenly realized that this research experience is going to be a lot more emotionally powerful than I had expected. I immediately had a sense of gratitude that she had allowed us to participate in such a moment. And I was astonished that they would be sharing such deep and meaningful things with me. I sensed that God was working, and that in spite of all my limitations, it was God's intention that the voices of these women be heard. Suddenly knew that what I am participating in here is far more important than my degree; it is important because it is another piece of God's work. I feel recommitted to this project, excited about how I stumbled onto it and determined to do my very best with it.

    I will never forget the faces of these women, their Angst when they told of painful times and their pleasure when they heard that their faith stories were going to be heard. When the pastor explained that I would be sending word back to them and checking out my findings with them before publication, they looked especially pleased. I think they, too, have had a feeling of being a part of something larger than any one of them alone. I think now that the best thing for me is to get out of the way and let God's work be done; this journal will help me to do that. Tomorrow, my first visit with a spiritual nominee. I'm frightened, but on the other hand, I can hardly wait.

    January 6, 1995

    This day has been beyond description. This morning I had my first interview with a German spiritual nominee, and I was so moved by the experience. This woman, Elisabeth, has such a quiet confidence and so much to say about her spirituality. I couldn't believe how trusting she was with me. It was as though she was quietly delighted that someone cared about her ideas and stories. And as if all of that were not enough, she is a poet, and she shared with me several of her poems. Many are directly related to her spiritual strength. Everything keeps being so much better than I had ever hoped for on this trip.

    Later, at Mittags (lunch break), I took all four of the Steenbucks out to eat at a local restaurant, and that was fun. It was good to see them relaxed and enjoying themselves without Selma's having to cook. It troubles me sometimes to think that here I am doing a research project for feminist purposes, and now a woman has to work harder because of my presence in the household! Before we began eating, Karl offered grace, very quietly. It was as though he did not want to disturb anyone or remind them of his piety, yet he was not willing to eat without giving thanks. He always says the same short prayer, which is the exact German version of the prayer we always said at home in Pennsylvania, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.” My German roots show up from time to time.

    But by far the most fantastic part of the day was the evening. We drove to Itzehoe, a nearby city, for Gottesdienst (worship services) because today is Epiphany. I was expecting a small group and a simple service. What occurred was an experience I'll not soon forget. The church was old and beautiful with a large crucifix hanging in front. The only light was the candlelight from candles at the end of each pew and from the large Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) in front. The atmosphere was so quiet and hushed; no one spoke above a whisper except for those who presided. The celebrant and preacher was the provost, who is a church official somewhere between a bishop and a dean in our system. He has a dramatic voice which he uses well for worship. I sat with Selma and a few of the older women I had met yesterday, including Inge, because Carl was assisting with the service. I followed along with the German hymns and could understand the sermon completely since the preacher spoke slowly and precisely. He spoke of the mystery of the “three holy kings,” as the Wise Men are known in Germany. He said that they brought their gifts in humility and that the mystery of Epiphany is to offer to God our pride and selfishness and materialism, to put all that at His feet so that we can experience newness of life with God. He said that it is difficult for us to do this, to live a spiritual life, because of all that we have. We mistake our material possession for riches. There was Holy Communion, and in that atmosphere, so quiet and spiritual, with my new German friends, so far from home and yet so zu Hause (at home). I was deeply moved. For some reason I thought about my mother during the service. I suddenly thought how incredibly fortunate I am to be having this experience. And I thought of how she has never been able to come to Germany; once she came close, but had a heart attack just before she and my father were to leave. She has had so little in her life and so much sorrow. I have had so much, so many incredible experiences, so much joy. I wish I could tell her how much I love her and wish to thank her for all that she has done. I guess having an experience like this one, one you're grateful for, makes you realize more than ever how deeply in debt we all are to those who have given to us. I am here because of the love and support of so many other people.

    I kept feeling tears start in my eyes during the service. The Germany words were so beautiful. The same meaning as in English, the Creed, the Our Father, but somehow hearing them in German was so precious to me. One dramatic difference I noted in this service was how quiet the congregation was, how worshipful and formal. At Glade Creek, there was so much talking and informality. It's not as though the people in Virginia were any less sincere or close to God, it's just a dramatically different culture. A female pastor assisted with Communion. That was good to see.

    After worship we went by car to a parish house and had Abendessen, which consisted of much conversation, beer, sausages, and dark rye bread. I sat with the group from Wilster and talked with the women and with Selma, who graciously tried to draw me into the conversation. Imagine my surprise when the provost asked Karl to introduce me and then when Karl asked me to speak to the whole room filled with people! He told the group gathered there, from various churches in this Kreis (circle, a geographic area) about my work. I noticed two women who whispered and joked with each other when he said that I was writing a book about older women. I told the group how much I appreciated the warmth and friendliness and how strong a sense I had that I was part of the church community, having come so far across the ocean and yet feeling so at home. The faces in the room lit up when I said these things.

    Afterwards the same two women (not from our group) who had joked with each other about being “older” approached me in the coat room. They looked sophisticated and intelligent. The one who spoke English told me, in English, that she thought it was different in Germany from the United States because in Germany there are many older women without partners “because of other war.” She said being without a man makes a difference. I responded very seriously, even though at first she was smiling, and I told her that this problem exists in the U.S. also, having more older women than men. Although, I said, it may be a still worse problem in Germany. She appeared to be shocked to hear this and said she wondered why this should be so. In addition to the war, I said, women live longer. I guess we're stronger. She told this to her friend and then asked me how she could get a copy of “my book.” Once again I was moved to see how eager these women are to be heard, how important it is to them that someone cares about their situation.

    On the way home I told Karl and Selma what a fantastic day it had been for me, and they said they enjoyed it too. But they could not have known how meaningful it was for me. It was one of those days when you think, well, even if nothing else ever happens to me in my life, I will always be grateful for this experience. It's difficult to express all the feelings going on inside me. Being in a foreign country, feeling welcomed as a fellow Christian and as a woman, has been doubly powerful. Of course it's personally satisfying to know that people here have accepted me for myself. But I constantly feel gratitude for all those who have brought me to this point. And above all, to God. God has kept me safe, God's Spirit has helped with everything from assistance with concentrating on German, to knowing what to say when I have to speak to a group, to finding courage in awkward situations. It is so true, as the provost said, when one loves and worships by putting herself at God's feet, mysteries and miracles occur.

    January 7, 1995

    I am finished with my interviews with Elisabeth, and I feel terrific about how they went, not just from a research point of view, but especially since they seemed to be so important to her. Her life seems peaceful, that's the word that keeps coming to my mind. She is clearly at peace with her life, her story, her faith. I think that her love of the natural world has a lot to do with this peace. Her garden, her stones, her birds: She seems to have a deep sense that she, too, is part of God's world.

    Joseph Sittler, one of my favorite Lutherans, wrote once that those of us who live in these times are “diminished” because our roots aren't so deep or so widely spread into the natural world of field and forest as were the roots of our ancestors. I had so much more time to be outdoors when I was younger. As a child I would especially find myself so happy outdoors, away from the tensions of our household. Everything delighted me, and I felt a bond with the streams and the damp leaves and the smells, especially on autumn days. Knowing that winter was coming made those times particularly precious. My first spiritual experiences, separate from my family, were in the woods at the summer camp I attended. Perhaps being away from home made those times more powerful (just as being away from home now is making this experience so much more intense). We would build a worship area in the woods as part of our church summer camp experiences, and I remember looking at the cross we constructed and being amazed that just putting two large sticks together, ordinary sticks, would suddenly produce such a powerful symbol. The sticks were no longer mere objects, but mysterious, somehow, reminding me that God was present through the story of Jesus Christ. I never fail to feel some of that mystery when look at a cross or crucifix. The beautiful crucifix that hangs in the front of St. Bartolomäus Kirche here in Wilster is a far cry from the simple crosses we made in summer camp, yet it evokes for me many of the same feelings. Lately my experiences with nature have been few because of the pace of my life, and this is a part of my spiritual life I feel cut off from. At least when I had a dog to walk, I would get outdoors regularly, but lately I have been inside, working and studying, all the time. A regular walk with no practical purpose in mind needs to be part of my life again. Here in Germany I'll be walking often since I have no car; hopefully I can continue to do so at home. Perhaps realizing its place in my spiritual life will help me to get outside more. I'll think about Frau Elisabeth and her peace and that model should help me to get going and out the door.

    The other thing I've learned from this peaceful woman is the importance of creative writing in spiritual life for those of us who feel comfortable with this form of self-expression. All her poems are spiritual in some sense; her faith in God permeates all she thinks and writes. I was especially impressed with her insight that writing the poems helps her to believe more deeply; she says reading over what she has written makes it all more real for her. That is true of so much of faith; it has to be spoken and heard and lived to be made real. Yet Elisabeth also loves to learn and to think; in spite of her lack of formal education, she is intellectually alive and growing, never missing an opportunity to attend a seminar or retreat. But she is able to interweave, so naturally, the findings of her brain with her inner faith experiences. This is very impressive to me and a goal I have. In some ways it's what I've been doing in graduate school, but not always. The times when I keep a journal like this I've done far more of that synthesizing of head and heart, knowledge and faith, but it simply doesn't happen by itself, and I don't always give writing enough time in my life. I don't stop to express the connections between what I can learn about God's world with my head and what I believe in my heart. From conversations with Elisabeth, I have come up with two “New Year's resolutions:” Spend more time (1) in the natural world, walking and noticing the beauty of creation and taking my part in it, and (2) regularly writing, either in poetry or journal form, about my experiences and how they intersect with my spiritual faith.

    January 9, 1995

    Today I met with a group of older members of the congregation, at Karl's request. Only Inge was there from the focus group; the others were all different individuals. After coffee and coffeecake, served as always in elegant fashion, with candles at each carefully set table, Karl introduced me and asked me to tell the people something about my work. There was quite a strong reaction from one woman, who had been invited to the focus group but who had not come (we learned indirectly) because she said she didn't want to be “interrogated.” Today, however, she agreed enthusiastically that older women are not heard in society, at home, or in the church, as they should be, and their stories not told. She was also very interested in the Social Security system in America and what I said about the problems of older women in America who are divorced in later life. She later told Karl that she would like to be interviewed now, “So that she could ask me more questions,” and then later called the parsonage to repeat this request.

    Not everyone there, however, was on that wave length. Immediately after she spoke, another woman argued with her, saying that older women have no place trying to get all the attention and should accept their lot in life quietly and let the young take over. Karl whispered to me, in English, “She's internalized the very attitudes you are speaking about!” These women were the only two to speak or to ask questions. Overall there was a tremendous contrast between this group of older persons and the selective group of women at the focus group. The women in the focus group were more articulate and more interested in religious matters, as well as far more self-confident about speaking out.

    January 10, 1995

    I have been thinking about how connected I feel with the women I am interviewing, and I believe the connection has two strands. One is our common faith and the community it provides. The other is our commonality as women. I had never dreamed that the latter would be so strong across cultures, but when I sit down for coffee with these women, we are two women talking about life and death and sorrow and joy and faith. It is as though I've been prepared by all the experiences of my life, the pleasures of being young, the joys of loving a man, the happiness and sorrows of motherhood, and the sorrows I've experienced, like losing an infant and divorce—all of these have prepared me for understanding what these women have been through. I'll probably never, thank God, know what it's like to ride in an open cart as a refugee from war, holding a 2-year-old, sick, dirty child, as Inge had to. But I know what it is to worry and cry about a child so that you think your heart will break. I heard some guilt, too, in Inge, for the years she was so busy in the watch shop. She had to work because of her husband's uselessness as an alcoholic, yet she misses the times with her son, and she makes (too strong, I think) a connection between her lack of time for him and his current problems. This is so familiar to me, the irrational yet never-ending guilt. I had to go to work after my divorce, while the children were still young; I had no choice, yet I often feel bad that the children's years went flying by. I'm always thinking that their current difficulties are somehow my fault, that if I had only spent more time with them, they would have turned out to have fewer problems today. Yet Inge doesn't allow her sorrow over her son to dominate her entire life. She can sit down and have a cry, yet she has a happy and healthy life filled with giving to others through the church. Her sense that she is loved by others in the church keeps her joyful, keeps her saying, “Ich bin sehr glücklich” (I am so fortunate). What an inspiration she is; her problems have been so much more dramatic and overwhelming; I've had so many opportunities she has not, for an education, for travel. But my faith and joy haven't begun to approach her own. I know I'll think back to her many times in the years to come when difficulties come my way, especially difficulties with the children.

    January 11, 1995

    No sooner do I write pious words about trust in God than I am put to the test. Last night I had a call from home and found out that [Katie] my [18-year-old] daughter, about whom I worry the most these days, now weighs only eighty-eight pounds. She is taller than I am, and this weight borders on the dangerous. I think she may be depressed, and I know she isn't eating properly. It's extremely tough to be this far away. All my motherly nurturing impulses are frustrated. And so often it seems with my daughter that I don't really have anything to give her that she wants or that she will accept; she is so busy finding her own way, making her path into adulthood. Sometimes, briefly, she seems to want some mothering, but most of the time it's distance she needs and wants. I'm thinking of Inge, of her story about the son who never calls or writes to her or even responds to her letters. Surely if she can bear that, I can bear my anxieties.

    My husband says a doctor's visit is scheduled for this Friday. Even though he said he'd call me Monday, I know I'll call Friday night to see what the doctor said. Until then, I can practice being the strong woman I'd like to be and am not yet. There is no question in my mind that the most difficult part of being a woman is being a mother and worrying about one's children. Even marriage and love problems don't touch it.

    But I do have a connection to my daughter, through God. Though she wants her space, I can pray for her, no limits on that. And God understands all that is on my heart—the guilt because I haven't been the perfect mother, the fears, the hopes and dreams for her future. I think, too, I will use what I've learned from Elisabeth and write a letter to Katie today. She wrote one to me before I left, trying to explain, saying that she loves me. It was a big help; she'll never know how much it meant. It let me know that the relationship is still there, still important to her. God, I'm glad you're there for mothers (especially mothers of adolescents); we certainly need you!

    January 12, 1995

    Tonight I accompanied Karl to his meeting with the Vorstand (church council). He asked me to come and help him lead the opening section of the meeting, which is always something devotional or spiritually educational. He decided we should discuss the fourth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother,” and try to get those in attendance to talk about what this commandment means today, how it may be different in America and Germany, and how it's changed in the past and present. Karl says that in the past this commandment in Germany basically meant that one had to respect and obey, at any cost, not only one's parents but also civil authorities. Luther's catechism, he stated, has had an enormous impact on German life in this way, especially his interpretation of this commandment. It's resulted in a mixture of good and evil: Obviously the Nazi times are the most dramatic example of the latter, when authority figures were followed against moral principles. In reaction to that phenomenon, the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church in Germany has recently been emphasizing a change in understanding this commandment, saying “honor”should mean “care,” care for our elderly parents when they are old. We should minister to them as individuals and as a church.

    But Karl says that since my visit and our many conversations, he's no longer comfortable with this emphasis. He now realizes that this approach, too, is limited, because it tends to make the elderly into a problem, into objects of care, not respected resources of wisdom and experience. Naturally, I was delighted that he was thinking about these things and that he was saying that he might have benefited from my visit in some way. He and Selma have been so wonderful to me, have done so much.

    He wanted to discuss all of this with the council and did a good job of introducing the topic to them, relating all of the above. I then talked for a few minutes about my work and how I felt that, in America, we need to learn to listen to our older persons and learn from their lives. I spoke in German and there were nods and smiles, everyone was most kind in spite of my pronunciation and God knows what other errors.

    However, the discussion that followed was not what Karl and I anticipated. The room quickly divided between a few of the older men and the younger men; the women present (about five) said nothing (to my disappointment and frustration). The older men began talking about problems with unemployment, and the younger men said that the older people don't “understand modern technology” and therefore shouldn't be in authority. Some of the speakers at least called for a two-way conversation, but in general there was not the dialogue we'd hoped for. I'm afraid pastors like Karl and me are sometimes too idealistic.

    But Karl regained control at the end. He reminded us all that this commandment is the only one that includes a curse and a promise. He said that shows how important it must be to God. And he said it is the hearts of the parents and children that need to change, not just the behavior. Karl is really a terrific pastor; he brings his theological knowledge and personal convictions into everyday situations so sensitively. I'm learning much from watching him. All in all, a good ending to a strange experience.

    January 13, 1995

    I am more than halfway through my time in Germany, and I remain profoundly thankful that everything is going so well. One thing I really did not anticipate was that I would grow so close to my host and hostess during my visit. Selma and Karl have become real friends during the last thirteen days, and it is a friendship which will last, I know. They are planning a visit to the U.S. during the coming year; I can't wait for Joe to meet them, and it will be so good to be able to do things for them when they visit.

    The other aspect of this experience that continues to amaze me is the way that the women share private details of their lives with me. Yesterday I met with the third of my spiritual nominees, Emma, for the first time. This interview may have been the most significant so far, because she has an amazing ability to interweave stories about her life with the significance of her faith and faith experiences. Emma has been a widow for only four years; her former husband was an artist, and they lived an isolated life out of town with no real neighbors or friends. The people in their lives were customers of his, not real friends. During that time, Emma stopped going to church regularly even though she continued to practice her faith at home, especially in raising her five children. But when her husband died of cancer, she found she had to find a new path through life for herself. It was then that she became active again in the church and has become a new and different person in the process—doing so much for others, including the older-old whom she visits, sharing her story, attending a weekly Bible study, which she says is even more important to her than the pastor's preaching.

    Emma's changes, after she found herself alone, really took me back to the time immediately after my divorce. Like Emma, I had let my (first) husband's profession dominate our lives; like her, I had gotten lazy about church, and although we attended, I was not really very involved. Then suddenly I found myself alone, finding my own path, and I grew to realize how important the faith community was to me. Not only did I become a different person, far more interested in others than ever before, but, ironically, like Emma I found new meaning for my life through visiting older persons. My divorce was my second chance, even though it certainly didn't seem it at the time. In Christian language, I'd say we both found ourselves by losing ourselves.

    And in both cases, it was only after we lost the men in our lives that we were able to do that. Loss, with God's chemistry, can become gain. But I found myself realizing, as she spoke, that I am really afraid of the idea of losing Joe. That would be no second chance; that would be absolutely terrible. People talk about how different he and I are; they have no idea of what goes on between us, how close we are. He is my dear soul mate and here in Germany I miss him so much. I appreciate as never before how precious he is to me, how much it means to have him in my life. Would I be able to bear losing him, as Emma lost her husband, and as so many of these women have? There is no way to anticipate how I would navigate my way through that darkness, but I know that the community would be there for me, and God, somehow, would bring me through, even that. In spite of it all.

    That brings me back to one of the aspects of my conversation with Emma that seemed most powerful. It was when I pulled out of her sentence the word, trotzdem (in spite of). She really took off with that word and explained in a moving way that her faith is “in spite of all that has happened, and “in spite of the continuing pain she often feels when she sees other young-old couples enjoying their retirement years together. But she doesn't become bitter or stuck on these feelings; she doesn't feel jealous in the sense of self-pity. She has found a new way to organize both her life and her thinking so that it is God centered. I can't really say that I am at that point, yet. I still am so caught up in my own accomplishments and worrying about my own life too much to be at the mature level of faith this woman knows. She always refers to what God does through her, not what she does. She has such a blend of enthusiasm and realism, about what life is actually like.

    I respect Emma and hope that someday I can be given a faith more like hers. That kind of faith is a gift, but it seems to be a gift that I can help to get ready for by getting “self out of the way. As I continue to be concerned about my daughter, I recognize how universal these experiences seem to be for mothers. Emma has an alcoholic son and other children who do not go to church, one who is in a new-age cult. She worries about them but, like Inge, does not despair or allow her worry to rob her of either her convictions or of the joy she knows in her relationship with God.

    As I mature, will my worries, too, become less dominant? Actually, I can already feel that happening to some extent. Katie was on my mind off and on all day yesterday, yet I had a somewhat less overwhelmed feeling about it, not caring less or loving less, but with a feeling that I could trust God more. I'm sure all will someday be well with her and that I need to focus my own energies not on worry, which accomplishes nothing. Instead, there is, right now, my work, which can be helpful to others, and relationships with these new people, the nominees, the Steenbucks. Like Elisabeth, I can write about my concerns and doubts and faith; like Inge, I can take comfort from the love of other Christians who care (at the present time, Selma and Karl), and like Emma, I can continue to walk the path that God has chosen for me, not just stumble around on one of my own making (particularly the non-path of fear and worry).

    After the interview was over, I told Emma I had seen one of her husband's paintings in my book on Wilster. She said there were three altogether in the book, and she looked in the index and found the other two. This seemed very important to her; she is obviously proud of his work. The paintings are appealing, rather impressionistic and pleasant. She then asked me again to tell her something about my own life, and, since the interviews were over, I did share a little. When I mentioned my divorce and how that was my second chance, she became openly teary for the first time. How remarkable that she was so much more moved by my sorrows than by her own! When we said good-bye, I gave Emma the same small pin (a dove to represent the Holy Spirit) I've been giving to all the women after the last interview. She seemed especially pleased with it.

    January 15, 1995

    I saw Emma in church today. She read the lesson during the service; she's a regular lay reader. She also sat with a group of her friends from the Bible Study, who now seem like my friends, too. Elisabeth is also one of them. After the service, Emma greeted me warmly and pulled back her winter coat to show me what she was wearing on her collar: the small dove pin I had given her. I also saw Anna again, and I'm very eager to begin my interviews with her. I find both her and her story intriguing.

    January 16, 1995

    I have returned from my second interview with Anna, and my head is spinning. I never dreamed that this experience would be so fascinating and so emotionally moving. It's hard to describe all that I thought and felt today with this deeply spiritual woman who has seen so much and grown so much from her experiences. Thank goodness for this journal so that I don't have to try to be objective about her. She is very special for me.

    Ever since I first met Anna I have been fascinated with her and her story—her style, her smile, her quiet way of talking, the things she has accomplished. But I was afraid of her, as well—somehow I felt awkward around her, the way I'd feel, I guess, meeting a great person from history, like Lincoln. But after today I feel much more at ease, because of her graciousness, warmth, and almost casual manner with me. I certainly don't feel any less in awe, however.

    More than anything, I feel honored that we shared such intimate moments as we did in the conversation today. At one point, after talking about the war and reading Bonhoeffer's prayer out loud, she became very quiet and there was about a two- or three-minute pause, maybe longer. Those minutes were the most impressive of any time on this trip, a trip filled with impressive times. During that silence, I felt connected to her, even though I also felt she was far away, lost in her memories, thinking of times and people I will never know. She smiled a little sheepishly at me when the pause was over, and I told her I found her to be a very deep person, very sensitive. “Weil ich nachdenke?” (Because I think back?), she asked. Selma is right: Anna really has no idea of how special she is; that is, perhaps, the most amazing thing about her of all.

    I feel like I've saved the best interview for last here in Wilster. That's not only true from the point of view of this work, but also for myself, personally. It will take some time for me to articulate all that meeting Anna has meant—I know, even now, somehow it has to do with things that go back to my childhood, to those nights sitting on the stairs in my parents’ home, listening to dramatizations of the Nuremberg trials, reading the Diary of Anne Frank, and thinking, “I'm German, too. What does all this mean? How could all these things be, and what does it mean about me, about people, about God?”

    In Anna, there is certainly no final resolution of these questions—they have no answers. As she says repeatedly, these things are truly incomprehensible, unimaginable. Yet to meet someone who was actually a member of the Nazi Party at one time and is now this wonderful person—what does all that mean about human resiliency, about God's Grace, and second chances? Certainly it means that we don't have to get stuck in guilt; we go on, we nachdenk, yes, but we go on. Anna works for peace and justice but with a sense of loving concern, not as though she's trying to redeem herself. She is responding to the love of God, not trying to earn her way somehow. And everything she thinks and does is out of love and compassion for those who have not had the opportunities she has had.

    I can't believe how non-self-referential this woman is. I didn't hear one word about her own health concerns or anything that even comes close to self-pity from her. Always it is others she thinks about, often the whole human race. What a vision, what a way to live.

    Selma is very understanding about my strong reactions to Anna; she is also fascinated by her. “Die grande Dame” she always calls her. Yes, the great lady.

    January 24, 1995

    I'm home at last. There has never been a sight so welcome as the faces of my husband and son at the airport. How I love them and my other children. It is so good to be here.

    This trip has really changed me. I feel more peaceful, more calm, somehow, more of my own person—yet at the same time I realize more than ever how much I love and need other people. I do feel some frustration, already, at not being able to share with Joe enough details of the experience to feel like he completely understands (he's trying!). I've taken lots of pictures, especially the last few days in Berlin, but it just isn't possible to explain everything to him. I guess that's OK, too, and maybe even necessary. The Steenbucks are, hopefully, coming to visit in October. But if only he could meet Anna, Emma, Inge, and Elisabeth. Maybe someday he will, when I return to Wilster with him. I'm grateful for this journal, and for the tapes (I guarded them with my life on the way home!). They are the real treasure of this trip, other than my memories. It's incredible to me, to think that I'll be able to reexperience those conversations now, as I play the tapes and read the transcriptions. And then, after I write the dissertation and the book, other people can meet these wonderful women too.

    Thank you, God, for my safe trip home, for this experience, and especially for keeping my family safe while I was gone.

    February. 21, 1995 3:15 a.m.

    I got up out of bed to write this because I was afraid of losing my thoughts and feelings. I had a dream that helped me to understand what I am doing in this project and how much I want to be close to God.

    Like most dreams, all dreams, it was a bazarre mixture of parts of my life, parts of me. Alan and Jo, my friends (a couple) were telling me to go to Lake Constance (in Switzerland, the city where Michael Steenbuck is studying law) in order to meet God. They told me that they had recently been there on a vacation and had seen the face of God in a large wave. They were very precise on how I could go to a certain part of the lake and find this wave and see the face of God for myself.

    Well, the dream is really outrageous in many ways. Theologically, it's ridiculous, of course, primitive and so literalistic—it's worse than Cecil B. de Mille and The Ten Commandments. And my dear friends Alan and Jo are special and close to me, but not really pious people by any means, not people whom I would expect to be looking for God in the waves on a vacation.

    None of that matters, though, because the phone rang on the children's line at 2:30 a.m., in the middle of this dream, and woke me up, allowing me to remember the dream, not just with my mind but with my heart, to think and to feel all that it brought to me. As I lay in bed thinking, I saw the wave again, and I had a remarkably strong sense of God's presence, never mind the stupid theology and images. And I began thinking about this project and the women, including Martha, whom I interviewed yesterday. They were so honest about God's presence in their lives, so unconcerned about how theologically correct that sense of presence is. Martha can't really, or won't, talk about her relationship with God when asked directly, much as Inge could not or would not. Yet she could tell me about sometimes getting up in the middle of the night to deliver a calf and feeling no fear as she goes down to her barn alone, because God is with her. Or she can talk about, and cry about, the Sunday School picture of the woman scrubbing the floor “for God.” She can question the suffering she has seen and admit that God's ways are beyond her.

    As I lay there in bed, I felt such a longing for a faith like that, certainly not for the first time in the last months. But this time I put different words to the experience, and I realized that I want so desperately to be close to God, to “see the face” of God in my life, to experience a daily faith relationship with God in a new and closer way. And I realized, too, that this longing is what this project is really about. It's not only about helping others learn resiliency, it's not only about writing a dissertation or a book, it's not only even about learning how to age myself and endure losses, even the worst possible one. More than anything, it's about wanting to be close to God. There's an actually physical feeling, inside my heart, the way you feel right after you fall in love and then have to say goodbye for the night.

    Which is what I'd better do right now so that I can get up tomorrow and get back to work on this research.


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    About the Authors

    Janet L. Ramsey is a pastoral counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist at the Pastoral Counseling Center of the Roanoke Valley in Roanoke, Virginia. She received the Ph.D. from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Family and Child Development with a major concentration in adult development and aging, the M. A. R. from Yale Divinity School, and the M.Div. from Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. She was ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1985 and has served as both a nursing home chaplain and a parish pastor. A Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, her clinical work focuses on issues related to the aging process, caretaking, and chronic illness. She participates in a variety of community activities and serves on community organization boards. She has presented numerous workshops on spirituality, aging, caretaking, and coping with chronic illness.

    Rosemary Blieszner is Professor of Gerontology and Family Studies in the Department of Human Development and Associate Director of the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg. She received the Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University in Human Development—Family Studies with a major concentration in adult development and aging and a minor in sociology/social psychology. Her research, funded by the U.S. Administration on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, AARP Andrus Foundation, Virginia Tech Women's Research Institute, and Virginia Tech Educational Foundation, focuses on family and friend relationships, life events, and psychological well-being in adulthood and old age. A fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, and the Gerontological Society of America, Blieszner is coeditor of Older Adult Friendship: Structure and Process (Sage, 1989), coauthor of Adult Friendship (Sage, 1992), and coeditor of Handbook of Aging and the Family (1995). She is also author of numerous articles published in gerontology, family studies, personal relationships, psychology, and sociology journals.

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