What does unconditional love mean? What does it gift to us in our lives? I first experienced unconditional love in my friendship with Lori Slawinski. I have been looking back on my life by going through old papers these last several weeks–my winter project. The other day, I reread dozens of letters from Lori from when we first knew each other. We met when I went to college in the fall of 1971. She was a sophomore at the time, and became the “big sister” I never had at home, my being the oldest child of so many. I haven’t found any photos from that time; this photo from 1977 is the earliest. Very quickly we became best friends, though there was a moment when she hesitated–she said she was afraid of corrupting my innocence. I can’t remember exactly what I said to her, but all I could see in her was her own bright goodness. I think each of us were surprised to be chosen and loved by the other.
Looking back from the perspective of being a lesbian, I wonder about our friendship. We were never sexual with each other, but our letters can only be described as love letters–mostly written on school vacations when we were apart from each other, missing each other, and expressing our affection with such deep passion. I had occasional crushes on boys during this time, but nothing could compare with the love I shared with Lori. Our love for each other was also expressed in the context of our passionate love for God. Lori and I were part of a small circle of friends who were trying to follow Jesus and figure out how to live the gospel in our times. All of it intermingled. From her I felt God as the unconditional lover, and from me she felt that too.
Unconditional love is a transforming energy, a grounding that helped me to believe in myself. Maybe because we weren’t trying to be “in a relationship,” we could grant each other the freedom to explore fully who we were, without expectations? Our maybe it was the spiritual rootedness that provided that freedom. We had a fantasy of continuing forever in our little community, but college is a temporary place. When she graduated, she left to join the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago. I didn’t follow her there, but tried another way, eventually discovering the Catholic Worker movement. Lori was very psychic, and I remember it took a lot to claim my own inner knowing, since she always seemed to know me so well. Separating was a challenge, after being so close. But we were able to let each other go, to try to work out our own destinies.
Our lives diverged significantly when I encountered feminism, and found myself leaving Catholicism, leaving Christianity, embarking on a new spiritual path. I imagine it must have been difficult for her, yet we stayed connected. I went to Chicago Theological Seminary in 1983, came out as a lesbian while there, and she came to my graduation in 1986. (It was years later, in 1999, that I was ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister, but that is another story.) Somehow, the love we had for each other never wavered. We kept in touch via occasional letters and long distance visits. Sadly, Lori died of cancer in July 2012; this second photo was from our final visit in May of that year.
I am so grateful that I was able to experience her unconditional love in my life. I have had other significant loves, and still do, but her love was the root. It enabled me to come alive, to feel joy, to trust the dreams I dreamed and the ideals that guided me. Despite our different paths, that unconditional love remained tangible. Perhaps that is why my image of the divine is rooted in a Larger Love, who loves all of us unconditionally.
Have you experienced such love in your lives? Please share your stories if you might be willing? Each story reminds me of the possibilities that surprise us when we least expect.