“To wonder is to stand in the towering shadow of God however frightened we are of our own smallness. Like Moses, let us pause at the buses that burn. Like Tomas, let us bend for a closer look at Christ—even if, paradoxically, it’s doubt that reaches to touch his side. Let us have certainty when it’s available; let us have humility when it’s not.” – Jen Pollock Michel, Surprised by Paradox
Everything about this view is comforting—familiar. I’ve marveled at the symmetrical beauty of the magnolia lane dozens of times. The glistening leaves of the towering Magnolia Grandiflora trees mark the old entrance to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. When you stand there, you feel minuscule, like you are a part of something grand that must have always existed this way. Like you could melt away and no one would notice you were ever there.
I imagine the changes to the world that these trees have witnessed during their stalwart watch over the monks who arrived on the old plantation grounds in 1944. Beyond that, I haven’t thought much about the trees before. Nestled on over 1,000 acres of Georgia woodlands, the monastery offers many other sights like the geese by the lake or the glorious stained glass windows.
I’ve always arrived with a purpose in mind. I always like to be here during the liminal space between two years, asking God to guide me as I enter the next season. I’ve come when discerning a big decision that I need to wisdom for. I’ve been on retreats to learn from a few of the 300 remaining Cistercian monks in the world about a specific topic like contemplative prayer or writing. I’ve always brought expectation as my companion to this place.
Today is different. I am on a solo retreat with no agenda. The church, cafe, and museum are all still closed due to the pandemic. I can’t converse with the brothers or join them for prayer today.
Yet, I need a weekend of silence and some time on what always feels like holy ground to me.
The world has been extra noisy lately. The voices shouting about elections and diseases, sides to take, and lines to draw—have become too much to take. I come to God with a million questions that I am not sure how to begin to ask.
I feel aimless at first. I open my Bible. I journal for a while. I sit in silent prayer. Then, I just start to wander the grounds.
I amble past the trees, at first looking up at the way they seem to touch the sky. That’s usually what I notice about them—their height and their shine, the way the leaves are never changing year-round when everything around them seems to whither.
Today my pace is slower so I stop to notice the sunlight that is much brighter at the base of trees that reach all the way to the ground, no trunk visible. They seem one with the earth, like there is no dividing line between the two.
I step closer and the vision changes. The branches touching the earth aren’t springing from below; they grow sharply downward from the middle of the trunk, jutting out at strange angles. They conceal a cavelike area between the branches and the trunk of the tree.
Some long trails made me feel like I was making progress on the “walk” and others wound back on themselves, veering away from the center. If you’ve ever trekked a labyrinth in prayer (or walked a smaller version with your hands), you know that there is only one path but it is not a straight one. This ancient prayer tool is made of serpentine lines winding in and back out again, helping the pilgrim focus. There is no guessing if you are heading in the right direction, no worries about taking a wrong turn. You can just focus on the walk, focus on the presence of God with you.
As someone who loves to know the plan before I begin, not knowing what lies ahead makes me uncomfortable, even anxious. Somehow in that moment, not knowing where I am going or how long it would take me to get there made me feel free instead—free to trust that I would make it to the center when it was time and back out again safely. I didn’t have to worry about where I was going because I could trust that the maker of the labyrinth had laid it out correctly and the whole goal was to just walk.
As I’ve accepted that I am a good halfway through an ordinary span of life, I have become more profoundly affected by the twists and turns of life. Half of them behind me now, I can look back with insight on a life that has turned out where I supposed it should have, though not without much pain and many unexpected detours along the way. Nothing has turned out the way I imagined it would. But I have the benefit now of looking back and recognizing where God was at work.
My own way has wandered through countless forks and roadblocks. Early in my faith, I met the unexpected moments in life with trite answers and pretended it was enough. I swallowed more well-meaning “when God closes a door he opens a window” answers than I could stomach through the years and they began to rub me the wrong way.
Two distinct moments in my life, I can remember raging back against simple answers to life’s complex twists. Barely three months into my dreamed-of life in the Middle East, already rattled by culture-shock, the call that shredded my insides came. My husband entered the room, his face void of color. I don’t remember much except dropping to the shower floor and wrapping the towel around me to absorb the tears when he told me my father had experienced a “widow-maker,” a massive heart attack. That was 13 years ago this winter and my dad is still with us, but our dream of living overseas is not.
We launched out again, believing we were following God’s particular route laid out before us only to find ourselves again in the wilderness. A shockingly similar call came when we were living in Bangladesh. It was my mom’s voice again on the phone, telling me of my brother-in-law’s ruptured brain aneurysm. The same fears arose inside of me, the same feelings of obligation to my family and the need to be by their sides. The same anger—not at God, but at those who would pin the pain my family was going through on God.
The same words ripped through my throat in those startling incidents a decade apart: “My God did not do this!” When others gave me that, “there, there” look and told me it was all a part of God’s plan or that the Lord was testing our faithfulness, anger surged through me..
Her intense gaze met mine, or so I believed. When she turned toward the audience the feathers of her tail responded in a dance of their own, winding around her slender form. She wasn’t a ballet dancer on a stage; she was the exotic bird, emerging from her cage to capture my imagination. Time ceased to be and nothing else existed but us, as something deep inside me stirred into movement while she danced.
From the moment I sat in front of the TV screen, enraptured by the peacock performing the Arabian Dance in the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version of The Nutcracker, I begged my mom to let me take dance classes. I was only three and she figured I’d lose interest quickly; she was wrong. Dance filled my world and defined who I was. By the time I was in middle school, I was dancing five days a week and planning a professional dance career.
As a teen when I would bandage aching blisters or lose yet another toenail, my father would ask me why I continued to dance. If I complained, he would tell me I should quit. The years of endless classes, the aching muscles, the feet wrecked from pointe shoes—none of it mattered. I battled my body into submission to ballet. I kept chasing after the feeling I had as a little girl watching the exquisite ballerina. I wanted to capture that feeling again, to become what she was.
My winding journey with dance could fill a book. I lost hope in my dream and quit for a while, only to find myself weeping outside a ballet studio shortly after beginning college. I came running back to my first love, changing my major to pursue dance full-time. I kept fighting for the dream despite professors’ lack of belief in me, and traditional wisdom that said a career in dance was not a sustainable life. Every now and then I would glimpse a kind of transcendence: that fleeting moment on stage when a series of memorized steps becomes a moment when the rhythm flows within and through you. I didn’t end up pursuing that career; God took me in other directions, but the love never kept chasing me down.
My body knows the movements my mind can no longer name. It’s been years since I’ve taken a class but the patterns have been etched like deep grooves into my muscle memory. I can still go through the motions of a complete ballet class on days I can’t seem to call my children by the right name. The notes of a song will take me over and I can’t help but move with the music. It reminds me that I will never stop belonging to the dance; it is part of who I am.
Under the Christmas tree, I found the tiny book with golden-edged pages. My mom had sewn a lacy cloth cover to protect its delicate binding. Like I begged for ballet shoes, I begged for a Bible. I thought the answers to what I was searching for would lie inside. It became my icon, a symbol of a Jesus I wanted but didn’t understand. I longed to feel closeness with God and poured over the pages. No answers came.
I can’t explain the hunger I had for God early in life except to say that it was something borne in me. It wasn’t something I learned as a child. I have more vivid memories of hide-and-seek and MTV than I do of the church. I vaguely remember flannel graphs, Oreos, and tiny cups of juice the few times I attended Sunday school as a child. Yet it felt like there was something drawing me to this Jesus I heard and read snatches of stories about.
I don’t remember actually making the choice to go to the back of the room to pray with someone the first time I attended a youth group meeting with friends. The magnetism of the God I had been searching for drew me in, and I was hooked. I met Jesus that night, instead of only glimpsing him from afar.
I threw myself full-force into all the right moves. I memorized them like the exercises of the ballet barre. I learned the routines of a Jesus follower, giving myself to the tutelage of those who could tell me more about him...
Maybe it’s the desperate hope that somehow the tide of the pandemic will finally turn and we’ll see a return to some semblance of the life we knew before. But I’ve been feeling the need to mark the days lately, to remember.
As summer unofficially ended in the U.S. with Labor Day, I noticed something strange in the air. Lately, each passing day has felt like another bead on the string of weeks woven together in this unending loop we’re in. We’ve rounded this corner half a dozen times now as we mark six months of pandemic life.
As the days have blurred together, we’ve had to be intentional to find things to make important days stand out. We didn’t plan to commemorate Labor Day in any sense. I needed to write, so I stole a few moments away at a nearby lake. I enjoyed the silence of nature but noticed the noise as well: families laughing, children screaming, dogs barking. Many had come out to enjoy the last day of summer.
While picnic blankets were spread farther apart than previous years and masks reminded us of what we’ve lost in recent days, the rhythmic beating of shallow waves against the rocks reminded me of what stays the same. I realized we can still hold onto those things if we’ll stop to notice them.
I stopped writing and called to tell my husband and kids to get ready. We needed to observe this day together. We needed to remember in hope...
Suddenly, the sunlight was blotted out by the angry smoke that curled toward the sky. A row of cylindrical chimneys signaled our entrance into the brick factory district on the outskirts of Dhaka. The air hung heavy with the texture of coal emanating in dark clouds from the kilns. As our family rode by we watched workers stack bricks six high on their heads to carry them to trucks. Their back-breaking work of making bricks sent an endless supply of construction material back into the city.
But the work of building didn’t end there. In the year and a half we lived in the capital of Bangladesh, we watched the skyline around our flat constantly shifting. Our building would shake in the middle of the night as truckloads of bricks were emptied into the street. The next morning we would emerge to wave at the construction workers as they sat on a growing pile of rubble. They were already hard at work shattering those very same bricks.
With only one source of stone in the country, bricks were used for construction but also broken down to make the ingredients for concrete. We daily watched clouds of red dust darken the site as women and children shattered the bricks by hand and carried them into mixers to build the foundations of new apartment buildings.
We always said, “What a waste of hard work to make those bricks! I can’t believe they’re just breaking them now!” But it was the only resource they had. And so, they continued to build with what they’d been given. They built up and tore down and built up again. Day by day we watched the city slowly inch higher on the backs of these workers.
When God gave me “build” as my word of the year for 2020, I anticipated starting out with finished raw materials and seeing progress rise all around me. I mean, I was ready. I’d spent long enough tearing down and living in limbo. I’d down deep soul work and was ready to see changes in my life. I promised to let go of plans and to and accept whatever came next, laying brick upon brick as God unfolded the next season.
I started the year with hesitant excitement, still adjusting to being back in the U.S. I'd started a new job in digital communications. My husband, Lee, was still looking for work. We had moved into a home we thought would be a temporary arrangement but then decided to stay, planning renovations and additions. Possibilities to create a future nearly from scratch seemed promising.
I had long been yearning for a more contemplative approach to community worship, a place my wandering heart might belong. I'd attended church in eight (some wildly) different denominations/traditions throughout all my moves. I'd visited so many others around the world and gone on retreats annually to a Trappist monastery for years. Amidst so much shifting faith practice—I didn’t feel like the church “home” I was coming back to in the U.S. was home anymore. I fought it for my family, but I knew I couldn’t stay.
In January our church visiting as a family had stalled and we decided to pursue two different avenues. Lee and the kids would attend what had been our home church before we moved to Bangladesh, and I would attend an Episcopal church we had visited during Advent. I felt like I had found a place, at last, I could belong.
The kids were starting to feel settled in their new schools and we had a solid routine down where I worked while they were at school and wrote on weekend mornings at a coffee shop in the early hours while they slept. Lee started his new job and I was talking with an editor about a book idea that was consuming my thoughts. I could just see this new future rising toward the sky.
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