“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.
Shame was a language I learned early, right along with how to say “please” and “thank you.” There was an unspoken etiquette we learned growing up in the Southern United States. The tea should be sweet. You should address people older than you as “ma’am” and “sir.” I knew the taste of collard greens and banana pudding, as well as the proper use of the phrase, “bless her heart” to camouflage your disdain for someone in a prayer. We were known for our hospitality and kindness. We were always polite and proper—to people’s faces. Appearances mattered, often more than anything else.
I spent a good bit of my childhood being lulled into summer evening bliss by the rhythmic rocking of wooden chairs and the tinkle of the wind chimes hung on a long porch. My sister and I spent days down by the creek, running as fast as we could past our grandpa’s beehives. Our hands were stained from the red clay and black muscadine juice, calloused from shelling peas and stirring pots of beans.
But during those lazy afternoons on the porch, the stories flowed like molasses, sweet and sticky in the summer sun. Oh, that girl down the road the got married a little young. We all knew why. That neighbor had a liking for the bottle, everyone said. Shh, don’t say it too loud, someone might hear you. But wasn’t there a guy in school whose momma just got out of the hospital? You know, for taking too many pills?
If you stepped outside the cultural expectations, you would be the talk of the town. One thing I never learned was the language of grace. We were never taught to talk about all our failings or about the healing we can find when we say it out loud. We didn’t know what life could be like when we admitted our mistakes and asked for help. We just knew to sweep the dark corners of our lives under the rug, afraid someone would find out and whisper about us, too.
It was never said explicitly but the implications were clear. Don’t let people see your weaknesses. Manners matter more than transparency. And, for goodness sake, keep up appearances.
When I started attending church in my teens, I wrapped a new layer of right actions around me like a bullet-proof vest. I knew just what to say and do (and what and who to avoid) to appear like the best Christian. We talked all about a personal relationship with Christ, but what I really gained was another set of standards I needed to uphold.
Years later, after lapses that certainly made me the talk of all the good folks I knew in my church days, I longed for Jesus but I wasn’t so sure about his people. I knew I was a horrible mess and I was hungry for someone that could offer me more than appearances. I’ll never forget the kind people that poured into hurting students in the college ministry where I finally discovered a different dialect. They replaced the language of failure, shame, and secrecy with words like vulnerability, lament, mercy, and restoration...
I bristled when I received a message from an editor at a publishing house asking if I was working on any projects.
“I can’t write a book now,” I thought. “I’m still living in this messy space of transition between Asia and America, between old dreams dying and not yet discovering the new. Standing on this shifting ground, what advice can I offer a reader?”
As I debated my merits as a writer, I listened to a podcast in which poet Zach Savich taught about what he called “memoir from the middle of things,” writing about events that are still unfolding. He talked about living in moments that aren’t tied up neatly with a bow and writing from that place of unknowing.
I realized all I had been seeing was my own uncertain path as my husband and I struggle to know what starting over looks like. We moved around the world and back again and found ourselves unemployed, uncertain, and feeling terribly alone. But then I looked outwards and I saw it—unfinished stories, life lived from the middle, everywhere I looked...
“You just can’t see it yet like I can,” she said, gesturing toward the kitchen counter she promised would boast a pantry big enough for all our needs once the project was finished. She was right; all I could see was the room of storage boxes and suitcases, tools and paint cans piled high in the corner. My friend whose basement apartment was slowly being transformed into our new home had a vision of what the place could be; I could only see endless days of unpacking and building.
My friend has a gift. She can walk into a space, strip it down to the bare bones and clearly picture its potential. She is perfectly comfortable ripping down walls to find every nook of space that can become a new shelf, building barn doors to create new rooms, and dreaming about projects that will continue to transform the imperfect space into the picture she carries around in her mind.
Me—I am one of the unbelievers. I feel the panic rising in my chest at the sound of the saw ripping through the flesh of the wood that means living in the incomplete a little longer. I despise the feeling of living in a construction zone, of my already shaky hold on normal being upended. The pantry project lead to a laundry room remodel, new counters and a sink. My husband promised it would be completed by summer’s end, but I didn’t believe it.
I can’t see what might be; I can only sit in the rubble and lament the mess that currently exists.
It’s not remotely a stretch to relate these feelings to the rest of my life. The way I feel about my external space is a laughingly clear reflection of the battle going on inside. If I can keep every room in my house sparkling clean, I can avoid the reality that my insides are a jumbled mess of contradictions that constantly confound me.
The two renovations that are occurring simultaneously are God’s real life object lesson to me. The ever-slow learner, I don’t like the lessons...
For someone with a love of simplicity and order, I own an excessive amount of trinkets. A few weeks before our departure from South Asia, I packed some of them in a suitcase to send back with a friend returning to the United States. I lovingly wrapped the items as I pondered the most important things to go first.
In went a wooden Coptic cross from the church we attended while living in Egypt. I settled it next to an olivewood communion cup that once held juice outside the garden tomb in Jerusalem. They nestled next to the green, white, black, and red prayer beads secretly pressed into my hand by a Palestinian in Jericho when I spoke to him in broken Arabic, asking about his nation and his faith.
These items have lived on my dresser in Bangladesh, reminding me of the places that have made indelible marks on my life. They will return to a curio cabinet in America next to items that might be worthless in the eyes of others—things like sea shells from the island we visit every year with our closest friends, stones dug out of the Red Sea, a scrap of silk hand embroidered by a friend living in the largest slum in Asia.
My kids placed the beginning of their collections inside the bag as well: a bronze tiger for my son, a little wire rickshaw for my daughter. These things will sit collecting dust on dressers for years to come, surely. But they will also serve as a reminder of the land my children called home for part of their childhood.
This place will make a mark on them they won’t be able to name for years to come. One day, though, they will want to remember. They will need to understand why the smell of ginger and garlic paste simmering in a pan stirs something deep inside their hearts, something they can’t quite place.
When my friend told me the suitcase full of “souvenirs” went missing in transit—lost somewhere in Istanbul—I held back the tears and held my breath. Thankfully, a few days later, I learned it had safely arrived. They are just things, I know, but they are irreplaceable to me, because of the places and the stories they represent...