“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..
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...
Every day I stand and watch this intersection of four roads that is such a symbolic intersection of all of life. I look out over my current little corner of the world through a smudged floor-to-ceiling window. From the time I pull back the paisley curtain, blinking at the light pouring in my room, to the time I watch the moon rise over the concrete skyline, I find my way back here several times just to notice.
It’s a place where beauty and chaos meet; they mingle like the rickshaws and cars that push each other around the crossroads in their back and forth dance. The lush coconut palms stand in contrast to the fading, cracked sidewalks. The rising sun glints off windows of the high-rise across the street and the tin roof of the slums beneath it. In the morning the nuns shuffle past to the counseling center they run down the street, their white habits and white shoes standing out against the black street. In the evening crowds of men return from the mosque after the last Call to Prayer has sounded for the night. I love the way this place isn’t afraid of paradox.
In the Western world we tend to see life in dichotomies. We live in a world of either/or. Right or wrong. Blessings or curses. Suffering or healing. Of God or of the world. For most of my early life, I didn’t know that life existed in the grey areas. No one told me there was room for a world of both/and. I couldn’t believe we could carry both faith and doubt, knowing and unknowing...
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