“In Your mercy confer on me a conversation pleasing to You, the patience to wait for You, and the perseverance to long for You. Grant me a perfect end, Your holy presence.”
– Saint Benedict of Nursia
He intimidated me on that first day I met him. He must have all the answers, I thought. Surely he knows the secret things of God, learns them in his five daily prayers.
I sat in the back of the room as the Trappist monk spoke about how his free-form writing had helped him encounter the dark spaces of his own soul. He’d stroke his chest-length white beard as he laughed. He seemed so casual and approachable at that moment. I imagined if I were to see him out in regular clothes, I might wonder if he was a biker. Yet here in this place, he seemed otherworldly.
Brother Mark is one of the dwindling number of Cistercians that make their home at the monastery I visit a couple of times a year. It’s less than an hour from my home and yet when you enter the sprawling grounds, you feel like you are entering an inherently sacred space. From the Abbey Church’s towering ceiling to the rolling lawn and lake nestled between massive Georgia pines, you truly feel minuscule against the backdrop of the testament that the monastery is to God’s majesty.
I had come for a retreat in which several of the brothers taught about writing and journaling. Brother Mark shared with our small group about his struggles with anger and the temptation to squabble with the men he chose to live his life among.
What—monks arguing? Of course, deep inside I knew this must be true. They are only human, after all. And yet, I had this image in my mind of the holiness that must set them apart, the pedestal these men must belong on for having chosen this life. My mind couldn’t wrap itself around the paradoxes of Brother Mark.
That evening my mother, sister, and I sat in the common room of the retreat guest house. It was the period of “the Great Silence,” the time after compline—the last prayers of the day—when the brothers retreat to their cells until the bells again call them to prayer well before dawn. Yet Brother Mark sat chatting with us about writing, faith, miracles, and dreams. I don’t know what all we discussed; I just know it was the night my illusions shattered...
The sky had been stormy for hours already, so the transition to night was difficult to discern. Disoriented, soaked through, and shivering—we waited for direction.
We had started out the day staring at an “x” on a map, a destination we needed to reach. As the day grew long, our surroundings didn’t look right and our little team began to grumble. The leaders of our expedition, my husband and another member of the group we were traveling with, finally confessed they didn’t think the path we had been following all day would take us to our destination.
Once they realized we were on the wrong trajectory they set off to right our course, but this correction took us down a hill that was already steep before the day’s rains had turned the decline into a muddy slide.
What would happen next lay in their hands. I could see the weight of the decision they must make pressing down on them. Would we continue through the brush trying to find the path, darkness barking at us like a hungry dog? Or would we go back the way we came, returning to the marked (but wrong) trail to find a place to camp? How much longer could we go on in this cold, wet terrain—weary as we were? Whatever they decided affected us all.
I squeezed my children’s hands, trying to pass some confidence into their shaking arms. My five-year-old son’s twenty-pound pack made him look like a turtle slumping under a too-heavy shell. My daughter, two years older than him and trying to seem much braver, winced. I knew her ankles hurt but she wouldn’t say anything about it again. She could see the worry in her dad’s eyes.
We’d been hiking for 48 hours, the last few in sloshy boots and packs burdened with rainwater. In those moments when we stood still waiting for a way forward, hope began to wane. Even if we found a suitable place to camp, could we start a fire in this rain? No longer warmed by the constant movement, we shivered in fear. Hunger gnawed at our confidence that everything would be okay.
Maya Angelou said,
“Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction.”
“If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment,” she added, “we must be ready to change that as well.”
There are moments when there doesn’t seem to be a path that leads us back to good. We’re past the point of no return, and there is no map laid out for what happens next. Despair weighs us down like the straps of a pack digging into our shoulders.
I am reminded of another scared group huddled amongst the trees, waiting for directions for their next steps. Confused by the path their leader said he would lead them down and exhausted, they went aside to pray. In the garden whose name means “pressed,” he was crushed by the weight of what was to come like the olive crushed to extract the precious oil from its skin.
Jesus knelt in prayer and wrestled with the uphill climb he knew was ahead but committed to pressing on because of the faith he had in what lay on the other side. He knew the future would be hard for those men he loved sleeping under the olive trees: the weight they would carry, the despair that would try to defeat them.
But he knew hope isn’t stagnant.
It requires testing the road ahead and if we lose our way, keeping on.
Never giving in.
Night was coming and those men couldn’t see beyond it.
Yet they followed the One who led them on...
“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...
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