“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.
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...
Our eyes grew wide in disbelief at the yelling, shoving crowd. We had been warned, to be fair, that our trip to the Mogamma, the towering government building in Tahrir Square, would be difficult. But this was something entirely otherworldly. We clutched our passports to our chests and braced ourselves against elbows to the ribs. Everyone there needed to get to that one plexiglass window at the front of the room. On the other side were the stamps that would allow us to stay in the country.
We came to Egypt on tourist one-month entry visas in faith that the system would work and we would be allowed to stay. We didn’t act like there was any other option when we signed a two-year lease and enrolled in Arabic classes. But we needed someone on the other side of the mob to take our papers and give us final permission.
We tell our immigration stories fondly now from the other side. They felt like harrowing experiences while we were in the middle of them though. We hounded the guy at the Bangladeshi Embassy daily. He could have denied our visas because of a changing rule we didn’t know about. Instead, he gave us a call and a chance to make it right. Our entire life was already packed up in ten suitcases and the one-way plane tickets had been purchased. Yet he held the power to deny us entry into the new life we sought. In the end, we got the highly-coveted five-year permission that others told us they were jealous of. “How easy it was for you,” they would say.
I’ve been an immigrant twice and I’ve served with an organization that worked in relief and development amidst one of the largest refugee crises of our time. I’ve helped bring aid to those who fled. I listened to and wrote stories so that donors would hopefully continue to help. I stood looking over the vast rolling hills of the world’s largest refugee camp and thought I knew something about the vulnerability of a transitory life. I knew nothing.
When I started listening, really listening—I realized how one-sided my knowledge was of why people leave and why people need sanctuary...
“Why are you here?” she asked suspiciously when we sat down knee to knee on the dirt floor of her shelter. She had seen other foreigners before. They brought food and water, set up medical camps. Were we here to do the same? “We just want to hear your story,” one of the women in our circle said. The Rohingya woman tugged the violet scarf behind her ears as she smiled widely and let out a contented sigh.
When I was younger I never imagined I would be sitting in a circle like that one. Everything in me loved to color inside the lines. A risk-averse rule follower asks where the boundaries are and then stays a few feet inside of them.
My faith stayed inside the lines for years, too. I clung to right answers and thought I knew all the rules to follow to please God and to make a difference in the world.
And then, I went out and met people who looked, lived, and believed nothing like me. I started listening and realizing how little I knew at all.
Thankfully, I met people who valued people’s stories over quick solutions. When one organization I worked with wanted to combat slavery in India they asked the people in bondage how they could help and listened when they responded: “Educated our children. Don’t let this cycle continue with the next generation.” So, they started schools and empowered national teachers to run them.
“It is easy to know what is good for someone else,” says nun and human rights advocate, Joan Chissiter, “It is difficult to listen and let them define it themselves.” I don’t always make the effort to listen. But when I do, I realize the gravity of carrying someone else’s story…and the privilege.
Back in that camp, we leaned in closer around the quiet woman, eager to hear her story...
I am thrilled to share my story today at Cara Meredith's Coloring Outside the Lines blog. Cara is the author of The Color of Life: A Journey Toward Love and Racial Justice. The proceeds from the article will go to the work of Preemptive Love.
Ask anyone who knows me: I am obsessed with books. My dream house includes plans for a library with bookshelves tall enough to necessitate a sliding ladder. Belle was always my favorite princess because of her love of reading. Some of the world's most magnificent libraries have brought me to tears (Alexandria, Egypt to name one).
It's this love of the written word that made me want to be a writer to begin with. Maybe it's this love of words that drew me to study the stories people tell about God and get a degree in Religion. I have an abnormal love of learning and have said I would go to school forever if someone would pay for it (Anyone dying to fund my return to an incomplete seminary degree I started sixteen years ago? No?). If you ask any expert on writing what to do to become a better writer, the first thing they will say is, "read more."
So I set out this year with a goal to read 52 books. I read on my kindle and on my phone, listened to audiobooks, borrowed from the library, and supported author friends in launching their precious book babies into the world. By the beginning of December, I had busted my goal apart and read 59 books (and countless essays and articles online).
My head was swimming with all the beautiful, wonderful words. And I needed a break. My love of reading had become a duty as a writer. I needed to read more to grow my craft. I needed to support every author friend that was putting together a launch team. I needed to recommend the best books in my monthly newsletter to my reader (and articles and podcasts, and oh, so much noise in my mind!). My love of story had turned into a duty to take in more information at a breakneck pace. And I wasn't loving it anymore. Sometimes even the things we love can become burdensome. Sometimes we need to reevaluate our reasons.
So, I took December off of social media, reading, podcasts, news. I work in online communications so I couldn't log off completely. But outside of work, I let the only words I take into my mind during Advent be one short devotional and Scripture.
It was a relief to have some quiet for a time. But it is not sustainable as a writer or even as a lover of words. I long to be a learner but I also have limited time (and limited capacity in a middle-aged brain that is pulled in a million different directions). I want to be smarter in what I consume and I don't ever want it to just be more information. I want it to be part of transformation.
So, here's a look back on what I read in 2019 and my goals for the coming year. What about you—what do your bookshelves look like? Continue Reading