Walking by the Light of the Lighthouse
Sr. Brigit-Carol, SD
One day while I was on Bardsey Island a few weeks ago, an Island which lies off the North coast of Wales, the sunset promised to be a very special one, and I decided to walk to the beach to savour it. A few others had the same idea, and we sat or stood scattered around in companionable silence as the sky turned to a multitude of shades of gold, pinks and mauves. It was spectacular – truly a sunset to remember. On the Island, as the sun sinks into the perennial cloudbank on the horizon it gets dark very quickly. I had brought my flashlight with me for the walk back to the cottage that was my home for the week. As I rose to leave, I noticed that I seemed to be the only one with a flashlight. As I had my small pocket one on me as well, I offered it to a person close to me. "No thanks," she replied, "The lighthouse puts out plenty of light – I’ll just walk by that." The lighthouse on Bardsey puts out a double strobe-like flash in quick succession then another double flash after a delay of 15 or 20 seconds. I decided to try the "when in Rome" bit, so I also chose to try to walk by the light of the lighthouse.
I found I developed an interesting cadence in walking home that evening. Three or four steps taken in confidence in almost daylight brilliance, another three or four taken hesitantly as the darkness enveloped me and my memory of the landscape directly in front of me faded, then a few more steps taken rather gingerly and a bit slower than the others. The light would flash again, and I found myself peering intently ahead, trying to hold in memory the next few steps, but then darkness – blackness. My memory of what lay ahead would fade and the next few steps were taken in blind faith that I wouldn’t run into a patch of gorse (nasty prickly stuff) or stumble over one of the many stones. Then a brilliant double flash of light, the next few steps taken confidently, and the rhythm began all over again. Other moonless evenings found me walking the Island with greater confidence as I developed more skill in walking by the light of the lighthouse, but I was never completely comfortable. And I did not try to walk the mountain paths at night where the gorse is most plentiful.
Thinking of that experience has raised some interesting thoughts about prayer. Anyone who perseveres at prayer long enough knows there comes a time when the bottom appears to drop out and all the wonderful gifts and riches we are accustomed to in prayer fall away.
It is as though some great celestial arm has reached over and flipped off the light switch. Darkness envelops us. A darkness that at times feels heavy and thick, and seems to go on forever. This is the time I learn to breathe deeply, concentrating on the breath going in and out. It appears to take a lifetime to begin to be at home in this state where God is not evident and yet some small voice within says, "Hang in there." Hang in there? In darkness and not knowing? Exactly. In darkness and not knowing. All we know about God falls away. And we are left with a vague remembrance of God’s presence, but even that begins to be replaced with a not knowing.
Then as we are beginning to be a little at home in this seemingly black hole, a piercing ray of light envelops us. Very briefly God’s presence fills and surrounds us. Suddenly, and without cause. And in that moment we see. We see everything clearly and distinctly. And we know, we experience. Everything makes sense. And just as quickly the flash vanishes and we are left in darkness again.
At this point I would really like to tell you that the
darkness doesn’t seem as dark as before. I’d like to tell you that the flash
of light that illuminated it lingers just a bit. But I’d be lying if I told
you that. The truth is that the flash of light – the experience of God’s
immanence -- is so blindingly brilliant that the darkness appears all that
much darker by contrast. And once again we find ourselves sitting in faith,
counting our breath or saying our mantra. But there is a difference. There
is a place beyond the senses where we remember, at least for a time. And we
sink into the darkness knowing that it’s OK. God is beyond light and dark.
God just is. And we are in God. And we tread even the mountain paths fringed
with gorse with more confidence.
Sister Helen Mary
by Canon A.M. Allchin
On Christmas Day, 1998, Sister Helen Mary, Solitary of God, SLG, died at Fairacres, England, home of the Sisters of the Love of God.
Sister Helen Mary was Sister Brigit-Carol’s hermit mentor and friend, and during her pilgrimage to England and Bardsey Island last September, Sister Brigit was blessed to have been able to visit with her.
Following are excerpts of an address given by Father A.M. (Donald) Allchin at Sister Helen Mary’s Requiem and funeral on January 8th, 1999. Father Donald, formerly a Canon Residentiary of Canterbury Cathedral and presently an Honorary Professor of the University of Wales, Bangor, was Sister Helen Mary’s spiritual director. For many years he has been influential in Sister Brigit’s formation as a hermit.
On this particular occasion, this Requiem Mass and Funeral for Sister Helen Mary, words seem singularly inappropriate, and I feel the burden of them. Should we not worship better, should we not honour her memory more truly by silence than by speech? Quite recently I have become aware that this very hidden life of our Sister had in these last years begun to take on a public and open significance of a kind which perhaps we had not thought of before.
Sister Helen Mary was given in these last thirty years since she went up to North Wales in 1969, the gift, the charism, of a particular calling which we now begin to see has an unexpected, universal meaning. She went to North Wales seeking a place for the solitary life and she was drawn there, to the end of the Llyn Peninsula, by the presence of Father Derwas Chitty.
Before his sudden death in 1971, she gained from him great depths of knowledge and understanding of two things which had formed his own life. First, his unrivalled insight into, and knowledge of the origins of the Christian monastic way, particularly in the Christian East. And secondly, his sense that Bardsey Island was in some mysterious way a place of God's presence and a place of resurrection second only to the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. For Father Derwas, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Resurrection, and Bardsey Island coincided. These convictions of his were not notional but embodied.
Helen Mary was to live out for the rest of her life this particular gift she received through him. She found that everything he had said about the monastic tradition and about the island was true. It was a place of resurrection in a very specific, powerful, incomprehensible way. ('Incomprehensible' was one of her favourite words.) Not, of course, in any way which excludes other places, but in an all-embracing inclusiveness of Divine Love and Life.
At first Sister Helen Mary spent the summers on the island, but gradually she worked her way toward living there all the year round. That was not an easy thing to do. It had not been done for at least four and a half centuries that someone should live the life of monastic prayer all the year round in that isolated place. There were practical difficulties of many kinds on the way, but she overcame them bit by bit, by patience and very stubborn determination, and by faith and hope and love. On the island she had an overwhelming sense of the presence of the Saints. They had, she felt, shown her the way, and shown her that the life she was living was true.
But if the gift of the island was absolutely specific, it was also open and inclusive. And for her spiritual nourishment she found herself more and more drawn to the Syrian Fathers, the school of Isaac of Nineveh and John of Dalyatha. The two extremes of the old Christian world, east and west were united on Enlli in her prayer and in her life. But she looked further than that. She was drawn more and more into the mystery of prayer and silence and adoration as it has been made known not in one religious tradition only, but in many. She received particular help from the writings of Swami Abhishiktananda. So much of what he wrote seemed to confirm her own discoveries. Beyond that opening out to all mankind, there was a further opening out to all creation. For the presence of God was given, communicated through the very substance of creation – the rocks and the sea, the wind and the sun and all God's creatures. Creation, Redemption, Transfiguration, were woven together into one, all lifted up into the mysteries of the Triune Life.
At first in her life on the mainland and also in her early years on the island, Sister Helen Mary lived a life of great rigour and of great strictness. As I once waited for the boat at Pwllheli, some other visitors going to the island said to me, "You do know that there's a nun living on the island now, don't you? You don't speak to her."
As time went on she grew into a great sense of discernment and liberty of spirit – it was beautiful to see it growing. And as more retreatants began to come to the island (which greatly rejoiced her heart), she became more willing to receive now one, now another, to share with them some of the fruits of her prayer. Very occasionally she came out to speak to a whole group.
It is enough to say that Bardsey, Ynys Enlli – which is to Wales what Iona is to Scotland, and what Lindisfarne is to England, has known, after a break of more than four centuries, the living presence of monastic prayer and monastic life – that presence that had marked the island for a thousand years before the Reformation. Her faithfulness and obedience to the vision have opened up the way, and now others are following it. A new epiphany of the island as a place of resurrection has been given; a new discovery of what she had discerned to be the island' s true vocation.
As she wrote in the summer of 1987: ‘This mystery of Bardsey is founded on that which has been given and lived here from its first origins and in all its depths, and which today and from henceforth has received a new beginning in this time, in our time.’
For our Sister's prayer and faithfulness to the new life that has come to us from the dying and rising of Christ our Lord, in this time, in our time, we give thanks to the Eternal Father, in the power of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit, to whom, Three Persons, One All Holy God, be glory through the ages of ages. Amen.
The Reverend Travis DuPriest
That mud turtle who so intensely watched me last week reminded me that I, like him, live in two worlds. As I leaned over the bridge railing and stared at the turtle, I chuckled as I realized that I was playing the part of the narrator in so many of the delightful poems of the 17th-century Anglican poet-priest, Thomas Traherne.
A mystic, Traherne was fascinated with neo-Platonic ideas of reality and shadows. He was also intrigued by the notion of the pre-existence of the soul, and many of his poems are spoken by a young, exclamatory child-narrator who discovers new-found delights in his heretofore unknown body and world.
The child-narrator in several poems sees images of himself reflected in water. The other world which the child imagines is under the water; the reflected child in "Shadows in the Water," actually becomes an imaginary playmate.
Thus did I by the Water’s brink
Another World beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious Skies
Reversed there abus’d mine eyes,
I fancy’d other Feet
Came mine to touch and meet;
As by some Puddle I did play
Another World within it lay.
This notion of two worlds intersecting is, of course, evocative of the spirit world and the physical world. Cultures have different ways of expressing the intermingling of the two realities, the two worlds. In much art of the Orient, for instance, clouds signify the mixing of the divine with the human, the human with the divine; the horizontality of the feathers in Korean dances suggests the intermingling of the human and the divine and may signify the melding of the different orders of human society.
Our western mystical tradition in Christianity speaks of the inner and the outer orders of reality. God ‘out there’ is paralleled with God ‘in here.’ Jesus himself spoke of the Kingdom of God as the reign of God coming into the world as well as a lordship already centered inside the individual.
‘Look in thy heart’ has been the clarion call of Christians from St. Paul to Thomas Merton. Paul’s declaration of ‘our life hid with Christ in God’ is echoed through the centuries in the tradition of saints who fervently enter into the very life of Christ and '‘elive,'’as it were, that archetypal life of faith lived not for self alone.
Our lives are indeed lived on two planes, if not in two worlds, and the two worlds – the inner and the outer – are inextricably bound with each other, as we learn from sages such as the Sious Indians who teach us of our linkage with the natural world. Perhaps a poet like Robert Frost catches a glimpse of the ancient wisdom of the Indians in his poem ‘Tree at My Window,’ which hints at the union of our two worlds:
Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me …
That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.
When we are at peace inside, so is our outside world more likely to be at peace and in proper balance. When out of sorts on the interior, how easily can our whole outer life – an entire day or even a week – be turned inside out.
We each make some sort of ‘meditation’ as did Traherne’s child and find some sort of shadows in the waters of our everyday lives. When we look in fear and judgement, those shadows remain dark and we see them as ‘other,’ removed as if in another world. When we look in hope and trust, those same shadowy figures look back at us as playmates from a friendly and animated world which is a real and necessary part of our own as are our dreams and fantasies.
The constant mirror, though, is nature herself – water, forest, sky, hills or plains. We see wilderness of affectionate communion, depending on how we look. The wisdom of the Oglala Sioux chieftan, Luther Standing Bear, is sobering and inspiring: "We did not think of the great open plains … as ‘wild.’ Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ … To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.
Out of the Desert
The Rev. Doug Earle
For century upon century, seekers have been drawn to the desert in their
quest for a deeper life in God. What is it about the desert? What does this
motif have to say to us?
When my wife and I were first married, we spent time passing through the desert. We lived in the central highlands of Mexico, and our journeys to and from San Antonio and Puebla meant that we had to pass through a significant portion of the Chihuahuan desert. The road from Saltillo to Queretero was long and boring. It was stark, dry, and intimidating. There were few towns or signs of popul-ation, just scrub brush and scraggly mountains in the distance. The landscape produced strange and unpredictable perspectives that made driving a challenge. Everything that lived there seemed to have thorns, fangs, or both. It was not a hospitable place. It was a place to get through, not a destination.
At least, that’s the way it first appeared. But as we drove that road so many times we began to see the desert differently. At times it could be <![endif]> quite beautiful. Sunsets and sunrises could be spectacular. The rare storm was a sight to behold and convinced us there must be a God – we could imagine why the Greeks came up with Zeus hurtling his thunderbolts from Mount Olympus.
Though we could see no houses or villages, large groups of people would appear selling the bounty they had gathered. In season, they would have ‘tuna’ – the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. There was always honey, sometimes nuts, frequently moonshine. They’d be selling skins and live animals too – snakes, coyote, ocelots, bobcats, quail, hawks, and eagles. They had textiles woven from the tough fibers of plants and dyed with herbal tinctures. You see, the desert, with all its harshness and terror, was also a beautiful place, a life-filled place, a grace-filled place – if we had eyes to see. We had to stop, look, see what didn’t appear at first to be there.
Journeys into the spiritual desert call us to do that also. The spiritual desert is the place of contemplation: it is the moment to stop, be still, look, and see what doesn’t appear at first glance to be there.
In the earliest centuries of the church, a group of men and women seeking God went into the desert to live a life of prayer. These ‘desert Fathers and Mothers’ were known for their holiness and piety and for their wisdom about the spiritual life. In the desert they acquired wisdom. What is wisdom? Wisdom is knowledge born of reflection on experience.
Thomas Keating, monk and writer on contemplative prayer, notes that often desert experience can be an exercise in ‘chewing on the de-composition of our own corruption.’ That is an exercise that you might attempt, but … it will only get you so far – it won’t give you true wisdom.
True wisdom is learning born of experiences of an entirely different order. True wisdom comes when we get beyond the composition of the corruption of our lives, and become engaged and enraptured and consumed by the love of God, which is among all things and within all things.
In the Gospels, we hear the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.
Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, goes off by himself, into the
desert, where he is faced by three temptations – to turn stones into bread;
to throw himself off a high pinnacle to prove himself; and to gain absolute
worldly power by changing his allegiance from God to Satan. These
temptations are not unique to Jesus – they are temptations that arise from
basic, human instinctual needs. They really are symbols of the temptations
of security, esteem and power – the three classic areas where our false self
tells us we will find happiness.
But underlying them is a commonality, a fourth temptation. This is the temptation not to live with integrity, to forsake our highest calling for something lower. Like Jesus, we are called to lay temptations aside in the search for something higher. That’s where repentance comes in. Repentance means to ‘change the direction in which you are looking for happiness. The call for repentance is the invitation to take stock of our emotional needs and to change them for something higher.’ (Keating, Mystery of Christ, p.37)
There is something that intrigues me about this story, and it’s what is implied and not said. We call this story the ‘temptations of Jesus in the wilderness’ but really the temptations are just a moment in a much larger time Jesus spent in the desert. The story tells us he spent a long period in the desert in preparation and fasting. Then he had this dark night of temptation, following which it is said, ‘Angels came and ministered to him.’ Another way of saying that is that when Jesus chose integrity over security, esteem, and power, he experienced grace. Grace comes to him, supports him, and engulfs him. Jesus has the contemplative moment. He sees what he has not seen though it’s been there all along. That’s really the most important part of this story. For if you look at Jesus’ ministry that follows, what characterizes it is grace – the profound, consuming proclamation of the mercy and love which God has towards all people. I think Jesus spent a long time in the desert, after the temptation, discovering that even in that harsh, dry, place God’s grace, mercy and love were present, alive and active.
In the spiritual life everything that is true of Jesus is, in some sense, true of us as well. As we enter into the desert of our lives – the desert of our relationships with, our spouses, children, friends, priest or church of our God; the desert of our work, our daily life and tasks; the desert of our human institutions; whatever desert you may find in your life – we are invited to change the direction in which we are looking for happiness in security, esteem and control. But especially we are invited to receive angels – to discover even in the dark dry places that the grace of God is already present, the love of God is there to sustain us, to enliven us, to catch us on fire.
One of the ancient Desert Fathers was a monk named Arsenius the Great. He lived a hermit’s life in the desert of Egypt and was renounced for his holiness. One day a small band of pilgrims made their way to him, and approached him asking how they should live and pray. Arsenius looked at them, and then lifted his hands, which burst into fire with the love of God. “Become this,” he said.
That is what desert time is about. It’s not a time for chewing on the decomposition of our corruption. It is an invitation to discover that even in the desert we may be consumed by the love of God. It is to gain wisdom – the knowledge born of experience that God is even in the deserts, the dark night of the soul, and the brokenness of human hearts.
Being a native of south Texas, Doug is very familiar with the desert. He is a board member of the Solitaries of DeKoven and the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, San Antonio.
Sr. Brigit-Carol, SD
A homily delivered at the DeKoven Center, Racine, WI
Each week during the winter, I load my fireplace ashes in a small cart and walk to dump them in the burn pile, a large brush and wood trash pile. A few weeks ago, upon going to the burn pile, I found the ranch owner's son had discarded freshly cut cedar planks from milling some cedar on the ranch. They were beautiful -- really stunning as the sun highlighted the different shades of red and white against the brush and weathered grey/browns of the other wood. I couldn't believe anyone would throw away such wonderful planks like these. Until I looked closer -- then I saw they were split, had rotted area, or were just too knotty to be used for building or construction purposes. They were structurally unsound -- truly just trash to be thrown away and eventually burned. Wounded wood.
I returned to the hermitage, but couldn't get the cedar out of my mind. It was as if the planks were calling me. I ended up taking the truck and hauling all of them back to the house, having no idea at the time what I was going to do with them. What I have done is made some freeform sculptures and crosses, working around the wounded areas or incorporating these areas into the pieces I've cut and sanded.
As I've worked with this beautiful wood, I realized what an incredible gift I've been given. It seems as if the wood is speaking to me of God's love and graciousness. The working with this wood has become my Lenten prayer. There is so much in the process, so much that relates to my own spiritual journey, but I think the journey all of us make. What I'm seeing is how God picks us up from some discarded wood pile ready to be burned. Then as we are sanded and shaped, our true beauty comes forth. Nothing is added -- the beauty was there all along, but was hidden by our woundedness and our sin. Just as I take the wood as it is and work with and around the wounded spots, God does the same with us. We are not expected to be what we're not.
God takes what we offer -- what we are, wounds and all, and makes out of us a beautiful creation. Our scars and the wounds that we have picked up though life make us all that much more beautiful in God's sight. These crosses and sculptures would not be half as interesting had I used knot-free, structurally sound wood. The wounded and rotted areas themselves, as I incorporate them into the pieces, are what makes the objects so beautiful.
The wood is also teaching me on a deeper level than before, that it is necessary for what I thought my usefulness to God's kingdom is, has to fall away before I can truly be used. Without this falling away, we are not able to become what we were created to be by the Creator of the wood in the first place. Just as the usefulness of this wood as wood planks for building had to fall away before it could be used as crosses and small sculptures, so my ideas and thinking of what my usefulness is has to fall away.
As I thought of all these things, I couldn't help but think of Father DeKoven. Perhaps it was the reference to the fire in today's Gospel that triggered some of this [Mt. 13:47-52], but I realized in many ways, Father DeKoven was thrown on the burn pile by the very Church he loved and served. He stood firm on some unpopular ideas of his day and paid a very dear price indeed. Twice elected a bishop but not ratified by the other Bishops, three other times he was in the elections, but turned down. At one point, he confided to a friend that of all the priests in the Episcopal Church, he was the only one who could never become a bishop. If anyone was wounded, he was. It appeared that the Church had thrown him onto a burn pile -- he was to live out the rest of his life in this small town as headmaster of a small struggling boys’ college.
Father DeKoven is my patron -- I call him "Father" because that is what he really is to me. His gift to me personally has been his witness of staying firm in spite of adversity and continuing to love and serve the very Church that was persecuting him. He was willing to accept being relegated to the burn pile and in no way retaliated for the treatment he received. He was willing to be "useless", and in the eyes of many, he was considered to be a failure.
And yet look at his legacy. Those of us who come to this place year now called The DeKoven Center after year cannot help but be struck by the fact his spirit lives on. The Church at large owes Father DeKoven a deep debt of gratitude for his gifts of reason in an age where the Church was about to make the mistake of over regulating public worship and was denying or at best minimizing Our Lord's real presence in the Eucharist. No wonder he is considered an Anglican saint.
Just as the cedar pieces I've been making are shaped and defined by the
wounded areas within them, so I see Father DeKoven's ministry to the Church
at large, was defined by his life being given over totally to his Lord --
the vocation and devotion of which he speaks, which was his way of loving
and serving God. These factors, that were within him, in essence, "sanded"
and defined his ministry which was then further refined by the college, by
the greater Church, by his adherence to his convictions. I wonder what would
have happened had Father DeKoven decided that being a Bishop was his
ministry -- that was how he was to be of use to the church, and abandoned
his principles so as to make himself more acceptable to the other Bishops?
Would we be here today celebrating his Feastday? I doubt it. He had to give
over his idea of what it was to be great, and accept being on the burn pile
-- useless -- so that God could truly use him. This was the lesson I learned
from the cedar: just as the wood had to see and accept it's uselessness as
building planks before it's great usefulness that God was calling from
within could come forth, so I am called to do the same. And I believe we,
along with Father DeKoven, are all asked to do the same thing. After all,
according to Phil 2: 5-8, we follow a Lord who:
was in the form of God; yet he laid no claim to equality with God, but made himself nothing, assuming the form of a slave. Bearing the human likeness, sharing the human lot, he humbled himself, and was obedient, even to the point of death on a cross!
If ever there was a burn pile… but it doesn't stop there --
Therefore God raised him to the heights and bestowed on him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow -- in heaven, on earth, and in the depths -- and every tongue acclaim, "Jesus Christ is Lord," to the glory of God the Father.
Can we ask for anything different? Amen
The road turns right almost as soon as it leaves the village, and twists again in the other direction at a place where a bit of lake-edge swamp comes up close to the pavement. That's where something changes, at that spot. I don't know what it is: but each time I come here, I get that same feeling whenever I pass that stand of reeds: that I have left one part of this particular world and stepped into another.
It's the woods in part: woods almost always get to me, especially when they're near water. I know that. I do indeed have a "thing" for woods and hills, because that's where I first sampled this particular taste, in taller forests and bigger mountains, many years ago. But people report the same feeling in deserts and dunes, on the top of barren screes, on buttes, at wide silver water, along a shore at low tide. There are sacred rocks well known to the people who live close to them, and holy springs, and clearings that have a certain radical peacefulness. Who knows? Maybe there's some phone booth on a Manhattan street corner that has something special about it. I'm not willing to rule it out.
Up here in the Madawaska Valley there are miles and miles of wood, and miles and miles (although not as many) of riverside and lake edge. It's lovely, wild, bony country. When you're here, you get clonked with the realization that this is the civilized, highly populated fringe of the Canadian Shield, and the Real Thing goes on and on, largely unpeopled, for, oh, something like a thousand kilometers to the north and west: a huge mass, terrifying in its immensity. Is that vastness spotted, as this country is, with places with this feeling? Or do you have to have people there to notice the feeling? It's the old tree-falling-in-the-forest problem. (Would God be in this world if we weren't here too? I think too highly of moose to believe otherwise.)
But there is that feeling here, just at the turn in the road and on. It's somewhat thicker and stronger where the community has its white-painted house and its working buildings, and thicker and stronger still on the island among the reeds, where the log chapel stands. A sense of something peaceful and yet gloriously alive: of Joy lurking somewhere in the landscape.
The Celtic tradition had a phrase for it (Celtic tradition would, of
course!) it calls places like this "thin places," or so I've been told.
There are spots where this world and the realm of the spirit come close
together, some claim. That may be; or it may be that there are some places,
like some chords in music, that evoke something spiritual in people, as the
smell of burning leaves can bring back childhood to many of us; and that
some places have more of that power of evocation than others. Whatever. I
don't know, and I'm not sure it's all that important anyway. Even if
scientists could pin down the loci of the brain centers involved and isolate
the requisite stimuli, would it really make any difference.
The important thing about this particular thin spot (or whatever you want to call it) is that it fetched a holy woman – a brilliant, passionate, fiercely courageous woman whose Godlove was huge and whose energy was boundless – and she found her own particular Madonna in these sandy pine woods. Her cabin is on the island and the feeling there is so thick you could almost slice it and use it for shingles. She founded a community that keeps going through hard work and cheerful begging and that has tendrils reaching far out into the world. I come to visit this community sometimes, partly for the community itself, but largely because this place feels like a drink of cold water when you're really thirsty.
I was talking about all this to an old priest who lives here, one who'd been close to the holy woman and had known this place almost from the first days of the community. I asked him the tree-falling-in-the-forest question: did that woman find Mother Mary already here in the woods, or did her prayers bring Mother Mary here? Mary had always been here, he said; the woman had only named her and had taken root here because of Mary's presence. Question answered.
But, he said, while there are places that call us toward holiness, maybe it's a two-way street. Maybe there are places that we can help make holy. That felt right: I have known places (my home church is one such) that seem to seep the same feeling from their walls as I got from this place, as though the prayers and joy and pain and angel-wrestling of the people who had worshipped here had, in some fashion, sunk into the very fabric of the joint. The priest said (he had known her very well) that the woman's cabin was like that; it was, for him, full of the scent of her agony. What had that agony been? I asked him. "That Love goes so unloved," he answered.
Maybe – I don't know – if we could be completely open to God's love, as we never seem to be able to do, maybe we could make more thin places. Maybe by love and prayer we could clear some of the rust and debris that evil has left spotted on the face of this earth, the scars on the faces of God's children, by facing them front-on and loving them as best we can.
A more radical thought: maybe we could work on becoming ourselves the thinnest places we can manage to be. Not thin in the sense of meagerness, as fashion models are thin – in fact, now that I think about it, the ‘thin place’ people I know are as often as not quite comfortably upholstered – but thin in the sense of transparency: being as full as we can hold of the love of God, and leaking it like crazy. Highly permeable membranes. The priest himself was like that; he leaked a deep and quiet peace.
Sounds simple, becoming a thin-place person; but in fact, it's not easy at all. Our notion of love often isn't Love but ego, and it needs to be stripped down to the chassis and rebuilt. It means giving God leave to do whatever we need to undergo if we're to become the vessels God wants us to be. That may involve being opened and stretched in ways that I, for one, find terribly painful at times. God's hand is very tough on the clay at times, and if you think that's rough, you should see what he does to brass.
And sometimes it seems like it's all for nothing. Listening to the priest talk about the woman who had lived here, I felt like a scant and wavering taper next to a glowing potbellied stove. I feel muffled off from God's love so much of the time. I can take only a sip at a time of all the living water on offer, however much I want to gulp it down. I've got my areas of indifference or cruelty, spite and self-serving. I too don't want to see or be seen too much or with any real accuracy. I too don't love Love, or at least not often or nearly well enough.
But the thin-place places and the thin-place people don't judge us; they call us, fetch us, offer us the startling gift of grace, and get lodged deep in our inmost selves. They tell us, here, this is what Love tastes like; this is what Love's supposed to be. And nothing else ever really feels the same – which is good, really; it keeps us from looking for God's Love in things and people that aren't equipped to give it. It helps if you can see that the idols are only plaster; you can even feel sorry for them.
God-love is alive and active in this world; God's fingerprints are all over the landscape. That love bubbles through among these particular pines and rocks and in communities like this, but it also surfaces in all love: in a mother's gaze on her sleeping child, in the affection of friends or care for strangers, for all love is ultimately God's, love passed on. It's in the stillness of contemplation and in the action that flows out from it. It's yeasty and unstoppable and willing to suffer anything to get through our stubborn unlovingness to reach us. It's here. You just have to be willing to step into your particular woods, stand still, breathe deep, and open your soul to it.
(Copyright Molly Wolf 2000)
Ed. Note: Some years ago I was introduced to Molly Wolf’s weekly e-mail journals –"Sabbath Blessings." They have long since become an integral part of my week. She is the author of two books, "Hiding in Plain Sight", Liturgical Press, 1998, and "A Place Like Any Other", Doubleday, forthcoming in September, 2000.