When I need a spiritual retreat, I either head to the great outdoors, or I hide myself in civilization – in a place where nobody knows me. Usually it ends up being a combination, like happened this week.
The other day, I drove to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Without an agenda. Without a plan. Without a goal.
It was just me with my phone and iPod both switched off, the radio silent, and the wind from an open sunroof my only stimuli. There were some specific things I wanted to pray about – my plans after graduating seminary – but for the most part, I wanted to just sit, and be, and let the Lord dig around in my soul while I watched.
I asked for the Spirit’s presence. I asked for the Spirit to guide my steps, to take me wherever I was supposed to be.
And, to be sure, Divine moments (moments I did not identify until hindsight) tossed me down a path that brought me where I needed to be.
I tried to meander down to the water, but the rain was coming down too heavily. I nestled myself in a coffee shop for a little while, and wrote and sat and prayed and read Scripture.
Like I often do on days like these, I let my soul rest on a passage of Scripture that I will chew on for the rest of the day. I settled on this one:
“He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.” (Deuteronomy 32:10)
Portsmouth soon found itself wont to be rid of me. I was too restless to sit in the coffee shop forever, and there was only a little bit of Portsmouth I could explore in the rain.
So I soon found myself back on the road.
I decided on a whimsical journey back to my ethnic roots – to get in touch with my 25%-Canadian side with a trip to the southernmost Tim Hortons on the East Coast, in Maine. And glorious it was: Coffee so much better than the silliness they pour at Dunkin Donuts, a sandwich that tasted like real food.
I don’t know quite how it happened, but I found myself headed back south on back roads, when I stumbled upon… of all things… a Franciscan monastery. I knew immediately that I was supposed to stop, and spend the rest of my afternoon there.
I had a divine appointment at a monastery, and a rainy day in Portsmouth had acted as my secretary.
The rain had stopped, but it was windy and wet. A stormy breeze came off of the river that, from the entrance, I could not see. The breeze was strangely warm. Strangely soothing, despite its message of dank. The grass was green, a handful of tourists and old Catholic couples slowly wandered the grounds looking at statues and altars.
I wandered into the chapel, finding a little old lady in the corner in prayer, possibly in tears. An odd combination of real and electric candles lined the walls. I laid my head down on the wood and prayed – praying all the prayers that had been lost in the silence of a rainy drive, a Tim Hortons cup of coffee, and a dash through the rain of a coastal, hipster, over-priced, New Hampshire town. Letting finally bubble to the surface all that the silence had been slowly seeping out of me… like sap from a maple tree.
And the prayers were prayers of contrition. Of shame. Of guilt.
I was struck with the reality of my sinfulness. And I saw the weight that this burden of shame and of guilt held down so much of my life, so much of my ability to follow Christ, so much of my ability to be at peace – at the center of all the chaos and crises and neuroses of my existence.
I have the tendency to be self-deprecating and to live too deeply in my guilt. So I should certainly be on guard against being too hard on myself. Don’t be harder on yourself than God is – the pastoral advice I give to people like me, although I rarely follow it.
But this was something different. It was honesty. It was humility. It was penitence borne out of my realization of my brokenness, my neediness.
It was the wilderness.
It was the place that I knew I could be found. The only place that I could be found.
I wandered the grounds. It felt like I was in Middle Earth – despite the wind and the grey the fall colors and the beds of pine needles gave he whole place an inexplicable glow. Wild wooded terrain, and cultivated garden melded in and out of one another like lovers.
The natural was, from time to time, interrupted by the most unexpected of surprises. A bench in a clearing. A rope-swing overlooking the river. And typed prayers framed and hung from a tree, sometimes with an image or a statue of a saint, or the Virgin Mary. The wilderness was littered with little graces, little joys.
My Protestant sensibilities tensed at these prayers to the Holy Mother, or to various saints. But the prayers were, strangely enough, timely and pertinent. These prayers brought me before the face of Christ. They were prayers of being loved, being known, being showered in the grace of Jesus.
And on this path, I never knew such a simultaneous contrast between penitence and peace.
I was wandering in the wilderness. I was lost in the desert.
I found myself forgiving and praying for those who upset, offend, or wrong me. I finally knew that I was too broken and sinful myself to feel superior to them. I recognized the suffering that they have known, and I remembered what one of my professors and most beloved role models said: “You can’t compare suffering.”
I knew how desperately I needed to allow the love of my Parent soothe and and encircle me; to guide me through the wilderness and into the promised land. I did not know what this meant about my future, or the myriad of decisions about my future, or about my emotional journeys. It simply was what it was.
Suffering and wilderness and grace and being found.
in the howling waste of wilderness
and there, he encircled me.
I was led into the desert, and there I was found.