Through the unremarkable, beautiful gate

Twice this past week I’ve been drawn to St. Benedict’s, a short drive from my home, to walk and pray the labyrinth there. Both times I found myself completely alone, basking in the quiet and in the use of this simple prayer tool cut into the grass. It’s a little dry now, because of the current heat wave, but still dotted with tiny white clover. There’s one large tree at the edge of the labyrinth and others further back and all of them carry the sound of the wind when it blows.

Once it was “help” and “please” all the way into the heart of it, and “thank you” on the way out. The next time it was slowing down to become aware of God’s presence, and the images that kept coming to me concerned Following: a cloud, a fire,  a shield, the cross, and Christ.

The gate into the labyrinth is simple. Unremarkable, really. It marks a place to start and to finish. It’s a measurement of time — the time to pray and listen. Unremarkable, but somehow beautiful too, in the way that a good invitation can feel so wondrous to our spirits. Jesus spoke of himself as a gate, and seeing this one, I can’t help but think of his call:

Come to me, all that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  (Matthew 11:28-29)

How the wind…

Yesterday afternoon my daughter and I went to St. Benedict’s Monastery to walk/pray the labyrinth. The labyrinth there is definitely unassuming, its beginning marked by a small arch trellis such as you might find in any garden centre, and its circling path cut by a narrow lawnmower into a low-grass field. There’s no signage, and even a short distance away the place seems only a stretch of green bracketed by trees, set beside a bricked patio-like spot designed for contemplation, complete with chairs and a small statue of Mary, lying between the monastery and the Red River.

The day was pleasantly warm without being hot, but it was windy. All day the wind had been loosening elm seeds upon us like rain, swirling them into piles in front of the door and on our deck and any other place they could find to gather. Once, while I stood on the front porch, the wind also brought me the sweet fragrance of lilacs from somewhere down the street. 

But walking the labyrinth, I didn’t notice the wind. Not at first, at least. In that relatively sheltered spot, all seemed calm. And then I heard it, strong and unmistakable in the tops of the trees. Ah, yes, of course, the wind. A reminder of the vigorous, comforting sound that marked the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the church, which we celebrated yesterday, on the Day of Pentecost. A reminder of the words spoken to Nicodemus: “The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. That is how it is with all who are born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Those words further resonating with Jesus’ parting words, pre-Pentecost, “It is not for you to know times or dates that the Father has decided…”

The title of our pastor’s sermon in the morning was “Other people’s languages.” It focussed on how the transformation of the Spirit opens us to hearing and understanding others, especially in contexts in which we talk “past” one another. Pentecost reverses Babel, our pastor said, not by reducing us to fewer languages, or to one, but by enlarging us to more in our ability to speak and understand.

Recently, in a blog post titled “A Hermeneutic of Generosity,” Debra Dean Murphy spoke of the need for more than politeness to bridge the conversational polarities we find ourselves in as persons, churches, and cultures. Needed, she suggests, is “curiosity” and “compassion” (both of which, it occurs to me, characterize the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus), as well as truth-telling (which surely characterizes Peter’s sermon at Pentecost). A hermeneutic of generosity, she says, interprets what others say or intend “in a favorable light.” Perhaps it even interprets so that, as in the Acts 2 account, we hear declared “the wonders of God.”

I’ve been mulling on this, thinking of the many “languages” I speak or understand poorly, or not at all, and of the unfavorable interpretations I’m so quick to place on the words of someone with whom I disagree. Thinking of how the images given us for Spirit involve both unknowing (mystery) and knowing (sound), remembering how the wind played above the grass and its turns of prayer, and how it scatters and stacks up seeds. How it carries the scent of lilacs.

The paradoxical gift of rest

The third gift I experienced at the “Winter Stillness” retreat this past weekend (see previous post) was rest. Opening the gift of rest wasn’t/isn’t quite as unambiguous as opening hospitality and silence, however. 

In his article, “Sabbath Resting in God,” Ron Farr writes:

There is a terrific amount of momentum in our lives like that of a freight train…. Indeed, most of us seem to have an ambivalent relationship with the idea of rest. We feel guilty about doing ‘nothing’ and resting before we’ve cleared up things in the world…. In an odd sort of way it is painful for us to rest because resting means just sitting with things as they are for awhile, just sitting with our own unresolved struggles and anxieties, just sitting with our neighbor’s untended wounds and tears. In the silence of rest, we are forced to recognize our own limits and see all our underlying conflicts and bruised places to which we’ve blinded ourselves through the diversion of our busyness. There are so many forces and fears within us, pulling us like that freight train away from a simple Sabbath resting in prayer! Yet our deep need for such rest cannot be denied and cries out to be honored.

Through the spiritual direction given us at this weekend’s retreat, we were invited to observe the “movements” we experienced as we prayed Scriptures that were given us by the director or that we had chosen ourselves. These movements might be of peace, joy, sorrow, anxiety, despondency, resistance, etc. We were invited to then journal about this, or perhaps go to the art room and express it visually.

Detail from "The Last Visit of Saints Scholastica and Benedict," clay sculpture, Helen E. Norman


So, it takes movement to get to stillness. Jesus said, “Come to me…and I will give you rest,” (Matthew 11:28) but that coming might be an eager run or it could be a lurching and stumbling procedure, or even a long and reluctant shuffle.

But it’s amazing how much movement there can actually be when there’s nothing else to do for a weekend but confront one’s restlessness. And for most of us in the group, it seemed, the weekend’s path ended in the longed-for rest and peace.

Or, in joy. Which again, paradoxically, isn’t exactly motionless either. I’m still chuckling happily over the phrase that jumped out at me from the last text my director gave me in Luke 1 — unborn John leaping for joy in his mother’s womb! Such a wild, excited creature he was, that John the Baptist, from the very beginning! Safe, secure, tucked away, receiving everything he needed from his mother, about as still as it probably gets — but when he heard the voice of Mary, the mother of his Lord, he simply had to leap for joy. That’s the paradoxical gift of rest.