In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
And what does it mean for me to say that I believe it is God who led me here to this dark wood…?
As I sit here alone, with my head (and time) on my hands, I pray. In a time of graced listening, I write in my journal 10/12/10:
“Lord, I ask that you might speak to me in this desert place, here in my cell, with all the voices raging.”
“Little one, I am here in the cave with you.”
As a Christian pastor, I have been sucker punched and left by the side of the road. I have limped off to this birch woods cave. As Henri Nouwen says in The Way of the Heart: “…It is not difficult to see that in this fearful and painful period of our history we who minister in parishes, schools, universities, hospitals and prisons are having a difficult time fulfilling our task of making the light of Christ shine into the darkness. Many of us have adapted ourselves too well to the general mood of lethargy. Others among us have become tired, exhausted, disappointed, bitter, resentful or simply bored. Still others have remained active and involved—but have ended up living more in their own name than in the Name of Jesus Christ. This is not so strange. The pressures in the ministry are enormous, the demands are increasing, and the satisfactions diminishing…But where shall we turn?…”
Can we turn to ancient truths?
In the tradition of the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 3rd and 4th centuries, our cabin in the birch woods has become my ‘cell’, my cave in the desert. The desert forebears were hermits, ascetics, monks, and nuns who left the cities of their day to live alone, mainly in the desert of Egypt.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers have had a major influence on the development of Christianity. While councils and bishops theologized and formalized, the desert monastic communities that grew out of the informal gathering of hermit monks became the model for what eventually became Christian monasticism. The eastern monastic tradition and the western Rule of St. Benedict both were strongly influenced by the traditions that began in the desert.
All of the monastic revivals of the Middle Ages looked to the desert for inspiration and guidance and much of Eastern Christian spirituality has its roots in the practices of the pilgrims in the desert. Religious renewals such as the German Evangelicals, the Pennsylvania Pietists, and the Methodist revival in England are seen by modern scholars as being influenced by the Desert Fathers.
But, I am no pietist or ascetic, or maybe I am an aesthetic ascetic. When I run from the city to my blooming desert in the woods, I bring my guitar, a pile of books, my journals, Mac laptop, a micro tape recorder, golf clubs, chainsaw, a digital camera. I make a trip to the grocery store on the way up. I buy a crusty French baguette, a petit steak, stinky cheese, pistachios, oatmeal, sweet corn still on the cob, fresh squeezed orange juice, a bottle of red wine. And when I arrive and unpack, my little boat with the 30-horse motor sits tied to the dock awaiting me and my rods fitted with Hula Popper and a weed-less Shad Rap.
No, this is not the desert of my abstemious forefathers. I have food and wine, things to do, many glorious and worldly tools to help occupy my busy and anxious mind.
None-the-less, the main reason for coming here is to contemplate, to reflect, to rest. My book list includes Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier, St. Augustine, St. Francis, Kathleen Norris, John Wesley, Barbara Brown Taylor, poems of Robert Frost and my Bibles. No Tom Clancy or Steig Larsson here. I’m looking back for a way to go forward.
My prayers are the blues knocking on the door of Heaven.
As the season begins to change and the nights dip down to frost, I build fires in the leaky fireplace. Every morning, I get up and work on the woodpile and schlep a half dozen quartered logs in and build a fire to take the edge off the cold in the cabin. I’m reminded of a song I wrote seventeen years ago, after watching the birch bark of a log combusting on the fire.
“Workin’ on the woodpile before the birch turns to rot
You swing the maul down, baby, with everything you got.
You’re up north (woo hoo)…And the snow begins to fall.”
And when I turn my heart again to prayer:
“Father, my Father in heaven. You are with me?”
“Yes, I am and I am not through with you.”
Then I listen more deeply, and my heart is rekindled with hope:
“Do you see how the birch you sawed, split and stacked must now season to serve? You must season in this turning of the season. Will you wait with me in this time?”
“Yes, Lord! But what must I do? What must happen for me to season?”
“Wait. The process is the seasoning.”