A week ago today I walked toward the St. Bernard Abbey Church for 6 a.m. lauds, the morning service of the Benedictine monastery in Cullman, Alabama hosting a weeklong men’s monastic retreat led by Carl McColman under the auspices of the Spiritual Formation Program of Columbia Theological Seminary.
Then I saw the sun’s first rays midst the mists arising from the pond just to the left of the doors I approached, casting in profile an empty, inviting bench on its shore, as in the picture above, taken the next morning when the mists were not quite as billowy. Mists are a mystical draw for many, accounting for the covers of many books on the spiritual life, including my own Communion of Life, maybe because mist is iconic for divine mystery and metaphor for the unfathomable.
Surrounded by greenery of trees and shrubs and grasses, I sat on the bench awaiting the full penetration through these mists of the light of the red morning sun on the horizon beneath an otherwise clear blue sky. I heard the day’s opening praise of diverse birds and insects: warbling, chirping, quacking, whooping, thrumming, buzzing, whirring, shrieking, as well as the occasional plip-plop from some unseen and unknown water creatures.
The incense of the day was a blend of recently cut grass, distant manure, brackish water, wisteria, and dewy freshness. I looked down at my feet to discover a mosaic of moss, roots, sandy soil, seed casings, stones, grass, and shimmering water. I took deep breaths not only with my lungs but with all of my senses.
O Lord, open thou my lips.
And my mouth shall show forth thy praise.
The next morning during our full day of silence I went for a run through the forests of the monastery’s extensive grounds. I began near the pond as a long, thick snake quickly slithered across my path from shore to shrubs, my first sign of danger on the grounds. For the remainder of my run, I carefully scanned the path in front of me and avoided planting my feet in piles of leaves or thick grasses that might conceal another unwanted surprise.
The paths were wide and shady, and seemed well-marked, giving me a false sense of confidence. Monastic modesty prevented stripping off my shirt till I was well into the woods. Passing two fellow retreatants further assured me that these trails were friendly. Following “The Big Loop,” I assumed it would provide an ample run as well as a safe return to civilization, emboldening me to take a narrower side path that diverged from the main trail.
But that was not my first mistake.
My first mistake was not looking at the map of the trails provided in the guest house. I’ve walked and run solo many a trail, from my days in a junior high nestled among foothills to high school and college walks, hikes, and runs on the cliffs, beaches, mountains, and deserts of California, and since, in multiple venues that travels and speaking trips have afforded. But as I passed again and again the same landmarks, uncertain where to turn or run, I grimly noted the irony that this is also what happens in the spiritual life. We fail to check the maps others have provided.
I was lost.
Adding to the challenge was one stretch of road I passed along several times where a buzzing bee or wasp, presumably protecting a nearby hive or nest, kept bumping into me, buzzing my face, shoulders, and chest. The last time I was stung, though by an African hornet, my entire body broke out in scary, reptilian scale-like hives, rushed to a hospital by an EMS unit. My EpiPen was home in Atlanta. I used my t-shirt to keep brushing it away, careful not to do so violently enough to prompt it to sting, ultimately sprinting for all I was worth each time I passed.
I knew I had to go downhill, but the rivulets where waters had run were misleading, as were the up-and-down trails. The main stream was my clue to the flatlands, but I was not always beside it. I had (unintentionally) been running more than two hours, so the sun was directly overhead, unable to give me direction. Earlier I had followed a trail labeled “Farm Road,” which I presumed led to the farm on the grounds of the monastery, but I had been dissuaded to pursue it by an official-looking locked gate with no pedestrian access through or around it.
Now I was trying to find that gate again, but I couldn’t quite remember where I had passed it. Intuition told me that road would lead me home.
I broke my silence and said loudly, “Can anybody hear me?” hoping that someone else was on one of the nearby trails. In a whisper I prayed, “Please God help me!”
O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.
Following a counter-intuitive urge, I went a different way on this road too often travelled and stumbled onto the gate again. This time I ignored its authority, climbed it and ran further down the road. Soon I was rewarded by the sound of a passing car. I came upon a highway, and across a field, saw three people consulting over farm equipment. One of them crossed the field to give me directions. I was four miles from the monastery.
I began running, but fearful of dehydration, also thumbed for a ride. Though my shirt was back on, how many people want to pick up a sweaty runner? Finally a local man looking for work offered me a ride. Though the evidence was clear he enjoyed smoking, my gasping lungs were grateful he chose not to. After driving me deep into the monastery grounds, out of his way, he offered me his hand and said his name was Lance Jones. I told him I would pray he finds a job.
I will never forget his name.
Because we were still observing silence, I went directly to lunch unable immediately to tell my companions about my fearful adventure. No one knew I had been lost. One of my fears had been that, when I was finally missed, they would have to waste time to find me.
O God, come to my assistance.
And my mouth shall show forth thy praise.
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I will be guest preacher during this coming Sunday’s 11 a.m. worship of Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.
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