It was a perfect spring day and a serene scene. It was a mild day with a light breeze, blue sky and a vivid picture of a green rolling hill-lined orchards along the path to the parking lot, and a welcoming white washed sprawling church complex. I was coming back from a conference in Ashville, North Carolina and stopped at Gethsemane Monastery in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s always a stop for me when I’m in the area. I attend services with the monks and it helps me reclaim the center after a long journey.
This day I was sitting by the grave of the great theologian Thomas Merton. There’s usually a black metal chair by his grave because people like to sit and ponder life and his writings there. It’s a peaceful spot right next to the bell tower near the shade of a tree. His grave is adorned by a humble cross, a bed of clover mixed into the grass and offerings of rocks, honeycombs or whatever gifts those paying their respects deem appropriate like rosaries and strands of hay braided and tied to form a cross.
As I was sitting at the grave clearing my mind, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a small tremor in the ground. I looked closer and saw little blades of grass shaking and a tuft of ground that was indeed quaking by another cross. My imagination conjured a horror movie and a zombie being rising out of the grave to haunt the living, but it was just an animal burrowing through and on the verge of breaking ground. Although I was tempted to assist it by pulling the tufts of grass to help it emerge, I sat and watched for a time, waiting for the animal to greet me.
It was a slow and arduous process. The little animal would take breaks, but they were short breaks as it was determined to complete its business. I motioned to another retreatant who wandered by to see it. He stopped, smiled, marveled at the sight of it too, but moved on to take pictures elsewhere. After an hour or two of work, the animal never emerged from the hole. I don’t know what it was actually trying to do. Maybe it was content there. Maybe it wasn’t trying to find a way out, but attempting to sure up it’s place there.
The encounter helped me consider life in a deeper way. I thought about how we burrow through life and claw through the under ground making tunnels for ourselves to make a home and store our food. How we ground ourselves in the reality of the living earth surrounded by other beings that are doing the same. How we work to emerge into the light, burying our fears only to experience a world with our exposed vulnerabilities. Emergence from the dark also brings new hopes and fresh expressions of beauty that the open air can offer and light that glorifies other opportunities.
As I sat and thought about an uncertain future, I reflected on my past and how gifts of life have presented themselves to me. I’ve done the work in opening myself up to new possibilities and the faith I have cultivated through my studies have supplied me with an understanding that has helped me conquer tremendous adversity.
We all need a place to go where we can feel safe and secure. Retreat into a sanctuary is a must to tap into understanding who and what we are. Truth lies within. Jesus recognized that “The Kingdom of God is within.” We all need to find a quiet place to reflect on the truth that exists in our hearts. But we also need to open ourselves to the possibility of something greater by emerging into the world. This opening requires us to leave our comfort zone and see what’s out there. Possibilities linger all around us. If we don’t come out to explore, we miss the opportunity to see what’s there in a bigger way.
In his poem “Paracelsus” Robert Browning reminds us to open out a way to allow the imprisoned splendor to escape.
“TRUTH is within ourselves; it takes no rise
From outward things, whate’er you may believe.
There is an inmost centre in us all,
Where truth abides in fullness; and around,
Wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in,
This perfect, clear perception—which is truth.
A baffling and perverting carnal mesh
Binds it, and makes all error: and, to KNOW,
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without.”
I don’t know if the animal ever emerged to recognize the light of that day. I know that I emerged from the process with a clearer understanding of what I needed to dig out from under. For a time I retreated into my “inmost centre,” emerged and headed out on the road to home.
Consider the following questions:
Are you burying yourself in a protected place or are you placing yourself out there in the world? If so, how are you doing it?
How do you cultivate your spiritual environment? How does it help you emerge into the world?