You are here because you love me. And you are here because I love you.
So ended the brief address of a friend of mine on the occasion of his solemn profession of vows to the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance—the Trappists—a few days ago. The day had begun bleak and rainy, but as the opening words of the mass were spoken the light broke through the clouds, flooding the sanctuary with a play of golden light from the stained glass windows, patterns playing over the plain floor and making a carpet of light in the spot where my friend would prostrate himself in the course of the liturgy. By the time we were in the refectory for the reception, it was clearing and becoming bright.
It was a fitting grace note for an artist who has come to understand the creative life within the monastery walls. There was mass, with a homily that intertwined the life of the Creator with the creativeness of his creation, a mass rich with both music and the silence that, in a Trappist monastery, is a living presence; a mass that did not feel the need to fill up every vacant space with notes and words, one that left time for contemplating the wondrous event that was taking place in front of us, the binding of this one man to his community until death would change—but not really end—the relationship. For, as my friend pointed out, he knows where he will be buried, and it is still within the embrace of his brothers. He knows his place in the world, and which of us would not wish the same?
I had arisen early, well before dawn, in time, had I been at the monastery already, to join the brothers in the night office, the watch in the night. I left the mountain and drove the nearly three hours to the monastery in a driving rain. By the time I left the Interstate for the road that would dwindle from six lanes to two in its course to the monastery, I was surrounded by fog.
I headed into the darkness, all the light going in the other direction, the headlamps of cars heading into town as I headed away. My world contracted to the confines of my car and the play of its own lights on the asphalt. The thick, white mist covered everything to the left of the yellow line and to the right of the white one on the road. I drove on, pulling up memories of this road I had driven so many times before, willing myself to recall how it felt, its curves and intersections, its very being.
It worked. I missed only one turn, and knew it immediately. It took a while to find a spot that permitted me to turn around, and a break in the long line of lights that allowed me to do so. Even so, I arrived at the monastery in time for Lauds, and to hear the community pray for their brother on the feast day of their founders. As I walked toward the church, sparely lit in the gathering dawn, the fog was lifting. I slowed my steps and paused to drink in the silence, to watch a bare tree emerge from the mists and to see a bird hop from branch to branch. To pause and to begin to bring my own rhythm into those of the measured and patient cadences of monastic life. And to reflect on the gift of fog, which helped me make the transition.
Living where I do, I’ve had to come to terms with fog. On our mountain, it is often so dense—as it was this particular morning—that the only way to navigate is from one reflector in the middle of the road, to the next, taking cues in the darkness from things I’ve experienced before: my off-rear tire drops into a small hole, I find the blue reflector that suddenly looms on the left and it means I have arrived at the turn-off for my street , and I turn the car as much in faith as in assurance. It’s a reality of my existence and a pretty good metaphor for my spiritual life. And it appears that it suits me.
Some folks spend the bulk of their lives walking about in the spiritual sunlight, seeing clearly where they are and where they wish to be and getting there with remarkable directness—and that is a good thing. But some of us, like a climber who ascends a mountain at exactly the same rate the fog lifts away, find ourselves never quite getting through the mists. And after a while, the fog, that dampens the senses and blurs the light and softens the darkness like the quiet in a Trappist monastery, takes on a life of its own, a teaching of its own.
I’ve grown accustomed to the fog and its inherent darkness, and I’ve developed a fondness for it, for it is, after all, an integral part of my life. Wishing it away would be as effective—and as silly—as wishing to be tall and blonde when it is clear that I simply am…not. If part of being me is the physical body I inhabit, then so is the spiritual place I have been given in the grand scheme of things. And any artist will tell you that there is no great work of art that does not depend on the play of light with shadow. I get to be part of the shadow.
Two years ago, on the day I first met the monks at Conyers, this particular Brother led me to the balcony of the Church after vespers and I was stunned by the beauty of the silence and the shadows. Since then, I have found my best place in darkened churches full of that same silence and shadows, places where the smallest details matter. The shadow of a shadow that reminds me that this is the spot where the step is. The reflection of the votives in the polished stone of the altar that reminds me to pray for the intentions of those who have been there before me. The gradual change of the stained glass behind the crucifix as the sun rises and the dullness gives way, gently at first, them with a great rush, to colors, making clear both face and body on the crucifix and burnishing the brass of the tabernacle into warmth and brilliance, reminding me in Whose presence I find myself. The silence of emptiness that amplifies every creak and shift as the church itself wakes up and talks to me like an old friend. The silence and the darkness that pushes all other concern away so that, sometimes only for the briefest of moments, I can simply be there and simply be.
I can’t put it into better words, for how can words explain silence any more than light can explain shadow? But I have learned that it is in that place that I find my center and it is in that way that I grow so that when the light and noise of day confound me as much as the fog on a country road, I can shut my interior eyes and remember—what it feels like to be in the presence of God--always closer to me than my own breath even when the noise and the light conspire to make me forget that.
In those darkened churches, in the shadows and the fog of my interior life, I meet God again. In those shadows, which are no longer fearsome, but welcome, I recognize Him in the place and the way He has arranged for me, in the place where, after all, I live. A place that is familiar and unspeakably intimate and in which I can let Him lead me in the confidence of faith. One reflector at a time, because I understand that.
I am there, in that mist, because He loves me. And I am there because I love Him.