“…we look back, with thanksgiving, in order to look forward. We cannot stand still. God is always calling us on to larger life.”
—Br. Geoffrey Tristram, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give Us a Word,” June 6, 2016
One of the neat things about writing this blog is that I get to go back and reread old journals. If I’m doubly fortunate, I can see how far I’ve come—psychologically, spiritually—sort of like standing on a bluff looking back at the trail you’ve been traveling, realizing you can see a lot further than you once could. This week I’ve been looking back at my journal for August 7-12, 2005, when my wife Mary Lee, my brother Roger, and I stayed at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, some 1300 feet up into the Santa Lucia Mountains, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
The first thing I notice is how often I write about the fog that lay over the ocean for almost all of the time we were there. We almost never saw water, only a bank of clouds that I kept trying to describe: a “blanket of white foam,” “a soufflé,” “like something from a dry ice machine,” “beaten egg whites,” “shaving cream,” “a snow field,” “a white carpet”—I’m not sure I ever did find the right words. During the day, I sat on my hermitage patio and looked down at the clouds, feeling like God looking down at an uncreated firmament. At sunset, the clouds rushed up the ravine, turning pink in the sunset before enveloping the hermitage in a dense, but somehow comforting, fog. One day, I quoted T.S. Eliot—“Only the divine stands firm/ the rest is smoke.” (“Or,” I added, “fog.”)
I think I took the Eliot quote from a book I read while I was at Big Sur. Paul Elie’s The Life You Save may be Your Own: an American Pilgrimage compares and contrasts the religious journeys of four American writers: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Until I reread my notes, I’d forgotten quite how long the image of being on a pilgrimage has been part of my personal mythology—those stories I tell myself about myself.
And I never included Elie’s definition of pilgrimage with all the other definitions I’ve collected over the years. For the author, the pattern of his four subjects’ pilgrimages is “the journey to first hand experience.” Which helps me see the difference between those journeys I’ve been on when I’ve felt like a pilgrim, and those when I’ve felt like a tourist: when I’ve been a participant in an experience versus when I’ve been an observer of someone else’s experience.
I see that on August 10, I went to a “Collato,” which was a study with the Brothers at the New Camaldoli monastery of the following Sunday’s scripture readings. The gospel reading was Matthew 15: 21-28. A woman from Canaan—and thus, a non-Jew—comes to Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter, who is being tormented by a demon. Jesus tells her that he was sent only to “the lost sheep of Israel,” going on to say (somewhat cruelly, it seemed to me then and seems to me now), “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman replies, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Apparently impressed, Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And as Matthew writes, “…her daughter was healed instantly.”
The discussion that followed was, I write, “heady.” The gathering of Brothers and guests referred to other passages of scripture, Biblical commentaries, even, my notes say, Jungian psychology. The big issue for the Brothers seemed to be if the woman really changed Jesus’ mind or whether he was testing her faith, which led to discussion of how divine Jesus was and how human.
I recall being bored with all the talk. The day before, August 9, had been my daughter Laurie’s birthday. She would have been thirty-five. She had been dead for seventeen years, almost as long as she’d been alive, and the story made me envious that the woman’s child had been not only healed but healed “instantly.” I remembered Laurie’s months of suffering from radiation, chemotherapy, her intense physical and emotional pain. Before I knew what I was doing, I became a participant in the discussion instead of an observer. “Do you realize,” I said, “how hard this story is for people whose children are suffering from disease, addiction, and mental illness, not to mention parents who’ve lost children? All this story does is imply that if we had more faith, our children would get better. I don’t need any more guilt, thank you very much.”
My journal notes that none of the Brothers seemed to want to deal with my question, but that one of the other people there, a pastor from San Francisco, stopped me later and said I’d given him the basis for his sermon the following Sunday. (I’m sorry now I didn’t think to ask him to send me a copy of what he’d said.)
What strikes me today, however, is that these stories of Jesus’ healing, of raising children from the dead, no longer make me angry. I don’t know when it happened, but sometime within the last eleven years (Laurie’s forty-sixth birthday is coming up this summer. Good Lord!), I started to think of the healing stories in the Bible as moral lessons, not necessarily historical facts—as dramatizations of a larger Truth: God heals our children, and us, for that matter. The healing may not take place in this lifetime, but it will come. And faith, I now believe, lies in believing, accepting, waiting.
Am I still angry that my child suffered? That she died before she’d ever really lived? Absolutely. But somewhere along my “journey to first hand experience,” this anger seems to have been enveloped, sort of like the white clouds of fog that climbed the ravine from the ocean to the monastery at Big Sur every night, wrapped now in a blanket of—dare I say it?—love.