The bells chime for worship.
I am walking away from them.
My path leads me deeper into the woods, through a cathedral of trees. A lush carpet of green stretches away to my left. Low hanging clouds reflect on the lake’s quiet surface to my right. A pathway of pine needles hugs the bank and points me on my way.
Families are gathered on campus for their annual visit with the brothers of St. John’s. I am sure the Abbey church is full.
The sky, too, is swollen, grey clouds holding back the promise of rain.
No mind. No hesitation. I take the path past lily pads and marshes, over footbridges, to the small quiet chapel on the other side of Lake Sagatagan.
Where a teenager stands in silence. Holding her baby bump. In a chapel built to honor her. Her moment of creation and scandal embodied in her pose.
Mary. Stella Maris.
She is a star and she gives birth to light, mother Mary of the sea, guiding sailors and travelers for centuries on end.
As I travel this path, I kick up stones behind me. Thinking someone is following, but knowing it is my own destructions and distractions along this path. This path of life. This path of writing, of telling stories that embody both creation and scandal.
Memories of past treks on this trail, past times in this landscape beset me, but then the goose poop brings me back to reality. No time to ruminate on other times and places when this moment demands attention. Otherwise I may slip off the path and soon be drenched in the lake.
To do the work of writing, of running, means paying attention to the urgency of now. To do justice to the stories that need telling, is for me like the discipline of putting one foot in front of the other, one word at a time on the page. Keep it moving.
Winds of the spirit lift my hair and my spirits.
I move faster and with more stealth to avoid mosquitoes. Persistent little reminders to keep moving.
Yep. Ayep. Yep. Frogs encourage me from the bank.
One small tree, not much more than a sapling, with leaves still green, lays fallen across the path. Yet travelers have made a new way around. So often part of the journey is to make a new path.
I only pass one sullen young man who will not return my wave, two lovers making photos on the bridge, and a family with noisy children. Oh and an elderly woman leaning on a younger one. Surely… Did they go all the way to the chapel?
Devotion often leads to heroic acts. All I know is that she smiled at me as we met on the narrow pathway.
When I arrive at Stella Maris, teenage mother Mary does not smile. Her face is turned down in contemplation. Pondering it all in her heart already… or just wondering what the hell to do?
The chapel answers her question. Her story has been doing its work for centuries, inspiring life. Love. Devotion.
The open unadorned space of the chapel at the edge of the lake stands as testament to an embodiment of grace, turning a young woman’s scandal into a powerful creation of light for generations. A girl. An expectation. An epiphany.
The particular and the universal in one pregnant moment.
Just as I set my hand to the door to go…
Should I stay? Raindrops begin pelting me. Should I turn back?
No. It will be a rush home in the rain.
The cathedral of trees is paltry protection from the downpour. As it gets heavier, I stop briefly under one covered bridge, then another. But I am also dying to get to a bathroom, so I keep going. I only slow along the trail where the slick up-and-downhill places offer true danger.
This is no shower, but a storm.
Like other times when I have run through trees this whole morning’s journey grows into a long, extended metaphor for writing. It feels like channeling every big writing project, especially the ones that are both personal and about so much more than me. The particular and the universal in one pregnant moment.
Running the trail in the downpour feels treacherous and dangerous and like I’m not sure – with Mary – what the hell to do. It takes all of my focus and discipline to keep going. Often the way writing feels.
It’s easier to swat mosquitoes, dodge goose poop, and look over my shoulder for threats that are not there, than to just keep going along the path.
Somehow getting drenched in the storm is qualitatively different. It is more than just a distraction. It is more like pregnancy. The only way I got through it and heard a borning cry was to keep going. No short cuts. Just stay on the path and keep moving. Keep writing.
And not every pregnancy I had led to new birth. I know the reality of grief and dreams deferred. The potential for loss is real in life, and in writing.
Even when I have a good community of support, the big work of writing can still feel very difficult. Not really the writing itself but the truth-telling. How honest can I be? How much of my truth can I tell? Only I can do it. And I must write the stories that only I can write. Whatever scandals, whatever truth, whatever light can shine, my work is to collaborate with the Spirit, if the writing stands a chance.
I have spent years listening to and with women like Mary, who collaborate with the Spirit to do creative work in the world. They have generously shared their stories with me through interviews, friendship, conversations, and their own writing.
This morning before I left out on this quiet walk that turned epic run, I wrote in my journal:
I am waking up on a Sunday morning. Staring at the news on my phone… The social media filters are telling me about things I want to change. An hour of trying to see where my writing fits in. My perfectionism — sneaky little bastard — and self-preoccupation, too, leave me trying to figure out what to say that will be brilliant, appreciated, admired, read, taught, and loved. This is of course the wrong way to approach any writing. These longings are just at the edges of my consciousness. I am not thinking them outright. But they are in deep-seated desires that keep me from doing what is possible.
Not perfect. Possible.
So what is possible? Now that I’ve dispensed those fantasies yet again. To write what I know from my researcher’s chair. To be speaking from there as a witness and participant in all the beauty and joy as well as the brokenness, lament, and pain.
How much of my own story? Why can’t I — after three years — know my voice better? Well because I’ve not done the work. Wait. That is a partial truth/partial lie. I have worked on it, and I need to see just how much. Lay it out. Read it. Hear it and finish it. Prioritize it. Daily.
This is why I am here in Collegeville. So I can assess my place in this big project and several small ones. In fact I have over 17,000 words knitted together. They are a mess, still, but that is the work that comes next.
By the time I reach the Abbey Guest House, I’m feeling ready to be done. Relieved to be near a bathroom. I walk up the final hill not so much tired as just dripping and seeking a shelter. When I enter, the Guest House is silent. All the worshipers are still in the Abbey church.
A guest host is staffing the desk in the Guest House, a college student who is nearly asleep in front of her computer screen. She looks at me dully as I poke my dripping head around the corner to ask, “Can I borrow a towel? I’ve just run all the way from the chapel in the rain…”
“Are you staying here?”
The guest host obviously does not know the rules of Benedictine hospitality. Oh my goodness! You are soaking wet! Let me find a towel! What else can I do to help you?
None of that.
“No. I’m staying across campus. I just need a moment to dry off before I go the rest of the way… So do you have a spare towel down here?”
I don’t tell her I know where the laundry room is. I’m beginning to think from her blank stare that she might not even actually know herself. I am impatient. Why do the monks hire someone who so completely does not embody their mission? Why am I feeling so harsh about it? Maybe because I am literally dripping and still catching my breath, and I think my needs look fairly obvious.
Yet it remains my work to ask for the help I need. (What? I think I get new issues? Hardly.)
She finally comes up with something. “Do you need an umbrella?” Epic rain and wind, and I’m standing here dripping on the welcome mat. Yep. Ayep. Yep. I’m not a frog. I could use an umbrella!
Instead I say, “Sure that would be great. I’ll return it later today.“
I stand there dripping for a few more minutes. Then I go to the right not remembering for sure where the restrooms are. I could sure use a paper towel right now. I grab a few tissues from a low coffee table and wipe my face.
Then I remember. And turn back down the hall the other direction. I just say “restroom” and point as I walk past the guest host of the Guest House. She says nothing in return.
Eventually after the restroom and a few more paper towels to wipe my face and shoulders and hands dry, I decide there’s no point in waiting. No matter the pouring rain. I’m soaked and I have an umbrella to keep most of the deluge out of my face.
Sometimes when we finish our epic journeys, there is no one waiting to congratulate us at the other end. If we wait for something magical or hospitable to happen, we are likely just to be further disappointed. To the very end we have to keep making our path, and for me that means asking for help I need.
When I go back by the desk other people are checking in. The guest host of the Guest House knows how to help them.
I step outside. The rain has picked up and is coming down in large sheets. Lightning is striking. More thunder. And I think maybe I’m foolish to go further in this, but I’m already soaked so who cares?
Once committed to the writing journey, even if it does not go in the way I hope or plan, the best and even the simplest thing is to keep going.
I take the shortest path back to Emmaus Hall. I can barely hear the worshipers singing through an open Abbey door over the pouring rain. Mini-floods along the sidewalks turn my shoes and socks into sponges. At least I can see the path just ahead of me. And the umbrella turns inside out just three times.
I am soaked to the bone. I am glad to have reached the end.
The image of Mary giving birth to light. That is my inspiration for writing these two weeks. And beyond. How will my writing give birth to ideas that are germinating in my soul? What light do they shine?
As I pace barefoot in the apartment, I continue dictating my story, which began so easily – like my summer morning stroll to the chapel. The words and images tumble forth. Yet the effort it takes to bring a piece of writing home is often just as epic and challenging as my two-mile run back through the pouring rain.
As I work, a Saint John’s Bible illustration falls from the windowsill across the room. Unprovoked. I was nowhere near it. It says “now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
No need to make things up. It is like the whole universe is conspiring to urge me along.
Now a new card has fallen down. From the other window. Dragonfly. Clarity. Focus.
Seriously? Who needs to make anything up? And the stories I’m telling are more potent and complex that most fiction anyway.
Although I’m not much of a signs-and-wonders kind of person, the openness of my mind at the moment wants to make meaning of every tiny detail of life around me. No other cards fall. Not before that moment. Not since. I will simply add their inspiration to my stash. And shore up my conviction that help is everywhere around me. Just ask. Just believe.
I will pay attention and give my consent to this dragonfly, who has in my past been a talisman and medicinal force to help me focus on my most important work. Thank you. And welcome to this journey.
I will lean forward and tip myself down the path, trusting in things not seen and believing in these many assurances of things hoped for.
The work is all here in front of me. And time to tend carefully to it. This gift of time and space, paid for by former versions of my hardworking self, and paid for by my inherited privileges of education, economics and encouragement.
Storms may rage. And rain may baptize my every move. The journey may feel epic and require all inspiration, all discipline, and all focus. Yet here I am on the path. I am running. And I am writing for my life.