Thursday, January 17, 2013


I led a vespers at Holden on Monday--I wanted to post my reflection from the service: 

At twenty-four years old I met a man from Belgium on the beach in Paradise, Michigan. We found each other journaling on the shores of Lake Superior and stayed near the water till almost midnight, watching the Whitefish Point lighthouse light comb the sand. We swatted mosquitoes and listened to the lake lap the shoreline. We talked about reading and writing, food and families, mythology and loneliness. He was traveling around Lake Michigan, visiting sites from Hemingway’s short stories. We exchanged e-mail addresses and met up the next day to hike the limestone cliffs lining Lake Superior. We picnicked on rosemary bread and Laughing Cow cheese on the beach and kissed on the Pictured Rocks boat tour in front of tourists wearing ponchos. Later that month I bought a bus ticket to meet him for a weekend Chicago, and on sidewalk lined by skyscrapers, the Belgian man and I talked about religion, one of the few topics we hadn’t touched. He told me, that he didn’t believe in God, he believed in philosophy. And for the first time since we met, that stubbled man seemed less shiny. I felt myself distance. I pulled away, suddenly objectifying the person I’d been so smitten with. 

In so many ways, my reaction made no sense. I hadn’t been to church in six months. I’d spent my Sundays running on the trails near my house or in my bedroom, bent over books of religion and philosophy, books by John Muir, Dorothy Day, Soren Kierkegaard, Simone Weil. I didn’t want to commit to doctrine. I didn’t know what I thought about heaven or hell or church or God. But the Belgian man’s sure flat voice left no room for narrative, no space for mystery. 

Mystery. It’s a word I love—a word that connotes something secret or hidden--something incomprehensible. When my friend Marissa worked as a nanny, Vinnie, the four year old boy she babysat, misplaced the hockey puck he spent all day hitting up and down the hallway. A significant loss. They searched everywhere. Finally, he looked at her, Where is it? I don’t know, she said, it’s a mystery. 

Eventually, Marissa found the lost puck in the backyard and from that point forward, whenever Vinnie lost something he asked Marissa if they could check the mystery for it. I heard Marissa’s story in a bar in Iowa, over a bottle of Bell’s beer and a basket of buttered popcorn. We laughed. The mystery. It became a place rather than a concept. Vinnie put a picture to the secret. He made it sensory. 

Three years after parting with the Belgian man, mystery defines my sense of spirituality more than grace or faith or abstract notions of salvation. My first year graduate school, I left church because I could not rationalize heaven and hell. I could not explain God or justify the way I saw people who claimed him behaving. As the one of the only Christians in a graduate program full of people who cared more deeply about stories and social justice than most of the religious people I knew, I struggled to see how the friends I had fit into the theology I knew. So I worked to form myself into someone different: someone adult and academic. Someone not unlike the Belgian man—a scholar versed in notions, concepts, and philosophies. 

But at my core, I am a wanderer--a storyteller, someone who needs a life laced in mystery the way I crave mid-afternoon sunlight during winter’s darkest days. I’m in love with lichen-cloaked fir trees and the smell of soil, with the driftwood that snarls the shore of Lake Superior, and the dew that coats my sleeping bag when I spend the night outside. I still don’t know if I believe in an afterlife but I trust in the holiness of the world we inhabit now. The faith I have isn’t grounded in my head, but in my hands and feet, the things I see and smell and touch and taste: the wonder that shrouds my sense of being in this world. In the beautiful words of writer David James Duncan, “Wonder is unknowing experienced as pleasure”--and as this point in my life, God has become a synonym for that unknowing, that wonder.

I love the poem, “Returning to Church” by Michael Dickman. I love how the poem conflates romantic love with the mystery of a mass in a way that leaves me unable to discern what moves the narrator more: I had forgotten/all the promises, they make/at church, singing/or/not singing--/a new body/a living water/I wanted to be very still and listen to her voice moving out in front of me/there are two houses/the dark and quiet/house of God/and the house of her/voice. I love the unselfconscious wonder in Dickman’s language—the way he calls the people in the pews strangers who aren’t strangers but his/ other homeless children. I love the way he adds an exclamation point after the line Everyone here is so nice! Following it with And they don’t even know me, they don’t think they have to. But my favorite line in the whole poem, the line that’s lingered with me this winter at Holden, each time we pass the peace or lay hands on someone praying at the cross, is hand after hand they take my hand, a prayer of bone. I hear it and picture all of you—the way we wave each other in and out of Holden Village and hug each other on Sundays, the way we eat together and pray together and hike together and knit together. The way we play board games with the village kids and check up on each other during times of illness or loss. A prayer of bone. 

The poet Rumi said, “Every moment Man receives a slap from the unseen.” Not a brush with the unseen, but a slap from it, an experience so direct and wondrous that we are left slack-jawed at the mystery. Unknowing experienced as pleasure. I believe in those moments. That’s why I came back church, why I spent hours sitting in silence in Quaker meetings in Tacoma, why I loved working alongside the Catholic Workers at the farm where I volunteered in Iowa, and why I choose to spend a year here at Holden. The first time I visited Holden Village, I met people able to sit with their questions, who honored wonder in all its forms, who seemed to celebrate those slaps from the Unseen. I knew I wanted to be here longer. Like four-year-old Vinnie, I wanted to check the mystery. I wanted to see what I could bring to this place, and what it could bring to me. 

Here at Holden, we have to opportunity to practice wonder. We live on such a small patch of land: a sliver between mountains. Many of us spend weeks within the same square mile. So we notice the way the sun shadows the peaks at different times of day. We note the texture of the ground beneath our feet, the changing shape of the snow. We learn to see the shifts in each other’s faces and we notice when someone wears something new: a sweater, a hair-cut, an expression of joy or of pain. We look forward to Sunday brunch and Tuesday pancakes. And when the seasons shift or the holidays come we cloak our lives in ritual: in snow-shaped prayer labyrinths lit by candles and Christmas tree bonfires. We make our time sacred, shrouding ourselves in silence and song, flickering candles and billowing fires, in prayers of bone and moments of mystery.


  1. Rachael, your writing (your whole spirit) enthralls me.

  2. Thanks Amy--that means so much--particularly because I love your writing so much: the rawness and lyricism and vulnerability. Your essays are beautiful and I get excited every time I get to read one.

  3. Dear Rachael - I love the meditative quality of this essay, and the way you keep this particular essay (essaylet?) moderately linear, even though this is a change from how you often write (and speak for that manner). I miss you.

  4. Do you know Wendell Berry's poem, "A Homecoming"? It was a good one for me - the idea that grace is big enough to encompass our attempts at understanding this faith we claim, big enough to keep us safe within it even as we vary. And so we can wander bravely.

    Also, do you know Kathleen Norris' book Amazing Grace? I think you might enjoy it. I did - more than I thought I would.

    Blessings from one Christian wanderer to another.