Travelers on the Road
As I read the story these past couple weeks about Abram being called from where he lived to a new land, it struck me that this story is about transition.
It is about journeying in stages, about leaving behind the old and journeying to what comes next.
Over these past couple weeks, I found myself thinking about transitions, which are so prevalent in our lives – transitions come in terms of stages of life or health changes to our bodies, in terms of new jobs or responsibilities or changes in our personal relationships.
In these liminal or in-between spaces, how do we transition to what comes next? How do we say good-bye to a reality that we have known for so long and open ourselves up to a new one?
I had the occasion to ponder these questions at a monastery, where I recently stayed for a week. It was a well-known monastery named Taize to which people had traveled from all over the world. I had certain assumptions upon arriving there – that it would be this peaceful, spiritual experience and that I would be able to make friends instantly.
Indeed it was a meaningful experience, but it did not happen at all how I expected.
First, because of my bus, I arrived a bit late – missing part of the program for the day. I checked in, set up my tent, and immediately lost my meal card to the wind as I put my tent together.
Once I was done, I checked into my practical group, which assigned me to clean toilets.
I helped for a while, but, before I could finish, I thought, I better go back and comb that field to find my meal card, otherwise I will be going hungry. So I left my group, searched without luck to find my meal card and was forced to get another, and in doing so I had shirked my full duty of cleaning toilets.
This was not how I wanted to start my time.
When I came to noon prayer time, I discovered they sang there songs in multiple foreign languages that I struggled to pronounce, and that there was over 1000 people there so it was easy to get lost in the sea of people. As I stumbled over the German words of one song, I thought to myself, “I traveled all that way for this? How is this possibly going to help me in my spiritual journey?”
You see, I didn’t know and so I had gone searching for the answers.
That’s why I find Abram and Sarai’s story so fascinating.
They didn’t know either when God initially invited them to journey to an unknown land. You see, they had lived in the town of Haran for many years – they made a life for themselves there with their father-in-law, settling into a comfortable rhythm of life where they knew all the local paths, they could find their way home and had met all the neighbors.
Into this comfortable space, God speaks to Abram and says: I will make a great nation out of you, I will bless you and through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. But first, leave this place you call home and journey with me to a strange land.
We don’t hear Abram’s thoughts as God shares this invitation but I can only imagine that Abram’s line of thoughts goes something like this:
What if we get lost? What about our neighbors and our home? Doesn’t God know that at 75 I am too old to start anything new?
Yet, something in Abram propelled him forward. He was full of questions, but something in him was hungry, hungry for something more, something meaningful, something real.
And so not quite comprehending it all, Abram says okay, I will embark into this land of the unknown, I will leave the things that are so familiar and dear to me and journey to this new place.
And so they do. They pack up everything they own and head to the land of Canaan. And when they arrive – God makes a promise and tells them that God will give their offspring this land but tells them this is not where they will settle. In other words, God is saying, this is just the beginning of your journey, you have a lot farther left to travel.
In response, Abram pauses and makes an altar.
Then he journeys down the road into the hill country and makes another altar.
This is how Abram marks his transition. I imagine that Abram had as many struggle and life questions as we have and in this story he responds by pausing to build an altar.
He doesn’t say, “I am rather cynical about all this,” and he doesn’t say, “I am going to respond with my questions with quick answers like this is just the way it is.”
No, instead, Abram does the hard work of saying, I will pause and build an altar and sit with my unknowing.
His answer fascinates me and makes me wonder – how can we too mark our transitions by pausing our journeys and creating space?
I contemplated this quest as I stayed at Taize because three times a day our lives were interrupted by prayer bells, which called us to church where we sung, prayed, read Scripture and sat in silence.
I traveled over twenty-four hours to reach the monastery and when I arrived, instead of sermons or advice, I got silence and of course toilet cleaning and Bible study with my peers.
And yet, and yet, I was surprised at what happened.
In our toilet cleaning group, as we scrubbed together, we became friends. There were two guys from Korea there who taught me Korean because they did not speak much English and a German who was studying social work and theology and trying to figure out what to do next in her life.
In Bible study, I met young Catholics trying to decide whether they wanted to become priests or nuns and other young people just trying to figure out how to live their everyday lives.
I met one 19 year old German girl who said to me: In Germany where I live, we just walk right by each other without saying a word, but here, here we talk about the things of the heart.
In this place of pausing, we shared our deep yearnings for the world, even if we do not yet know what to do. I think sometimes silence scares us. I think sometimes we are scared what we will hear in that space. It strips us of the facades that we hide behind and yet at the same time it plunges us into the heart of God’s love. I was reminded of that during my week at Taize.
On the first day, when I was feeling badly about losing my meal card so quickly and missing out on practical group, I wandered into the Taize woods. I had wanted things to go smoothly, to make a good impression and I hadn’t. As I wandered, I found this wood carving next to the water of Jesus pulling Peter up out of the water after he fell attempting to cross it. What struck me was that Jesus wasn’t scolding Peter but was simply helping him up in a time of need.
The message of God is always compassion.
I read a story of the early monks who went to live the desert in the early 4th century. You would think that they would have been perfect, but in fact Abba Moses had been a robber and a gang leader before his conversion. Amma Eugenia came to the desert to flee a forced marriage. These weren’t picture perfect saints. Others had resisted mandatory military service or the payment of taxes supporting war.
When one monk was asked what he did, he said, “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.”
There was no shame in the truth of he was or what he did. Yes, yes, we fall down, but so too do we get back up, so even in our falling we know that is not the end of story, that we don’t need to be encumbered by shame, and instead we are invited to say: Welcome.
Welcome all parts of us –the fears as well as the hopes, the dark as well as the light – that all parts of our lives maybe pervaded with the tender embrace of God.
In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, this experience of tenderness is exemplified in many of their stories. The elders refuse to judge or shame the novice monks, always putting the finest possible interpretation on their behavior, whatever it might be.
In one of the narratives, a young monk stole a valuable Bible from the cellar of Abba Gelasius and took it to a bookseller in a nearby town to see how much he could get for it. The bookseller told him, “I’ll have to ask around to see what it’s worth and then I’ll get back to you.”
When the monk returned a week later, the shop owner explained, “I had to ask Abba Gelasius, since he know the worth of these books more than anyone else around here. He says you should not accept less than eighteen pieces of silver for it. This is a valuable book. You’ve got something precious here.”
The monk asked with chagrin, “Is that all he said? He didn’t ask you about who was trying to sell it?”
“No, he didn’t say a thing,” responded the bookseller.
The young monk then took the Bible back to the monastery and to Abba Gelasius, knowing he had found something more precious than a valuable book. He’d found the forgiveness of an older brother.
The brothers discovered that criticism invariably shuts us down but that the confidence others express in us spurs us to become what they see us to be. Author Belden Lane writes, “Criticism eats into the soul like an acid. Generosity of spirit multiplies itself over and over again.”
This generosity of spirit is what we are invited to experience as we pause from our journeys. Silence can be a bit startling at first as we take stock of the reality around us – the reality that even at monasteries toilets need to be clean, that the desert fathers weren’t perfect, that maybe Abram struggled with the questions of life too and that traveling at the age of seventy-five was probably hard. Yet, as our illusions and facades are stripped away, we are left with that which really matters the truth that in the end, no matter what, we serve a God who is crazy about us. And when we lose our way, we are invited to risk stopping on our journey,
that we might be changed by what we hear,
healed by what we experience,
and that we might dare to trust and journey anew.