As my service year nears its end, things for me have more or less fallen into place. I feel ingrained in my communities, satisfied with work and content, for the most part, with the patterns of life I have formed. These are good feelings. If I knew at the beginning of the year that this was where I was going to end up, I would have been delighted to learn that my efforts towards a structured and engaged life would meet their rich reward.
I would have been surprised, however, to find that my efforts had much less of an impact than I had initially expected. Far more important have been the little things I could have never anticipated – seemingly innocuous moments accumulated over the broad expanse of a year – happenstance encounters that occur naturally in community. I look back now and see a vast intersected web of occurrences that seems so random, so miraculous, it’s hard to believe, and yet they have strangely guided me towards new places – good places I could never have predicted and perhaps wouldn’t have even wanted to reach at first.
Let me take you down some of the threads, especially some that have done a lot to help lift me from lingering senses of stagnation that have bothered me for some time, so as to show how I have been surely and securely guided towards growth. I hope it strikes you as amazing as it does me.
Thread # 1: The Monastery of the Holy Spirit
Towards the beginning of the year, each of my housemates and I were assigned to lead our group for one of our community nights. Melanie, who is a student at Candler, decided to take us to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, a convent of cistercian monks of the Benedictine order. At the time, I didn’t particularly want to go, in that going would divert me from my precious free time to take part in potentially draining group activity.
This part is actually important. It is connected to long standing beliefs of mine that my time is my own, that I deserve to control the ways in which I use it, and ultimately that I have the best understanding for how it should be used. That particular weekend, I was in a rather deep emotional rut, connected to common, yet unhealthy habits of living that weren’t conducive to true self-care. At these times my impulse it to fix myself, and the prospect of a community trip to a place I had never been before struck me as horribly inconvenient towards reaching this goal.
I’m thankful it wasn’t my decision to make. I ended up finding one of my favorite places in Atlanta. The Monastery of the Holy Spirit is serenely beautiful, with wide, expansive lawns, a small, tree enclosed lake and a few winding paths through sparse woodland that dots the broader landscape. It is also arrestingly quiet, stemming from the devotional and meditative lifestyle of the monks, who seek out contemplative silence. I found both profoundly restorative. The simplicity and purposeful devotion of the monks’ asceticism struck me as deeply inspiring, especially when contrasted to my own life which at times felt (and feels) a bit aimless and almost always needlessly complex. Coming from this emotional landscape, the monastery seemed to present an answer to a question I didn’t even know I was to asking.
Thread #2: An Unexpected Return
Some time after this encounter, I returned to my worksite carrying an exciting new experience. In offhand conversation with the pastors, I shared what had happened and how it made me feel. To my delight and surprise, I learned that they themselves were equally taken by the monastery. Not only did they know of it, they had actually been regular visitors for years, knew some of the monks personally, and through this relationship hosted an annual church trip there. Through sheer coincidence, communities I thought utterly disconnected shared a bond, one that ended up allowing me to return for an equally wonderful second afternoon. I won’t go into detail, but if pictures tell a thousand words, here’s one for the road: nuns pelting everyone a stone’s throw away with water balloons, catholic school kids playing volleyball on a makeshift court that’s already half being blown away by the wind, some of the younger of us sitting on picnic blankets crafting trinkets from locally grown bamboo, while the older ones get some shut eye under a gentle sun on sloping grass.
Thread #3: A Devotional and a Book
Later in the Spring, I, like many members of our community, volunteered to write a reflection for our Church’s lenten devotional. I wrote about my aforementioned struggles to live with intention, specifically how weekends amplified the difficulty, since the isolation dismantled the structures and frameworks for guiding my life that my work-community creates for me. It was what was on my mind, and I did my best to be honest and direct about my thoughts in my writing. I didn’t think much of it, but some weeks later after Sunday worship, one of our members who visits from another church took me aside. She complemented and thanked me for my writing. The ensuing conversation was one that, speaking honestly, left me somewhat nonplussed. I appreciated her generous kindness, but I had difficulty articulating my thoughts and feelings at the time, and felt generally frustrated by my inability to make what I thought constituted meaningful contributions to our conversation. So I was shocked when, some time later, she took me aside again and gave me a book: ‘Open Mind, Open Heart’, by Thomas Keating.
She said that she really enjoyed our earlier conversation – again, being far too kind – and that she thought I might make some use of the book. It was actually about contemplative prayer, much like the prayer practice of the monks at the monastery.
I have read the book and tried to apply its teachings to my life. The result is a developing awareness of my thoughts, allowing me to create distance and more easily let them go when I notice their toxicity or unhealthiness. The experience is like a practical extension of the inspiration I took from my first visit to the monastery – inspiration that survived through the affirmation of a repeat visit, and then concretized through somewhat unrelated community intervention. These connections are so incredibly tenuous, yet without them, I fear that in this part of my life I would still be lingering, stuck in old tired ways.
I wrote at the beginning of this post about a sense of relative closure. I can see how things have, are, and might fall into place. It’s relative and it’s most certainly a process, and one that remains incomplete at that, but it is incredible how I got even here. I thought that if the puzzle were to fall into place for me, I would be the one to hold the pieces. I might have to shuffle, arrange, reorient, and perhaps tear apart in order to find the fit, but find it I would. I could have never guessed that I never held all the pieces in the first place. This year I have been guided through the hundreds of obligations, instructions and suggestions that come my way; through the direction from so many people in my various communities in Atlanta. Some of these people loom large in my life. Others play a smaller role. Nevertheless, their community comes with a tremendous gift of grace. I have been shaped and molded by them, and without their care and guidance I know that I would not be half the person I have become today.
Above: The Monastery of the Holy Spirit. I mentioned sloping grass.