“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” —Parker Palmer
I recently spent some time sorting through boxes in my parent’s garage in preparation for an epic yard sale (I have a healthy respect for anyone who has done this more than twice in a lifetime). The dust, barely visible on my hands and collected in drifts across the concrete garage floor, added a visceral grit to those hours that mirrored the inner work of re-living memories, sorting through boxes and boxes filled with the past. With an endless stack of boxes in front of me, I sneezed and shook my head, then settled myself on a tattered old towel to fight through tears and dust. This is going to take a while.
There was a lot of junk uncovered during those hours. There were treasures, too. The junk tended to be objects we’d purchased; the treasures were the things made or enhanced with that personal touch. The treasures were often the things that might easily be mistaken for trash—like a piece of paper, wrinkled and creased into something like a tiny book.
Sometimes you read a book at the perfect time. I first read Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak during the summer of 2008. I had applied and been accepted into graduate school while working more than full-time between two jobs to pay my way through the final semester of my undergraduate studies. All this, along with countless hours volunteered as a youth pastor and worship leader at a local church, left me in company with Bilbo Baggins, feeling “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” In a desperate attempt to find some shred of identity and direction in my life, I called the Benedictine monastery in Pecos, New Mexico, and made plans for a five-day retreat.
When visiting a monastery, it is essential to bring only what you must. Pack an extra jacket, and you probably won’t use it. Bring a short stack of books, and you’ll likely only crack one or two of them open.
For clothing and hygiene, I stuffed the bare essentials into my backpack along with my journal and a handful of pens. I gave myself a limit of two books and scoured my bookshelf and finally settled on Let Your Life Speak.
It was Wednesday when I arrived at the monastery, a place I had found time and again to be what Celtic spirituality would describe as “thin”—where the veil between heaven and earth becomes so translucent, both become more luminous. I picked up the room key at the guestmaster’s desk and walked the silent hallway to room 17 to stash my backpack before I took my familiar walk around the meadow, along the river.
The first thing to do when visiting a monastery is to walk the grounds. Get a sense of the place, the land, the immense silence of it all. Pace yourself and breathe. Notice small things.
I stepped out the back door and walked down the hill, onto the dirt pathway that leads behind the laundry room and around the pond to meander along the bank of the Pecos river. The way, specked all over with lavender and dandelions, borders a small marsh that houses a number of bird species and a handful of very vocal bullfrogs. Eventually, the path turns near a fence with a “NO TRESPASSING” sign and a clear gap where the ground is well-worn and leads beyond the fence, through a small patch of woody wilderness, to Monastery Lake (featured briefly in the film Crazy Heart). I decided to forego Monastery Lake that day. Instead, I made my way around the meadow, past a small cemetery, and behind the convent—home to Sister Miriam and Sister Helen. Sister Helen was in the garden, pulling the weeds that would mercilessly choke the medicinal plants she’d nursed along into the scorching summer months. I walked back up the hill, returned to my room to pick up the book I’d brought along. Enter Parker Palmer:
“How often in the process we mask ourselves in faces that are not our own. How much dissolving and shaking of ego we must endure before we discover our deep identity—the true self within every human being that is the seed of authentic vocation. […] When we lose track of true self, how can we pick up the trail? One way is to seek clues in stories from our younger years, years when we lived closer to our birthright gifts.”
Sometimes you read a book at the perfect time. In a particular season of your life, a book can know you. A book read at just the right moment in time opens itself up to you and opens you up to yourself. You can see. I sat underneath the branches of the willow tree, down by the pond, and saw my life. It opened up to me in little bits, through memories and long intuited desires. I thought about the many stories I’d written as a child, the lines of poetry that were more perfect than anything I’ve written since. I recalled the newspaper I started with two pen pals on the East Coast (with a mailing list of more than fifty names—it was a big deal back then), the delight of seeing my words in print. I remembered the many times I’d sat down at my polished particle-board desk with a blank piece of paper and a pencil, just to see what would come out on the page first: words or doodles.
The first two days of my retreat were mostly spent under the willow or down by the river with the book, a journal, and a pen. The voices of so many expectations and demands slowly began to fade, one at a time, as the wonder of my life began to open before me. I could hear the whispers of vocation throughout my childhood. Vocation has never spoken to me through billboards or neon signs, but always through little growing things—little stories and drawings, ordinary conversations and workaday beauties. I watched in wonder as I began to see threads weaving color through my story. I was curious to know what my life would look like if those threads were free to complete their work. But wonder and curiosity soon gave way to analysis as I tried desperately to find a way to make to force those tender whispers into the angles and lines of my life as I’d constructed it. The many directions I was pursuing at the time, and would continue to pursue for a while longer, were not conducive to the way my life wanted to be cultivated.
Something to understand when you plan to spend a significant amount of time at a monastery is that you will inevitably become restless and tired of being with yourself. Challenge those feelings, but be kind to yourself. Find something to do with your hands.
By the third day of the retreat, I was itching for something to do. Televisions are scarce at the monastery and I’d already done so much walking and sitting and reading. I wanted get out of my head for a while. At breakfast that morning, Sister Helen eyed me from across the table as though she knew what I was feeling. She leaned over (meals were often taken in silence) to whisper, asked if I would help her in the garden.
When a nun asks you to pull weeds…you pull weeds.
Later in the morning, we met at the garden. She handed me a tube of sunscreen, a pair of gloves, and a floppy, wide-rimmed hat. I dutifully applied the sunscreen to my face, neck, and arms. I flopped the hat onto my head and pulled the gloves on as I knelt in the rocky soil and began the day’s work. It was easy at first. I started with the smaller ones without root systems. The larger ones would require the heavy duty shears Sister Helen was wielding. The higher the sun climbed in the sky, the more my knees ached and my fingers burned. I could feel blisters forming beneath the dirt-crusted surface of the gloves. The bell rang and Sister Helen handed me the shears, stood up to stretch her back and then walked down a footpath toward the chapel for midday prayer. I stayed, turned to contend with the larger weeds with shears in hand.
The weeds had to go. They were not conducive to the health of the plants that needed to grow in this bit of earth. I pulled and twisted, pried and pinched, heaved every ounce of strength into my task. Half an hour into a particularly impossible patch, I wrapped both of my hands around a thick stalk and clenched. Leveraging my full body weight, I pulled one last time only to have my gloved hands slip, landing me on my backside in the dirt. The sun glared into my eyes as I laid on my back and tugged the gloves off my hands, finger by finger.
I sat up and pushed the shears aside, reached for my warm bottle of water and turned my attention back to the smaller weeds for a while. I thought about the whisperings of vocation I had been given the ears to hear. I thought about the wheels of my life that had already been set in motion, that had already gained too much momentum—like the impossibly strong root systems of those larger weeds. Tenacious, stubborn, stupid weeds. This is going to take a while.
Sorting through boxes for the yard sale, my mom came across a piece of paper, folded into the water-stained shaped of a book. Written in pencil across the front of that tiny book, in the wobbly scrawl of a preschooler:
In the pages that follow, and in the barely decipherable spelling of a preschooler, we read that “the flairs are buttfl,” “the garden is goring bigr and bigr,” and “he gardn is groing betr and betr.”
At the beginning of the long road to discovering a voice, it is good to be reminded that the desire has been longstanding. It’s just taking a while.
Barbara, thank you so much for this post. i spent a month at a Benedictine monastery after college graduation, and it was such a formative experience. After reading this, i’m looking into making a short retreat before i start seminary this fall. i’m really glad for the reminder of how clarifying time away can be.
“Sometimes you read a book at the perfect time. In a particular season of your life, a book can know you. A book read at just the right moment in time opens itself up to you and opens you up to yourself. You can see.”
Oh, this is so true. Thanks for sharing how this particular book spoke to you, giving it a chance to whisper to us, as well. A good reminder of how the exercise of self-examination can be a positive thing, if it’s done in the right way. That opening quote stopped me in my tracks, and your words took me by the hand and allowed me to walk beside you on those monastery paths. Thanks, Barbara!
I post a comment maybe once every couple of months and that almost always amounts to “posting too quickly?” Apologies if, after trying a couple of times an hour apart, my comments come in duplicate.
I’ve been trying to say:
“But wonder and curiosity soon gave way to analysis…” Alas, so true for me. A very good read; thank you, Barbara!
love thinking about being ” thin” : where the veil between heaven and earth becomes so translucent, both become more luminous.
It takes quiet and stopping. Hints of L’Abri here too. Please do a follow up on this.
“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” —Parker Palmer
I’ve been seeing this message, worded in various ways, all week long. Someone is trying to tell me something. But your story went farther than a suggestion…the record of a journey that is not yet ended. I need to take that journey. I may have to find my own sort of monastery within walking distance, but that’ll be part of the adventure. Thanks for the beauty and the inspiration.
“The weeds had to go. They were not conducive to the health of the plants that needed to grow in this bit of earth.”
Why, oh why, do weeds so effortlessly grow and spread, but it takes such effort to get rid of them?
Why, oh why, do my bad habits, coping mechanisms, laziness, crop up so easily, and are not conducive to my spiritual health and life?
The weeds have to go!
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