By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published February 14, 2008
Her name is Helena, and she came here to the monastery for a few days of retreat. She had a beautiful, soft voice, and when she spoke I asked her where she originally came from and she smiled and said, “Scotland. But that was long ago.”
She came with three friends and they drove here from Florida—a long trip. I sensed that they are good friends. … I could tell by the way they laughed with each other, felt at ease with each other.
Many people come here to stay with us a few days. I suppose they come for a lot of different reasons. Someone recently told me that this place is a source of holiness, and so I suppose that a lot of people come here in the hope of getting to know God better. Helena told me she came to refresh her prayer life. As we spoke, she mentioned that it is hard for her these days to sense that her prayer is fruitful. I think she meant that it is not coming as readily to her as it once did. I told her that perhaps she is moving toward a new and different way of expressing her heart to God. Something is moving her toward Someone, I thought to myself.
We do not have the means to move ourselves much in any direction when it comes to getting a fix on God. I wonder if people sense that because we monks live a fairly still and rooted life, we have a better grasp of God and his ways in this fast-paced world. I suppose that it is understandable that many people think that way.
And so they come here and take in the stillness, hoping for a sense of God’s presence to arise from it and comfort them. But there is movement here, too—not so much in terms of miles but in shifting responsibilities, shifting horizons that tend to refocus the mind of a monk from one thing to another. We have our own struggles with movements of all sorts, and we therefore struggle, too, with trying to find God in this cloistered place.
Helena told me something that was beautiful. I did not tell her so at the time—I loved hearing her speak and tried not to interrupt her when she spoke. She was talking about how hard it is to see God in life.
She paused and looked at me, as if waiting for an answer, and I asked her when she was last in Scotland. She smiled again and said that she went back some years ago, back to the village where she was raised. Her voice softened. “You know, it is beautiful there,” she said. “But it is a beauty I never saw when I lived there, and yet it was all around me. The mountains … the mountains rose all about me, and they were of course the same as when I lived there, but I never saw them, if you know what I mean. I never saw their beauty.”
The years pass. There comes a time when we move from one place to another, and then on a quiet day in our later years, we may look back and savor what once was—those places where we were that we were not able to really see when we were there. But with some distance, and perhaps a return visit, the beauty of what was looms large.
Helena saw the mountains of her youth, and just below those mountains she ran and played, delighted in the pleasures of youth, knew the love of her family and the simple joys of village life. It was a different time—but all that took place in that time helped fashion her heart, her vision, her way of seeing the world. And yet she never saw the mountains for the beauty and majesty that they were. She may have been too busy being young, too preoccupied with the world of immediacy that embraced her with the cares of school and friends and family. Then she moved far away, fell in love, married and one day returned. And she saw, I am sure, more than the mountains. She saw who she was in a different place in her life and indeed saw more than she saw at that time of youth.
We seek God and come apart to places like this monastery to better assess our options and weigh them in terms of a better advantage—we come to better see who He is and who we are, and what one has to do with the other.
Perhaps I should suggest to those who seek the pattern of the divine that they take some time and look back. Look back to the mountains they never saw but which were always there. Look back to the love that poured through the most simple things in life, through neighbors of a different time, through the call of our parents to awaken us and get us ready for school, to the loving efforts of teacher after teacher who endeavored to help us be good, understand the world, understand ourselves.
And all the while the mountains were there, as were God’s ways with us and through us, only to be seen when receded into the past after the invisible beauty worked its magic through all things high and low.
Helena told me that she wanted to call her husband to tell him that she was OK and that things were going well on her retreat. It is a beautiful gift, the gift to care for another, to navigate our lives through the tedious claims and expectations that come with loving a husband or wife, a friend or child, a monk, a place peopled with lives that lay claim to our hearts, our worries, our telephones.
And as we dial or chat, hold a hand or take a walk, cook or cry, whisper in love or raise our voices in anger or disappointment, God is of all these things, taking each and making a mountain of grace all about us.
But we cannot see it yet, for there are things to do and people to call, and questions to ask each other about this strange mystery of God who rises from our midst tall and wondrous, only to be found later, when we look back from new places.
New places … like a place where we might wonder about God and then call someone we love.
We have mountains here—they are not far away, and you can see them if you look very hard. I do not know if Helena saw them. She was asking questions, looking for other things. She said she loved it here. Maybe one day she will look back and return, for she does not live very far away, and when she returns she will see the mountains and marvel that she never saw them the first time.
I will tell her that they were always here, but she was about doing other things—good things, with the mountains waiting in the background.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery Web store at www.abbeystore.com. His new book is “Portraits of Grace: Images and Words From the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.”