By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published May 15, 2014
Buddhist monks practice a tradition that is called sand art, or sand mandelas. They will spend weeks making exquisitely beautiful designs from colored sand. When finished, they deconstruct the design. This is done out of an awareness of the impermanence of life. The sand is then blessed. Some of the sand is swept up and placed in urns where it is used for healing. The rest of the sand is carried to a nearby body of water, into which it is dispersed. The waters then carry the healing blessing to the ocean, and from there it spreads throughout the world for planetary healing.
There was a group here on retreat, and the theme of the retreat was image, faith and photography. John Spink, Matthew Jeffres and Steve Golder, friends of our monastic life and outstanding photographers, are always generous in sharing the secrets of their craft, their faith, their images. I suppose that one aim of any photographer is to capture with a lens an image of beauty before it forever recedes from view.
One night, Matthew shared some of his photographs with the group. The images came on the screen, one after another, most, if not all, taken right here, in areas familiar to all of us. Matthew spoke as each image was projected on the screen, highlighting with the language of faith the pictures of birds, dragonflies, flowers—God’s handiwork that silently awaits a disclosure through words and a seeking eye and heart.
One of Matthew’s pictures was that of a spider web, the kind we have all seen in these parts. The web was huge and intricate, patterned no less wisely and beautifully than a Buddhist mandala. And it, too, does not last. Its wondrous beauty is temporary. The care and wisdom that crafted it had no interest in preserving it. Like everything else, it soon ceases its function and is blown away by the winds.
The Gospel story of the men on the road to Emmaus is a very rich one. It was carefully crafted. There are many layers, a lot of material for New Testament commentaries and homilists. For centuries, people have heard the discourse of the two disciples as they walked with Jesus.
They have heard the words of revelation, of longing, of eyes and hearts opened, of begging Jesus to stay.
Yet the Emmaus story is not about them. It was written for us and is about us. We are a post-resurrection people, and we walk on the roads of this day and age. We are asked to listen to this Gospel and to be aware of the One who may approach us and walk with us, and ask us about our lives, about what we share among ourselves as we walk. It is a summons to see with the eyes of faith as we move along the path of life.
Life is fading as we walk and talk. We move through a creation that is deeply wounded with the flaw of impermanence. Nothing lasts forever, at least not what we are able to see on the surface of things. And yet we move ahead, hoping that some day, we will reach a place that lasts forever. For those who see, that place has already arrived.
Jesus vanished from the sight of the disciples. But he did not go very far—he became a part of their hearts that burned, the roads that they would walk, the hopes and aspirations of all who would come after and walk every road on this earth.
We look at the beauty of spider webs that are taken by the wind or at the sands of a mandala that vanish into the sea. We take bread that is broken, not able to be kept for keeps, as it becomes food given by God as a promise. A promise that the eternal moves as well in the winds, the waters of life and in the longings of all travelers who hunger for the forever lasting and forever good.
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.