Sunday, February 20, 2011

Of Knowing God and Eating Lentils

Yesterday I went on a sort of pilgrimage. I went looking for a Thin Place.

Thin Places, as many of you will know, are spots that the old Celts used to identify as locations in which you can most easily sense the presence of God. Because God is more easily found in these places, they often serve as pilgrimage spots, sometimes for huge numbers of people, but the majority of them are local spots, known only to those who know the neighborhood. This part of the country is full of such places. The whole of the Catskill mountain range was holy ground for many of the Indians of the pre-European days, for instance.

I went to a long thin valley in the Litchfield Hills, which serve as the approximate boundary line between Connecticut and New York, to the home of Mary and Dan Gates. Mary is the person with whom I often conduct meditation retreats. They have an old house close to the stream which runs through their valley, and over the years they have remodeled it so that it now is full of windows that look up the valley and down to the banks of the stream. At the present snow fills the valley and ice covers the stream, but there are a few places where open water gurgles over rocks and lets us know that warmer days are ahead.

But that valley was not the Thin Place I was looking for. I was in search of the thin place that lives inside me.

I joined a group of about a dozen people who had come for an all-day meditation session. The group gathers more or less monthly. Some months there is a weekend retreat and in alternating months there is a Saturday gathering. Our schedule at Holy Cross, with the busiest days of the week being Saturday and Sunday, means that going away for a weekend isn't often realistic for me. But a one-day thing is easier to manage, and I try to get to these events when I can.

One of the interesting oddities of the search for God is that God is everywhere, but you have to go somewhere to find God. Since the days of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christianity - and for centuries before - people have felt the need to make a journey to find the Holy, and to look for the knowledge of how to experience that Presence which is everywhere around us and in us.

In the case of our little group the vehicle is entirely simple. We sit, we walk. We sit, we walk. We sit, we walk. We do that all day long. At noon we have lunch and then a nap. Then we do it all over again. We begin at 9 and we finish at 5.

We also have a notable friend and excellent teacher in Doug Phillips, who used to conduct retreats at Holy Cross and who now concentrates some of his energies in the Litchfield Hills. He leads and interprets these retreats with great skill.

So what happened? Those of you who have embarked on adventures such as this could write the story just as easily as I can. The wind howled up and down the valley. The stream gurgled. The sun came out and warmed the room in which we were sitting, and then it disappeared. The pain in my back came and went. The itch on my right cheek came and went. My sense of concentration came and went - and came and went....... My conviction that this was a good thing to be doing came and went. Joy came and went. Love came and went. And the day by the stream came and went.

And two things happened that are staying with me. One was the experience of lunch. We had a lentil soup and a fresh lettuce salad. That's it. And it was delicious. I could hardly believe how wonderful the soup was, and believe me, I'm no fan of lentil soup. Ir was so good that at the end of the day I asked Mary if there was a recipe for it. She expressed some astonishment that I was asking. Apparently you boil lentils, and that's about it (I exaggerate, but only slightly). And plain lettuce, all by itself - who would have thought? The most obvious explanation is that something had opened in myself, something that made me aware in a way that I haven't been before that there is goodness and delight in even a lentil, and in the lowly lettuce.

picture by Netsu

The spiritual tradition of Christianity, and of most of the faiths of which I am aware, stresses that knowledge of God is not found principally in spiritual experiences, but in the ability to see clearly and in loving even the unlovable. Even lentils? Had I perhaps spent the day sitting in the presence of the One that I was seeking? And was that presence signaled to me by my delight in some very humble vegetables? My experience of the presence of God is that it always comes as a surprise. My mind flashes back to the Eucharist on the streets of Newburgh about which I wrote a few weeks ago.

The second thing is that on the way home I became aware that I was feeling light, as though a burden that i didn't know I was carrying around had been taken off my shoulders. That sense has remained with me into today, so maybe this pilgrimage will be one that provides my life with a bit of leaven which can be the basis for growth and change and deepening.

When I'm awake and aware, I sometimes realize that the simplest things can provide a way. There is always somewhere to go from here.

I think my pilgrimage may have been to the right place.

(And no, I am not unaware of the irony that I, who live in a place which thousands of people find to be the most significant Thin Place in their lives, have to go away in search of my Thin Place. Well, life is full of ironies.)

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