I recently returned from a week in Southern California. It was a difficult, arduous week, tinged with fear and despair and no small amount of grief and frustration. On the way to Los Angeles to tend my daughter during a series of oral surgeries, lines from one of my favorite prayers by Thomas Merton kept floating inside my head. In its entirety, the prayer reads:
"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."
At my first stoplight in Los Angeles, a homeless man stood with a sign that read "Hungry- anything helps". I rolled down my window and offered him my salad. Rather than display the pleasure such gestures have usually elicited, this man became irate. He began screaming obscenities at me as he waved a dollar bill at me, and continued to give me the finger as I drove away.
In the following days as I nursed my daughter, the temperatures soared. The un-airconditioned apartment where I was staying developed a mysterious sour and sticky odor, and had walls too thin to keep the shouts of the fighting family next door at bay. My sleep was interrupted at 2 am by a police raid on a fraternity party down the street, and in the morning, I had to step over rancid piles of garbage and beer cans everywhere to get to my car. In moments of such bleakness, I often think of the poem "The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Barry:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I knew that I needed an antidote: a place of quiet and contemplation, filled with the beauty of nature. On my way back to the San Francisco Bay Area, I stopped at the aptly named Center for Spiritual Renewal, a gorgeous retreat center in Santa Barbara. When I arrived at the gracious stone manor, the genial hostess showed my to my room . "You know", she confided, "Thomas Merton used to stay in your room when he would visit ". There, on the bedside table was a book that had the very prayer I had been churning over in my mind during the long and hot drive from Los Angeles. I suddenly felt watched over, cared for, no longer alone or afraid.
While I had my usual pile of books with me, for once I had the wisdom to put aside the computer, turn off the phone and simply be. Instead of frantically burying myself in more work in the hopes of making enough money to cover my upcoming bills, I ate breakfast outside in the garden, noticing the way the early morning sun kissed the mountaintops with a rosy glow. I unplugged from the computer and cell phone long enough to hear the songs around me: birds, the gurgle of the water, the evening crickets. I took a walk in the dark and gazed once more in wonder at the stars, who provide a constantly evolving showcase of delight if only I stop to really pay attention. And somewhere in the sacred time of those two days, I found myself restored, refreshed, renewed.
Maybe you, too, suffer from the too-muchness of the world. It can all be so fast, so loud, so rude, so overwhelming. More and more I encounter people gripped by a sense of despair for the state of the world and a pervasive fear for where it is heading. It is so important in times like these to pause- to look, to listen, to smooth the frayed edges of our psyches with silence, nature, stories and songs and gentle conversation with other searching souls about things that really matter. Below are links to two of my favorite places to restore my soul. They welcome individuals of all faith (and no faith!) who are in need of re-treating themselves:
Center for Spiritual Renewal in Santa Barbara
Bishop's Ranch in Healdsburg