Wednesday was supposed to be my Sabbath, but it got off track. I left home much later than normal. I couldn’t get my shit together, and everything got bumped later and later until my set-apart day turned into a mad dash to carve out just a heartbeat of rest. A heartbeat is better than nothing at all, I told myself. But then even the car ride to the monastery felt scattered – I wasn’t used to afternoon traffic on I20, and my car was making funny noises. I am not skipping another Sabbath and I am going to make it to this damn monastery: self-talk with gritted teeth. Namaste, y’all.
I’m at this monastery all the time, but honestly, this monastery always strikes me as tacky. The “prayer walk” is a paved path that marches inelegantly through tufts of overly manicured dry lawn. Along the path, there’s a granite monument with a dedication to an auto dealership carved into it like a monastery sponsor (Gillette Stadium, meet Autos & More Monastery). There’s a lot of cement at the monastery. The space feels too unkempt but also too strictly contained, the worst of both worlds. The bookstore is the genre of Southern Christian Radio, pink devotional Bibles with puffed covers and Proverbs 31 Woman! cross stitches. Even the Stations of the Cross are just bad poetry, laminated and tacked up on scrawny pine trees along an untended path by a mostly drained lake.
I still come, though, because set-apart spaces matter. This is a space where people are set apart for holiness, and I love things that are set apart. Monasteries are magic places, thin places. I like being where the people have given everything up for Jesus. I think I’m hoping that it’ll rub off on me. When I lived in Kentucky, I used to stay at Thomas Merton’s monastery, Gethsemane, walking in his windy fields and praying for guidance about graduate school, falling in love, vocation. I left some nick-nacks I’d been saving from an Unrequited Love at the foot of the altar there once. It didn’t make me fall out of love, but I did like the symbolism. When I lived in England, I spent a month during Lent at a silent Anglican monastery, drinking tea and reading Julian. I joined in the chants from my “Reserved” chair in the back of the chapel, and waiting for the Alleluia’s to come back on Easter.
So I have been faithful to this small, tacky feeling monastery in Georgia, because it is the monastery that God has given me for this time in my life. I usually go in the morning, walking the lake paths and avoiding the angry geese and their abundant poo, bringing a book to curl up with in cold wooden pews. I leave my phone behind and bring my watch with me, so I don’t lose track of time but can safely lose track of everything else. It is a set-apart place. Set aside or not, though, this Southern monastery is a little tacky.
So on this particular Sabbath-that-I-feel-like-I-am-failing-at, I pull into the parking lot flustered and incohesive, missing midday prayer by hours, hoping to still catch Vespers. I am not really expecting much from my cobbled together, too-late Sabbath at the awkward monastery.
Until I pulled in, I didn’t realize that I’ve never been here at dusk before.
The monastery is different at dusk. Long shadows and the leftovers of winter have covered it with the weight of glory and thickened it up like corn starch in broth. The light has sanded down all the sharp edges, and everything is dense with dried up leaves. The formal buildings used to look awkwardly placed, like the builders didn’t really consider the trees when they plopped their creations down stiffly – but in this light that isn’t day and isn’t night, the houses and trees feel friendly and tolerant towards each tonight. The landscaping doesn’t look like it’s fighting the woods in a battle for ownership of the property. Everything has agreed on a friendly truce in the neutral territory of dusk.
In this moody, welcoming light, I don’t feel like a curious guest at a museum, walking from picture to picture and making intelligent and distant commentary. The monastery wants me here today. The monastery wants everything here today. At dusk, everything belongs – clunky buildings, aggressive geese, spindly pine trees, judgmental crows, and even me, barefoot queer girl in the monastery parking lot.
The bell has started to ring for Vespers. Come in, come in, come into this, come closer.
Dusk changes everything.
I was so late today, and I thought that meant that I had missed my chance for sacredness. I showed up, though – flustered, late, and feeling distinctly not set-apart – and somehow, everything that I thought would keep me from holiness only pulled me deeper in. If I hadn’t been flustered, if I hadn’t been late, if I had gotten my shit together, then I would have missed the gift. Every little thing in the world and in us gets redeemed. Especially the things that we think are irredeemable.
I’ve loved this monastery for a long time, despite how ugly I used to think it was. I’m going to keep going in the morning, when it still is kind of ugly. Even when it was ugly, it was still a set-apart place. I wonder about other thin places that I might have missed because I didn’t see them in a different light.
Sometimes it takes awhile for faithfulness to pay off. Sometimes you have to be committed to something for the long haul before you start to see that it’s beautiful. Sometimes, good gracious, it takes the Spirit throwing a stick in your bike spoke to throw you off and make you late.
Sometimes you just need to see difficult-to-love places in the in-between light.