I had been walking across Italy for three weeks. On that particular Wednesday, it was damp and grey and the every half mile seemed to take fourteen years. I was exhausted and protein deficient, ready to lie down on the road and sleep forever.
Italians don’t know how to eat protein, and they definitely don’t know how to eat protein for breakfast. (What’s that? Walking 17 miles tomorrow and summiting three mountains? I know what will sustain you! Croissants! And Nutella!) This diet was a delight at the beginning of my pilgrimage! Baked goods, for breakfast and lunch and dinner? Yes please! I’ve spent my whole life training for this moment!
Croissants and Nutella, though, are tragically not a sustainable energy sources. You go through that energy in seven minutes on a good day and four on a bad one.
On that particular cloudy day somewhere in Umbria, I did not think that my legs were going to make it. Forget “make it to Rome.” I didn’t think I was going to make it to Arrone, my stop for the night on day 21 of my 28 day pilgrimage on the Way of St. Francis.
LORD have you BROUGHT me out here to DIE in the WILDERNESS.
I was a very whiny pilgrim.
I kept starting and stopping that afternoon, realizing (again) how impossible it is to quit a pilgrimage. (There aren’t any trains in the Italian wilderness). At one point, I just sat down, right in the middle of the trail that meandered through a field of yellow flowers. I checked my GPS (again), and wondered how in the hell my weary, energy deficient, spiritually dried up body was going to make it another seven miles across this very pretty landscape that I was pretty much over.
I guess I will take a bunch of pictures, I consoled myself. I am going to take pictures of every single flower that I find on this walk today to keep busy. Because otherwise I might just flop down and die on this road, Jesus, and who would find me, NO ONE WOULD FIND ME. (I was also a dramatic pilgrim. I think St. Francis would have approved).
I started taking pictures for exactly the wrong reason – to distract myself from how tired I was, to give myself something to do, to find a reason to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to post on Instagram that night. I didn’t decide to take pictures in a moment of holy clarity – I shall now be present to these flowers, to this moment, to this mountain, to this God-created and God-sanctified world.
Despite my worst intentions, though, a very odd and sacred thing happened. I started to notice the world. As I started paying attention to color and light, looking carefully for hidden things under roots, or leaves dripping with rain, or what was curling out of moss, as I started practicing the act of noticing, the world began to feel very, very holy.
That was quite a surprise.
There is grace in noticing. Grace is not a thing we can go hunting for or manufacture. Grace shows up. Grace shows up even, and especially, when we have the worst motives.
I’ve started thinking about this a lot, in my tired and judgey soul, when I think about “Instagram culture.” I am, definitely and often, tired of Instagram culture. We’re all glued to our phones, encountering the world in order to consume it. We “take” pictures, commodifying our sacred noticing. We hoard our experiences, objectifying what is holy and present. When we only encounter the world like this, we aren’t honoring the world as sacred.
Here’s the good news, though. We can start something for all the wrong reasons, and Grace can carry us into beauty and presence if we bend, just for a second, and let the wind take us.
Letting our motivations be changed from consumer to consumed is a kind of submission. I’ve shown up with all the wrong motives to consume the world, but even in that mess of restless needy energy, there is a voice whispering –
are you willing to simply see?
are you willing to simply be?
even just for a half-breath?
Showing up just to be still and notice is a discipline, and all disciplines are difficult and require cultivation. It gets easier, though, we give ourselves a break for our human failings, our distraction, our consuming hearts, our desire to take the beauty of the world for our own gain. When we acknowledge those messy mixed motives, and try to find a moment of pure noticing – even in the middle of our wrong motives – there is grace.
Even in the mess, we can shift for a split second from from the one who takes to the one who is taken. We move from showing up to get things to make ourselves stronger or more powerful, to showing up just because the world is here, the world is Beloved, and we are part of the world in our smallness and our grief and our sin and our beauty.
It’s hard to stop consuming entirely, and sometimes that attitude feels inevitable. The world is churning out lies about what we need to survive faster than the Gospel can unravel them.
But maybe – in between all the consuming and running and needing and taking and hoarding – in between those hours of commodifying the world,
Can we be very still – for a moment! – and hear cicadas in the magnolia tree?
Can we take off our shoes and feel wood chips on the bottom of our feet?
Can we take a picture of the sunset, but then – just for a second, before we post the picture, before we find a hashtag, before we send it to our mom –
In-between our restlessness, can we be still with beauty?
We don’t need to be afraid that beauty won’t fill us if we don’t take it. Beauty is like grace – you can only hold it with open hands. It’s enough to notice it carefully and release it back into the world. It’s not only enough, but it’s the only way to touch beauty at all. The less we take from this beautiful, gentle, scary, God-haunted earth, the more it will give us.
I’ve had a flustery kind of week. I’ve been batted from thing to thing, from place to place, from consumption to consumption. Today I had trouble settling in to write. My brain has been whirring and churning and turning, and I have so many tabs open on my computer, and my always-restless feet have been tapping and jiggling.
I don’t have time for a long sacred practice today. I feel like I never do.
But the jade plant on my desk is leaning towards the sun. The apple spice candle smells like fall. Spiegel im Spiegel is playing and the cello is so rich. There are kids coming back from school outside. The wind is leaning the pine trees, and there are hints of yellow on the oak leaves.
There is a half-second of presence here. There is a breath of grace coming for me. Just one breath, but some days, just one is enough. Every day, just one is enough.
You with your mess and bluster and consumption and fear and anxiety and busyness – you are enough.
You – who can’t for the life of you find places where you are not doing and getting and taking and running – you are OK. Just like this. In this moment.
Let grace find you. Just right here.
Just for a moment.