I was a participant in a vestry retreat at the end of August. We spent time at the monastery of Christ in the Desert. It’s a beautiful location, reached by a 13 mile gravel road, which can be treacherous if wet. This year it was fine and even fairly smooth. Those of us who had traveled the road before noted that we made ‘good time’ and were actually able to do up to 20 or even 25 MPH along the road. Once at the monastery there is no cell phone service, so you are out of touch for the duration. The Chama River runs right past the monastery and usually there is wildlife to be heard and sometimes seen. It is a serene and beautiful spot. It is easy to see why the monastery founders chose that location.
I arrived early to set up snacks and make preparations for the retreat. After a walk down to the Chama River that runs through and past the monastery on its way to join the Rio Grande, I returned to the guest house. Sitting on the deck, my thoughts focused on the limestone cliffs towering over the valley.
Your first impression might be that they are rather barren and impossibly steep cliffs. Then you start looking more closely. Steep yes, with piles of rocks that have fallen from the sides cluttering up the bottom of the cliffs. However, there is also a lot of life. Pine trees sprout up from cracks and grow tall. Small shrubs cluster here and there along the face of the cliff, wherever there is the slightest bit of dirt or level ground. Along the ridge line, a line of trees can be seen, which outlines it.
The more you stare at the cliff side, the more you see. Shadows turn out to be cracks, an abutment is really a tumble of huge stones, various shades of green highlight different trees and bushes, the jutting rock at the top of the cliff might look like a face in profile. It is easy to imagine how early humans would see their gods in the created world around them.
The Holy One who made all things is also very present in the cliffs and canyons where the river has tumbled for millennia. (Likely another reason the monks chose the location.) How can trees grow on the seemingly barren limestone walls? They grow because a tiny bit of dirt and a seed blew into a crack. It nestled there until the proper amount of moisture and sunlight brought forth life. And that life flourished.
In my own life there are what feel like barren cliffs. Things from the past that have left scars. However, sometimes I find myself pausing to sit with God and bravely stare at those scarred cliffs. Instead of barrenness, I see that there is new growth here and there. A seed of new life has found its way into the niche and grows there. Hidden and mostly unnoticed, nourished by prayer and study, the seed sprouts and starts to grow. Then suddenly, one day you realize the cliff is alive with abundant life!
We happened to be there during a full moon. It was partially hidden behind clouds for the early part of the evening, which gave it a luminescent beauty. This got me thinking about the ways we often ignore God’s work which is right in front of us. We are too busy running to get our ‘important’ daily things done, and we neglect pausing to just see what God is doing. Then we pause and look around.
Like the moon behind the clouds, God is always there, waiting to shine light on our lives. We just need to be willing to wait in the silence for the clouds to move away. The light pours down, illuminating the new life even on the scarred cliffs of the past.
I drew a picture of the cliff at the monastery to remind me that life and growth can sprout anywhere. From the scars of my past, things like books and curriculum have sprouted.
What might be growing in the, seemingly, desolate places in your hear?
What action of God could you see if you took time to pause and look around?