O God of this Great Night

When years seem like days to me, no time on my hands,
I run away to a place in me, to a faraway land…

—”Faraway Land” by Ron Block

On the day I turned 24 (nearly two months ago) I wrote a long, chaotic blog post about the new year and my new age, trying to make sense of it. I didn’t feel like publishing it, but I did read over the draft earlier today, and I’m stunned at how much turmoil and anxiety and questioning was in me just two months ago and how I didn’t realize it. The song “Twenty-four” by Switchfoot has never felt more true than now, at 24: and I’m not who I thought I was, twenty-four hours ago

At the beginning of February, I gave myself the gift of a weekend hermitage. I stayed in a solitary cabin in rural Illinois, at a retreat center run by Catholic Sisters, remote and full of bare trees and freezing temps. It was so healing to spend time in solitude and encounter God, the God of breaths and slow time and bodies and reality.

The first day of my hermitage, I was restless, needing to confront things in myself, things that were making me anxious under the surface. Like, a creeping and pessimistic disbelief in my own love for God, realizing how insufficient and papery the identities and categories I make for myself really are (I am a Christian, a writer… no, who am I, really? What matters at the end-of-the-world?)

What I eventually found, thanks to meditation, is that “I am.” I am. I am breathing, with a heart thumping, under a sky—this is the truth about me. I am. Don’t overthink.

So, here I am… full of gratitude, offering some reflections from my time in solitude, for me to remember and honor it all. It was a weekend of encountering and delighting in the God I love, the many questions I have, and the weird joy I find in the emptiness inside of me, a nothingness that is alive.

window view

2/3: Help me, God, to listen to my body here, to confront the painful things I haven’t been wanting to confront: my desires, my hopes, my broken dreams, my own voice that gets lost and then found again over and over and over. Perhaps this weekend is an exercise in being. Lack of distractions. Lack of rejections. Lack of—in this moment—house chores. Lack of feeling bombarded with texts and emails. Oh, and just there—bare trees, a toenail-sliver slice moon, pale yellow skies becoming blue-black sapphire.

My God, my God, who I long to meet here, who I long to encounter with deep joy and peace and assuredness and comfort, I do not feel that now. I feel upset and tired and sad. Like the prayer I found in the printed booklet on the shelf—Who am I God, I seem to have forgotten. I try to commune with you now but I feel fake, restlessly checking my phone and then being hard on myself for doing so. Here, my breath disrupts the endless communication of trees. I’m so loud in that quiet, cold crisp aliveness, thoughts hammering like steel. Restless in the most tender and gentle of places. I am here right now, so fragile in my being. Like I am trying to be braver than I really am and that makes me feel like a fraud.

2/4: Last night—the stars lulled me awake to go see them, and I have never felt that before, the absolute, total, utter stillness, not even a tiny rustle of wind, nothing disturbing the bare trees reaching up into the sharp, intimidating, fully-alive clarity of a rural winter sky. Orion, who is normally on his own in the city, completely surrounded and overtaken by pockets and pricks of stars and suns and planets. I stood there and thought: these wondrous, incomprehensible, ancient-beyond-ancient masses of energy are communing with me—dazzling, terrifying, trying to tell me something. What are they trying to tell me with their blinking and flickering and thousand burnings?

Lord God of this great night, do you see the woods? Do you hear the rumor of their loneliness? Do you behold their secrecy? Do you remember their solitudes? Do you see that my soul is beginning to dissolve like wax within me?

Thomas Merton

But then I caught myself—how could the stars possibly care about the tiniest speck on the tiniest planet orbiting the tiniest sun. The sun that made all these twisting sticks glow orange a few hours ago—that sun—is, to all those distant suns I saw last night, a blip. So how could the stars be communing with me specifically? They commune with each other, yes, their longings known to one another in a language of elements totally unknown to us—yet I still felt myself wanting to speak to them, to say that I was listening, in the dense, teething aliveness of dark. It was not so much that the grand galaxies that humans have been fascinated by since our start were asking something of me, a lonely 24-year-old in rural Illinois, seeking something she cannot name, far from anything she knows; but the stars, simply in their glory, sang—in their studded-with-everything-true silence—of God, and I was drawn inexplicably out of bed and to it, and I longed to join in to that silent cutting song, my body full of the humming energy of being alive that I cannot help. On a whole other level, these masses of life and truth. Only the life-and-death silence of a winter sky where people are sparse and trees are sucking water and giving air to us—this is all I know in this moment. I stood in my PJs and coat and I felt okay, in fact, amazed and put in my place, the grandness of God and the gratitude that, God, you love me and speak to my sad noisy soul, reviving it with night sky truths.

I am loved, I am not alone. Sometimes I have to be by myself to truly know that. A contradiction. Finding in this comforting darkness, of bareness and vulnerability, that I am beloved.

[Martin] Buber considered himself ‘a man endangered before God, a man wrestling ever anew for God’s light, ever anew engulfed in God’s abysses…’

from Tales of the Hasidim

Another night of stars! I looked up into the clear Other, incomprehensible sky, the sound of coyotes and ominous rustling wind that wasn’t there last night. A dark forest of deep blue trees and freezing unknowns. Taking to heart the Thomas Merton quote someone wrote in 1995 in the hermitage guest book: “And now I think for the first time in my entire life I really began to pray—praying not with my lips and with my intellect and my imagination, but praying out of the very roots of my life and my being, and praying to the God I had never known.”

That was my prayer, being so in awe and a little afraid, wanting to tell God what God already knows, how much of a miracle it all is and how lucky I am to behold it—and I came to a point of—no, only silence suffices, holy, awe-full silence. Laying down on the hardened icy snow with tall grasses sticking out of it in chunks, my hood up, my chest warm and nose frozen and smile big, beholding the star-swirling darkness, feeling so jolted alive, cradled by frozen fields and ancient worlds, trying to find shapes in the patterns of light specks, in the “holy sparks that God left behind.” When I look at the stars, I feel like myself, says another Switchfoot song.

Praise God, all you billions of stars. Praise God, you frozen hallowed fields, you lonely coyotes. Praise God you writhing trees. Praise God you blue jays and fiery-orange woodpeckers. Praise God you thick pebbly snow, praise God you setting, colorless sun. Praise God, you blue-silver moss. Praise God you deer tracks everywhere. Praise God you unsure heart. Praise God you alive and well-fed body, smiling cold-teeth face. Praise God, you beloved being, no matter her guilt, embarrassment, disappointment, fear, dashed hopes, self-loathing, exhaustion. Still beloved, still praising with her heartbeat.

And now my whole body breathes the wind, and my hand is on the door through which I see the heavens. The door swings out upon a vast sea of darkness and of prayer. Will it come like this, the moment of my death? Will you open a door upon the great forest and set my feet upon a ladder under the moon, and take me out among the stars?

Thomas Merton

Some of my restlessness yesterday has given way to the slowness of being and resting in You. That’s what praying with my body means—knowing God is fully present and my intellect could never comprehend that, so just be.

2/5: In meditation, just now for a split second, I greeted and honored the nothingness, the emptiness at the core of my being. The nothingness is where the word ‘rejoice’ came from in me. For I searched my inmost being and found lack—what a gift. Nothing existed there but you, God, your love for me, a complete nothing of a self. What is myself? At my core, a longing for you, an emptiness. And in the emptiness, my soul magnifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my savior. “I do not exist, only you exist,” says a mewithoutYou song.

old grandma oak

Was on another thought-train earlier that I want to make sense of but maybe can’t, at least right now, which is that I am inauthentic—what if I’m making all of this up to feel good and ignore how ugly I feel sometimes. But even while thinking this, something in me said hey, you are MISSING OUT on the meadows and cold piercing sky because you’re so in your head, look at the dried grasses poking through the snow like their own little seedy symphony, and you are breathing vastly open air of farmlands and freshness. So I tried—thanks to whatever voice in me (or outside of me?) that told me to stop overthinking and dig my short fingernails into the pebbly ice-snow and eat it, that crunchy snow that literally tastes like sky and oxygen, with an aftertaste of stale sun.

To praise and bow to that which is greater than me, to move gently and quietly through the world, to delight in nature and art, to share: that is what I seek with my life. I am, in the depths of my being, a slow mover through the world, often surprised and caught off guard by the quickness of time. When did I start caring more about human audiences than pleasing the God I love? May my writing never be self-seeking or self-serving. May it be a song, a truth, a prayer always for and from You, my God. I truly would never have written a single word if it were not for You. May it be pleasing to you—none of the rest matters.

2/6: And now the sun is glowing pink-yellow onto the bark of a thousand sleeping trees. The snow is the blue-purple of the blue jay’s back. Good morning, gentle winter world, may I be as steady as your trees, as life-giving and mysterious, even to myself, as your snow. All for the glory of God, that Christ’s love would shine out of me, nothing for myself, all for you. Amen.

You have placed me in the midst as witness, as awareness, and as joy. Here I am. In me the world is present, and you are present. I am a link in the chain of light and of presence. You have made me a kind of center, but a center that is nowhere. And yet also I am here.

Thomas Merton

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