Both sets of my grandparents lived on a farm — more of a ranch really — in east Texas. One was snake ridden so I learned early in life to carry a stick and hit the ground with it. Also, to stomp your feet before entering tall grass, and while in tall grass. A kid does what a kid does: go into tall grass.
No, I never met a snake in the tall grass, but it was a treasure trove of found-items. Old tractor parts that I found in the 60s had to be 1930s. Minimum. Tools of every variety. My maternal grandfather had a complete smithy! I played at that smithy all the time. It hadn’t seen action in years, but my aunts and uncle, and mother, said that “daddy always had something to do in the smithy.” There was a tree in the field on the other side of the house — huge ancient tree — all around it was a layer of old, rusted tools. In my 20s I went back to Texas to take the smithy and tools. What did I find out? Some slick antique dealer came and bought — for $70.00 — the smithy and all the tools in it, as well as all the tools under the tree.
If you study the picture at the top you see a different, and far less mercenary, indicator of transience. Just as time brought a trickster thief to my grandfather, nature brought erosion to that shore of cliffs.
The perfect photograph to sum up my retreat. See each rocky passage as a gateway. There is light pouring between the gateways. To get to the light you must pass through the successive gates.
The gates of Grace, Compassion, and Obedience.
It requires grace to even begin a spiritual journey. Grace is a gift, it’s free for everyone, and many, if not most, simply ignore it. “I’d rather do it myself,” is the one who refuses grace. To accept it you merely pass through the gate. I’m speaking metaphorically.
Look at the first gate. There is water pooled around the rock. That means at high tide the area is under water. Imagine meeting your end between those gates with tide drowning you. Water is powerful symbolically, and the ocean is feared if not featured in the Bible. In the New International Version, there are 564 references to ‘the sea.’ The sea holds primordial meaning in all symbol systems.
I passed through the gate of grace and entered the light on the other side. That leaves two more gates. While in that light I realized that in order to pass through the gate of compassion I had to understand that our system of commodities has rendered compassion fairly low on the scale of importance.
The Second Gate
Compassion. Notice the passage is less open but much higher than the gate of grace. Compassion lifts our mind from self to “the other,” then, from “the other” to God. Unpleasant as some may find it, the other is every person we meet. Compassion for each human is a heart joined to God. Am I there yet? Not quite, but I passed through the gate. It was an easy pass for me, because I have always been societies “other.”
That is why Job resounds so deeply for me.
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that was come upon him, they came each one from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, for they had made an appointment together to come to condole with him and to comfort him. And when they looked from afar off and saw him [disfigured] beyond recognition, they lifted up their voices and wept; and each one tore his robe, and they cast dust over their heads toward the heavens. So they sat down with [Job] on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief and pain were very great.
These three friends did show compassion to Job. Of course, they argue with him in a cycle of speeches that reads to me like Greek Tragedy. Nevertheless, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, did weep and mourn in silence for seven days and seven nights.
True compassion is the compassion of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, for every person you meet. I learned to be ready, to be open to everyone, withhold nothing that is important to someone else. That something you shouldn’t withhold is the attentive, and non-judging ear. It’s human nature to jump in and tell someone how they’ve messed up. It’s less easy to put on the mind of Christ, and hear them as Christ hears them. All most people want is to be understood and accepted. Every moment should be spent open to “the other” in my own life.
The Third Gate
Obedience. Wow, that’s a word, and a frighting gate. Look at what lies beyond the third gate.
Yes, again we arrive at the water, the cloak of the earth. And it lay just through that gate of obedience. Then what does the sea mean now?
It means that once you pass through the gate of obedience you are immersed — read that any way you like — in the will of God. Obedience is the little Moped you have to ride to come closer to God.
Obedience to whom? To God, to the other, to the needs of the present moment; the person who needs you in the present moment. Most of all it means that I must flex my prayer muscles, work out more with the liturgy during the day (sung, from Cistercian Antiphonaries), and in all things “make prayer and supplication for all men and women.” The verse ends, “with thanksgiving.”
So with thanksgiving I prepare myself to pass through the third gate, the gate of obedience. Now it is time for me to begin to write my rule.
My the Lord bring us all together to everlasting life.