We’re always told to be careful what we pray for, because we will get it. I’m here to tell you that is so amazingly true that it’s terrifying.
For the last little while, I’d been running across comments and sayings from the Fathers about how we need to understand how God is not this cozy little person who is our best buddy, who is cuddly and comfortable and human sized. He’s big and he’s dangerous and we should fear him as much as we love him. And I get it, in my head: the being who can create the entire universe, who is bigger than infinity, to whom a hurricane is a slight breeze – who creates the hurricanes and the earthquakes is not a God you want to mess with. As Lewis put it: he’s not a tame lion.
But I didn’t feel it in my heart. God, for me had always been the shelter from the storm, not the storm itself. He cradled me through terrible times, reminded me of His love in the bad times, and healed me in the most amazing ways during the good times. He is patient with me, always gently leading me back to the way I should be going, pointing out where I need to focus my energies and my repentance. And I know for sure I didn’t actually, in so many words, ask to be shown the God who is bigger than the universe, but I do remember wondering how I could feel that awe and that wonder.
My writing life, for the last several years, has been a mess. Nothing I’ve written for over six years has been accepted for publication, and anything new I’ve started (other than an Akathist I’ve been struggling with for five or six years) has been blocked. For nonfiction, I can’t find the sources or a coherent voice, for fiction I just can’t put the words down, for poetry, if I haven’t got someone pushing me, it doesn’t get done. I’ve lost my focus, my sense of where I’m going with my writing, what I’m supposed to be doing with it, and even what I’m supposed to be writing. And who cared about what I wrote (other than me) anyway? My words were so trite, so banal and so shallow, was there any point to keeping on? Whatever I had to say, others had said it better, deeper, funnier and far more eloquently than I had, or could.
So when I heard about an Orthodox writer’s conference, I thought – yeah, I’ll go. Maybe I can jump start something. Or at least meet all these people I’ve known on line for years and years. But that was a lie I told myself. What I was really doing was saying goodbye. I think I’d pretty much decided to quit writing even before Mel emailed me about the conference, but I wasn’t ready to admit it to myself, so I packed the Akathist on the grounds that, hey, it was a writing conference. I could write when I wasn’t networking.
I caught a red-eye from Vancouver to Chicago, at least that’s what my ticket said, but it wasn’t long after I arrived at O’Hare that I realized I wasn’t in Ohio anymore. Or Wisconson or Kansas. Somewhere along the way, I entered the Orthodox twilight zone. First thing was meeting someone at the bus station who was also attending the conference. She had the knowledge to point me in directions that would allow me to go back to a stalled book on my name saint and her brothers, and was more than willing to share. Thank you Summer!
The first words I heard on arriving at the retreat centre in Kansasville Wisconsin were words I desperately needed to hear. And they were said by someone whose writing I have admired and learned from for a number of years. Molly Maddex Sabourin looked at me, said, “Are you Bev. Cooke?” And when I nodded, she told me how much my writing had meant to her. I heard that message a number of times through the two days we were meeting.
The retreat centre is on 137 acres of farmland. It’s got a tiny forest on one side of the property. The wooded area has trails dotted with shrines to various saints. There’s a handy map so you can plan your walk. I’m a sucker for maps, so I picked one up. I took along the Akathist I was working on. It’s to the Theotokos and it follows her life, including, of course, most of the major events of Jesus’s life as well.
Like I said, I love maps. I’m good at reading them, and I’m a good navigator. Until our GPS replaced me (for which I still haven’t forgiven it), I got us wherever we were going, efficiently and mostly trouble-free. I certainly never put us into farmer’s fields, which the GPS does on a fairly regular basis, at least according to the maps in its memory.
Yet, this time, even before I entered the trails, I got lost. I could see the beginning and ends of the trail marked on the map, but could I find them in reality? Good luck! When I finally stumbled on what I thought was the trail (but wasn’t), I was even more confused. I’m still not sure how I got lost in a soybean field in full view of the main retreat lodge, but I managed it.
I finally run across the trail, and find myself at a small square building dedicated to St. Nectarios. Aha! Here I am! So the next shrine should be St. Haralumbos. I walk toward it and run straight into the Dormition of the Theotokos, which, according to the map is on the entire other side of the forest from where I think I am. Well, okay. I’ll write a kontakion here, since the Akathist is to the Theotokos and it seems fitting. Then, at every female saint I encounter I’ll write another section. Now where am I and where am I going? Oh, Saint’s Pantelemon and Parksevi are next. Except they aren’t. It’s St Nectarios again, but it isn’t a small building, it’s a covered icon, just like the other shrines I’ve seen. Which means I’m suddenly back on the side of the woods I thought I had originally been, except that I hadn’t, I’m over there. And now I’m over here, and I didn’t see the field along the path I was supposed to be walking along, so maybe I’m over there, instead? But wait. Where’s the little lake, that’s supposed to be here? and I have no idea where I really am, except I have some suspicion that it still isn’t Wisconsin.
I give up. I will wander, ending up wherever I end up. Eventually, I’ll come out. It might or might not be on the retreat property. It might or might not be in Wisconsin. And if it is, this is rural Wisconsin, not the wild interior of British Columbia. There are, as far as I know, no bears in farmland Wisconsin. What’s the worst that can happen?
God likes metaphors, I conclude as I realize that I am as lost in these woods as I am in the forest of my writing. So I hand it all over to Him: this walk in these woods, and my ramblings in the thickets of my work. I walk and write and walk some more. I visit Saint Catherine and St. Barbara. Write under the eye of both women. The words flow as they haven’t for over six years. I walk some more and scare up a doe, which is pure joy and my heart leaps with her. I visit St. George and he and I pray for my godson, and I decide it’s time to head back to the lodge, and check the map, where I notice the shrine to St. Emelia. I can’t miss her – she is the mother of my name saint and when I enter her shrine, I feel welcomed and honoured. She’s been waiting for me, and enfolds me in a spiritual embrace. I pray to her and write a bit with her.
But now I have to head back. I’m hot and tired. The sweat is rolling into my eyes and it stings and it rolls down my arms and onto my fingers and makes the pen slippery. I’m full up with this experience and want to put the Akathist away for a while and think about what has happened here.
Next along the path, I run across a shrine to Sts. Constantine and Helen. She is a woman – but he’s not. Should I write? Or not? I look at my outline. This kontakia is about the entry to Jerusalem, when Christ was greeted as a king. Do I have a choice? I write. The next shrine is the twelve apostles. The ikos is the Last Supper. I pray, I write and I’m not sure if the drops hitting the page are sweat or tears. I am being led, and if the metaphor holds, then in my writing life, I am being led as well. I need to trust.
Enough, God, I’ve had all I can take. I want to go back to reality and talk with my friends. I follow the path, check the map, turn down the arm of the trail that leads back to the lodge. Without, as far as I can see on the map, any more shrines. I don’t want any more. I’m shaking and raw and I’m perilously close to tears.
A few more steps and I see, off the path, a painting: white lamb on a set of shoulders. No. I can’t deal with you this way. I can’t take so direct an encounter. But I have no choice, do I? I handed the control over to you, so I have to stop here. The icon is the Good Shepherd.
But it’s not the Good Shepherd I meet. It’s a storm of love – a hurricane, a tsunami of love, that envelopes me and holds me fast. I sense behind this storm even more love, more powerful than what I am already experiencing. This is a love that can create universes, and I’m only sensing the very tip and tiniest portion of how big and powerful it is, and I start to cry. There’s so much love here that if I let myself cry as I need to, I will cry myself out of myself. I’ll be stripped to my essence – opened up right to the innermost core of who I am and laid bare for all the universe to see. And I can’t. It doesn’t matter that God knows this part of me already. I can’t let myself cry like that, I’m not ready to be laid that bare. I back away after a few moments and head back to the lodge and to a reality I can deal with.
But I know that even as I run from the power and the immensity of the love that is God, I’m still running to him – he’s the good shepherd and I’m his ewe and he will be waiting, back to a size that he knows I can deal with. But my view of him is forever changed – it’s tinged with awe at the majesty he allowed me to see and sense. I know that one day, I will be able to face that love, and allow him to open me to the very core of myself, and I know too that it will be in tiny steps that won’t destroy me, and I’ll revel in every step of it. And I will not, I cannot stop writing.