A Reflection on the Summer by Zachary Bowman Cooke
“The space will teach you,” David and Naomi said to Kristi and I at the beginning of our sojourn at the Hermitage. Our first two weeks were spent absorbing all of the information we could from them before they departed on sabbatical. We felt confident enough to proceed, especially with the help of so many supportive volunteers. But then the septic tank overflowed, the phone line went bad, and the washing machine died to name just a few of the unanticipated maintenance mishaps during the Wengers’ absence. We, alongside our beloved volunteers, often worked too much. Even our morning gathering for prayer in the Chapel of the Transfiguration became for us at times a contemplative chore. What was the space teaching us?
In the middle of August a group from Western Theological Seminary held a 10-day “Hebrew Camp” at the Hermitage. They spent much of their time in the chapel learning and dramatizing the story of the healing of Naaman in the original Hebrew. In their final performance they began by singing a beautiful Hebrew blessing for the reading of scripture. Part of the blessing describes the encounter with scripture as “steeping in the Word.” This phrase caught my attention and has remained with me. What does it look like for us to steep in the same peace that retreatants find when they come to this place?
“I envision you beside Lake Michigan,” said my spiritual director. “Be gentle with yourself. You are currently going through three of the most stressful transitions in life: being newly married, moving and starting a new job.”
And so we went. We swam in the cool waters of Lake Michigan and laid on the beach for the better part of an afternoon listening to the little waves breaking upon the sand. On this threshold the stones are ground down until they shimmer and are soft underfoot. We are made small enough to be soft underfoot and to glimmer with the grandeur of God. At the end of the day we returned home with sand between our toes, the feeling of breathing deeply and fully, and a trunk filled with Michigan apples.
Prior to our engagement and into the first several months of marriage Kristi and I saw a wonderful marriage and family therapist. When asked how she was able to transition so quickly from the concerns of one client to the next and be present to all, she explained that she always pauses at the threshold and touches the door frame on the way in and out of each room as a ritual to set apart. Remembering her practice, I pause daily now at the threshold of the chapel and touch the door frame, as one might brood over a mug of hot tea–bringing the rim close, inhaling the steam and then sipping.
The maple outside our front door drops her flaming leaves, storing up for another Michigan winter. And so as I walk past the carpet of color, as we work, as we rest, I also am letting go and storing up for this new season. I pause, soak and steep, leaving openings in my day to be taught again.