In the summer between my first and second years of seminary, with a string of failed relationships under my belt and an emerging sense of internal pandemonium eroding the fragment of my self-confidence that remained intact, I retreated to the forested hills of Burgundy, France amongst the brothers of Taizé (an international and ecumenical community of monks devoted to prayer and an extreme simplicity of life). I arrived in the middle of June with a thousand other young adults who, I am certain, had made the pilgrimage to Taizé in search of the same thing as I — namely a still, sure voice that could definitely proclaim all was going to be okay and that we each had some worth left inside of us despite the confounded mess we had made of our lives.
I had long been haunted by a Pelagian god, or at least the fear of one. It was he who demanded a perfection I consistently failed to meet. Guilt was his modus operandi. Grace and mercy I knew only as offerings of love given by me to my neighbor and even my enemy. God’s love for me was based solely upon my ability to do so. I never left the church; an unrelenting fear of displeasing the Almighty prevented me from doing so. But I roamed from one Christian tradition to another in search of rest and peace from a myriad of theologies waging war against one another and ultimately against my soul.
One of the few things of which I was certain by the time I arrived at Taizé was that fundamentalists of every stripe — whether they be conservative or liberal — were all pretty much the same. At the end of the day, by their reasoning, God was severely disappointed with even my best efforts and had very little to offer in the way of true redemption. I longed for the God of my childhood, firm yet kind, triumphant yet meek, accepting, faithful, and approachable. But I had been reminded time and again that such a God was merely the product of childhood naiveté.
I needed a radical silence, a safe space far away from the clattered noise of everyday life, into which I could wade through all the conflicting messages. For how was I to recognize truth if it was muddied by the infernal busyness of this world? I often imagined myself with all my suffering, fears and countless embarrassments to be one long string wrapped ever so tightly around a large wooden spool. I knew if I was ever to make sense of my life I would need to slowly unwind myself from the spool and confront each section, bit by bit. Only then, I figured, could I undo all the damage that had been done and at long last feel at home with myself. But in order for this to happen I needed the world to stand still if even just for a moment.
Time did stand still at Taizé, and it did so quite effortlessly. This was undoubtedly the result of a simplicity that pervaded every aspect of life, from the tents in which we slept and the stumps we sat upon outdoors as we ate our daily breakfast of bread, butter and hot cocoa to the chanted prayers that could lure even the most preoccupied individual into attentive contemplation. Here there was a time for everything — work, play, meditation — and each aspect contributed to the whole, which of course was the worship of God with the entirety of our being. It was through this simple daily rhythm of life that peace settled over me and I tasted the hope of the Resurrection.
Towards the end of my stay, I plucked enough courage out of my timid little soul to approach one of the brothers following evening prayer. I can offer no description of the monk’s appearance; I was too consumed with my own inner turmoil to notice much of anything other than myself. I can only say that I felt secure in his presence. But this in itself was quite profound given the fact that it had been a long time since I had felt safe in the presence of any man other than my father, brother and one or two of their friends. Here was a man who wanted nothing from me. I was not there for his amusement, his pleasure, his demands or even his comfort. And somehow with neither pretension nor condescension he was offering himself to me.
I remember thinking to myself, “Surely, this is a man who will tell me the truth.” And so I threw at him everything that had been welling up inside of me for the past ten years: my utter disappointment with and at times feelings of abandonment by the Church; my inability to find, much less trust, love; and my overall sense of spiritual homelessness that was quickly fading into an apathy that had horrified me in times past when I had witnessed it in others.
I hovered in his shadow, panting in part from the sheer relief of unloading burdens that had begun to suffocate even the joy I felt in memories of a better time and in part out of a rising anger that had formerly been tucked away in hopes of appearing unscathed by life. My life now hung in the very grip of his response, and though he could demolish the only morsel of hope that I possessed and send me to depths that were to this point inconceivable, I begged him to tell me what I was to do. He answered only, “The question is not ‘What will you do?’, but ‘Will you become who you are?”
I knew at the time that the answer to this question was that I was to become the child of God. This is supposed to be good news, and it is for those who know God to be a loving, generous, forgiving and faithful Father. But for those of us who have lived a life fearing God’s anger, judgment and grave disappointment it is of very little consolation. In fact, it is nothing short of a prison sentence, a life enslaved to guilt.
As a seminarian, I could rattle off an abundance of scriptures that spoke of God as an adoring Father; of His Son who, out of love for the world, lay down His life for all; and of the healing and comforting powers of the Holy Spirit. Intellectually I understood it and knew it was the truth. I would have even died for it. But the profundity of grace eluded me.
That evening, after speaking with the monk, I went back to my tent and in the darkness, snuggled deep within my sleeping bag, I mulled over what he said. It was there that a strange thought occurred to me. My heavy heart leapt at the possibility. What if it were all true? What if there really was a God who not only loved a hypothetical world, but loved each of us as if we were the only person to love? What if the Savior of the world would have climbed upon the cross and died even if I was the only one who was in need of salvation? What if the Father really had counted every hair upon my head and hung upon my every word just waiting for me to call to Him? What if He celebrated my accomplishments and mourned my losses? What if He really could heal my pain, silence my fears and remove my guilt? What if I truly was His beloved child?
It was at this moment that my life, which had been wrapped every so tightly around its large wooden spool, slowly began to unravel and I, at long last, began to rest in the assurance of the grace and love of our Father who adores all without hesitation.
Rebekah Durham Hart is a relatively recent convert to Catholicism. After graduating from Columbia Theological Seminary (a Presbyterian Seminary in Decatur, GA) in 2002 and working within various ministries of the United Methodist Church, she entered into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2006. She has shared her conversion story with Gus Lloyd on Sirius XM’s Catholic Channel.
Rebekah is currently a stay-at-home mom and, when she is not stepping on her son’s Legos or having tea parties with her two little girls, she blogs at http://instinctivephilosophies.com/.
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