By Jayne Hugo Davis
There are few places as special to me as St. John’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Collegeville, Minn. The peace of the lake, the beauty of the art, the stability of the community, the ordering of the day around prayer, worship, rest and leisure, all give life to my soul.
It’s a short walk from the guesthouse to the Abbey, measured better in steps than in yards. But the days had been cold since I’d arrived. I’d even gotten caught in a snowstorm driving back from Minneapolis — a novel experience for me in late April. The students at St. John’s barely seemed to notice, donning only light sweatshirts that afternoon as they cooked pancakes outside on an electric skillet for a fundraiser in front of the bookstore.
“Sorry you missed spring,” my friend Tom texted me from Wisconsin. “It was last week.”
This morning, I bundled up to brave the Minnesota wind and headed out to morning prayer with the monks. Waiting at the elevator, I noticed a sign on the wall I hadn’t seen before. “Abbey Church,” it said, with an arrow pointing to the white double doors next to it. I inched the door open to take just a peek, knowing the way could not immediately lead outside as this part of the guesthouse was below ground. Like breadcrumbs in a forest, a second set of doors beckoned me to come further away from the known world of the elevator and the snow dusted path to the church.
A friend of mine once told me of tunnels below her Midwestern college campus, providing passage from one building to the next during bitter cold winter days. It’s the only thought that could get me to nudge open the second door, as I am naturally neither curious nor brave. I am, however, deeply motivated to stay warm and, so far, this unexpected detour was a success in that regard.
But the long, dark passageway that now opened before me, with steam pipes mounted to the walls on both sides, offered none of the inviting bright light of the hallways leading up to it. The concrete casing of this narrow way silenced the muffled sounds of other guests about and whispered to me that perhaps I wasn’t alone as it tossed back the clacking sound of my own footsteps on the hard cement floor. The 35-degree temperature outside was quickly becoming a balmy option as I thought long and hard about turning back. I’ve seen the DaVinci Code, after all. Scenes like this always end badly, usually in a crescendo of synthesized terror with a little too much bass.
But something in me wanted to keep going. I was at St. John’s for a time of reflection and discernment. Father Luigi, my spiritual director, had encouraged me to be open and attentive to God’s voice, wherever it might be found. I didn’t hear God calling me to go further in to the darkness, but I did know that there is always something worth finding on the other side of fear. So, on I went.
All of St. John’s is going green. I love that about the place. Lights turn on as you enter a space and turn off as you depart from it. It would help if the turning on was a bit more immediate, timed less for a leisurely amble and more for my anxious power walking. It wasn’t until the door closed behind me and I took a few steps into complete darkness that the first set of lights came on. Not all of the lights; just the ones necessary to illuminate the next few feet.
Intuitive inner alarms sound in native New Yorkers when there is neither light nor people. “Danger! Go back!” But with each series of steps I received the light I needed for the moment and, though I couldn’t see the end, I began to trust that the path ahead of me would continue to unfold, that it had been prepared by those who knew the way and intended to lead me safely through.
After turning a corner and walking through four more sets of steam pipes, I eventually came upon another set of double doors, first appearing in shadows as the sliver of light from the Abbey Church slipped between them. On the other side I soon found my familiar, uncomfortable wooden bench in the monk’s choir, my set of books for worship, and the rest and the peace I was walking toward all along.
We don’t know how long the tunnels in our lives are going to go on. Sometimes they are filled with darkness, maybe fear. The desire to turn back and go a lesser way is a strong pull. Sometimes you need to let a door close behind you before you can find your way forward. Sometimes we need to be grateful for the gift of receiving what is needed in the moment, even if the end is still far from sight, trusting the one who has gone before us and prepared a way.
The spiritual practice of pressing on. There is always something worth finding on the other side of fear.