Two years ago this month I walked into Conception Abbey to begin a week-long prayer retreat. It was the end of our summer sabbatical and I was wrestling with the dread of unresolved decisions. We sensed what we were being called toward, but we lacked the courage to act. And it was in that week that I dreamed. Sabbatical dreams. Over the past two years I have written out that sabbatical journey. Here is a tiny glimpse into how the week began.
I shivered. The cold air of the basilica was at first a reprieve from the August heat, but now my body was shaking with the shock of the temperature change.
Slowly I continued down the center aisle. The brick floor, grouted with sand, launched a crunching sound with each step in the cavernous space. I wanted to be unnoticed, but every step forward announced my presence.
I had arrived early for evening vespers. Perhaps because I was looking for something. Or bored. Certainly I was alone; both at this moment and in my anxious mind. I continued forward to the fourth row, close enough to be seen as sincere, but not so near that I would be uncomfortable.
As I sat down, a familiar cracking and creaking of the wooden pew echoed through the space. It was a sound embedded in my memory. That sound of the cracking pew and my imagination took me back thirty-eight years. I was once again sitting on the wooden pew of my childhood church. A small chapel on the South Dakota prairie where my parents faithfully attended for many years.
Three times a week we religiously drove the thirty miles. It was a simple place, a gathering of family and a few others who lived scattered across the prairie on small farms. I’m sure there was preaching. But I don’t remember it. The liturgy stuck in my memory was the weekly testimony of those gathered. Sincerity wasn’t lacking, but joy was hard to find. A fear of the world was woven into most of the stories shared. Prayers were offered from our knees, consisting of loud and fervent petitions for rescue us from the evil world. Stories of signs indicating the end of the world were told with conviction. It was readily assumed we were living in the very last of days. According to Uncle Harry, the perfect red heifer was already in route to Israel. Any prayers for peace or to hope for war to cease, was in some ironic way, thought to be joining the feared anti-christ.
In my young mind, my own future…if there was to be one…was already determined to be miserable and meaningless. If I was hearing correctly, my only hope was to be redeemed by suffering. Persecution was my predetermined future. I began to prepare.
If this was my only memory of church, I’m certain I would have either simply chosen to laugh off the absurdity of religion and prophesy a future of my own, or perhaps I would have sought to spend my life prepping for the mythical end-times in some remote prairie abyss.
But it was the witness and action of my parents that shaped a different way forward. Occasionally in those testimony services there was a tearful moment of honesty. Specifically, a confession of yearning from the voice of my mother. She would stand and begin with words of gratitude, thanking the Lord for the blessings of life. As she spoke, her voice would slowly increase in pitch until it reached the sound of desperation. Tears mixed with words of gratitude. A hodgepodge of sorrow, joy, pain, and hope.
As I sat waiting for the vespers to begin on that August evening, the creaking pew and my Mother’s cry filled my mind. Maybe it was what I was looking for; that innate desperation to confront the anxiousness. I too was searching for something deeper, something beyond the religious routine. And in that moment I knew that if I listened, my mother’s prophetic cry would begin to lead me home.