Many times I have smiled at the naïveté of Hopkins’ nun taking the veil, who desires to go where springs not fail. I posted this poem at the start of my recent silent retreat, even though I knew that cloistering myself for eight-days would not necessarily transport me to “fields where fly no sharp and sided hail”.
Does our young nun in the poem believe that a vow would offer her a place “out of the swing of the sea”? (If anyone understood that it might not, it was Hopkins, whose torments and insecurities followed him into the Society of Jesus).
Who can guarantee that a few lilies will blow when we retreat from the world for however long into silent walls? Silence is not magic. It cannot erase the past or stop the flow of time. Into it we carry every memory, every quirk, every flaw.
I carried all of these with me last week. What else did I carry into my recent silence? A ring my mother bought me years ago to remind me where I came from. A journal my boyfriend bought after I selected it, and had secretly gift wrapped while I was in the Barnes and Noble bathroom. A book borrowed from a colleague. A watch my brother helped me pick out.
Perhaps there is a higher prayer to which I should have aspired, one which would have allowed me to shed everything: history and desire and worldly cares. But I’m not convinced that would serve a God who comes not to negate but to redeem.
When I come before God I offer not an idyll but my being, a truth molded over time by many hands. This is a truth shaped by storms and sunshine, one I fear and cherish as the only thing that’s truly mine. When its ragged edge turns upward and I bleed, I often wish I could have left these hard realities behind somewhere.
Instead, they stay with me, and I learn that God’s power to make us forget the past – a power I’ve prayed many times would be exercised – is nothing compared to God’s power to transform.
So I offer to God my lumps of coal and sometimes end up with diamonds.