I’m thrilled to have written a Monk in the World Guest Post at Christine Valters Paintner’s Abbey of the Arts website/blog. She is one of my favorite authors (The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom) and an inspiration for me to continue to learn more about creativity and prayer. My post, A Country Road Contemplative, is about the sacred pilgrimage of driving country roads.
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My country drives are a sacred experience, a contemplative, scenic journey through four counties of Nebraska.
Driving country roads has become a pilgrimage of its own as I travel to St. Benedict Center, a Benedictine retreat center and monastery seventy miles northwest of my home. Once or twice a month, I receive spiritual direction, participate in or lead retreats, attend Oblate meetings or pray with the monks. It’s where I go to honor my “inner monk”, find peace and quiet, learn to live more holy and grow in love. It has become my spiritual home and a home-away-from-home.
Initially, the drive was a means to an end, an hour and a half that I endured to get to my spiritual oasis. For most of thirteen years, I’ve taken the most direct route via paved highway. Occasionally, I took a different route or explored shortcuts, attempting to shave minutes off the drive.
The most efficient shortcut requires traveling on ten miles of gravel roads through small towns with few houses, and long since closed grocery stores and taverns. Every mile or two, there is a farmhouse nestled in rolling hills (or on flat-as-pancakes plains; we have both in Nebraska), acres of crops, cattle and pig farms, old trucks and tractors, and farm dogs that run after my car, barking.
I begin to notice details—the color of the sky, shapes of clouds, shadows on a hill. I wonder about the farmhouse that still has curtains on the windows, yet abandoned. I stop on bridges and watch water rush below. I see turkey and deer, donkeys and horses, weeds and wildflowers, fields of sunflowers and bales of hay. But, rarely, do I see other people.
It’s common in Nebraska to travel country roads and not encounter another car or person for miles. I feel as if I’m the only person in the world, an unmatched solitude and peace. I am taken with the beauty of the changing seasons—the greens of spring and summer, the gold and reds of autumn, the browns and grey of winter. I notice when the corn is higher, the sky more blue. The landscape is always being re-created, always in a state of becoming.
It happened slowly, but I realized that the drive is just as sacred of an experience as getting to my destination. I prefer to drive alone, sometimes spending two or more hours turning west, then north, then west again; taking roads that look interesting and head in the general direction of St. Benedict Center. It has become part of the weekend getaway instead of the means to an end. The drives that I had tried to trim minutes off of, actually have become longer. As I plan more time for the drive, my weekend pilgrimages start the minute I get in the car.
A pilgrimage is a journey. A pilgrimage does not require a far-off destination or even a sacred shrine as the endpoint. A great Desert father, Abba Moses, advised his monks, “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” My car has become my “cell”, where I turn inward, reflect, behold, contemplate and enjoy the country roads.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”― Heraclitus
I wanted to capture the beauty of the land that is so seldom seen—not just in numbers of people (although that can be an issue in Nebraska), but I mean really seen—appreciated, cherished, shared. Now I take a camera with me every time I travel country roads. I pull my car to the side of the road and photograph animals, sheds, flowers, old buildings, roads, fields, clouds, gravestones on a hill. I take pictures of cows that make eye contact with me (and they always do). I photograph barns that are bright red, barns with peeling paint, barns that have collapsed.
With each photo I take I know I am experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime-moment. I have taken thousands of photos of the countryside, but no two will ever be the same. Never again will the clouds look just that way or will the grass be just that shade of green. Never will I step into the same “river” again, each moment unique and made for me to celebrate. When that moment is gone, it is gone forever.
I am alone on my pilgrimage, yet accompanied. This is where I know I meet God. This is where ideas overflow; where there are bursts of creativity and a wealth of insights; where problems get solved, prayer happens and time stands still, in my “cell”.
My “cell” has taught me that photography is contemplative prayer. It is a new way of seeing. I honor the present moment like no other time or place. There are so many undiscovered parts of our world—places where no one is—in the depths of the ocean, the expanse of a cornfield, down a Nebraska country road. God is present in all of those places and in our solitude we can be there too.
I have learned so much about God and life on country roads. The most efficient route might not be the most fruitful. I can head in a general direction and God can fill in the details. I can be flexible. Listening to God and following my intuition works. Perhaps I don’t need to have everything planned out perfectly. I can look for signs along the way (some roads are more winding or steep; usually there is a warning, just like in life). I can surrender to surprise. The present moment is all we have and we better appreciate it. Joy is meant to be shared, eventually, but solitude is essential. Spirit is the best roadmap. I am not the Absolute, so I cannot know absolutely where I should end up. I’ve learned to listen, to pray, to rejoice. I experience the sacred on country roads.