“This last season of my life is best captured by two roads,” writes author and Presbyterian minister Adam S. McHugh at Internet Monk. “It sounds like a tired metaphor, except it’s not a metaphor. I have in mind two actual paths. One you drive and the other you walk.”
McHugh, who has written in some detail about his ministry experiences on his blog, was a Los Angeles-based hospice chaplain. He lived an on-call life. He was tethered to his beeper and felt burned out. He writes at Internet Monk that ministry “had not felt like a good fit for some time.”
When he could, McHugh got into his car and turned onto the 101. He sped north, to Santa Ynez wine country. Amid the green vines and bucolic scenes, the good food and fine vintages, he restored himself. He found beauty and peace. He rediscovered wonder.
McHugh began to call his sojourns “pilgrimages.” He began to think of the vineyards as a “thin place,” or “one of those hallowed spots in the Celtic tradition where the clouds that separate heaven and earth part and the sun of God’s presence shines brilliantly.” It was his professional business to sense God speaking. He sensed it now.
McHugh decided to make the fruit of the vine the work of his human hands. He would become a sommelier. He quit his hospice job. He got on the 101 and moved. Despite the economy, he found jobs in Santa Ynez wineries.
It dawned on McHugh that there was literally nothing to do there but eat and drink and hike. He was restless and did not fit in. He could not create or experience community. God stopped talking. He was astounded to find himself cosmically alone. “I was disappointed, lonely, heartbroken. Always a dreamer, I started to give up on dreaming dreams. My holy place had become a desert place.”
The 101 had been his first road, the driving road. A prayer labyrinth at a church near his new job was his second road, the walking road.
The first time I walked the labyrinth was a Saturday after work. It was an oppressively hot July evening, but work had been so depressing that I was desperate. Already sweating as I stepped onto the church grounds, I started to walk the path, thinking that it would just take a few laps and I would be in the middle. That’s when I realized that a labyrinth is not a spiral, gradually moving the pilgrim to the center. It’s not a straight line that has been bent into circles to save space. The path winds and teases, drawing you tantalizingly close to the core, and then veering off. I was frustrated and hot, but I was determined. I kept releasing my hurt, my sense of failure, my lost dreams, my desolation.
My face dripping with perspiration, I made it to the center. I turned and faced the church. Before I even had a chance to ask for anything, a voice sounded in my head: “I LOVE YOU.” All the other voices fled before this Voice like the waves of the Red Sea. From experience I knew that it was the voice of God, because it was short, declarative, unexpected, and exactly what I needed to hear though I didn’t know it. I can tell God’s voice less by the words that come and more by the impact they make on me. The tears streamed down my face.
God was still there. But McHugh’s imploding ministry career had obscured the truth that God is not found while plotting solutions or frantically divining our next move. God is found while learning to let go. So McHugh let go. He turned his car back onto the 101. He went home to Los Angeles. “I no longer think that my salvation lies on a road that points north.”
There are those who are sure they hear God talking. God convicts them. God lays things on their hearts. God reveals their careers and spouses. They receive a word. They move east because they are called. They move west because they are called. They tell you all about it. You think you can have it too.
As for me, I identify with McHugh. The times I was most confident of being summoned–to a job, to a person, to a location–it backfired in my face, even if I was virtually the only one who knew about it. My naivete exposed, I was left wondering how to make a dignified exit.
I hear the voice of God in retrospect. It is rustle, intuition, hardly ever sounding like grammatical English. And I hear it most definitively while I’m making one of those dignified exits. Dashed expectations, I have found, are the most ruthless purifiers, the best translators.
We get desperate. Our loved ones disperse. Our illnesses are chronic. The world changes too quickly for us to understand it. Our jobs are gone, or not satisfying. The peculiar American commandment to “pull up your own bootstraps!” fails us. We want, in these moments, our own personal books of Exodus and empty tombs. We want to impose narratives upon our lives. We want to redeem them now. For we suffer now.
But such redemption narratives, if genuine, are never imposed by human will nor written by human hands. The hardest thing is to quietly let God be God, to resist the urge for relentless tea-leaf reading. And it is not merely the hardest thing. It is the only thing.