A Return to the Center

In the hot, waning days of summer 2016, I visited the Abbey of Gethsemani  in Trappist, Kentucky to walk the grounds with a friend. The world felt at peace, and my friend and I–both writers, both recently divorced, both mothers, both spiritual seekers–had some important catching up to do: after both of our decades-long marriages ended abruptly and painfully, we’d each found and been startled by new love.

It was a sweltering August day, not unlike my first visit to the abbey almost a decade prior. I wore a cotton tee shirt dress and she wore an old shirt and hiking pants. I had a stainless steel canteen of water and she carried a Diet Coke. We walked together and talked about our lives and our novels (hers, published, mine, not) and our failures and our joys.

We soon found ourselves at a place that historically has been forbidden to women at Gethsemani: Thomas Merton’s hermitage, a concrete block cottage with a wide expanse of porch. The front door was locked, and so we sat in the rocking chairs on the porch and kicked off our shoes. We forgot about rules for a few moments. Instead of worry, we talked about life and how messy it is. We talked about love and how glorious it can be, if we are brave enough to choose it. We talked about our own pain and about hurting others, about saving ourselves from drowning in our own sadness, and about starting over.

As we talked, a moth flew toward me and land on my calf. Then my shoulder. At one point, it landed on my hair. “Merton’s touch,” she said. I sat very still, imagining this brown moth’s beginnings as caterpillar, and thinking about the journey this small creature had taken to arrive at this moment, and the courage it took to fly freely, to land on the body of another creature, to flutter away, only to return.

We were surrounded by woods that hummed with cicadas and we could hear the rustle of the hot wind through the trees. We agreed that writing was hard work, that pain made us stronger, and that love was almost always worth whatever fire you had to walk through to find it. We gave each other the grace and permission to speak of things that are often left unsaid.

As we were leaving the Hermitage, I stood and stretched, and then leaned against the supporting beam for the porch. We kept talking and the moth returned and landed on my fingertip.

My friend grabbed my camera and said, “This is too much.” She stepped back to take in the Hermitage. “Hold still.” Then she snapped this pic of me and Merton’s moth, a creature determined to sit gently on the tip of my finger.

Barefoot Trespasser

Hold still.

Sometimes, if we just get quiet enough, and still enough, moments like this can happen. my Merton moth became a quiet champion for what it looks like to survive a brutal transformation. This photo symbolizes what rebirth looks like to me: a winged, delicate creature trusting the kindness of my hand. It’s also a photo of me–content, at peace, with the ability to marvel at the world and the love that I’ve found here. My friend has found it, too. Sometimes, a moth lands on your fingertip. A novel comes to fruition. New love arrives with surprise. These gifts seem to say: enjoy me. Embrace joy. I trust myself in your hands, and I trust you as my landing place. Let’s hold still together for a few moments.

I’m not sure I know anyone from any faith tradition who could say otherwise: to be human is to question existence, and to have faith is to believe blindly that the narratives we’ve known since childhood are true. That those stories are real. Then we relearn those narratives, and we add to them, and we question the givens in our lives. Along the way, we suspend our reason in order to embrace, revere, and worship an unknowable creator. We trust and we place hope that goodness will prevail. On this day last August, I stood on Thomas Merton’s porch and felt the rush of who I’d always been and who I was about to be melding together and finding solace in the same space. It was both a pinprick of realization and the infinite universe, in one. We all can be the moth, if we are strong enough to survive our own metamorphosis.  What’s waiting on the other side is glorious, you know. You just have to believe.

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