As I mentioned in my post “Thoughts On the End of a School Year,” I ended up taking this story in a different direction than I originally intended. It started out as a piece in which I merely wanted to relate the experience of tromping through the woods on a warm afternoon. As I continued to write the piece, the spiritual notes on what happened that day began to stand out more and more. I did this to help illustrate a process which produced in me an experience of spiritual catharsis. What I ended up with is the narrative that follows.
To sum up, this piece was originally intended to be a detailed description of a hike through the woods, nothing more. What has emerged is a story about the Grace of God. Praise Him that he shows up in places we did not expect, and that He has already been ahead of us on the roads we travel. Amen.
See The Gate of Creek-Stones: Part 1 here.
The path bent towards the water, and the walls of green became steep, sheer, and narrow. As I walked, the path began to level out, rather than continue in its gradual, downward slope. Something changed about the mood of the place, too; it was still, so placid that the stillness had a presence of its own. I turned off my music. The immensity of the silence was profound. I felt as if I was being followed, but not in a way that was threatening; I felt that I was being not just watched, as the adage goes, but that I was being watched over.
In places, there were partings in the honeysuckle through which I could see deep into the woods. The view was always of a labyrinth of trees that seemed to go on forever. There were no building tops visible beyond the canopy. There were no power lines or cell phone towers. There was no whoosh of rushing cars from the highway near my home. The only sounds were the rustling, whisper of tree leaves, the songs of frogs and birds, and the deafening, roaring stillness. Even the thump, thump of my footsteps began to be muffled by the presence of silence.
I don’t remember how long it took, but eventually I reached the creek. The path eventually dropped off steeply and ran almost perpendicularly into the creek. At the drop-off the path became muddy, too, probably because the rain we’d been having washed away all of the ground cover. I stood for a little while on the edge of the drop, surveying the area.
After an approximate eight-foot slope, the path leveled off for about a foot before reaching the creek. Where the path would have continued was a trail of stepping-stones made from exposed bedrock; they had not been placed there by human hands, but they had been placed there all the same. To the right, from the direction the stream was flowing, was a wide pool where water collected just before spilling over a natural dam from which the stepping stones protruded. To the left of the stones was a short waterfall which ran over the dam and into a pool that was perfectly clear, despite the turbulence from the continually pouring water. Nothing was being stirred up at the bottom of the fall, and I could see straight to the bottom of the basin of water, which was probably three feet deep. The temperature of the air dropped noticeably as I approached the creek, and the sound of the frogs’ songs reached hypnotically deafening intensity.
Carefully, I climbed down the slope toward the stream, hanging on to tree roots and shrubbery as I tried not to lose my footing. When I reached the water’s edge, I paused for a moment, thoroughly planning and coordinating my steps to the other side of the water. About halfway over the rock-bridge, I stopped to snap a few more pictures. After standing there for a while, I began to look ahead at what laid beyond the creek. On the other side of the water, the path continued up a steep slope, and then it bent to the left, out of view from my vantage point in the bottom of the ravine. I had been walking in these woods for over an hour now; I began to feel as if I should turn back. I made several attempts to go back toward the slope that I had climbed down into the creek. Every time I tried, though, I would feel as if something, no, someone, was calling me from beyond the bend in the trail on the other side of the water. It would be a shame to have come this far, I told myself, and not see what was on the other side of that rise. After one last look back, I began crossing the remainder of the creek toward the path on the other side.
Upon crossing the water, I noticed that ambient noises began to fade; the frogs and the birds that were hidden among the trees began to fall silent. The wind that caused the canopy of the woods to hiss and sigh became still. The stillness began to take on a personality. I felt it place an arm around my shoulders and lead me on, up to where the path bent away from view.
For some reason, I felt compelled to keep my head down as I climbed the trail. Slowly now, even the sound of the water from the creek began to fade. The bushes and trees and the immense honeysuckle vines all began to close in. I thought that the trail was ending, and I began to wonder why the stillness continued to lead me. The stillness was fairly pressing on me at that point, pushing me from behind, urging me forward. I came to a place where two thin bushes grew close together, but not so close that I could not see the path continuing vaguely between them. I began to tremble. I don’t know why, but something inside my heart took flight, the way some birds will suddenly evacuate their nests in the bushes when a person walks by too closely. It left me shivering in its wake. “What is going on? This doesn’t make any sense,” I thought to myself. I put out an arm to push aside one of the bushes. As soon as I had created a wide enough opening, I stepped through.
What I saw next could not have been expected. The woods had been growing denser, darker, more crushingly close by the second. Now, before me was displayed its complete opposite. The sunlight spread out before me into a wide-open clearing. The opening was round and about fifty feet in diameter. Grass grew densely, thigh-high throughout the entirety of the glade. Thick bushes covered in honeysuckle bordered the perimeter, beyond which stood a wall of trees. I could still faintly hear the water from the creek and the waterfall beyond the edge of the clearing. There were more bird songs than I could distinguish, and this mixed now with the sound of cicadas and frogs. The symphony was so loud that it drowned out thought. The clouds drifted quickly and silently overhead, creating shifting, cruising shadows across the floor of the opening. Bees and butterflies darted in and out among the honeysuckle, and there were so many dragonflies hovering and settling at the tips of the tall grass that they looked like strange, jeweled flowers. The presence of the stillness settled upon me once more, consecrating and sanctifying the entire space. The open floor, bordered by pillars and buttresses of bushes and trees which supported the high-domed ceiling of sky, clouds, and sunlight, and the cacophony from the choir of forest creatures all gave the impression that this was some primal cathedral.
I stepped further in, hesitantly, allowing the circumstances to wash over me. As I emerged from the shadows of the forest into the bright midday light, I began to feel the anxiety and frustration that had previously been plaguing me evanesce, carried away like smoke on a breeze. It was as if the sunlight, the drone of the animals in the glade, and the aroma of the trees, moss and flowers were all flowing into my body and forcing out anything else that was there. I wanted to speak out, to thank God for bringing me here, but a powerful urge beyond my own conscience compelled me to remain silent; I bowed my head instead. I remained that way for several minutes and let the sounds, smells, and sights swirl around me. The stillness gently placed the palms of its hands upon the crown of my head, and tears spilled from my eyes. I felt something begin stirring in my chest as I rapidly went through a mental checklist of all the things in my life that were currently scaring, angering, and saddening me.
Frustrations at work.
Anxiety over providing for my growing family.
Lies I had told.
The faces of hundreds of friends I’ve had to bid farewell as life has carried me down its current.
Shame for a multitude of failures.
Each thought and memory flickered across my mind, like a slideshow being projected by lightning. As time wore on, I felt each thing leave me as it flashed and faded on the screen in the theater of my skull. Progressively, I was feeling lighter as each thought was lifted up, like stones raised from deep, flowing water. They were each exposed for a moment, and then carried away down some overgrown, unmarked trail beyond the clearing and through the woods. I was not doing this; it was as if I was being examined, as if someone was taking inventory of my soul. I realized that I was not in control of what was happening to me at this moment; the stillness was running the show. “Thank you,” I whispered. It was all I could muster.
I stood still and silent in the forest sanctuary as the earth turned about me and clouds passed rapidly overhead. This went on for what seemed like ages. Gradually the clouds gathered and became thicker in preparation for an afternoon storm. In time, the images stopped skipping around my mind, and I was released from the spot where I had been standing. Without an actual assertive thought, I knew it was time to leave.
I pushed back through the bushes at the entrance to the glade and returned, once again, to the forest path. The walk home, though entirely uphill, seemed to go much more rapidly than the journey in. Eventually I came back to the gate of creek-stones. There was a round white stone, about the size of a loaf of bread, nestled into the leaf-litter in the middle of the trail. I did not remember seeing it as I had entered. I began to lift it up and noticed that its bottom-half had been embedded in the mud. It was wet and soiled, heavy, and more difficult to lift than I had anticipated. Once I had a grip on it I placed the rock amongst all the others at the entrance to the woods. I stood for a moment, long enough to realize that if I returned, I would not be able to remember which stone was mine. Satisfied that this was acceptable, I emerged from the forest.
I still don’t know what was the purpose of that afternoon. I didn’t receive any answers to my questions, and none of my unresolved circumstances came to any miraculous conclusions. I do know that the source of stillness lead me through the woods, beyond the gate of discarded creek-stones, to the sanctuary in the glade beyond the stream. I know that my heart was examined, and that I allowed myself, for once, to surrender control of everything, the faculties of my body, even the process of my mind.
I know that, for now, this is enough to know.