I don’t intend this to be a ghost story but some things just run their own course, as maybe this will too. I always meant to spend my spare time putting down something of the feel of this place; the spiritual discoveries that had begun in these flimsy walls. Yet as I sit here writing, that all seems so much past history.
Here in my canvas chair I look up from the card table that has served so well as an altar but is presently my desk. It is a late summer evening and, far across the
Severn, house lights break through the mist lying over the river. It is a silent scene, but a fleeting glimpse of the silhouette of an owl and its small prey show it to be a living landscape.
And then she is there, that anxious soul that drives me from contemplating spirituality to pondering the spirit world. She cups her hands to see into my sanctuary, her face up against the window not two feet from where I sit, yet she does not see. What is she looking for, and what would she do if she found it?
She’s gone again, quickly, as she often is. She just turned and moved hurriedly off, as if not finding what she was looking for was more painful than finding it.
A newspaper sits discarded on the other chair and some columnist declares that ‘of course few real ghosts have any purpose’. I wonder. You see, my recent visitor seems quite purposeful indeed. That I fail to understand makes her no less purposeful, or purposive. She is very real, and so too her anxiety seems to be.
Here over many years I have had visitors rather more substantial than she. They have come to me to unburden themselves. No, not all: some have come to me because having a spiritual director was, like having a personal trainer, something of use in times of otherwise arid conversation. Most, however, have come with their bleeding hearts in the hope that I might stem the bleeding. And some, a very few, have realized that healing has little to do with patching a wound and everything to do with accepting things as they are.
A yearning, a deep hunger, brought so many to me before: perhaps she has such a yearning that has survived the grave? She came to me first some little time ago: I’m so vague about time. Time, after all, can have such little meaning in a place like this. I’ve sat alone in this summer house for hours that have passed like minutes, and in the company of some who’ve made minutes pass like hours. No, not all: some have brought a Christ-like serenity with them that has reminded me why I listen.
Some, a very few, have sat here with me in the silence: two pairs of hungry eyes looking across the valley, beyond the trees and the tops of the rugby posts, to some far off vision of Jerusalem. How much we’ve shared in utter silence and how wonderfully God has spoken to us at such times of what was, what is, and what will be.
Was she one of them? Her face seems familiar, as if I’ve known her so long and then been away from her just enough to forget. Did I know her name? How did we spend our time together? Was she then as anguished as now she is when she comes to glance in at my haven? Will those slightly reddened eyes, just holding back the tears, glow brightly when she finds the object of her search?
So many have sat here next to me, perhaps with an open Bible on their lap, or perhaps a letter hanging from their fingers, but with eyes such as hers. My own fear lay in the listening. Wiser counsel than mine wrote once: “you know what your God-given gifts are, because they frighten you”. I have never grown to understand why people would unburden to me so readily, and how readily I could reply or hold on to my thoughts as best fit the circumstances. Fear has kept me grounded in my Christian purpose; service.
She doesn’t frighten me. Once she came in the afternoon. She didn’t see me then – she never does. She stood in front of the summer house, her back to my seat, and stared longingly across the valley. She seemed to catch the scent of the lavender. She stooped to take it in the better, then turned, startled by something. She looked as if she might have been caught out in her reverie: as if, lost in wondrous daydreams, she’d suddenly realized she was being watched. If she’d only reached and touched the glass, I could have matched my fingertips against hers, we were that close. Were we so close?
Where I sit has served many as a confessional, and I confess I have not readily listened to all that came. Among the deeply spiritual have been the few with many miles to travel before ‘shallow’ is a fitting term. Perhaps you think me cynical, yet I have seen the shallow run deep in a moment. That lurch backwards as if some unseen being has smashed a fist into them, as an understanding hits them, is a very real thing and a wonder to witness.
Self-doubt and arrogance; hurt and spite; sexuality and androgyny all present themselves in one burdened soul. Each visitor brings his or her heady mix of what society has told them they are, yet they come bereft of a notion of what God is calling them, and what God is calling them to be. Still the eyes, perhaps clouded with tears, perhaps closed in anger, stare out across the chasm before them.
Silence is the great communication: perhaps she understands that. Her anxiety is not for voicing; there’s no need when those eyes scream it aloud. Yet to whom do they scream? Who will listen and answer and restore hope?
I finish with a prayer, and in that prayer hope to encapsulate all that has passed between us, my visitors and me. They may respond: it scarcely matters. We have a shared vision, we three: my visitor, me, and a very palpable God. Our journey is like the view over the low garden wall so in need of attention, across an often misty valley to that far-away glorious horizon, and each in our own way has covered that journey in our conversation and dreams. How we have scaled that wall to run or roll happily down the grassy hill. What ingenuity we have shown in crossing that strong and mighty river. How wonderful it is now to stand atop the hills and declare ourselves to Him who made them.
Once she came and lay flowers at the door. She made no attempt to enter – surely, if she could carry flowers, she could turn that little handle and enter this quiet place? For she did carry flowers: I could pick them up and smell them and see every petal, every leaf vein. Had I a mirror, no doubt I could have seen the pollen sticking to my incredulous nose. Why didn’t she walk in and unburden herself as so many others have done?
There is no pattern to those that come here for spiritual direction, no ‘type’. They come in their own ways fashioned in God’s likeness, such frailty, such humanity. The vastness of their situation looms about them, their smallness accentuated. She has that same frail, human existence, my sad-eyed visitor. She stoops under untold burdens, but the chains hold them fast to her. How will they be loosened, and her worries fall away?
I lay the posy on the table, restored to its former use as altar, yet in need of a sacrifice. He who shed his blood once, for many, is here. The banquet is ready.
She returns, sad as ever, but not alone. He is with her, in human form but Him nonetheless. He too is troubled, glancing in. He seeks strength from within as well as from within his prayer book. I can hear the words before he utters them: I feel them.
“Our Father in Heaven”, the Father who even now is standing on the distant horizon, beckoning. “Hallowed be your name”, we say together, for how can I resist this call of union? “Your Kingdom come” and I see beyond them now that slope, that pure and silvery ribbon between here and that blessed place…
“Amen”, they say, and her tears come at last. He kisses his plain white stole, and then leans towards her. “I think Mark’s at peace, now, if it was him. Let’s light a candle inside, and clear away his notebook and that old paper. Then perhaps you and I could sit a while as he and I used to when I came here for guidance?”
She sees the posy on the notebook and, amid the tears, smiles once more and in they step.