Recently I was struck with the urge to finish out our summer by camping near one of the Great Lakes. I felt a sudden thirst for those long stretches of sand, expanses of sparkling water, and vast dunes I visited many times as a child.
It was more than nostalgia or a craving for pretty scenery, though, that aroused me from my end-of-summer inertia and sent me scrambling to find a tent. Throughout my life, certain places have tugged at my spirit irresistibly, with mysterious timing, as if God resides there in a unique way, and is suddenly saying, “Anne, come on over. I’ve been waiting for you here!” As if God weren’t equally present everywhere, a fact that I learned as a kid and know by delightful experience to be true. Yet certain spots I have visited on this earth are still oozing with Spirit as I recall them, while others leave a more ordinary imprint.
I have experienced a let-down on return pilgrimages enough to know that spiritual encounters cannot be reproduced simply by retracing my steps to where they occurred. I cannot re-create the state of mind that allowed me once to suddenly awaken to a flood of joy, a vibration of energy. Yet the original encounter is never lost: it quietly adds a layer of hope and consolation that remains with me. I love the old song, “My good Lord’s done been here, blessed my soul and gone away.” I go away too, but I carry the blessing with me.
I am recalling a street I came upon when I was studying in Paris at age nineteen. I was lonely, desperately so, but entranced by the streets of Paris like millions of students before me. I didn’t use maps. I just struck out on my own, to see what I could see, with a spirit of adventure that I fear is lost to people nowadays with all their gadgets. I turned a corner and found myself on a wind-swept hill overlooking the dome of the Panthéon. As I started down a winding medieval market street, the stone buildings and sky above took on an unearthly quality, as if I had stepped through a sacred portal into a more expansive dimension of reality. My loneliness was overcome by rapture.
On returning to Paris several years later, I hungrily sought out this street (rue Mouffetard) with a naïve expectation of the same experience. When I rounded the corner, there it was–charming, historical, and full of good restaurants–but prosaic, no longer the doorway into another world, no longer C.S. Lewis’s story-book Wardrobe.
Shortly after reading Ann Hagedorn’s Beyond the River a number of years ago, I set out with my husband Gerry for an overnight getaway to the town of Ripley, Ohio. I wanted to explore the place where abolitionists risked death for decades to bring escaping slaves across the narrowest point on the Ohio River. While wandering through the town, stopping at the drugstore and the library, I noticed a palpable energy of love and strength pervading the place, as if the inhabitants were still blessed by the abolitionists’ karma. I have returned several times to Ripley without noticing this energy, but still open to rediscovering it.
The spiritual lure for me of the Great Lakes dates back to a particular day as a small child, when our family station wagon peaked a small incline and suddenly the view of that infinite blue horizon, where heaven meets earth, flooded my soul. Some remnant of that original awe has accompanied every such sighting into my adulthood.
In recent years, one of the most sacred places that lives joyfully in my memory is Arivaca Boys Ranch, located in the scrubby chaparral country south of Tucson. It is the community to which Gerry and I chose to entrust our teen-aged son when his behaviors had spun out of control. During those nine months our son was given the care of his own horse, was led on treks through the wilderness, and discovered his true self. On our two visits there, my heart was so filled with love and gratitude for his mentors that the arid land around the ranch became more beautiful, more spiritually potent, than perhaps any lush setting I will ever experience. What would I find if I were to return now? Would the surrounding hills appear barren, and the ranch filled with flawed human beings? I don’t know. I know nothing can take away the outpouring of spirit I once felt in that place, at a time when I could only give my sorrow over to the mercy of God. Arivaca gave me a profound glimpse of the “other world” that penetrates each moment, and breaks through just when, and where, I need a reminder of Home.