Till the Ground

I’ve felt the weight of it all day, this anniversary.

Five years ago today I stood in a Maltese field and watched as something I’d seen in a dream came to life.  It was meant to be a private moment, shared only with Jesus and the two people who had accompanied me that day.  It remained private for less than 24 hours, and the story was even eventually told in part (without my permission) in a book that among other things detailed some of the experiences from that time in Malta.

A year or so ago I told that story for the first time.  Today, though, five years on from that

A Maltese back road

A Maltese back road

day, the memories have been deeply present.  Maybe more present than ever before, given the way that my time in Malta and Rome is intertwined with my journey of exploring Catholicism.

I’ve found myself distracted today, wandering through those memories.  Thinking about the feeling of the Maltese ground mixed with wine running through my fingers, overflowing my hands and returning to the earth when the missionary at campus worship shared about a woman offering him a sliver of soap, her most precious possession, to clean his hands after he hoed a field for her. Thinking about those who shared that moment with me, and the ways those relationships collapsed in the years that followed – about how even the things that seem the most certain shift and change, and how challenging it can be to still pick out the beauty in the midst of the sorrow.

But mostly, as I’ve remembered today, I’ve thought about the ground beneath my feet in that moment.  I’ve thought about ground being tilled.  Being made ready. I thought about it as the missionary shared briefly at our lunchtime worship gathering.  I thought about it  tonight as I re-read a passage I’d marked in Kathleen Norris’ “The Cloister Walk”.

The ground was soft.  Freshly plowed, maybe even freshly planted. Furrows reaching to the edge of the stone walls that divide the Maltese landscape.  At the edges there were flowers – something yellow.  I remember the one plucked and put into my hands with the dirt – both later washed into the waiting ground with the bottle of wine.  The coin, the change from the purchase of that bottle of wine still sits on my bedroom mirror, a constant reminder of a day that changed so much.

But the ground was soft, so soft I could hardly keep my footing.  I leaned against one of the ones who walked with me that day, fighting for balance.

I smile, now, as I think of that battle to keep my feet.  That is a space that has become holy ground in my memory.  One where it would have been appropriate, perhaps, to fall on my face in front of the Jesus I met there.

And I think about freshly tilled ground.

Not long after I came home I encountered Jason Upton’s song “Till the Ground”.  The lyrics have reverberated through the five years since that day in the field.

It’s a prayer straight out of Jeremiah – “Break up the fallow ground”, but not one that I considered deeply as it rushed from my heart in those months immediately following my return.

Five years on, I can tell you that to break up hard ground, there is ripping, tearing pain.  To create ground that is soft and ready for new growth, there is tumbling and topsy-turvy tossing with blades and other implements.

And yet, the lyrics Upton penned still reverberate.  My heart cries out for freedom.  I have seen shaken the things that seemed unshakeable.  And somehow, someway, my heart longs even more for Jesus.  Even if it means that the ground must continue to be turned over, softened, torn apart, to make way for that growing ability to surrender to wherever he leads.

And I smile, just a little, as I transfer some quotes from “The Cloister Walk” to my journal, and come across these lines from Norris:

The command in [Jeremiah] chapter 4:3, “Break up your fallow ground,” stayed with me long enough to elicit a response in my journal.  The ancient monastics recognized that a life of prayer must “work the earth of the heart,” and with their acceptance of the painful, and even violent nature of this process in mind, I wrote, “And as I take my spade in hand, as far as I can see, great clods of earth are waiting, heavy and dark, a hopeless task. First weed will come, then whatever it is I’ve planted. I feel the struggle in my knees and back.”

In the margins next to this quote, I’ve scribbled the prayer that still springs from the deepest places within me, the places that rarely have words: “Till the ground in me…”

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