Battlefields by Moonlight: A Shalem Odyssey
by Carolyn Metzler
When I started Lent by offering a conversation about mortality to my congregation, I did not know how close I was to the subject! Subsequent events reshaped me spiritually, brought me face to face with the frailty of the human body and resilience of the human spirit. I was invited into a dark blessing, a holy surrender, and emerged alive and grateful for it all.
Between residencies of Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program, I became increasingly out-of-control regarding my work. I tried repeatedly to slow down, break the pattern of manic work, without success. I love what I do and couldn’t stop doing it. I was unable to let go of details, and all the demands that never ended nibbled away at my soul. I stopped praying, treating God more as a colleague with whom I went over the day’s schedule.
Within a day at the second residency, the full scope of my compulsion and the egotism behind it was unbearable, so I entered the sacred ground of confession with another colleague. After that, I felt I could see more clearly what needed to happen, but I still did not know how I would actually make the changes that I needed to make. I was healed, forgiven, freed, but not yet truly converted.
The program lectures gave me a little window, and the phrase “contemplative freedom” was a key. If I could come to a place where I could choose to act or not to act, and not just be compelled to action, I could be free. I spent a great deal of time with this concept, which was a lifeline for me. Another conversation gave me the words “Be a beggar to God.” And so I prostrated myself in front of the Icon of Christ of Sinai and begged, “Change me. Do whatever it takes to change me. Make me your priest. Free me.” And the eyes of that remarkable icon pulled me in and held me in their compassionate knowing.
The next day I awoke to some belly pain but figured it was from food eaten the night before. By evening the pain was quite severe and continued to intensify until I could hardly walk. Finally I let myself be taken to the local emergency room. On the way, I sank into the pain that now engulfed me. At one point I opened my eyes and realized that we were driving through the Gettysburg battlefields. The moon was full, the eclipse imminent and the light was extraordinary. I saw the silhouettes of the jagged-toothed fences, the statues of men and horses, cannons against the far hills. For an exquisite moment, I was out of pain, almost out of body, on those battlefields in the moonlight. There were no words, no music, nothing but the amazing space of that hallowed ground. I hung there with it all, suspended in silence that was full of the remembered pain of that place – a peace that was wrought in suffering.
And then we were turning into the hospital where they prepared me for a barium enema, took X-rays, and eventually put me under anesthesia. I awoke in a room surrounded by people, hearing myself moaning and tossing and feeling more pain than I thought I could bear. Then began the dreams, the uncertainty of what was real and what was not. People came and went. IVs were adjusted and in my dreams I was back in the battlefields. I saw the soldiers with their bodies far more broken than mine, without benefit of anesthesia or antibiotics, no hospital beds, no catheters to relieve the call of nature. I felt the terrible pain and the screaming, and also the more terrible silence. I have never been a Civil War buff, and it is strange that this is where I went in those early days.
Those fields by moonlight were not empty. There was helplessness to it all, which mirrored my own powerlessness and also a renewed horror at the evil stupidity of war.
The next morning my husband walked in, and with his presence, I was grounded again. Getting my system moving was a challenge, and I suffered more indignities than I can tell. It turned out my insides had never finished rotating in the womb, and so when they looked in with the scopes, it was like navigating Chicago with a map of Detroit. Everything was somewhere else.
So – how do I understand this? Did God knot my colon in response to my prayer to slow me down? I don’t believe that. As a wise old priest said to me recently, “The only thing we know for sure is whether or not we are being open to God.” And – sometimes – I’m not even sure of that. I like to think I am, but then – sometimes – even ministry can be a barrier to God.
We are only earthen vessels, only able to breathe as God gives us breath. And yet God calls us, invites us, empowers us, uses us. God breathes God’s very breath into our nostrils at birth, and when we die, the last breath out is what God breathes in. Who can understand it? At the end, we only hang in the moonlight with the Body of Christ broken and know that, by exquisite grace, we are whole.
Carolyn, an Episcopal priest, is a graduate of Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program, Class of Winter 2008.