The Clearing in the Forest

TO SEE MORE CLEARLY

Forgetfulness increases as the number of our days decreases. Strolling down a narrow wooded path, you marvel at the beauty all around you. You walk along the trail, mesmerized by light and shadow playing hide-and-seek among the oaks, maples, and fir trees. You’ve never been here. Or so you think. Everything feels fresh and new. It’s an e.e. cummings kind of day.

THE CLEARING IN THE FOREST

The path opens into a clearing in the forest. The clearing is empty except for a rough-hewn bench waiting for you. The bench invites you to lay your burden down. You sit and stare, wondering why, in all your days and years, you’ve never been here. “Have a seat,” says the bench. “Sit and rest awhile.”

You fall asleep lying on the bench hewn from a maple tree, and wake from your nap with the sense that you’ve been here before. You look for the path that will take you farther to your desired destination. You see a weathered cedar sign: “Welcome home. You’ve been here before. Come again.” The path that will lead you forward is behind your back, the same path that brought you here.

AUTOBIOGRAHICAL RUMINATIONS

I’d forgotten that I’d been on the bench many times. Calendars and clocks often hide real time: existential time. In the rush of days and years, we forget where we’ve been before.

All our ruminations are matters of autobiography and social context. We walk again through light and shadow toward the clearing we have forgotten. We have slipped back into imagining ourselves as independent operators free of any pack; independence/freedom is our mantra. Yet something in us knows. Something about us knows better but cannot remember what it is.

Returning to the forest clearing again after many forgotten earlier visits leads me home to who I have always been. I have never been free. I’ve always been a member of a pack. I’ve always looked up to the equivalents of alpha dogs. My parents and grandparents. Public heroes like Edward R. Murrow and Martin Luther King, Jr. Teachers Harold Miller and Esther Swenson. Giants of faith Josef Hromadka, William Stringfellow, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Jurgen Moltmann, James Cone, William Sloane Coffin, and many others set the standards for who I wanted to become.

Suddenly, lying on the bench again, I realize the obvious. Each and all of them were acolytes of faith on the way to the clearing in the forest. Each lit the way to what I forget or refuse to remember — we are part of a covenant community in which faithful compassion is a way of life. I am a member of a community kept together not by anything I have thought, said or done, but by covenants I did not make. “You shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

In the clearing, I know again what I was taught in childhood: My community is not the cult of the Strong Man. It’s a community born at the cross, the covenant community of compassion and conscience that leads us down the path to the clearing of conscience and home again with thanksgiving for the shadows, as well as the light.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 4, 2020.

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