A couple of months ago, at the end of a long semester, I spent a few days on a silent retreat. I was at a retreat house just outside St. Louis that sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. The world around me reflected the final days of Advent I was praying through. The days were cold, the water moved slowly but surely downstream, and the leafless trees shivered as they waited for warmth.
Aside from the river, everything sat in stillness. The frosted grass, the trees – even the birds and squirrels played their quiet part in a remote place. I was led to ponder that for the great majority of their existence, they are seen and enjoyed only by God.
One late night, I left the retreat house chapel and, bundled up, walked into the dark cold night. I was struck by the blackness that surrounded me, the chill of cold wind, and the unsettling sensation of seeing so little with my eyes wide open.
In the dark, it was hard to discern from the top of the bluff where the grass ended, the forest began, and the river took its place. So as I carefully walked along the sidewalk back to my room, I was perplexed to see in the distance a foreign group of lights slowly moving. I stopped and felt a slight panic as I was unable to identify what they were. After nervously staring at them, what eventually came into focus was a harmless tugboat pushing its way up the river.
There was something haunting and mysterious about that tugboat doing its work in the blind hours of the night. As I watched it move up the Mississippi, I realized that just about everyone around, even the birds, were asleep and unable to see this tugboat. There seemed to be a sad loneliness in that. But there was something else more mysterious that kept me wondering at that boat. After awhile, a clearer thought came. Even if no one else was seeing the boat, I suddenly felt sure that God was.
And through that boat’s supposed solitude, it felt as if God was saying: you too will move slowly and surely upstream if you let My gaze alone be enough.
I was frightened because I became so aware of all the moments when God’s gaze alone does not seem to be enough for me, when I act as though I need more assurance, and more support than that of God’s.
God seemed to be reminding me that the stillness and the simplicity of His gaze, though invisible and sometimes not easily felt is not only enough but is everything.
A few weeks later I read a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that begins like this:
I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
To make each hour holy.
I’m too small in the world, yet not small enough
To be simply in your presence, like a thing –
just as it is.
In the introduction to her book on prayer, art historian and hermit, Sister Wendy Beckett counsels us, “[Prayer] may be frightening — in fact, I know it is. But fear must never keep us back from allowing God to draw us into fulfillment.”
As I stood looking at that tugboat pushing up the Mississippi in the dead of night, I was haunted by the feeling of being alone in God’s presence, of feeling simply “like a thing-just as it is.” And although it felt right and holy, the deep and quiet simplicity of it scared me.
When God draws us into solitude, even for a moment, things are put in perspective. We feel the insignificance or our power, our achievements, our control, and our ego as they meet the tremendous and quiet glory of God.
“It can be very hard to stay in this state of powerlessness, of blindness, of vulnerability accepted, when all that holds us motionless in the boat is our trust in God,” Sister Wendy writes, “All that is in our power is choice: do we stay still, hidden, unable to take control, or do we jump up and steer that boat ourselves, refusing God’s lordship?”
I think this is what Rilke is also getting at, and what God was trying to convey to me through a tugboat: to sit defenseless, like a thing simply as it is, and trust in His love.