“What does life look like to you? How would you describe it?” My spiritual director asked me that question in the middle of a session. It wasn’t a non sequitur; although I can’t recall now what the context was, her question was absolutely germane to that context. It didn’t sound out of place or contrived at all. I think it had something to do with where God was in my life right now.
I looked up from my iPad screen, through which I was having a Facetime call with her. The COVID pandemic was still lingering, and we hadn’t met in person in over two years. I was in my office at the church, which at that particular time and day was more private than my home. So when I looked up, I saw the wall opposite my desk, a wall I saw regularly as I worked. My eyes went directly to one of the paintings there.
“I’m looking at a painting on my wall, that a good friend gave me for my ordination. It’s an image of the Road to Emmaus.” I paused, and smiled. “That’s it. That’s the way I think of life!”
My director smiled as well. “Go with that,” she said.
“It’s a journey. I’ve often thought of my life as a journey. A journey along a path, and things aren’t always good. Cleopas and his friend were so confused, so sad. But Jesus walked with them. They didn’t understand, but he was there. And it made a difference.”
She said, “Can we try something?”
“Please,” I responded.
She led me into a prayer journey, and asked me to describe what I saw. It went something like this:
I’m walking along a path. I can see the road, dirty and dusty, stretching in front of me. And I can see the sky, cloudless and hot, stretching above me. I can’t see anything else. I don’t know what’s in the middle, what the scenery is to my left and right. I don’t even know if I’m walking alone or not. I guess I’m not – there’s at least one other person with me. But I can’t focus on anything other than the road, so dusty, and the sky, so hot and uncomfortable. I’m twisted in on myself, anxious and self-absorbed. I’m so worried about something. So worried about something I’ve done, or something that’s coming. Like the two disciples who walked to Emmaus in the midst of their fear and grief after the death of their teacher and lord, I’m also drenched in my own emotion, drowning and choking on it.
My head is bowed low, protecting my heart. It means I can’t see very far, because I’m not using my eyes to see, at least not around me. I’m using those eyes to see my own heart, I suppose. To dwell there, to stew there, to marinate there in my fear and my dread, in my anxiety and my depression. It’s safe here. No, not safe. But familiar. Cozy in a painful kind of way. Like wrapping up in a scratchy blanket. It itches, it hurts, but at least it’s warm. Something like that.
As we walked, I remembered the thing I had strived for so much back in my late twenties, when I finally heard the call to be ordained a pastor. I remembered that I was working to shrink the distance from my head to my heart, to become more in touch with my emotions and less reliant on my mind alone, to become more compassionate and more integrated. And here I was, twisted and anxious, my head leaning down, as though to connect to my heart, but the wrong way. It felt as though there was a hook on my head that connected to a clasp on my chest, keeping me bent like this, closed, cut off, unavailable.
I let the hook go.
I straightened up, and looked around. There were trees all around me. This was not a desert path, as I’d thought. It was a forest. I was walking down a forest path, and there was green everywhere. The sky was indeed cloudless, but it wasn’t as hot as I’d thought, because there was a vast canopy that blocked a lot of the sun from reaching me.
I then turned to the person beside me, walking next to me. I said to him, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here for a while there.” He smiled and gave me an enormous, tight hug. We were both weeping as we embraced.
“It’s good,” he said. “It’s good.”
We kept walking, and began to talk with one another, laughing.
In the story of the Road to Emmaus, found in the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, two disciples of Jesus (one of whom is named Cleopas) were walking the seven-mile journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They were heart-broken that Jesus had just died. As they walked, they talked about all the trouble and sorrow they shared. Then the risen Jesus began to walk with them, but they didn’t know it was Jesus. At the very end of the story, they arrive at Emmaus and share a meal with the stranger. In the moment that the stranger breaks the bread, their eyes were opened and they realized it was Jesus all along – and he vanished.
As I reflected on this prayer journey, I wondered – was the person who I walked with, the person I embraced, the person who said, “It’s good” – was that person Jesus? Or was it my partner along the road, and Jesus was around somewhere else? I don’t know. And maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the presence of God in this story was in the moment when the “hook” that connected my head to my heart the wrong way was released, and I could see again. I don’t know. Maybe that doesn’t matter either.
Maybe all that matters is that this is indeed my “philosophy of life” – a journey that has its ups and downs. A journey that is sometimes lonely, and is sometimes shared with others. But a journey where God always shows up, somehow, even if we don’t notice. A journey where God goes with us.