To catch up on my series of posts about my recent Ignatian retreat click here.
It is 10:30 pm and I was about to fall asleep while struggling to keep my eyes open to read. It was to be my final night at Broom Tree and not being ready to go to sleep just yet I made a decision. Getting dressed and throwing my hooded sweatshirt on I began what was to be my last trip to St. Isadore’s. Halfway across the parking lot I turned to see Cocoa followings slowly behind me once again. I turned, paused, and called softly to her to come closer but tonight she preferred to lag behind.
I entered the dark, empty church and sat once more in what had become my spot: the front pew on the right. For the next 45 minutes I gazed upon the crucifix lit from the outside spotlights and had a little talk with Jesus. But mostly I just sat in silence. I noticed that the crucifix seemed larger and nearer to me than it had just forty-eight hours before. It was chilly outside—I was comfortable inside. Less than an hour before I had been droopy-eyed and ready for bed, but now I was alert and awake. Finally, I decided it was time to go. I offered up my thanks and my gratitude to the Lord, genuflected and walked up the wood floor aisle. At the entrance to the foyer I turned for a final look at the altar and crucifix. I bowed low at the waist and turned for the door.
Walking out into the night I found the ever-faithful Cocoa waiting for me. On that first night there were no stars visible due to the cloud cover. Tonight the skies were clear except for a few whisps of long, thin clouds that seemed to hang around the moon. It was a bright half-moon, hanging over the western skies. Between it and the flood of parking lot lights it was difficult to see the stars. The words to my favorite Rich Mullins song came to mind and I hummed them as I left the paved lot.
Well the moon moved past Nebraska
And spilled laughter on them cold Dakota Hills
I decided to veer left and head west up the trail through the fields and walk towards the bales of stacked hay. Once I entered into the shadow of the fields and out of the artificial light’s umbrella and looked heavenward, the skies stole my breath. Millions upon millions of stars were twinkling, some brighter than others. It seemed the entire Milky Way was suspended above me. The Big Dipper was huge and low on the horizon to the north, the two stars that make up the end of the “pan” pointing the way to the North Star and the handled tail of the Little Dipper. For a brief moment I found myself wishing for my cell phone and its “Night Sky” app so I could identify the many constellations but I was also grateful that instead of a screen I was looking into eternity.
Cocoa had followed and was sitting on the ground next to me and probably figuring she needed to stay close to the silly man out so late at night wandering around the prairie. In the end I decided not to walk all the way to the two bales at the top of the hill. I did turn to look towards them and reflect back on my time spent that afternoon leaning against them. After a few seconds I saw the streak of a shooting star above the silhouettes of the hay. I turned to Cocoa who was looking right at me…and laughed. It was a perfect night.
I finally turned towards the glow of the retreat center and said “Cocoa…let’s go home.” It must have been what she was waiting for because she eagerly set off in that direction. Just as we once more entered the lighted area near my door she stopped to look back at me as if to say “Are you finally going in?” Prompted only by her look I leaned down to pat her head and replied “Yes Cocoa. Goodnight.” She let me pet her for awhile as she sat there and then I reached for my card key and the door. She lay down in the grass near the entrance.
Tomorrow would be my final day in the silence at Broom Tree.
Since watching the movie The Way a year ago and learning about the Way of St. James I have wanted to make that pilgrimage. I’ve read a few books about this thousand year old walk, the best of which (so far) has been To The Field of Stars by Fr. Kevin Codd. In his introduction he talks about the stars:
It may well come to pass at a certain point in the course of a life that a person hears of stars dancing in a field at night. It is possible that such a story would be immediately dismissed as the stuff of childish fantasy or a piece of old wives’ tale, not to be taken seriously in these modern times. At best, the story might be taken as simply another happy ending to a fable created by the likes of the Grimm brothers or perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien. It could also be that the image of the stars coming low to earth and performing a joyful circle dance in the dead of night might nevertheless capture a person’s imagination even if such an image would seem not to belong to the world of facts and history and our modern understanding of what transpires in the course of real life.
I am about to share here a story about stars that dance. May I advise you to exercise a modicum of caution in attending to what follows, for the story of stars dancing over a field in a faraway land may so draw you away from the ordinary business of daily life that you find yourself, quite to your surprise, in a new world of unexpected adventures and remarkable people and some very profound mysteries. If this should happen to you, if the story of stars playing above the dusty bones of an old saint should capture you in its strange field of gravity, it may well draw you out of your house, down the street, and out of town. And if you leave home to see these stars cavort for yourself it will surely change you. You will come to see that which was previously unseen. You will witness miracles. You will, in the end, find yourself coming to know what is most true about these brief lives we have been given to live out on this tender earth.
Stars dancing over a barren field at night: Compostela. Tonight I saw them on the prairies under the familiar skies of my childhood in southeastern South Dakota. And while it is still my aim to journey to the Pyrenees of France to begin this trek across northern Spain, tonight I get just a small taste. It has whetted my appetite.
Fr. Codd gives us a definition for the word pilgrim by saying that “A pilgrim is a believer who travels to a holy place, a place where God seems especially close, to ask for pardon, to beg a favor, or to give thanks for blessings received.”
Before I turn fifty I aim to embark upon the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St. James under the stars, and be a pilgrim. Tonight in some smaller fashion I already am.
I have journeyed to a holy place. God is here.
I have begged for pardon. I have given thanks.
I have seen stars dance.
Source for Big Dipper photo
Source for shooting star photo