The Secret World Within

“To wonder is to stand in the towering shadow of God however frightened we are of our own smallness. Like Moses, let us pause at the bushes that burn. Like Tomas, let us bend for a closer look at Christ—even if, paradoxically, it’s doubt that reaches to touch his side. Let us have certainty when it’s available; let us have humility when it’s not.” – Jen Pollock Michel, Surprised by Paradox

Everything about this view is comforting—familiar. I’ve marveled at the symmetrical beauty of the magnolia lane dozens of times. The glistening leaves of the towering Magnolia Grandiflora trees mark the old entrance to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. When you stand there, you feel minuscule, like you are a part of something grand that must have always existed this way. You believe you could melt away and no one would notice you had been there. Your tiny part to play in this world is a vapor compared to the towering trees.

I imagine the changes to the world that these magnolias have witnessed during their stalwart watch over the monks who arrived on the old plantation grounds in 1944. Beyond that, I haven’t thought much about the trees before. Nestled on over 1,000 acres of Georgia woodlands, the monastery offers many other sights like the geese by the lake or the glorious stained glass windows.

I’ve always arrived here with a purpose in mind. I like to come during the liminal space between two years, asking God to guide me as I enter the next season. I’ve sought this place when discerning a big decision for which I need wisdom. I’ve been on retreats to learn from a few of the 300 remaining Cistercian monks in the world about a specific topic like contemplative prayer or writing. I’ve always carried expectation as my companion to this place.

Today is different. I am on a solo retreat with no agenda. The church, cafe, and museum are all still closed due to the pandemic. I can’t converse with the brothers or join them for prayer today. 

Yet, I need a weekend of silence and some time on what always feels like holy ground to me.

The world has been extra noisy lately. The voices shouting about elections and diseases, sides to take, and lines to draw—have become too much to take. I come to God with a million questions that I am not sure how to begin to ask.

I feel aimless at first. I open my Bible. I journal for a while. I sit in silent wordless communion with God. Then, I just start to wander the grounds. 

I amble past the trees, at first looking up at the way they seem to touch the sky. That’s usually what I notice about them—their height and their shine, the way the leaves never change year-round when everything around them seems to whither.

Today my pace is slower so I stop to notice the sunlight that is much brighter at the base of trees that reach all the way to the ground, with no trunk visible. They seem one with the earth like there is no dividing line between the two. 

I step closer and the vision changes. The branches touching the earth aren’t springing from below; they grow sharply downward from the middle of the trunk, jutting out at strange angles. They conceal a cavelike area between the branches and the trunk of the tree.

I part the evergreen leaves with my hands and step inside. From inside the hollow space, the view skyward is far different. I am surrounded on all sides by a tangle of ancient roots and immature saplings. The trunk has sprouted off into what looks like three individual trees intertwined in a spiraling dance. New sprouts have taken root, indecipherable from their mother tree, one with their origins.

Inside what appears to be a single hardwood, a universe is contained. I never stopped long enough to notice what was hidden under the impressive exterior before. It isn’t even pretty in the conventional sense, not like the glossy interminable exterior. The rows of magnolias lining the lane are orderly and neat—predictable. Certain.

But underneath the facade is a far more beautiful sight: It’s tangled. Complicated. Unruly. Textured. Interesting. Containing multitudes.

I pull myself onto a branch that forms a bridge between the trunk and the ground. It groans under my weight but settles again. It has borne far more than me in its time. I hear the shuffling of feet as another pilgrim ventures down the lane. She has no idea I am here hidden in this tent of branches.

I don’t know how long I remain there, sheltered from the world. I sit quietly in the Presence of God as tangible as the blanket of leaves that envelop me. 

I don’t receive answers in those moments. I’m not even sure there are questions anymore. 

Sometime later I walk to the top of the path to snap a photo and capture this moment. When I pull the photos up on my computer, there doesn’t appear to be anything extraordinary about them. The tiny screen just can’t recreate the magnitude of the trees, the worlds and decades contained inside of them. 

I feel a sly tug at the corners of my lips. I know there is more to the story. There is a mystery awaiting those who pause long enough to look.

I’ve gone to that place many times before. I’ve searched for truth, planned for revelation, and prayed for understanding. But when I finally lingered, I saw behind the veil. I feel like I am one of the few that has glimpsed the secret world within, the one that took me years to find but only seconds to discover. 

Nicole T. Walters
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