Last year I was asked to write a piece for a booklet, the end of year publication from our writer’s group. The theme was to be 25, as it was the 25th anniversary year of the Sophia Ecumenical Feminist Spirituality Centre, which hosts the group. The connection that came to mind surprised me, but one day while driving, a visual image of a partly built wall made of tiny bricks rose in my mind, taking me back to our 25th wedding anniversary, almost exactly 25 years before, just about the time Sophia opened.
We had wanted to avoid a big party so we decided to go away from our large family and just reclaim our primary relationship, and mark the beginning of a new phase. We looked for an adventure in another culture and place. We chose Thailand because it had never been colonized, remaining more ‘untouched’ by outside influences – and because it was a Buddhist country and we were both interested in Buddhism. On the 7th January, the actual day of the marriage, we went to a small wat in Chiang Mai, called Wat U-Mong, which friends had mentioned. (It did take a very determined Thai woman about half an hour to work out what we were saying, with the aid of everyone in her shop, her family and a few passers-by, but we got there.)
The wat turned out to be a retreat centre, and nothing could have been more perfect. The front wall of the main building was completely made of folding doors that were left open, and inside was a library on a mezzanine floor, and some of the books were written in English. We were told to our delight that there was no need to even give our names, just to put the books on the table when we wanted to leave. Such complete hospitality!
We spent the day mostly in silence, wandering the grounds, perching with our books in the little shelters, eating fruit we had taken for lunch, and bathed in the quiet beauty, so silent in contrast to the city outside its walls. In one corner just off the driveway, I found a grove of shady trees which had small metal sheets nailed into their trunks, each one bearing a hand-painted sign. Attracted and intrigued, I investigated, and found they were common proverbs which had been written in Thai and translated by a German monk into English, and some had that charm of the ‘almost right’ translation.
When money speaks truth is silent. Every honest work is honourable work.
Today is better than two tomorrows. Eat to live but not live to eat. (Oh dear!)
He who knows himself does not extol himself. To do good and evil unseen by others are always seen by oneself.
The last sign was a little further on and faced away from me. I decided that whatever it said would be the message I accepted in relation to our marriage. It turned out to be ‘Separation and ending are inherent in everything’ I was quite disturbed and rattled, wondering if it was a prediction of doom, so I decided not to share that one with my husband until another day.
A monk shyly came to show us that there was a temple they were restoring and there were caves underneath. He invited us to walk around the site, and also pray if we wished. The temple was just a ruin, the remainders of its walls built with those tiny handmade bricks from before the time Jesus walked the earth. They were gradually making more tiny bricks to the same design using the original process, to painstakingly rebuild it. It will be a monument to the Buddhist outlook on life, but it is unlikely that it is finished yet.
The caves were not as we had imagined them. They were more like passages with niches carved out here and there. They reminded me of a crypt but had filtered sunlight entering through several small entrances. I found one that had some devotional candles lit in it, and I sat there alone and sank into the deepest meditation I had ever experienced. I was anchored in stillness and peace that went down into my bones and soul, and I was surrounded and flooded through in blessing. I have no idea if I was there ten minutes or an hour but when I had finished something in me had changed.
I knew clearly that God did not have to be exclusively named or owned, was not an object to classify or define or even an object to seek. I was relieved to find that I did not have to have answers to my many questions, that this was grace, to just sit and let myself be restored to deep connection.Even though in dark times I might temporarily not see or remember the way, stillness and meditation are the entry gate, and in the silence I am connected again to all that is, in loving embrace.
I am glad to have had another twenty-five years grounded by that experience, a gift spilt into the open palm of my hand. Last January 7th was our fiftieth anniversary. It followed closely on to George’s leukaemia diagnosis and we were not yet ready to party. Instead we went out for a simple dinner together, just the two of us, in an Indian restaurant in Port Adelaide. It was redolent of the impulse to deeper intimacy that took as to Thailand twenty-five years earlier. It set out for us the path of how we wanted to live the next phase of our lives together.
When I ponder these coming years, my thoughts are edged with a new tinge of fear and an urgency to the love I feel, and the desire to live well these precious days.
I am mindful of that last saying on the tree in Wat U-Mong. Separation and ending are inherent in everything.
I know it is the reality we can’t avoid, but for now I am going to put it aside until it is time to face that task. It can abide till then. It is the cost of loving, but together we took the risk and it is still worth the price.