There’s a Catholic shrine in the woods next to our apartment building, a remnant from the days when the campus was a local monastery. It sits back from the parking lot, a stone arch topped with a cross and steps approaching its base, nestled into the trees. It’s easily seen to one who looks but seems as though it might be trying to hide, or let itself be forgotten, in a manner abandoned places often do.
I’ve developed the habit of taking short walks before bed. And I often find myself at the shrine, sitting on the stone table beneath the arch. There’s something wonderful, something mystical, about it that draws me under it’s shadow, to rest, listen, feel it breathing beneath me, at least for a little bit.
I spent part of my undergraduate years at a school in southern Indiana, where the cornfields yield to rolling foothills. Close to where I lived there was an old state road, winding like a forgotten river away from the new, four-lane highway that replaced it. Indeed, a small brook sang its way alongside the road; treetops curved over the pavement as if nature itself were embracing the street, comforting it, shielding it. It was hardly a few miles long, this road, from the place where it left the modern era and wound along a niche of the world overlooked by human time, before reconnecting at a four-way intersection. I never saw many cars on the road, though I spent hours running, walking, driving it’s length. If I had a thousand lives I’d spend a handful of them there, listening to the stories of the pavement.
For the place seemed, to me, like suburbia and farmland had met, at a sleazy bar in a hotel called “Progress.” The result of their one-night stand was a child, unwanted and unrecognized to a fast-paced world which ultimately left it behind; a child named Narnia.
Oh, what stories the forgotten might tell- the broken in spirit, Jesus would say. If only someone would listen.
My whole life I’ve operated under the notion that places are dead; inanimate, we’re told. And so they become unnoticed collateral; we discard places like tissues, use them as stepping-stones to our own journey, never listening to the stories the stones themselves might tell when they cry out, as Jesus would say.
But places haunt me; Narnia cries quietly in the shadows of my yesteryear. Like people, friends, acquaintances, lovers and kin- places inhabit small parts of my soul with a life of their own; and I cannot be free of them. As if I’d want to.
Celtic theology holds to the notion of “thin-places”, areas where the veil between heaven and earth is sparse enough for eternity to break through. I’m not sure if I believe in thin-places; for all the mountains, oceans, valleys and canyons-for all the wonders I’ve seen- I might have been convinced. Except such places never seem thin to me, but rather inexpressibly thick. Thick like the smell of rainfall on parched land, thick like the heaviness of a good feast, one that’s not soon forgotten; thick like the poetry of “I do”, like a lover’s dress sliding off the shoulder; thick like desperation, thick like the pain of loss, the sounds of a sirens in the night and the soil that eventually covers, buries us all. I don’t know about thin places, but I’ve been to thick places.
And the shame is that, for every thick place I’ve been, I’ve always been eager to leave. Deep in my heart there lives a teenage boy with a roadmap spread open on the hood of an old Jeep. The earth around him sings, leaves clap, snow whispers and sunshine lifts it’s melody. But he is tone deaf to it all. Wanderlust must be the eighth deadly sin, for it rips us from the ointment of heaven that place tries to rub on our dry, and cracking skin; it draws us from the infinitude of staying, from the urgency of breathing in the same air as it changes with the seasons, seeing the same view from our bedroom windows as it’s warmed by sun and blanketed in snow.
And most nights sitting on with that lonely shrine I find myself distracted within minutes, ripped away in spirit then body. I am always anywhere but here, always leaving before I’ve even arrived.
Which is why I return to the shrine. Night after night, I return, I sit and I allow it to hold me, whisper to me. The teenager in me flirts with a girl named Narnia; she’s got a glimmer of loss in her eyes but hope glows on her cheeks. And when I’m there I feel it, feel the place.
And I just think: I could be here forever.
Someday, Narnia tells the boy, you will.