It’s one of my favorite places in the world. Here, just up the snow-covered hill by the fire pit at the edge of the forest. Here, with the view down the valley of blue-grey hills and fields of white, the gold dome of the Chapel peeking through tree tops.
Much has changed since I first came here 43 years ago – the trees so much taller, grand stone dorms at the far edge of the field. But much is the same as it was that first summer I pulled out my blanket here at the top of the field to read Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. I was a high school junior and here for a summer term at Colgate. I never expected or wanted to come to college here, but a year later here I was back lying at the top of the hill watching billowing clouds drift down the valley.
Despite my plans and expectations, something about this landscape of rolling hills, this patchwork of forest and field drew me back. Yes, Colgate lacked most everything I wanted on my list of chosen schools – I wanted a school without fraternities, a smaller school than this, a school in New England. But it had the one thing no other place had – these hills, this sky, this view, this landscape.
Following the call of a landscape changed everything. Would I ever have been called into ministry (again not at all what I imagined or planned for my life) if it hadn’t been for my experience at Colgate? Would the questions have been planted that have guided my life?
Despite all I believed and planned, this unexpected place gave me the gift and surprise of unexpected gifts.
So now here again today, at the crest of the hill, ankle deep in snow at the edge of the woods. There down to the left, the grey stones of the college cemetery where so many teachers and mentors like Coleman, the University Church Chaplain, are buried. Coleman had met me at Chapel House the last time I was here for a retreat, decades ago now, and took me to lunch apologizing to the Chapel House host for breaking the rules and taking me off site.
It’s here to Chapel House, at the edge of the field that led me to this place, that I’ve returned this week.
The little brochure at the entry notes that Chapel House aims to be “an oasis for peace and healing for individuals, Colgate University and the world.” Founded in 1959, it was a gift of an anonymous donor who requested that her name never be mentioned.
“I am an old woman,” she said, “and soon I shall be going over to the other side where I’ll see all my friends. If I had done something for the Lord and added my name to it, I’d be ashamed to see them.”
Everytime I’ve wandered through the glass doors over the years I’ve wondered what’s taken me so long to return. This gift of beauty and solitude, these blue wing-backed chairs at broad windows looking down the valley. This beautiful place to write, read, sit or meditate, rest and receive this old woman’s gift of space and time.
I’d planned on coming here this fall, but the unexpected gift of coming here now serves even better. Yesterday afternoon as I drove north from Maryland I’d pulled off I-81 for a phone call in the parking lot at Burger King that confirmed that this interim time of four months is now coming to a close with a new beginning. No, not a position I ever expected (of course!) but a gift that I so heart-full of gratitude and expectancy receive. Another reminder of what this interim time these past months has opened– the gift of time for the unplanned and unexpected to unfold.
Yes, I’ve done many of the things I “planned” on doing during this sabbatical time. I’ve taken time to hike and write, time for solitude, time with friends and family, time for adventures and the discovery of places I’d never been. And yes, things I never planned and expected as well – discoveries like Ghost Ranch where I spent a few weeks in January that have led to new possibilities and openings as I’ve had space and time to listen for call and discern a deeper calling to what I’d not “planned” and “expected.”
The last weeks have been a flurry of conversations and interviews, possibilities and hopes for next steps. Late yesterday afternoon when I arrived I could feel how fast my heart and mind were running. If I didn’t have times of intentional pausing like this, I wonder if I’d even notice.
To gift yourself, to give myself the gift of a pause is a rare and precious privilege. How many people couldn’t imagine such a time as much as they might desire it. And yes, how many who could choose a time like this don’t for all the good reasons we know.
And so, such a true gift to be here in this place dedicated to the Cultivation and Spirit of Slowing and Quiet. The only “structure” and guidance provided — emptiness, woods, silence, the contemplation of books, art and music, an open day and schedule punctuated by the ringing of the gong and invitation to the next delicious meal.
I come expecting and planning to look back on this interim time and remember. Come expecting to write and draw what I want to hold to before stepping out into the next new chapter.
But even more, I want to give myself to what I never planned and expected, to open myself to the gift of this time to offer its unplanned and unexpected gifts.
So yes, now out for that walk to the top of the hill and the view down the valley. Now, time for a walk in the woods.
As I rise from this writing, I plant this prayer of gratitude for all the unexpected, unplanned events and relationships, choices and connections of life that have led here to this space and time. For the gift of an old woman who believed in the possibility for this emptiness, this silence to be an opening for what is waiting to be revealed beyond our wildest expectations.