I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Kathleen Deyer Bolduc’s reflection, “Beauty From the Ashes.”
I walk around the south pasture of our retreat center grounds, waiting for a photograph to capture my attention. All I can see is the mess behind the barn. I don’t “see” the barn itself—this beautiful, 1880’s barn that we’ve restored for retreats, contemplation, and worship.
The mess overshadows the beauty of this place called Cloudland. The burn pile, which is so big we’re afraid to light it. The sagging, sun-bleached tarp bunched over the overflow from the barn. The tree limb, blown down in a windstorm, crushing a piece of fence.
My heart burns with irritation as my mind says, Ignore the mess. Keep walking. Maybe there’s a photo waiting for you under the boughs of the pine tree.
But no. I’m drawn, like a magnet, toward the mess. I stand in front of the burn pile. Contemplate this, my heart whispers.
I snap the photo and walk back to the prayer room, where Brea, a college student I’m mentoring, awaits me with her own photograph. I am aware of a question swirling in my mind. How much am I willing to share about this mess in my life?
We sit in the quiet for a few minutes, soaking in our images, asking God to illuminate what longs for the light of day.
What needs to be burned away, Lord?
The answer is instantaneous. Let’s start with this broken image of who you are in the world.
Hmm. I pick up each piece of who I am as if it were a piece of wood in this pile. Follower of Jesus. Contemplative. Spiritual Director. Writer. Wife, Mom. Daughter. Friend.
Autism, depression, anxiety and dementia (youngest son, oldest son, middle son, and mother, respectively) make the Mom and Daughter pieces sharp and jagged. It’s hard to be a monk in the world with these kinds of issues piercing my boundaries.
Worry and questions about how I can make things better for those I love not only poke and prod me during the day, but wake me at 4 AM.
Again, I ask, Lord, what needs to be burned away?
I struggle to put it into words to Brea, who is looking at my photo as I talk. There is no holding back. I need to figure this out.
Comparison. No, my family does not look like so-and-so’s family. You know. That family at church that looks so close-knit. It doesn’t look anything like the vision my husband and I had when we started our family 42 years ago.
Control. If there is anything we are powerless over, it’s the mental health of adult children or the gradual cognitive decline of a parent with dementia.
Perfection. That yearning to be the mother whose children can’t wait to spend time with her because she is the perfect companion, listener, and wielder of wisdom.
In my mind I see the biggest logs in this burn pile embellished with these three words: Comparison. Control. Perfection. I imagine setting a match to the pile. The flames starting out small, creeping up the largest branches, before bursting forth in roaring flames. I imagine sitting next to the fire. I feel the flames warming my face. I imagine watching the stars come out, one by one, and the moon rising behind the barn. I imagine the pile burning down to ash, and dousing it with water before retiring for the night. I imagine a night of deep sleep, no anxiety dreams waking me at 4 AM.
And the next day? And the next?
New life looks like this. Walking toward the mess instead of avoiding it. Opening myself to the heat of the flames of grief for those I love. Admitting my powerlessness over autism, depression, anxiety and dementia.
New life looks like starting a new burn pile. Discarding unhealthy habits and ways of being before the pile gets so big I’m afraid to deal with it. It looks like burning that pile on a regular basis and allowing the flames of my grief to warm and soften my body.
New life looks like raking the ashes so that the grass underneath can sprout. The raking looks like meditation and writing, disciplines in which the chaos falls into a mosaic of beauty.
New life looks like standing up and saying This is who I am. I am a follower of Jesus, a contemplative, a writer, a spiritual director. Yes, I am also wife, mother, and daughter. I love those roles, but I am not a fixer. I can sit with these people I love, in God’s presence. I can cry with them and laugh with them. I can wait with them as we open the eyes of our hearts to the Holy that surrounds us at all times.
I imagine my family sitting together in the light of the fire that brings beauty from ashes; the mess no longer overshadowing the beauty that is my family.
Kathleen Deyer Bolduc is the author of The Spiritual Art of Raising Children with Disabilities and Autism & Alleluias. She and her husband are the owners of Cloudland, a contemplative retreat center in southwest Ohio, where she practices spiritual direction and going on daily God hunts. KathleenBolduc.com