Among the Stones (Far From the Madding Crowd) by Bob Ritzema
It’s been a contemplative summer. I read a book on Centering Prayer, a contemplative form of Christian prayer, and have tried to incorporate aspects of it into my spiritual practice. I’ve been slowly working my way through New Seeds of Contemplation by mid-twentieth-century Trappist monk Thomas Merton. I’ve been trying to devote less attention to what’s going on elsewhere–political developments, the financial markets, sports, social media posts–so I can notice more of what’s happening where I am, in my immediate surroundings. And I’ve also been sitting among piles of stones.
The latter is the result of a project at my mom’s house. Many years ago, she and my dad had a stone border about six feet wide and fifty feet long installed alongside their driveway. Workers dug up the grass, laid down landscape paper, then dumped a few thousand pounds of small stones on top. The border looked very good for many years. With time, though, dirt and organic matter fell or were blown into the stones. Some of this material eventually sifted down to rest on the landscape paper, and eventually there was enough soil that weeds started growing up through the stones. Each year, it takes more effort to clear away the weeds. This spring, grasses, dandelions, violets, and various and sundry other types of plant sprung up everywhere in the border. I decided that it would be best to remove the stones a section at a time, pull up the weeds, put down new landscape paper on top of the dirt, and put the stones back on top.
I soon discovered that I couldn’t get the stones up with a shovel, meaning I would have to remove them with a trowel and my hands. It took hours to remove the stones from just a few square feet. I piled up stones in large stacks. The stones were dirty, so before I put them back on the new landscape paper I had to wash them off in buckets of water. So far, I’ve spent about 40 hours on the project, thirty minutes or so at a time, and have only completed an area about six feet square. I’m not going to get the project completed by the end of summer.
At first it bothered me that I was making so little progress. Then I discovered that digging in the stones was an excellent way to flush from my mind the concerns that usually accumulate there. I like looking at the stones, each different in size or shape or color from the next. I like their feel, their heft and smoothness, and the gritty feel of the dirt covering some of them. I sometimes listen to sermon podcasts on an MP3 player while I work, the better to meditate on matters of the spirit. I vary recorded sermons with a recorded novel; fittingly, I’m listening to a Librivox recording of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Sometimes I pray as I dig with my trowel. I might repeat the Jesus Prayer again and again. Or I imagine each stone to be someone who needs divine intervention and picture God taking each person in his hands just as I take the stones in my hands. When I am done working on the stones for the day, I am calmer and more at peace than when I had started.
Thomas Merton wrote this about the place where contemplative prayer can best be practiced:
“There should be at least a room, or some corner where no one will find you and disturb you or notice you. You should be able to untether yourself from the world and set yourself free, loosing all the fine strings and strands of tension that bind you by sight, by sound, by thought, to the presence of other men.” New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 81
This summer, my mother’s stone border has been the corner where no one disturbs or notices me. I’m careful not to take my cell phone outside with me; any calls or messages will have to wait. For a little while, I’m untethered from the world, loosed from those strands of tension that normally hold me as tenaciously as a spider’s web holds a fly. I’m privileged to have such a place where whenever I want I can contemplate the divine.
By Bob Ritzema