Love Breaks Through
by Shemaiah Gonzalez
The dark earth cracked with small specks of ice even though it had not rained in days. In ravines and ruts, where the last rain had pooled, sheets of ice were left shard, like broken mirrors strewn across the Surrey landscape. It was upon these paths I spent my afternoons wandering and praying.
This past January, I traveled to England to mediate on joy. To spend an entire month, without my family, without comforts of home, to turn the concept of delight and wonder and happiness over and over in my mind.
Most of this adventure was spent wandering the countryside of Surrey and Devon in Southern England. I stayed with religious communities, Jesuits and Benedictines who opened their doors and their guest rooms for me, and attended services at least once a day. And I took long, long walks.
How I came up with this formula I do not know. But it seemed to work for me.
The climate in England is quite similar to my hometown of Seattle, Washington. Januarys are cold and wet. I had not accounted for the fact that when I am home, I am not out of doors, actually in the wet and the cold. I am cozy and dry inside. Similarly, I had not accounted for the bitter chill of Victorian era monasteries which cost a fortune to heat. The result was that I was always cold. I was cold but happy.
Something happens when you deprive yourself of comforts voluntarily, whether in fasting, abstaining, or finding yourself in an old monastery in the middle of the English countryside. With only two meals a day, a chill I couldn’t shake, lack of internet and cell service, something happened in that space which is usually cloaked by comfort. Call it magic or mystery but the words of the liturgy I heard several times a day became part of my cadence, placing me in some sort of liminal space; a space between this world and the one we cannot usually see.
The prayers prayed with the monks became part of my sleep.
Lord, come to my aid.
I heard Brother Thomas, whose voice started our prayers in this way, sing this refrain over in my mind as I brushed my teeth.
And make haste to help me.
I whispered as I tied my shoes.
I dreamt of the words from compline.
Watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in His peace.
But too, the Word became part of my waking thoughts—especially as I walked the stark countryside lined with barren branches.
Lord, let Your love come upon me.
I was discovering on those walks and through these prayers how much joy is entwined with love. How knowing I am loved, believing I am loved, opens me up to joy.
Dusk covered the landscape early. Without streetlights, it could prove difficult to find my way back to the monastery if I didn’t return by four o’clock. But there was another reason why I wanted to return before vespers—so I could chat with Brother Andrew.
He was usually waiting for me when I pushed open the huge wooden door to the guest house. Brother Andrew was my host monk. He made sure I felt welcome and guided me through the prayer books for each of the daily offices. Also, we liked to tell stories in the afternoon. I peeled off my gloves and filled up the kettle for tea.
What are you doing out there on your afternoon walk?
Looking for a fox. I told him.
They are everywhere.
Well, I’ve never seen one and I’d like to. I’m such a city girl, a fox is an exotic creature to me.
I’m going to pray that you see your fox—before you leave our monastery.
After compline I lay in bed singing the lines from the Welsh melody we just sang,
Day is done, but love unfailing
Dwells ever here
Shadows fall but hope prevailing,
Calms every fear.
Starting this journey, I had been fearful. Would I be able to be away from my family for this long? Would I navigate the logistics of travel? Would I stay safe on the journey?
Each day, these fears subsided as I felt God’s love pouring over me. I had felt the need to accomplish something. Perhaps write a good portion of the book I had brewing in me during the trip. But it quickly became clear that God wanted me to experience the book, to soak in joy, to know He loved me.
The next day after Mass, I had planned on taking the bus into the closest town, pick up a few provisions and then walk back to the monastery. A parishioner heard my plan and offered a ride five miles into town.
After a hot lunch, a new book, a quart of milk, and a refill on drugstore toiletries, I headed back to the monastery with new ground and sights to cover. It was brisk but the sunshine was out. Bright enough for me to pull out my sunglasses. The air smelled clean and woodsy. The public path took me to the top of a hill with farmland spread out before me. Sheep dotted the landscape as did cottages made of sandstone. So this is what awe feels like, I thought to myself.
Down in the valley, the pathway became mucky. My shoes stuck in the mud as I stepped, my socked foot pulling out on its own. There was nothing I could do but laugh, stick the foot back into my shoe and move forward. I had four miles more to go. Villagers met me on the path with knee high wellies on.
I think you’ve ruined your trainers there. They teased.
I didn’t care. It was glorious.
Bramble bush on one side of me and farmland on the other. I felt as if I connected with some great grandmother who walked these fields centuries before. My legs moved strong beneath me even as I moved awkwardly through the mire.
Three miles to go and I walked through woods behind village houses until the path spit me out abruptly onto train tracks, perhaps miles from a crossing, unguarded and unfenced on either side. It was jarring to find myself upon the tracks I rode in a rapid train just a few days before. I stopped to listen as I looked each way before crossing over.
In the middle of the tracks, I stopped, realizing I may never be in this position again. I pulled out my iPhone to document the thrill of standing on the tracks and snapped. That’s when I saw it. A fox. He saw me first. He stopped in the middle of the tracks looking at me. He is there, in that photo. When I stopped, he stopped. When I moved, he moved, his body sleek and low to the ground. We looked at each other for a few seconds until I realized I wasn’t breathing. And I was in the middle of train tracks.
I dashed to the other side and looked back at him. I saw the white tip of his luxuriant tail as he sauntered away. And then, as if he felt me, he too, looked back, his eyes narrowing over his long-pointed nose. It was just a second. Then he was gone, down onto the path, out of sight. And without warning, without any notice, I sobbed. I sobbed because he was so beautiful. I sobbed because I had wanted so badly to see one. And I sobbed because I knew that just as I like to give my own children gifts that will fill them up with hope and wonder, God likes to do this too.
This is all to dazzle you. Just let Me love you.
Shemaiah Gonzalez is a storyteller and essayist whose work has appeared in America Magazine, U.S. Catholic and Loyola Press, among others. Her biography on beloved Catholic writer Brian Doyle will be published with Liturgical Press, Fall 2023. She is currently working on transforming her popular Substack Undaunted Joy into a collection of essays. A Los Angeles native, she now lives in Seattle with her husband and their two sons. Connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and her website.
*Photo courtesy of Jeremy Vessey and Unsplash