I slipped through the crowd in the auditorium lobby, swung open the gallery’s glass door, and stepped inside. The bustle evaporated in a holy hush as the space swallowed all the chattering voices. White walls soothed my overstimulated brain. Paintings and photographs peppered throughout did not clamor for attention. Instead, they waited patiently to be noticed.
I wandered past the entryway into the cavernous main hall, where the ceiling stretched taller and gained another story. The polished butterscotch floor reflected the overhead light. Settling myself down on a simple wooden stool, I slid off my bulky coat and laid it down atop the pile made by my purse and bag.
I’d read the description for this meditation session offered to those attending the Festival of Faith and Writing: a brief retreat from the flurry of panels, interviews, classes, and speeches to practice centering prayer. When it fit into my schedule, I showed up, hungry for quiet. I looked around as I waited for it to begin.
A three-dimensional exhibit hung before me in the center of the large room. Photographs of sky and naked tree branches hung like floating puzzle pieces above my head. A rainbow of three-dimensional leaves floated beneath each one in various stages of descent. Lights shone down on the display and framed it on all sides. Silver wires supporting the foliage shimmered when hit by the light, but from other angles, tricked the eye and disappeared. Shadows painted the surrounding bare walls with the shape of each unique leaf, providing the illusion of a deeper forest.
Soon the facilitator greeted those of us who had assembled. She asked us to close our eyes and relax, to breathe deeply and open our hands. The words she used were few but her voice ushered us into the presence of God. As I sat and stilled in the silence, the word I heard blow through my mind as we began our centering prayer was at once both foreign and familiar:
I focused on my breath, allowed my lungs to expand to their limit, then deflated them slowly and deliberately. Peace washed over me as I realized: I am being held.
I flashed back to the week I’d had before arriving at this conference. My sleep was interrupted, my mind was scattered, my days were frantic and checklist-driven. Finally, mid-week, it dawned on me: I was caught in the constricting grip of fear. A legion of lies had pinned me down and drained my energy. This mob loomed large and mysterious in the dark corners of my mind. When I had finally had enough, I confronted each one, brought them out of the background and into the light. I made them stand where I could see them and state their names. Exposed, one by one, they looked weak and silly. In the light, they lost their power. Once I could name the fears I held and see they were holding me back, I chose to let them go. But I was still weary from the fight.
It’s a lesson I have to relearn time and again: fear loses its grip when I choose faith.
At first, letting go of what’s familiar feels like chaos: a free fall that begins when I give up the safety of a sturdy branch far above the cold, hard ground. Trying something new, showing up as my real self, by myself, carries the risk of exposure, rejection, and loneliness. But if I never jump, I’ll wither and waste my one wild and precious life.
The artist captured the falling leaves in mid-flight. They weren’t struggling or clinging to anything; they were free: gliding, while guided and supported by an invisible presence. No longer clustered in a clump with others, their intricate designs revealed themselves in the empty air.
They were wrapped in the wind, held by the heavens, for the whole length of their journey. (Just like me.)
The result was breathtaking, even magical: frailty that trusts learns to fly.
Held. The word was a gift to me. A whispered promise.
I emerged from the sacred space a little calmer, a little braver, and much less alone.
*This exhibit at Calvin College’s Center Art Gallery was entitled “Remembrances” by Jennifer L. Hand. The centering prayer exercise was led by J. Dana Trent. My sincere thanks to both of you for using your gifts so others like me could be inspired and encouraged.