Note from CM: I am so happy to announce that Adam McHugh will be writing a regular monthly post for us here at Internet Monk. Adam has been published in The Christian Century, The Washington Post, Leadership Journal, RELEVANT Magazine, Psychology Today, and Conversations Journal, as well as in other publications and websites. He is obviously a talented writer, and I have always felt a kindred spirit with him through his writings and our common ministry experiences. Check out his blog at Adam S. McHugh.
Recently, Adam had quite an interesting personal journey. Please welcome him to the IM community as he shares it today.
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This last season of my life is best captured by two roads. It sounds like a tired metaphor, except it’s not a metaphor. I have in mind two actual paths. One you drive and the other you walk.
The first road was a way of salvation for me for many years. In my spiritual life, the Damascus Road or the Road to Emmaus do not hold a candle to the 101 freeway. No one who has ever driven on the 101 near the 405 interchange would ever call it the road less traveled. But every few weeks, when the work of ministry had taken more than it had given, I would sneak off to the 101 North and drive up the California coast to the Santa Ynez Valley, the wine country just past Santa Barbara.
There is a point on the 101, right around Ventura, where your car emerges from the gripping congestion of greater L.A. and you are greeted by the Pacific Ocean lapping the central coast of California. As the road opens up, so does the landscape, and with the blue ocean on my left and the emerald hills on my right, my soul would take a deep breath. I called these jaunts “wine retreats,” though admittedly at first they weren’t particularly spiritual. I was parched from ministry and I hoped some good Pinot Noir would quench my thirst.
Over time I began to apply different language to these adventures. I started to call them “pilgrimages,” allying myself with ancient wayfarers who trekked to holy places and usually stopped along the way at monasteries for food, rest, and a glass of estate wine. The vineyards became a “thin place” for me, one of those hallowed spots in the Celtic tradition where the clouds that separate heaven and earth part and the sun of God’s presence shines brilliantly.
With each trip, the whisper in my mind became increasingly louder. One day I would make the drive up the 101 and never return. I would disappear into wine country. I would work in wine, write, and lead a quiet life in a small town. It felt like the glory of God had up and left Los Angeles and landed in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Last April I did it. I left professional ministry, which had not felt like a good fit for some time, and I moved to wine country. For 6 months I wrote in a local coffee shop attached to a local bookstore in the mornings, and worked in wineries in the afternoons and evenings. At night I hung out with the locals at their watering holes.
I hated it.
When I wasn’t working, I was bored. When you travel to wine country you expect to eat great food and drink great wine. When you live in wine country, you realize there isn’t much to do there besides eat food and drink wine. When I asked people what I should do on off-days, they said “Go hiking!” To which I replied, “Okay, but what do I do the other 29 days of the month?” The residents, who proudly announced which generation of the Valley they were a part of, were friendly but not terribly interested in newcomers. I was a raging liberal compared to these well meaning but heavily armed folk. There were about 8 radio stations and 5 of them were country.
I languished in wine country. I was disappointed, lonely, heartbroken. Always a dreamer, I started to give up on dreaming dreams. My holy place had become a desert place.
That was when I discovered my second road. Across the street from the second winery I worked at was a beautiful Episcopal church with a bell tower and an open chapel. Often after work I would sit in the chapel and listen, wondering if God had anything more to say to me. He usually didn’t.
That quaint Episcopal church also had a labyrinth on its campus. Even though I knew about the spirituality of a labyrinth, I had never walked one. A labyrinth is an ancient prayer tool, which some say was used in the middle ages as a substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It is a circular path that gradually winds its way into a center, and it symbolizes a pilgrim’s journey to the holy land, and more, a seeker’s movement toward God. As you walk the path you release those things, attitudes, and burdens that encumber your movement toward the awareness of God.
The first time I walked the labyrinth was a Saturday after work. It was an oppressively hot July evening, but work had been so depressing that I was desperate. Already sweating as I stepped onto the church grounds, I started to walk the path, thinking that it would just take a few laps and I would be in the middle. That’s when I realized that a labyrinth is not a spiral, gradually moving the pilgrim to the center. It’s not a straight line that has been bent into circles to save space. The path winds and teases, drawing you tantalizingly close to the core, and then veering off. I was frustrated and hot, but I was determined. I kept releasing my hurt, my sense of failure, my lost dreams, my desolation.
My face dripping with perspiration, I made it to the center. I turned and faced the church. Before I even had a chance to ask for anything, a voice sounded in my head: “I LOVE YOU.” All the other voices fled before this Voice like the waves of the Red Sea. From experience I knew that it was the voice of God, because it was short, declarative, unexpected, and exactly what I needed to hear though I didn’t know it. I can tell God’s voice less by the words that come and more by the impact they make on me. The tears streamed down my face.
Last month, I drove south on the 101 and returned to Los Angeles. I no longer think that my salvation lies on a road that points north. My path will draw me in and cast me out, pull me close and let me drift. I will let go and be held tight. There will be seasons when I am walking a straight path to the center and there will be seasons of seeming interminable wandering in the wilderness. There will be blind corners and dead ends. Sometimes I will tremble in frigid, desolate air and other times I will come so close to Glory that I will be burned.
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Adam McHugh is the author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture. (InterVarsity Press). He is almost finished with a new book called The Listening Life. He is a writer, spiritual director, and aspiring wine sommelier.