. . . I return again to a remarkable story by Isak Dinesen form her years spent in Africa. One day, out in the bush, she came upon a beautiful snake, its skin glistening with subtle, variegated colors. She raved so much about that snakeskin that one of her servants killed the snake, skinned it, and made it into a belt for her. To her great dismay, that once glistening skin was now just dull and gray. For all along the beauty had lain not in the physical skin but in the quality of its aliveness. – Cynthia Bourgeault in The Wisdom Way of Knowing
A thick and wrinkled stack of papers sits just the way I remembered it, tucked into a nearly opaque plastic shopping bag. I’d looked through three thumb drives and a backup hard drive before plowing through the filing cabinets tucked into an upstairs crawl space. I was looking for a certain sermon from my days as a Chaplain at Hershey Medical Center and finally found it in a box full of files in a second crawl space. The dull green folders slumped lifelessly together, with the last few still wrapped in that old grocery bag I used to carry them home.
The contents of our crawl spaces document every vocational chapter of my life. The seminary years are tucked neatly into still-bright primary-colored folders – so many accolades and so much potential filed for now. Then there are the teaching files, twenty-four at least, folders filled with lectures and outlines, presentations I knit together to survive semester after semester of not really knowing what I was supposed to be doing. There are church files too, from my year as a pastor, sermons in every shape and style as I did the difficult work of figuring out how to be with people from the pulpit.
It was unsettling, all of that searching through former lives and in the end probably not worth it for the few lines of text I was seeking which didn’t glimmer nearly so well on the paper in my hand as they had in my memory. It was as though the life had gone out of them the moment they left my lips.
I have a hard time shaking the feeling that something of me is left in all of those files, all of those letters lined up so neatly on a page, something intangible that may well be lost if I don’t somehow keep them along with me through thick and thin.
So the files continue to sit there like the skins of my former selves, surrounded by bin after bin of clothing for my children who continue to shed their skins too, shape-shifting from soft sweetness to gawky bundles of energy.
I wonder, what is it that remains once all of this is shed – the roles and titles, that so easily come and go? And how do I even now attend to that thing which lies behind and beneath every other thing, that which Jesus once described as the only necessary thing?