He tells me to wait. He tells me to listen. He tells me to spend more time with my daughters and my wife. And I do; all of it. My shoulders relax. I sleep, much deeper. And isn’t that what we’re after? A good nights sleep?
“Should we buy a car?” I ask in between sips of tea.
“I don’t know. Don’t we need a car?” she asks.
“Do we? What do we really do with a car, anyway?”
“I get it, but what about the freedom, going for drives—just getting in and going?”
“Yeah, I know. But what if do things differently this time?”
I’m waiting for my heart to slow down, to not beat out of my chest like it normally does. They say anxiety will do that to you. I feel like a chain smoker. I sit and wait; my heart thumps in my ears because I can’t let go of the worry. Am I in control of this? After all, I don’t own a car.
Maybe tonight I’ll head down to the pub. It’s only about a half-mile walk. It’s dark, but there are some lights. After that it’s just open fields and a highway. I mean, the pub is the thing here. Maybe I'll read.
“You sound like you’re a long way from home? Where ‘ya from?”
“Pennsylvania, well, Atlanta I guess. I lived there for seven years before coming here. But my family, we’re originally from Pennsylvania.”
“Welcome to Oxford, Mr. Pennsylvania. The next question is, Why are you here?”
And what do I say. He told me to come?
“ You here for university?”
“What are you studying?”
“Theology? You believe that sh**?”
“Um … actually, yes. I do.”
It’s England, so the cussing sounds better than in America at least—probably because I can’t understand it. Most everyone is pleasant; some don't care for the university and many care even less about "the church." But that's okay.
And here we are. My family of five.
The girls know we live in a different house and they talk “London” here. Daddy’s “getting more books” and getting his “doc-trate.” But there is something else here.
I remember it from when I was a boy. I remember it from when I was on the road, touring the country in a band. I also remember it from other times in life. It’s a sound, but not really. More like what a sound feels like when you live it. More like what a sound looks like when you remember it. That’s what I remember.
It was there that morning when me and Jessie, Bobby, Jon and I camped in the pine grove. Eight inches of snow on the ground, six more on the way. We hiked back in after dark because you’re not supposed to camp in the Game Lands. We reached the pine grove my brother, Jon, and I found the day before. We dug out the snow, collected wood, built a fire, and ate Chunky Soup. It was cold; about 18 degrees.
I woke early, just before dawn. The night’s raging fire still smoked. We’d all slid into a bunch; crammed together—asleep and warm.
I poked the fire and got it going. Each sound, something you could feel. The sun rose, but I couldn’t see it. It just lit up the low hanging clouds with a soft glow. It was so quiet. The guys didn’t move. I sat, in the quiet, watching the coals kindle and grow.
Then, a flake.
An even fall tumbled through the pines. The smoke rose, the snow fell, and I held my breath.
Then, quiet footsteps? Hoof steps? What was coming?
Through the pines a lone deer walked towards the campsite. It stopped and looked at me. Was it inspecting the fire? Me?
Then, it continued on and out of sight. The careful crunch of the deer’s gate, the nothing sound of falling snow, the inaudible dance of the morning fire, and my own breathing. No heartbeat in my ears, no tense shoulders. Only the moment.
That’s what I remember. A moment bottled up and stored in my memory, private and wonderful.
I wasn’t simply accumulating more books and working for a credential. In truth, I had stumbled into my own memory, and it wasn’t only a moment. It was a living reality. I had not moved to Oxford, really. I had, in fact, moved into the feeling of the sound, a memory painted in the real and now—a hush.
This must be what I want. Isn’t it? Yes, of course, a good night sleep. And, indeed, my shoulders relaxed. But this, yes this! Have I finally found it? That thing I’ve been searching for all these years?
It’s what I chased after in the Florida sun as a boy. It’s what I hunted while on the road with the band, touring from city to city. It’s what I thought I was stepping into when I said, “I do,”—I thought I had become not only the hunter, but also the adventurer of love and family and the next frontier daddyhood.
“Yes, you are always everywhere. But I, hunting in such immeasurable forests”[i] could never capture the fox—the great prize of the hunt. And for a time the hunt ended. The adventure turned into the mundane. No longer a chasing little boy, the man and husband and father in me fell into the coffin of the grown-up world.
My Holy Phantom
“Why do you think we’re here?” I asked as I turned on the kettle. “I mean, the degree, of course. But why, really?” It’s now months past the car discussion.
“I don’t know.”
“It feels like we’re so far away … from everything and everyone.”
Before, the car discussion felt like it occurred in a rowboat just as we pushed from the dock. But now, it was just open waters. No dock, no land.
“But I feel like we’ve never been closer,” said my wife, Chris, drinking her coffee so I didn’t see her eyes tearing up. “I feel like you and I are closer, the girls are better than ever. I feel like we’ve gone far, but grown close.”
She was right.
What little possession we kept we stored in a small unit in Georgia. We sold the rest, and there was a lot. We sold the first house we ever owned, the house each of three girls returned to after being born.
In a rush, on a scalding hot Atlanta day, we drove away—far from all we knew.
We spent two weeks and told our families we loved them, boarded a flight with one-way tickets and flew to England—far from all we knew.
We let go of so much. And yet, there we stood in our English kitchen sharing a moment before I started on my work. We both sensed it, but Chris described it perfectly. We endured harsh fights before we left. We felt the pang of disappointment as three different contracts fell through on our house; one, just three weeks before we were scheduled to leave. It all seemed so huge 10 months ago.
Doubt has a way of magnifying reality into the insurmountable. But faith, well, faith doesn’t magnify anything. Rather, it reveals. It turns the invisible into sheep—like the ones behind our English house. It shapes the unknown into a vision of action—like boarding a one-way plane. It quiets the rush and paints it with the sounds of a hush.
He tells me to wait. He tells me to listen. And I do. But God’s way of telling sounds less like a voice from heaven and more like a stirring within my heart—a restlessness I can’t shake, a sentence I can’t quite finish. I know, though, that if I wait and listen long enough it will come—the hush.
I am in it now and it feels like a vision within a dream; like a message I need to write down or else I’ll forget it altogether. God tells me to wait, and I do. I’ve sold my stuff, I’ve quieted my phone, I’ve limited my work and here I sit in the pine grove of my youth. The snow is falling while I stir last night’s coals. The flame kindles and I hear footsteps.
But this time, it is no deer that walks through my camp. It is a phantom who moves in through the trees and materializes just long enough for the snow to outline his form. He motions with his hand for me to follow, then he turns towards the pine grove.
He moves swiftly and I scramble to pick up my things, but don’t want to lose him. I drop it all and head for the trees. My feet pad the earth with a muted step as the snowy form weaves in and out of the trees.
Finally, I clear the grove and stop. Before me the quarry opens up into a snowy gulf, treacherous and beautiful. The phantom turns and speaks.
“Aren’t you coming?” he asks.
“I can’t. I’ll fall into the quarry.”
“What quarry?” he asks. Then he turns and walks on.
But I have been here before, and remember the way. The snow continues to fall, heavier than before, but the phantom has vanished. My shoulders relax, I breathe deep, and step into great silence.
[i] C. S. Lewis, Poems, A Harvest/HBJ Book (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), “No Beauty We Could Desire,” 124.
Photo credit: JoshHamUK
Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.