He wasn’t bothered at all by my presence.
The deer at Berry College are largely unfazed by humans, as they are part and parcel of life on those 30-something thousand acres, even in well-populated places like the big lawns students trek across on their way to class or the library or the dining hall.
He had friends – three does. They were a bit more skittish and moved further away when they saw me. I was a half hour early for an alumni choir rehearsal, part of the reason I’d come to Mountain Day Weekend (a huge homecoming and reunion weekend for those of you who don’t “speak Berry”), and he and his small harem were lazily moving about the expanse of lawn and trees in front of the college chapel – a gorgeous brick and column structure that’s been around for a century. I know nothing about architecture, I just know it’s beautiful, and to walk through its big double doors is something akin to Moses approaching his burning bush.
I moved quietly to a bench that sat under a tree, just beyond the walkway to the chapel, and the buck started. The bench was nearer to him. I made no sound. And slowly and quietly as I could eased onto the corner of the bench furthest from him. We maintained eye contact the whole time.
And then I just sat there with him. No words. Soft breath. He held his gaze for some time, as did I. I smiled, and whispered to him that he was pretty cool and I was glad to see him.
Eventually, more people came. And he wandered off to a more secluded spot.
It was the most present I could recall having been in a very long time. And in telling someone today about that moment, with that deer, I found my throat clogged with sudden, unexplainable tears.
The opening lines of one of my most favorite novels read, “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” (The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy)
Three brief phrases, but in them is the truth of how a place can – for better or for worse – get in our bones, wrap itself around our very soul and take up residence in our hearts such that it can never really be gone from us nor we from it.
That place is, for me, Berry College. It is not perfect. Nowhere is. And you can’t be part of every day life in a place for four years without both good and bad things happening there. At least not and live.
But if there’s a place that calls me home, where I know my feet are grounded upon soil that understands me, where I’ve been nurtured and challenged and given room to speak truth as I have known it – it is Berry College.
I came to Berry in the fall of 1993, my sights set on becoming the next Katie Couric. I declared broadcast journalism as my major, taking an English minor simply because I love words and stories so much I couldn’t imagine spending four years not studying them.
The English minor held. The major morphed to a general B.A. in Communication. Between those two things I wrote, spoke, and studied writing and speaking to my heart’s content, reveling in any opportunity to delve into relationships, how we communicate and how the stories of our lives often define us.
I also, despite my attempts to avoid doing so, found myself filling up any available elective space with religion classes. Old Testament. New Testament. A seminar on Amos, and another on Hosea.
Berry was, and is, a mixed bag theologically – I valued that then, as I do now, because I believe that our individual life experiences cannot help but influence how we read Scripture and how we understand God. That said, when, during the fall of my senior year, I made the decision to apply to seminary for graduate school, I was pretty taken aback, hurt, even, when several student peers told me I couldn’t be a minister. That was men’s work.
Almost exactly twenty-five years later, on the second Sunday in October, I delivered the sermon for the Mountain Day Weekend worship service. The full sanctuary held some of the people I love most in the world, and I remember thinking, as I began speaking, “How in the world did I get so very lucky?”
God’s hand was all over it.
And y’all, it had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with how, if we’re paying enough attention, listening hard enough to our lives, are present enough, we sometimes find ourselves exactly where we didn’t even know we were meant to be.
I told a friend this week that I am overwhelmed with how loud and angry the world seems. My own city is rife with overcrowding and poverty and violence. An election cycle is in full force and this makes me anxious in all sorts of ways. Mostly because to my left and to my right are people I love and I am tired of all of us getting played by people more interested in power than anything else. Our children are literally not safe at school. Friends and family are critically ill. Milk is entirely too expensive. And I very selfishly cry sometimes at the thought that maybe I won’t actually one day make it to Ireland.
I’ve lost any notion of how we face such unending chaos and grief and fear. I only know that we must endure it, must live our lives for something better – because I believe with all that I am that God is still all love, and always present, even right here in the muck and grime.
I know this, because I know what it is to join with fifty or so other voices who’ve never all actually sung together, but who can, while in a chapel we all love, after a mere few hours of rehearsal under the direction of a masterful musician, make the music of John Rutter sound like the very mercy of God come to rain down on all that threatens to scorch us.
I know this, because there is a four-point buck wandering around Berry College who sure is something, and he reminded me that there are all sorts of holy moments in this world. And most of the time we miss them.
But sometimes we don’t.
Sometimes the very ground we walk on, the very air around us, is on fire with the presence of that which binds us close to one another, and to God – and in one short burst of grace we see it, just for a second.
And in that second is everything that matters most in this life.
In that second is healing.
In that second is a reminder of who we are and where we came from and what will eventually call us home.