Woman in the Wilderness



Gratitude List:
1.  Pete Seeger’s version of Ode to Joy
2.  Earnest community
3.  Making stuff with the boys
4.  All that is shiny
5.  Satisfying work

May we walk in Beauty!

Sometimes the professor of this course that I am taking in Shaping Classroom Communities will suggest that one option for our writing assignments might be to do something creative rather than purely academic.  This week, one of the assignments was to take a quotation from one of the books we are reading and to reflect on it.  He invited us to consider other forms of creative expression than simple essay.  Here is mine:

Woman in the Wilderness

When I was at the Jesuit monastery, I spent a few quiet hours in the Resource Room, with breezes coming in the open window, paging through the works of the Indian Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello.  Several of de Mello’s books are written as short fiction pieces, each a moment of encounter between seekers or disciples and a Master.  I have been thinking about these short pieces of writing in the weeks since, considering the possibility of working on a similar sort of writing project, incorporating some of the fairy tale images that I have been working with in my poetry.  Reading Parker Palmer’s discussion of the Desert Mothers and Fathers has inspired me to try to create some of these short pieces as a response to this Kairos prompt, with the possibility that I might expand them and add to them in the future.

“We too must stand apart from the modern alliance of knowledge and power.  We too must enter an uncharted space, beyond the familiar confines of the city of intellect, seeking another way to know and to teach” (Palmer 40).

The old woman known as Amma lived in a clearing in a forest, far from the well-worn paths of travelers and adventure-seekers.  Her cottage and its little garden could be found by pilgrims and wanderers who left the common ways and followed the trails hidden among brambles along winding streams.



A group of seekers wandered for weeks in the forest, torn by briars and terrified by wild beasts, when finally they stumbled upon the clearing where the old woman kept her small cottage and garden.

“Amma!  Wise Mother!” they cried as they rushed into her garden, “We have finally found you!”

The old one pinched off a tip of mint and crushed it between her fingers, releasing the bright fragrance into the air.  “I was not aware until this moment that I was lost.”


“Elsewhere the world may be blustering or sleeping, wars are fought, people live and die, some nations disintegrate, while others are born, soon to be swallowed up in turn — and in all this sound and fury, amidst eruptions and undertows, while the world goes its merry way, bursts into flames, tears itself apart and is reborn: human life continues to throb. So, let us drink a cup of tea.”  – Muriel Barbery, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”

Two young activists showed up at Amma’s door one day.  During their travels, they had encountered injustice and evil.  They had marched in the streets to lend their voices to the voiceless.  They had walked with people in great distress.  They had spoken truth to power.  But they had come to doubt themselves and their work in the world.

“You are angry,” she said to them both.  “You carry your anger with you wherever you go.”

They bowed their heads silently for a moment.  “What shall we do?” they finally asked.

“You,” she said to the first, “must carry your anger within you like the coals that start a fire.  Use it to feed you when you feel as though you cannot go on, when you feel your energy flagging.”

“And you,” she said, turning to the other, “you must let your anger go.  Put out those coals, or they will eat you up, and drain your energy, leaving you a burned-out shell.”

“Do this,” she said to them both, “and the work that you do in the world will thrive and bear fruit.”



A group of serious-minded seekers came to the old woman to learn wisdom.  For weeks, they worked with her in her garden, learning the disciplines of hard work and of silence, learning the names and the ways of the herbs and the birds and the insects that inhabited the clearing where she lived.

One evening, she called to them to pour themselves some tea from the kettle, and settle on the benches around the table near the fire.

Finally! they thought.  Now she will speak to us of wisdom.  Now she will teach us how to become wise.

“So,” said the old one, looking into the expectant faces, “have you heard the one about the rabbi, the priest, and the witch who walked into a bar?”

For hours, hoots and peals of laughter rang through the trees surrounding the old woman’s cottage as Amma and the seekers told each other funny stories and jokes.  As the embers of the fire were glowing in the grate, one of the seekers wiped the tears of mirth from her eyes and said, “This was wonderful, Old Mother, but when are you going to speak to us of wisdom?”

Amma gathered the empty mugs from the table.  “I already have,” she said.



Once, a woman came to Amma and asked to be her intern.  “You can teach me,” said the young one, “how to live a holy life.”

“Go home,” responded Amma, “and return when you are ready to be converted.”

“But,” the young one protested, “I have already been converted!  Years ago, in my childhood.  Now I am ready to learn to be holy.”

Amma knelt down and began to pull the weeds from around her broccoli plants.  “This morning, I woke up and dressed and prepared myself a cup of tea,” she said.  “And then suddenly I realized that I was not awake, that I had dreamed my waking.  And so then I awoke and dressed, made my tea, and went out to milk the jersey cow.  Then again, I realized that all that time I had only been sleeping, and so I awoke again and did it all again.  Each time I woke up, I was sure that I had reached the full state of wakefulness, and yet each time I had another layer of dream to throw off.”

“But Amma, how do you know that, even now, you are not still sleeping, and dreaming this moment?”

The old woman shrugged.  “Perhaps I am dreaming even now.  I will do the tasks that this dream requires of me so I am ready for the next awakening.”

She clipped several nettle stalks into her basket.  “Do you still want to learn to be holy,” she asked.  “Or perhaps you would prefer to dream with me a while.”


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