LTRP Note: Before reading this excerpt, please read a note we have written to explain why we have posted this excerpt: Reader finds “An Afternoon with a Spiritual Formation Professor at a North American Bible School” to be “Junk”
Excerpt from the novel Castles in the Sand by Carolyn A. Greene
A small twirling crystal, hanging from a thread on a curtain rod, caught the sunlight making tiny spots of brilliant colors dance playfully on the walls and ceiling that were painted a deep indigo color.
Tessa’s eyes continued to look around the room then rested on a large oil painting that hung on the wall across from where she sat. The artist had depicted an extraordinarily beautiful scene of a medieval castle rising out of the mist. The castle almost appeared to be floating in mid-air. Tessa loved it. She looked around the room and smiled. She also loved the way the varying colors in the room were so tastefully coordinated.
Adding to the ambiance, gauze curtains filtered the mid-afternoon sunlight, providing the room with a gentle warmth that soothed the soul. Additional lengths of gauze had been strategically hung, dividing the room into different listening spaces, as Ms. Jasmine called them.
A coffee table held some books and a small, star-shaped vanilla candle. Its sweet aroma wafted gently through the air, adding to the aura of peace and tranquility.
Ms. Jasmine was dressed casually today, although her platinum blonde hair was pulled back into a glamorous roll held together with a jewel-studded clasp that caught the sunlight whenever she turned her head. Tessa couldn’t help but notice how much she reminded her of her own mother.
Before beginning with her usual prayer, Ms. Jasmine had lit the candle and waited quietly for the moment of silence to pass. Tessa always enjoyed these moments of deep breathing, necessary to refocus her thoughts from the outward to the inward.
“We thank you for this mysterious universal gift of prayer that is offered to all who will receive it,” Ms. Jasmine prayed softly. “As we sit in stillness and silence, we wait to be infused in the Light.”
For some reason, curiosity got the better of Tessa this afternoon. She slowly raised her head, opened her eyes, and watched in fascination as her mentor, or rather her spiritual director, prayed. She noted with astonishment that Ms. Jasmine didn’t bow her head and fold her hands to pray the way Gramps always did. Instead, her head was up and her hands were at her side, thumbs and pointer fingers pressed together in a circle. Now as she opened her eyes, Tessa looked away, embarrassed, and pretended not to notice.
“Well. What comes to mind this week, Tessa? What has the Spirit been saying to you?” Ms. Jasmine inquired, her gold bracelets jangling as she rubbed her temples.
“Is it OK if I just read out of my journal this week, Ms. Jazz?” Tessa replied as she pulled a spiral-bound notebook from her backpack.
“That would be delightful,” said Ms. Jasmine, crossing her legs and making herself comfortable on the oversized, red-and-gold-tasseled cushion. She leaned against the wall and picked up her cup of steaming hot green tea. “Today is a double session, remember? We have all the time in the world. Begin!”
Tessa opened her journal.
“Oh my stars! Did you draw that horse?” gasped Ms. Jasmine, pointing at Tessa’s notebook.
“Uh . . . oh, yeah. I like to doodle sometimes—it’s nothing much.”
“I had a horse once. Well, she wasn’t mine. But she was mine to look after and ride. A beautiful mare . . . she had a foal. A pretty little thing . . .” Ms. Jasmine spoke with a faraway look in her eye as she proceeded to tell Tessa the story of how on one dark night, when the vet had pulled into the driveway, she ran out from the barn crying until she couldn’t breathe. She ran barefoot into the foothills shaking her fist at God for taking away the only thing she’d ever loved. She had begged God to save the animal, but He hadn’t listened. The mare died, and the tiny foal wasn’t expected to survive.
“Early the next morning, I packed a small bag, found the keys, then started the old farm pickup and took off,” Ms. Jasmine added in a sad mournful way. “I drove away from that farmhouse and . . . well, no use reliving the past now.”
“That must have been a sad time for you. My horse actually belongs to—” Tessa began.
“Wait . . .” Ms. Jasmine cupped her hand around her ear and looked at the window. “Do you hear that? Do you hear bees?”
“Ms. Jazz?” Tessa turned her head toward the window. She couldn’t see or hear any bees. The room was perfectly quiet.
“Never mind. It’s hot in here. Isn’t it hot in here? Would you be a dear and open the window?”
Tessa rose from her cushion and walked to the window. When she tried to open it, it was stuck. She pushed a little harder, and up it went. Instantly a freezing blast of winter air blew the curtains wildly around her face.
“Ah yes, that feels good. Thank you, dear. Now come back and sit down.” Ms. Jasmine took a deep breath and leaned against the wall again. Tessa could see the steam rising from her teacup. “Enough horse stories. One can’t live in the past. Attachments are merely sources of pain and distraction. St. Teresa knew that. Even the Buddha knew that. Now tell me, where were we?”
Tessa gave Ms. Jasmine a long look, picked up her journal, and sat down. She was quite used to Ms. Jasmine’s unpredictable mood swings by now and had even come to expect them. They no longer alarmed her. She always mellowed soon afterward.
How could anyone not be mellow in this room? Ms. Jasmine (the most recent faculty addition at Flat Plains Bible College, who had come to the school highly recommended by the Spiritual Transformation Institute–the most sought-after training center for spiritual formation leaders in North America) had transformed everything. The only thing unchanged in the old prayer room in the Thompson Building was the stained glass window. It was no longer just any old prayer room. It was the Sacred Space. And it was in this room that the more promising students from the spiritual formation classes received personal one-on-one counseling from Ms. Jasmine.
Under her direction, Tessa had been journaling for the past several months. Every morning after a twenty-minute listening exercise, Tessa had faithfully pulled out her pen and notebook and recorded the words she heard Jesus speak to her. It was always thrilling to reread the messages her pen had written, but lately she had become increasingly exhausted by these exercises. Well, exercise is supposed to make you tired, she reasoned. Now she read aloud the words Jesus had spoken to her earlier that morning:
“January 9—‘When I brought you to Flat Plains you were angry. You thought I wouldn’t talk to you, and even if I did, you didn’t want to hear me. Now, since we met on the beach and in the labyrinth, you are finally listening to my voice. How pleased I am that you are not afraid to listen anymore.’”
Tessa stopped for a moment and looked up.
“Can I close the window now?” she asked, shivering.
Ms. Jasmine’s eyes were closed, her face an expression of serenity. She made a graceful shooing motion with a ring-bejeweled hand. “Fine.”
Tessa closed the window and placed her jacket around her shoulders before sitting down. “This is what I wrote today . . . just some of my thoughts,” Tessa continued.
“Please go on,” said Ms. Jasmine, eyes still shut.
“It was a frosty morning last fall when I first walked the outdoor labyrinth, and my idea of what prayer meant was totally changed. Before walking the labyrinth, I always thought prayer was saying lofty words to God who was somewhere way up there. But what I have experienced as I’ve been practicing awareness exercises and the listening prayer is that it’s only in the silence that I can hear His voice. That first day in the labyrinth is where it started. As we took turns walking, I felt moved, as Jesus met me in the center where He was waiting for me. He spoke to me in that still small voice and told me I was gifted. I wasn’t sure at first if it was His voice, but since then I’ve had an awareness of His presence. It is as if God is in everything around me and in me too.”
Tessa looked up for a moment, then continued. “I’ve also been having the same dream, that I am riding my horse across the drawbridge into the courtyard of a beautiful ancient castle. I can hear someone calling my name, so I explore all the rooms to see who is calling me. Each room is more beautiful, more wonderful than the last, with tables full of food. I have a taste from each table, and go to the next, but I always wake up before I can go up the stairs to the last room, which is locked. I wake up imagining what it would be like in that room, and I know it is the voice of God calling me to the secret room. I try to get back to my dream, but can only imagine . . .”
Imagine . . . Ms. Jasmine’s mind drifted, as Tessa continued to read. She thought about the presentation she had given to the faculty members at the Flat Plains leadership prayer retreat last year. They had seemed mesmerized as she explained the spiritual benefits of praying in a labyrinth. The Spiritual Transformation Institute determined long ago that this was usually the most successful way to introduce Christians to the concept of assimilating breathing exercises and the prayer of the heart into their prayer life.
“Just imagine,” Ms. Jasmine had said to the leaders, “getting your students to pray more in one afternoon than they would normally pray in an entire week. Once they try it, you won’t be able to stop them from spending time in prayer. The average prayer walk through the labyrinth takes about forty-five minutes, and as you walk, you use both the left and right sides of your brain. This helps to center your thoughts and focus on Jesus. It not only opens you up to God, but also helps give you a new perspective on the depths of the meaning of prayer. Most people say they have a profound experience during a prayer walk and are never the same again. Is your prayer life dry? Do you want to revitalize the spirituality of your students? I encourage you to walk in the labyrinth this afternoon, to see for yourselves if what I am saying is true.”
They had all been eager to try it. All, that is, except for two narrow-minded, uptight faculty members. Later that afternoon while the other staff members were walking and meditating along the circular path of the labyrinth, those two resisters had met in the prayer chapel and quietly closed the door. They were in there at least two hours, she remembered. Then, later that evening, they’d asked to meet privately with the college president. Evidently, the meeting hadn’t gone the way they’d hoped. Both had left the room an hour later, glassy-eyed and shoulders drooping. They were a picture of despair, Ms. Jasmine recalled. In September, she’d noted with interest that one of them was no longer at the school.
The other staff members, however, had been much more open-minded to the labyrinth. In fact, their experience had left them mightily impressed. So much so, Ms. Jasmine had received a call from the president of Flat Plains who asked her to assess the possibility of constructing a permanent labyrinth on their campus. Of course, she’d been thrilled to custom-design the large outdoor labyrinth for the enthusiastic staff, especially when they agreed to put her name on the dedication plaque. There had been just one problem. The only available green space had been the soccer field, but since Flat Plains had decided to place more emphasis on their new environmental awareness program and less on their sports program, the vote was eighteen to two in favor of the new plan to build an outdoor labyrinth on it that fall. Indoor soccer would have to suffice.
Much to her delight, Ms. Jasmine had also been invited to accept the recently vacated position of Campus Counselor, in addition to providing assistance with the new spiritual formation class they’d been planning for some time. And now here she was, in this beautiful, newly redesigned room. It was hers, and she loved it.
“Yes, Tessa,” she answered quietly, as she shook her head from side to side and opened her eyes.
Tessa shivered. She always had an uneasy feeling when Ms. Jasmine stared right through her like that, but she knew it was an honor to have a spiritual professor of her reputation spend extra personal time with her. Ms. Jasmine had mentioned once in passing that she could charge eighty dollars an hour for private lessons if she was working at a spiritual direction service.
“I haven’t told anyone,” Tessa continued, “and I’m not sure how to describe this . . . but the last time we did the labyrinth with our class—the winter solstice walk—I felt as if I was in a shower of white light, just like you said might happen to some people. At first I thought it was the snowflakes reflecting the light from our candles, but the light slowly entered my head and flowed down to my feet. I felt as if I was . . . bathed in light. Even though it was below zero and freezing, I felt warm, and time seemed to stand still. I forgot about everyone and everything else.”
Ms. Jasmine smiled and nodded. She was pleased to see this girl far more open to enlightenment than the others seemed to be.
“Do you think that was the divine illumination you’ve been talking about . . . where Jesus meets us in the center of the labyrinth? Is this the place St. Teresa of Avila wrote about? Is this the center of the castle of our souls?”
Ms. Jasmine took a long breath and leaned forward. “Tessa,” she began slowly, “you have learned a great deal since you came here. Now here is what I think. I believe these experiences you have been having are definitely divine. I know it is from the Master Jesus, because hearing about your experience fills me with peace and tranquility. It also reminds me of something else.”
She took another sip of tea and set the cup on the floor, deep in thought. “Some who have been enlightened like this . . .” She paused, then spoke more slowly with each word, “have called this . . . the middle eye of the labyrinth. God has His eye on you, my child. You are the apple of His eye.”
Tessa felt her eyes well up with tears.
“If only more of our students could be so remarkably connected with their Christ consciousness. I am so pleased. Before we end our session together today, we must have a prayer!”
Tessa was good with that. How much she had changed since she first arrived at this school! How much she had matured! God had chosen her and was even speaking to her personally through her daily spiritual disciplines. The spark she thought had died long ago was now being rekindled. Nothing was quite as exhilarating as that. She decided she would open herself completely to all He had to give her.
Ms. Jasmine came and stood behind her. Tessa waited.
“Aren’t you . . . going to pray?”
“I already am,” Ms. Jasmine whispered, “silently. You may close your eyes and concentrate on the light within you. Praying is a skill we must all learn to actualize. Visualize Christ here in this room.”
Tessa thought she could sense a presence moving around her . . . Ms. Jasmine’s hands, she presumed, as she could hear the tinkling of her jewelry . . . and then a strange thing happened. She felt a prickly sensation begin in her head and move downward through to the end of her fingertips. Her hands felt warm, and she felt something well up inside her, like a lump forming in the throat, only it came from deeper within.
“Wha . . . what is that?” she asked, startled, not sure whether to be fearful or to welcome this new sensation. Suddenly, she had the same doubt she’d experienced the first time she did a lectio divina reading in the courtyard of the school, when she’d thought someone had called her name, but she had been alone. It was also like the first time she’d walked the labyrinth last September and thought she’d felt a presence when she reached its center and heard a voice saying, “Don’t be afraid.” Tessa hadn’t been sure whether she could trust her feelings, or the voices.
“It’s the divine energy of the Spirit’s healing touch you are sensing, my dear.” Ms. Jasmine always had a comforting answer.
“Ohhh! That’s amazing! Ms. Jazz, I was wondering . . . do you ever sense the feeling, like a presence, or that your soul is, like, weightless? Maybe that’s a dumb question.”
Ms. Jasmine was quiet for a minute, as if listening for the answer before she gave it. “Ah yes, this is what St. Teresa meant when she wrote in the Fifth Mansion of The Interior Castle that “as soon as the soul, by prayer, becomes entirely dead to the world, out it flies like a lovely little white butterfly!”
It seemed Ms. Jasmine had memorized the whole book.
“She also spoke of a presence we may sometimes feel is near us, even if we cannot see anyone. ‘Is it Christ, or His glorious Mother, or a saint? . . . The soul will recognize which saint has been sent by God to be its helper or companion.’ In the same way, you will learn to discern the presence, but you must trust yourself, Tessa. Know your true self. Soak in the peace and tranquility. It is in the center of your soul where He speaks to you.”
“Ms. Jazz, didn’t St. Teresa pray to Mary? My roommate always says this stuff is so . . . Catholic and can be traced back to Hinduism. I’m not sure what I should say to her.”
She didn’t see the startled look on Ms. Jasmine’s face behind her. “A common misconception,” she said nonchalantly. “Your friend will soon learn the truth. We are addressing that this semester in our spiritual formation class.”
“She’s . . . not going to be taking it. I’ve seen her schedule.”
“She’s in the missions program, and they don’t require it. Besides, Mr. Goldsmith told her they weren’t in favor of—”
“Sam Goldsmith is young and new to the school. He has much to learn.” Ms. Jasmine sighed. “I’ll have to look into that loophole for next year. How many other students are not getting proper training?” This was exactly the type of problem of which STI had warned her. There were ways to deal with these people who didn’t understand spiritual things. She must solve the problem quickly, before it got out of hand. First, she must answer Tessa’s question. She walked to the cushion where she’d left her nearly empty teacup, picked it up, turned to face Tessa, and looked her straight in the eye.
“Tessa, dear, we must remember the words of Teresa of Avila.” She spoke slowly and clearly. “That dear saint suffered much to learn this great lesson—that Christians who understand the inner life will always encounter obstacles which prevent them from achieving absolute union with God. These obstacles can come in many different forms, some of them evil. The Pharisees opposed Jesus for claiming he had found union with the Father. In the same way, I want you to realize that those who have not been enlightened as you and I have will usually oppose what we are doing. They want to put God in a box. Their faith is based on fear. Do you understand?”
“Uh, yeah . . . .” Tessa felt a little light-headed, almost euphoric. She was trying to remember what Gramps had once told her about the Pharisees, something about them wanting to stone Jesus for blasphemy because He claimed to be God, not just that He had found union with Him. It was all so foggy now. Her hands still tingled. This session had seemed strange and scattered, but that wasn’t surprising. After all, that was just the kind of person Ms. Jasmine happened to be.
Ms. Jasmine sat down and sipped the last of her cold tea before she recited her usual closing prayer about leaving the castle. She found these double sessions very draining, and they always made her headaches worse. “We’re finished for today,” she said, massaging her temples. “Have a blessed weekend. Oh, and I’ll see you at the labyrinth Sunday afternoon, right?”
The bangles on Ms. Jasmine’s wrist jingled as she made the sign of the cross and blew out the candle. The smoke wafted up to the ceiling, catching the last rays of the setting sun before it vanished behind the distant horizon.
Excerpt from the novel Castles in the Sand by Carolyn A. Greene (Lighthouse Trails, 2009), chapter 13.