A MAN was jogging in small circles in a field — the same circle, again and again. He was in his thirties, bearded, shirt open; left arm stretched to the skyline, right arm straight, almost pinned to his side. The circle he ran was only about 20 metres wide. His left arm, held out to the side, made the occasional small dip as if he were looping something around his wrist, or circling a small point in the distance.
“He’s in the field,” his wife had said, from amid the chaos of three children. “You can wait till he comes back if you like, but it might be a while.”
“I’d like to go to the field, if that’s OK.”
“Of course,” she’d replied, looking down in what seemed like shame and sadness.
IT HAD taken me a while to visit because I needed a day out of London. His wife had phoned me. “You’re a priest and spiritual director — maybe he’ll listen to you,” she said. “We’re desperate.”
There was a history of recreational drugs: mostly pot, ecstasy, mushrooms, and acid; and about three years of intensive study of “Indian mysticism”, although which branch I couldn’t find out. And for the past four years he had joined a dance-based community for spiritual retreats in the mountains. He had stopped all drugs, but become distant, obsessed with fasting and meditation, waking to pray with the dawn, chanting under his breath when he was around the house, washing up, dressing, in bed.
I watched for a while. He had been running before I arrived, and was still at a constant pace; the repetition reminded me of rosary beads. Then I watched his right arm, almost strapped to his side as if broken — the flat, spatulate stretch of his fingers gave the impression of a mast. I wondered whether his hand was somehow, in his mind, grounding him.
I left my coat and bag outside the field and, having seen a bowl of earth in what his wife had called his shrine, I took a handful of earth in my left hand and opened the gate to stand quietly. I held the earth out in front, eyes focused on the ground beyond. I was entering ritual space. My walking needed to be slow and respectful, my actions sensitive to the environment; and I had to track him closely because he was the one who knew the choreography.
I walked forwards, counting ten steps; then looked up. He was still running, and had not looked around. I could feel that, for me, internally, I was now in a church, and he was straight ahead at the foot of the altar. “Lord, I offer you myself and this man in all that we are. May we lay ourselves at your feet.”
When I got closer, I sat down, earth still held. My focus was now strongly on the centre of the circle; from peripheral vision, I could see him looking towards me and then away.
When I think about it now, spatially, if the centre of the circle was where my internal altar would have been, I naturally sat where my internal altar rail was. In church I always kneel there, even if genuflecting for a moment.
AFTER a while, I looked up to meet his gaze. It was as if he was looking through mist — a dilated, ecstatic state. Was he in addiction, and finding the high in a “natural” way? Was he having a breakdown? Was he having “a real spiritual experience”? Was it a bit of all three? I knew from years of work that people who had taken a lot of drugs could have profound experiences, but that sometimes, in bypassing their psyche, they were not yet ready to handle or integrate it.
They may want the experience of “God is everywhere” to last, or they do not have the tools to put in the therapeutic work that often follows experiencing so much love: the work on our shadows; the growth. “And the light shone into the darkness.”
Sometimes, people get lost in a cultural myth that they have not been brought up to navigate. I remember working with one woman whose “shamanic” journey had taken her to a particular animal; instead of being guided by it, she felt haunted. What I could see in this situation was that this man was holding to a very rigid ritual pattern, which takes skill.
A WHILE later, our occasional gaze suddenly turned into quiet recognition; a few rounds after that, eyes meeting again, we beamed a greeting smile. But he did not stop; it was another 20 minutes or more before he slowed down and then stood in the centre. I joined him, both of us kneeling on my arrival; silent. I noticed that he had string on his wrists and around his waist, tied in knot upon knot. There was something he wanted to do with them, but was stopping himself because I was there. I offered the earth, warm in my cupped hand, which he took as someone would take a pinch of salt, and sprinkled it on the rope around his thin, loose-skinned stomach.
WE TALKED, in the end. I had walked to that place with everything I knew. He had done the same. We were equals in front of God, searching for grace. “I think God created this world, and us in it, out of love,” I said. He nodded. “I don’t know, but I think we are not meant to leave our families behind but to leave the old family ways behind and love our new family in daily life, renewed life.” He looked like he was thinking. “You might be in danger of leaving the daily world and people you love behind.”
If he had then said, emotionally, “But it’s all love — can’t you see?” or, heartbroken, “I can’t do this with them, but I can’t reject them,” I would have had a different situation on my hands. What he actually said was “I’m binding them in, binding them in.” And there our conversation began.
THE physical aspect of ritual has its own language: symbolic movement of the body and objects; an intuitive atmosphere. It is often the place where we begin our meetings, even in the smallest ways: a handshake, a cup of tea, water in a stoop. If we allow ourselves to surrender to the physical choreography of it, and its wordless interaction, we may find ourselves — or others — in the most unlikely places to begin a new conversation with God.
The Revd Marie-Elsa Bragg is an author and spiritual director.