Chapter 1: Yearning for God

If the only prayer you say in your life is thank you, that would suffice.

—Meister Eckhart

I was making my way through Atlanta’s rush-hour traffic one afternoon, dodging orange construction barrels and other drivers zipping through the crowded lanes, when a road sign caught my eye. Rest Stop Ahead, it promised, pointing to one of those green oases positioned along the interstates, a spot with trees and picnic tables and a patch of grass where weary travelers can stretch their legs.

Any other time I might have pulled off to grab a cup of coffee until the traffic cleared out, but the sign meant something else to me that day, and I was eager to get to my destination. The “rest stop” I was headed toward was a weekend retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, a small community of Cistercian monks, better known as Trappists, about thirty-five miles east of Atlanta. I’d heard about the monastery for years, a place where several generations of monks lived together, worshipping under the soaring Gothic arches of an old abbey church and working to support their mission by selling homemade fudge and fruitcakes, bonsai trees, and little pots of fragrant herbs. I was longing to experience the peace and solitude the monastery was known for.

I hadn’t known much peace for the past several years, not since my mother became ill in April 2001. Our relationship had always been warm and close. Even though we lived just twenty minutes apart, I liked to curl up in my old armchair and talk to her on the phone every night.

Mama had never been sick with anything more than a cold or the flu, so when she began having some unusual symptoms, I urged her to see her family physician. He immediately made an appointment for her with an oncologist, and a few days later my father and I accompanied her when she went to his office to get her test results.

The doctor’s receptionist ushered us into a consultation suite that looked like someone’s elegant living room. Glossy travel books covered a coffee table, and a little fountain with Japanese figurines bubbled in one corner. There were plush chairs, a sofa, and table lamps with soft, low lighting. This didn’t look like any doctor’s office I’d ever seen before, and my stomach lurched as I guessed that this lovely, relaxing room was designed for a special purpose. It was intended to be a comfortable and comforting place for patients who were about to hear terrible news.