Kim and I both paused mid-crouch, the rock specimens we were excitedly gathering to take home temporarily set aside as we focused on the distinct popping of shotgun fire in the distance. “Does that sound close to you?” “No, I’m sure we’re fine.” I went back to my search, keeping an eye out for a perfect rock for me, inspired by a recent invitation to a spiritual practice by my pastor.

He had spoken on Genesis 28, when Jacob experiences God in a dream as he sleeps with his head on a rock for a pillow. Upon waking, he exclaims, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” (Gen. 28:16) Jacob then sets up the stone he had slept on, marking the place where he experienced God’s presence. The stone was a marker of significance, of Jacob waking up to God’s presence, and it is tied to a story. Stories are themselves markers of significance.

The simple prayer my pastor suggested to invite an awareness of His presence:

Here I am
Here You are
Here we are together.

 The practice he encouraged was to walk outside as we prayed and to look for a stone, a physical marker of the here-ness of God that we experienced in our practice. I knew as soon as I heard the challenge that I wanted to find that stone in Italy. We were leaving the next day for a two-week trip that Chris and I had dreamed about for years, a trip celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. As so much of the trip was about honoring and remembering God’s here-ness in our marriage, I wanted to have a marker that represented both His presence as well our celebration of it in community with friends.

It is not lost on me that the afternoon Kim and I set out on our exploration was Sunday, Sabbath. We left the beautiful terrace where the rest of our friends were gathered and started down the stone steps that descended into thick woods. As the steps wound down, a clearing opened up and we found three old stone cottages, in various states of decay. One was so completely covered with vines you had to look hard to even see there was anything else there. I won’t forget the delight on Kim’s face, in her voice, as she took in the beauty of these broken down places. Kim is an artist with a unique eye for the potential in all things rusty and random, creating whimsical pieces of art that speak of joy and beauty. Together in that space, we knew that if Sabbath is a time to enter into rest, beauty, and delight, we’d certainly found it.

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There was a simple joy in the aimlessness of our exploration: we had no agenda, just the awareness of the beauty of this place and the goodness of God in creating it and placing us here to experience it. When we passed by a lane that led to a huge hill covered in rocks of every shape and size, we knew we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore further.  That was when we heard the gunshots.

Even though we’d dismissed them as distant, the search for rocks took on a new urgency. I looked down at a rock protruding from the ground, interested in its pinkish hue with streaks of white running through it. I wondered as I began to dig if it was the distinct pink marble I’d seen in the numerous Duomos and Basilicas we’d been through – churches built in the 1200’s, the beauty and complexity of the architecture simply amazing. As I freed the rock from the ground, I held it in my hand and noticed the weight. It was larger than I had thought; carrying it would not be easy for long. And it was perfect.

I eagerly held my rock up for Kim to see and paused as we heard voices. We turned to see two men, a young boy and a dog walk into view, hunting rifles slung over their shoulders. They looked at us in surprise, called out in Italian something we couldn’t understand to which we responded, “Hello!” They simply shook their heads and continued walking, muttering as they went. I imagine it was something along the lines of “Stupid tourists…crazy Americans.” Shortly after they left, we heard the bark of their dog, followed by another shot, this time very close. That was enough to convince us we probably shouldn’t be wandering in the woods where hunters were clearly hunting; the orange towel Kim had wrapped around her shoulders to make us more visible now felt ridiculously insufficient.  (We found out later from a local resident that we’d been walking in the woods on opening day for pheasant hunting!)

With the importance of securing our safety forefront in my mind, I forgot about the rock I was carrying until I returned “home.” I carefully washed the mud off the rock, the water darkening the surface of the rock and bringing out the beauty I had first noticed. Ah, yes, this was the perfect stone, the reminder that God and I had been in this place together. Looking at my stone reminds me of all the goodness I felt that week, of His protection over us while wandering on hunting grounds, of the beauty and magnificence of His creation, of the gratitude I felt for my friendship with Kim and the others who had gathered with us in this place to celebrate. When I am struggling to believe His presence is real, I hold my rock, feel the weight and ponder the beauty, exhaling as my soul settles in the reality “Here we are together.”

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Janet Stark is a woman learning to embrace her depth and sensitivity.  Inspired by Mary pondering things in her heart, Janet writes about her experiences here. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband of 25 years, as well as her 4 children and 2 grandchildren. She is a life-long lover of words and looks forward to reading and sharing at Red Tent Living.
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