Inside Mystery Cave, inside my life

by Julia Walsh

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A lifelong friend and I are at the mouth of the cave, about to embark on a guided tour with a naturalist. Along with people we never met before, we're entering Mystery Cave near Preston, Minnesota.

Before this moment several years ago, we had studied the history and geological displays in the nearby welcome center. I was in awe when I discovered the cave expanded for miles, stretching underneath farm fields through the limestone landscape. Without the signs, maps and indicators elsewhere, I never would have known about the expansiveness hidden away beneath the surface of Earth.

It is the same with humans: Much of what is hidden below the surface is often unknown, unmarked.

I am not surprised to feel the chill of dampness upon my skin once we cross the threshold, as we make our way forward into the dark. What I am surprised by, however, is how the space feels like a cathedral. A sanctuary. The giant stalagmites and stalactites seem like the pillars ascending and descending I'd find in church.

I want to fall to my knees, to reverence what feels holy, real. I am amused that the cave is called Mystery. Was it named for the mystery genre on shelves — the dark and sinister haunting or horror? Or was it named to honor a name I know for God: Holy Mystery? It could be both, I decide.

As we go in deeper, I long for every human voice nearby to hush, to savor the secrets of the silence and the occasional drip, drip of water meeting water. Each ripple is like a reminder of unity. Communion. "Weddings have happened here," our guide says.

At one point, the naturalist turns off the lights, so we can know, briefly, what it is like to be in total darkness. Everyone is silent, hushed. We hear our breathing and the sound of a distant drip, drip. I have an urge to put out my arms and feel the walls, to find a way onward in the dark. But I also have a sense that the Earth is holding me, and I feel calm, peace. When the lights come back on, I am disappointed. I would have liked more time in the silent dark, for the darkness felt awesome. Others in our tour group admit they had been disturbed, frightened.

During a recent retreat and move from the Wisconsin Northwoods to Chicago, the memories of Mystery Cave resurfaced. During my retreat, I reflected on the wonders of silence and beauty and how they draw me closer to God. I prayed about how my vow of obedience gives me freedom to say yes to God's plans. I am allowed to trust and let go of my hopes for my life. I get to listen deeply to God's presence in the silence and feel as if I am being embraced, encouraged. Even when I am surrounded by what feels mysterious, I know I am able to feel my way forward, one step at a time. Each move deeper into the cave is a surrender, a grace.

Much of my life is like my visit to Mystery Cave.

Following Christ, I am drawn into beauty beyond what I would ever imagine or could make for myself. This submission to the Great Mystery is counter-cultural, radical. As I continue to offer myself to our God who knows and loves us, I resist what society suggests are elements of good citizenship: self-sufficiency, goals and plans, tasks and hard work. In other words, when it comes to following Christ, I reject any statement a person is to be self-made.

In Mystery Cave, I am also free from climbing social ladders and falling into the traps of achievement. There's no need to prove my worth in the dark, in the holy mystery. Instead, I listen to the summons of God heard deep within, like a whisper echoing off the walls.

Journeying in the cave of God's love, I have the freedom to decide how to proceed. I can turn back to the entrance, to the brightness of the light where all is familiar and comfortable. I can stay close to my guide and cling to the light. I can enter more deeply into the quiet and dark mystery.

No matter how I move, God will continue to beckon me deeper. I have the freedom now to say yes or no, to turn toward or away — yet no matter what I choose, I'll only meet more mercy and invitations to love.

When the injustices and tensions of our world disturb my troubled heart, I might recall Mystery Cave and that journey I took years ago. Emboldened by the wonder I felt there in the dark, I can emerge to a familiar landscape and to be a servant to the Light.

[Sr. Julia Walsh, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, is a retreat director, speaker, educator, activist and award-winning writer who blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @juliafspa.]