Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5:7).
Every July since 2014, I have attended a Thursday through Sunday event by the French Broad River in Hot Springs, NC called the Wild Goose Festival. A shared passion draws rockers and rappers, clay throwers and painters, teachers and preachers, contemplatives and activists, and campers and commuters into the warm, mountain air. That passion is a restlessness to rest in God, to follow a call from above and within, to seek beloved community in a world riven with walls and wounds.
The Wild Goose is a Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit, and the Goose always arrives first and leaves last. When I talk about the festival with folks back home in Rome, it is easy to bring up the big name speakers and performers. This year (July 12-15, 2018), that slate included Otis Moss, Amy Grant, Ken Medema, Barbara Brown Taylor, Jacqui Lewis, Jen Hatmaker, Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, Diana Butler Bass, John Pavlovitz, and many more. They amaze and inspire us. There are also many small name programs like one led by Marshall Jenkins on Friday called, “Discernment: The Art of Really Living Your Faith.”
However, this year’s festival reminded me that I do not go primarily for the names – or even to make a name for myself. I go for the faces. At every Wild Goose Festival I attend, I serve on the Spiritual Direction team. Folks sign up to meet with one of us for an hour, face to face in portable chairs under shady trees. Directors really do not direct. The Holy Spirit does that. We listen prayerfully to whatever story the visitor feels drawn to tell, punctuated by tears, silence, laughter, and sighs.
We listen for the Holy Spirit in the stories and in the conversations themselves. Sometimes we ask questions, share validating experiences, and wonder aloud. Yet, more to the point, as a director I not only listen but I look into their faces with a prayer to see people as Christ sees them.
I will not share information on actual people — the conversations are confidential — but I will share composite impressions gained from many saints I have met there. Let me couch these impressions in the Beatitudes as if seeing through the eyes of Jesus, surveying the crowd before offering the Beatitudes from the mount, reading them from the faces. Jesus sees:
- A middle-aged hardware store manager who tears slightly with the realization that God led him here just to nourish his soul, and he need not do a thing to repay it. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:3).
- A creative clothing designer recently divorced after a long marriage, her smile cracking with sadness, who grieves many dreams and yearns for a new direction, new hands to receive her gifts, she knows not what or who. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Mt 5:4).
- A young, black man with dreadlocks eating a curry dish, who knows how to keep his silence to be safe, listening to words of grace. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (Mt 5:5).
- A slouching young woman who looks at the large ply board sign displaying Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese,” and ponders the opening line, “You don’t have to be good…” Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Mt 5:6).
- A hospice nurse who pours herself into her patients all week but confesses to a newfound friend that she needs some way to stop drinking her weekends away. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Mt 5:7).
- A former corporate attorney for a fast food chain who gave it all up to start an organic farming co-op, wiping his brow and smiling with a warmth that his wife had not seen in years. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Mt 5:8).
- A gay graduate student, still hurt and angry but determined to forgive his fundamentalist family for disowning him, who looks, listens, and realizes he is not alone. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Mt 5:9).
- A grandmother with a seemingly permanent smile who has been arrested several times during protests on behalf of minorities and immigrants. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:10).
I suspect that Jesus read the Beatitudes from faces and souls like these. If so, he still does. More than the big names, their faces and souls call me back to the Wild Goose Festival every year.