When Windows Are Not Windows – an essay by John Backman

When Windows Are Not Windows

Everything in my recent life comes down to three windows. I’m looking through one right now, on the opposite wall of the room I rarely leave. Outside are two stout limbs of an old maple, the kind that used to line our street in upstate New York. I rarely leave because 1,600 years ago some desert sage told a disciple to “go, sit in your room, and your room will teach you everything.” Spirit nudged me to follow this advice. So I sit here and Spirit comes to visit and the morning sky shades from deep blue to sky blue or more often gray. And you get essays like this to read.

The room holds a lot of silence. Sometimes Spirit and I just gaze at each other. At least I think Spirit’s gazing: a warmth just behind my solar plexus serves as evidence. Sometimes I do zazen, the Zen practice of sitting and non-thinking and gazing into emptiness. Mostly I write essays like this and people read them. Other things happen in this room too—TV at night, chats with my wife (yes, some hermits have spouses). At some point in each activity, I look through the window: full moon against black, silver sky with orange wash, the views haikus are made of.

* * *

Julian of Norwich spent most of her life in one room. She too had three windows: one to see the altar in the adjoining church, one to pass necessaries back and forth (food, chamber pot), one to give people advice and counsel. She lived in her room, and her room taught her everything, and she gave it all away.

My friend Stephen got me reacquainted with Julian. This was four years ago, before “go, sit in your room” applied to me, when my window was just a window with a lovely view. Stephen and I were studying to become spiritual directors, people who help other people figure out where Spirit is in their lives. During one class he described Julian’s life and her one room and her three windows and I could feel that familiar nudge from Spirit that said, Pay attention. This is for you.

* * *
The second window, from fifteen years ago, was also for me, though I didn’t really know it at the time. It looked through the wall of a monastery chapel onto the South African veldt. I could see a long, low hill near the horizon line, mostly bare, a spindly tree on each side. In the chapel, the monks chanted the cycle of psalms and sacred texts that make up their life of prayer. As I listened, the chanting, the view, Spirit, and the monks converged. By itself the window wouldn’t have changed my life—wouldn’t have led to my current window—but the convergence did.

I wonder if the window was more of a touchstone, a place to bring the experiences of our three weeks in South Africa. The Sunday School students, a dozen silent teens wanting to hear about America. My yearning, and my failure, to connect with them. The Xhosa woman from Cradock township who had a crazy-making teen daughter, as we did, parents half a world apart with the same aggravation. The monkeys on the roadside and the shacks with tin roofs and the sheet-metal sculptures for sale at rural intersections. The very last morning when I rushed out of the chapel round the back and burst into tears. The half-conscious sense, on the ten-hour drive back to Johannesburg and the airport, that Spirit was about to shove everything aside—my business success, my rising income, my place in the community—and fill the void with Spirit’s Own Self.

* * *
I don’t know what Spirit had to shove aside with Julian, but her watershed took a harder road: seven days in bed, so near death her eyes fixed in a glassy stare and a priest gave her Last Rites. She didn’t fear death—it would bring her straight to God, after all—and the only reason to keep on living was to learn to love God better. God apparently had different ideas: the illness suddenly gave way to fifteen visions in two days. Julian spent decades reflecting on them, and we got a book for the ages to read.

* * *
I look through the third window and a person looks back at me. I have been her spiritual director for years now, sniffing around for where Spirit might be lurking in her life. I know this has changed her, focused her, forced her latent talents into resplendent blossom. You might dismiss this window since it sits on my lap, but it is no less a window. It may be more window: not just onto—onto a tree, a hill, a veldt—but into.

Julian had an into window as well. Margery Kempe, tradesperson and mother of fourteen, came to the window to pour out her soul and her visions and ask if they came from God. Julian was all comfort and confirmation—thanking God “with all her heart for his visitation” to Margery, advising her to “fulfil with all her might whatever he put into her soul.” I can almost feel Julian’s heart swell, as mine does when a face appears at my window and peers at me, or maybe through me to their own deep selves.

* * *
Julian has been gone six hundred years. We still don’t know her real name: she’s always been known by the church where she lived (St. Julian) and the town around it (Norwich). After all the good that passed through them, her windows are now just windows.

Before too long I will follow her. Someone will buy my house and discard my laptop and my windows will also lose their significance. Both of us will have disappeared with hardly a trace.

Unless I have misunderstood windows from the beginning.

Thomas Merton, famous monk, once wrote that the Virgin Mary was “as pure as the glass of a very clean window that has no other function than to admit the light of the sun.” If Mary was a window, perhaps we all are, or strive to be, with no other function than to let Spirit pass through.

Windows may be windows but we are something more.

And maybe that never ends. John of the Cross, famous mystic, spoke of the dark night of the soul—a condition where the light of Spirit is so close and so bright it looks like darkness to us. I have seen these dark nights and will likely see more. Maybe they’re preparing me for that final day, when I become a window that darkness passes through.

# # #

A spiritual director, nonbinary person, and quasi-hermit, John Backman writes about ancient spirituality and the unexpected ways it collides with postmodern life. This includes a book (Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart) and personal essays in Tiferet Journal, Amethyst Review, Evolve, Sufi Journal, The Sunlight Press, and Belmont Story Review, among other places.

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