The other day I was in Dr. Martha Shaw’s office, and she was making me a cup of coffee. And when I say “coffee,” I mean hot, dark, real, and perfectly doctored with steamed milk. And when I say “office,” I mean a very classy place with subtly pink walls and a great view of the piazza in front of Sheffield-Thompson, with fountain and flowers.
So I am sitting there thinking how awesome is it that Dr. Shaw (THE Dr. Shaw) is making me a hot cup of coffee in her cool office, and then she hands it to me in a beautiful, delicate floral cup and makes herself one; and then we start having one of our magical chats, like this. I say something long and long-winded and convoluted and impossibly baroque in description, and then I realize that my being at ease with Martha has made me use fifteen words where one would have done nicely; when I finally stop my tilting-at-windmills speech to look at Martha and gauge her reaction, I notice she’s gotten very quiet, and that’s the magical part because then she says, “I know what you mean” (just when I think she should be thinking, “You’re a lunatic, Carmen”).
So here’s what we were talking about that day, in as few words as I can muster. Shorter College is a special place. Never mind that yesterday when my husband needed to put up a sign about the online program he had to get his masonry drill out and drill into the packed red clay and bedrock that the college is founded on—all that in order to get the metal legs of his sign planted firmly in the ground. Seriously, Sean is Director of the Online Program at Shorter, and his experience shows how Shorter is definitely founded on “The Rock.” We simply call it “The Hill.”
The Hill is a special place to be. I walk around the Hill often at 7:30 in the morning after I drop off our son at school. Lately I have Matthew 11:28-30 with me. It’s typed up in twenty-four-size font so I can read it without my glasses. I do have it memorized, but I still carry it around with me when I walk so I can read it and see those comforting words and dwell on them, and hope and pray they saturate my soul with their peace and strength.
I often walk around the Hill at lunchtime (if not in the morning) and in the late evening, sometimes with my family. I would like a dollar for every time I have walked around the Hill. I’m sure I could fund a scholarship for a deserving high school student, for FOUR YEARS.
So here’s the thing about Shorter. You walk around the Hill, and you notice it’s not big. The scenery doesn’t change all that much. We have 150 acres, most of it up on that Hill, and yet. Every day the scenery changes to the discerning eye. The oaks are huge, their bark is rough to the touch, and their leaves are massive and comforting. Now, their leaves move quietly in the wind and are as green as inchworms or pastel pool floats, but in fall their leaves will rattle against the sky; and I will bring my children out to hear them, as I have every year. Then in winter the old tree stands there with its limbs bare and lifted up to the sky, reminding me that less can be beautiful and that simplicity always pleases God.
Meanwhile, the pines are never the same, either. “Evergreen” doesn’t mean “ever-the-same.” I love pines for their ordinariness. They are easy to overlook, but once you catch the knack of noticing them, they can surprise you with their beauty. I think that if you could say pines have a temperament, they would be shy. You have to earn your way into their trust. Sometimes they lean in the wind this way, sometimes that way. Sometimes birds sit up in them, sometimes not. They lose limbs in storms. At different times of day, their green is darker, and sometimes there’s lots of brown pine straw in a certain spot in one of the parking lots, sometimes not so much.
The clouds? I tell you. The clouds pretty much rock our Hill. They are never the same. When I was writing The Cloud of Unknowing, I noticed clouds a whole lot more, and that habit has not gone away since. They seem to speak to me of God’s love and of his mysteriously intimate presence in my life. Sometimes the clouds from the Hill are as huge as any Abraham might have seen; sometimes they disappear altogether. You never know. And then when the rains come, as they did today, blowing over our Hill, they change all of nature there.
The Hill is always changing, from lush greens of summer to the goldens of autumn to the simplicity of winter and back to the tender greens of spring. Coach Ricci Lattanzi likes to say that the sky is “Shorter blue,” and I agree. Walk around the Hill often enough, and you’ll see for yourself.
I said all of this to Martha and more. I told her how when I walked around Shorter or just worked there in my office I always feel as if this is a special place, as if many people have prayed on this Hill, for many years. Also, cannons were fired off this Hill during the Civil War; maybe people died during those battles here. You can see a place where the soldiers dug a flat spot for a cannon. A treasure-hunter told me that once in Chick-Fil-A when he spotted my “GO, HAWKS” t-shirt. I can show it to you.
I told Martha that it seems to me that no prayer ever prayed on the Hill has ever been lost, that the accumulated prayers of others for Shorter, Rome, and the world beyond the Hill seem to cling to the pines and the red dirt at Shorter. I may be imagining it, but my heart says I am not. I have felt this feeling before when I am in Europe in a cathedral or in certain churches or on an Indian mound out in the remotest woods; these are places where people have gathered, speaking in hushed, awed tones.
You can feel those many prayers that have been prayed on the Hill. It gives me hope for the feeble ones I send upward. That they will linger. That a student who needs to feel them one day, will. For when I pray Matthew 11:28-30, I am also praying it for Shorter College and for all who are part of “the Hill.”
Also, the beauty of the place is large, and I think of the Psalm that says, “The earth is telling the glory of God.” Shorter does that. Just walk around it once. Surely someone will stop and offer you a ride (like Joan Ledbetter, who does go at least 55 up that S-curve, easily). When you shake your head and say, “Just walking for my health,” they will know your secret. They will know you are walking for the God of it, for the prayers you can pray, for the silence you can hear, for the pines you can see, for the air you can breathe, and for the Christ you can adore.
When I said all that to Martha, she shook her head once yes and said, “I’ve felt that, too.”
So can you. So, welcome freshmen, and welcome back, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. We are proud of you. We are thankful for you, and we look forward to learning together . . . on the Hill.