ref·uge [ref-yooj] (n) :
1. shelter or protection from danger, trouble, etc.
2. a place of shelter, protection, or safety.
3. anything to which one has recourse for aid, relief, or escape.
Have you ever felt refuge?
Have you ever felt like you NEEDED it.
I firmly believe that the difference between someone that comes out of a pile of shit with hope and compassion, versus someone that comes out cynical and hard, is how much refuge they were able to find during their struggles.
Refuge is not a tangible thing. Although sometimes I suppose a tangible thing can provide a sense of refuge, refuge is not something you can touch. Or BUY. Refuge is something that you feel. It’s a sense of well being. It’s a mother tucking in her babies and checking under the bed at night. It’s the sound of a protective father snoring from across the hall. The “beep” of your house alarm when you set it before you go to bed tonight. Refuge is pushing in your earbuds to block out the world and cranking up your favorite song. Or it’s your church Bible study group. Or sitting in Christ’s word while you READ the Bible. Refuge is, in my mind, a cave. A dark and dry cave, lit only by fire, the entrance hidden from anyone that would seek to find me. Refuge is a secure bunker full of supplies to survive Armageddon.
Refuge is HOPE.
Through this process of healing I’m discovering that Refuge is an EMOTIONAL place, but it’s a real one. And a very NECESSARY one.
Almost everyone has seen this picture in one place or another.
As a photographer I am fascinated by this image. There really aren’t very many aspects of photography when it comes to getting a great shot, but the aspects are ones of specificity. Subject, lighting, composition, timing. A truly great photograph, “the perfect shot,” grabs all four of those elements precisely. Perfectly. This photo does that.
The original picture was one in a series of seven, but this one photo best balances and embodies the four aspects of a great photo. Even before the internet was “the internet,” this picture went viral. It’s sold over one million prints worldwide in a few short months. Back then that was almost unheard of. Amazing. NO, this picture is not Photoshopped. I checked. The photo was taken in 1989 by Jean Guichard, a French photographer, from a helicopter that was taking him to a different destination than the one in this picture. This picture was kind of an accident. The lighthouse is named La Jument, located in the Brittany region of France. Guichard said that “we got in the helicopter and the sky just OPENED UP.” BIG storm.
Most of the sites that sport this image are religious or spiritual in nature. I think that’s mostly because religion in and of itself is a way for people to seek refuge from the difficulties of tangible reality. “Opiate of the masses,” and all that. Captions of this image say things like, “God is our lighthouse in the storm.” “Be brave. Find your refuge.” “Have faith, you can persevere. The storm can’t break you down!” “BE STRONG.” People see this image and feel uplifted. They feel hopeful. This picture encourages faith and trust. People look at this image and think about how brave and faithful the man in the picture is, and how he trusts the lighthouse. They cling to the idea that the lighthouse protects him, that he is safe from the water. That he has relief from the storm. That he has shelter.
After the photo went viral there was a lot of digging to find the guy in the picture. They did find him, and they interviewed him. The man in the picture is named Theodore Malgorn. The French call him the “Guardian of the Mare.” When asked about the image he said “My shoes were wet.” I like it that he felt “the state of his shoes” was important enough to tell the interviewer. Pretty down to earth guy, I think. The other thing of significance stated by Malgorn was that he didn’t know there was a photographer up in the helicopter. He heard the helicopter right before that huge wave hit, and he looked out to see who it was because he was expecting HELP.
Turns out the “OMG that guy is so faithful” Guardian of the Mare was sticking his head out of the lighthouse because he thought the helicopter carrying Jean Guichard was the rescue helicopter. He was looking for a way out. HE was looking for rescue, because being in a lighthouse with waves so high the ocean could DUNK IT was just plain dumb.
In that photo the guy in the lighthouse was thinking, “GET ME OUT OF HERE.”
I feel a little bit bad that what I’m telling you could possibly ruin your enjoyment of this picture. That you might be “disenchanted.” If it helps, it’s still an amazing photo from a technical standpoint. Remember? It’s a “perfect shot.” Like it for that, still, okay? Don’t be sad.
Personally I like it a whole lot better now that I know the story. NOW I can relate.
My whole life has been kind of like Theodore Malgorn’s experience that day in his lighthouse.
I have felt THAT. I have felt stuck inside a place I don’t want to be, afraid and unsure and desperate to get out. I have been stuck in my Cathedral when the walls were shaking, and the storm roared and shrieked outside, where my very life was in question because I wasn’t sure if the walls I surrounded myself with were strong enough to stand up, or if they’d crumble when the next wave of LIFE crashed into them. I have been in a place where the very air around me screamed with threat, when I wasn’t sure that I’d get out alive, when I was so afraid of what beat down on me that I could barely breathe. But then a small pause in the chaos, and the silence brings to my ears a sound that jabs hope through my heart. I have been in a place where during a pause in the storm I stick my head out and brave the conditions to see if my heart is right. To see if it’s finally come.
Regardless of what it looks like in the photo, Theodore Malgorn was looking for rescue. He was looking for REFUGE. Regardless of what things looked like on the outside, I have spent almost all of MY life looking for Refuge. Looking for a person, or a place, or a belief or an aspect of faith or an idea or behavior that would keep me safe. Wrap me up, hold off the waves of rough things, tell me “everything is going to be okay.” I wanted to feel like I could let my guard down. Be myself, ALL OF MYSELF, stains and tough parts and “too much” included. I spent all of my childhood and almost all of my adult life looking for relief from the pain and suffering of LIFE.
For the longest time “refuge” to me was as attainable as the magical realm of Narnia. I kept looking for it, and hoping for it. I checked inside every relationship like they were lighthouses, checking to see if Magical Refuge was inside. HOPING it would be inside. Some of the relationship-lighthouses were big enough for me to fit into. I’d climb in and check them out, but usually they were just plain old lighthouses. Most were full of stuff like expectations and conditionals and baggage and judgement. Some were empty, but they were VERY empty. Dark. Damp, and creepy, and unhealthy. Not safe. I kept trying. I knew Refuge had to exist because I knew other people had found it for themselves, but I never could find it.
There were a lot of times that I came close to finding Refuge. As a kid I would spend time with some people that seemed to understand me, but then I would cut loose and let myself BE, and then I’d find out that they really couldn’t make much sense of me at all. I came close to finding Refuge as an adult, too. I was married and for the first year and a half things were pretty good. I found something I thought was Refuge there, in that relationship, and in the man I was married to. But I was mistaken. It was something else, something “not quite.” Through my divorce many of the people I felt were Refuge were not. They decided that I wasn’t worth saving.
Every single person in my life was “not quite.” “Almost.” Almost Refuge until they found something about me that they didn’t know was there. Almost Refuge until they found a stain they couldn’t deal with, or they realized I had made a decision they didn’t agree with, or something in my life held up a mirror to THEIR life and they didn’t want to see the reflection. I’ve had “almost Refuge” lots of times. “Almost, but not quite.”
Turns out I was looking for the wrong thing.
Refuge for me, it turns out, isn’t just one person. It’s four. And it’s Jesus, and it’s my work, and it’s a (soon to be) living space that I can decorate and call my own. Refuge for me is being a refuge for others.
Refuge is The Mister. When I’m with him it feels like this:
That is the gargoyle Goliath and his love Elisa. He is made of stone, but his whole world changes when he meets her. Through her he learns that his heart is not stone, but flesh. She is passion and grace and almost too delicate for the world he lives in, but he loves her. He is big and hard and dangerous, too much for the world SHE lives in, but she loves him. They love each other. And LOOK. SHE HAS A GUN. And look, he has wings, and huge arms, and he wraps both of those around her and holds her safe. He is REFUGE. Protection. Relief. Escape from danger. She’s pretty tough by herself, but anyone thinking they’ll fuck with her would choose to NOT because of who is behind her. She doesn’t even have to BE tough. (Don’t tell The Mister I said that last part. I DO have to be tough. I AM TOUGH, regardless of what he says.)
That is The Gargoyle Mister and his Love. Me.
Refuge is my kids. Being with my kids, being IN THEIR WORLD, surrounded by them and buried underneath them in a kid-shaped-pig pile, being wrapped up inside their love, sitting still with them, running with them, watching while they talk and grow and imagine and fight and love and think and pray and laugh. When I’m with my kids, it feels like this:
LIFE. And movement. And beauty. COLOR where there was only grey. Inside that swirl of barely contained chaos it feels deliciously warm and refreshingly cool. It feels as soft as silk and as slick as butter. It smells like COOKIES in there. And like the Christmas tree on Christmas morning, when the room is just touched by dawn and the lights on the tree are glowing, lighting up all the BLESSING. And it smells like a campfire in the forest, and sounds like crackling logs. And giggling. And belly laughing. And long, deep, hitching sighs in the middle of the night when I tuck them in, the kind of sigh that is born of total contentment and a joyful dream behind their closed eyes. It feels and smells like pressing my nose to the top of the kids’ heads after their very first baths.
Being inside that chaotic swirl feels like Heaven. It IS HEAVEN. That is what Heaven will be like. The kids are Refuge from all things evil, because they are pure. And they’re honest, and accurate, and REAL. And tangible. They are focus. And PURPOSE. They are my resolution. My opus. They are the physical reason I am here, and the only thing I’ll ever do that has any lasting meaning.
Refuge is the grace and forgiveness of Jesus. Refuge in Christ feels like the famous painting by Thomas Blackshear.
Forgiveness. Protection from myself. RELIEF. Escape. Through Christ all of the things I’ve ever done wrong are washed away. I am as I am, dirty and broken and barely able to breathe through the weight of my humanity, but I am ACCEPTED. Loved, and cherished, and special. WORTHY. Through Christ I am blameless. Sanctified. Justified. Redeemed. My soul rests in Him because of the gift He gave, and the gift He gives every day.
WORK is my Refuge. I. LOVE. to WORK. I love it. When I’m focused and working everything else disappears. When I’m neck deep in papers, eyeballs deep in graphic work, or peering through a camera, the rest of the world fades to a distant hum. My happiest place is anywhere I can be elbow deep in the dirt, planting and weeding and digging. The dirtier my hands the more everything makes sense because the only thing that matters is the feel of the earth and the sun on my neck and the smell of the breeze. Work is escape. Work is AID. It helps. When I have a goal and purpose and intention the other things fall into correct perspective. On my craziest most emotional days, digging in the dirt is therapy. Refuge.
Refuge for me is “home.” I think this is the one area of my life that I have never found Refuge. I know it’ll be there someday. It’ll get there. As I write this The Mister is busy building a house for us to live in. He’s assembling walls, hanging drywall, pounding nails. Cutting in windows and running wire and pipe. He’s pretty good at what he does, and when it’s done I’ll be able to “play house.” I’ll paint. And treat windows, and add houseplants. I’ll build furniture and try to find ways to use old windows. I’ll plant a small garden, paint the siding, hang new house numbers next to the door. I’ll hang pictures of my kids on the walls. I’ll futz and fold and clean and mend, and I’ll make a HOME out of a HOUSE.
And finally, Refuge to me is BEING Refuge for others. I strive to be the kind of person that encourages others to feel safe. I try hard to be the center of an environment where people feel free. And blameless. I want to be the kind of person that does not judge or scold. I want to be someone that sees as much as I can of a story and fills in the remaining blank spots with trust. I want to be a mother that my kids can tell ALL things to, not just the good stuff. When life beats down the walls of their Cathedral I want to be their Lighthouse. I want them to come to me, crawl inside the safety of my arms, and although I don’t want to fix everything FOR them I will always hold them until it stops hurting. I will hold them until the storm passes, drying their eyes and soothing their hearts.
I never, ever want to be the kind of person that makes others feel like Theodore Malgorn did. I want to be the kind of Lighthouse that feels safe and secure, a relief from the storm. An escape from pain, and shelter from suffering.
Loving people that way is HARD. FINDING love like that is hard. But that’s what it is. LOVE. The purest form of love. It is what I aspire to.
This journey to Healthy is really, really hard work. It is so painful. It brutal. It leaves you breathless sometimes, bent over double from the strain of dragging forward all the baggage from before, exhausted from the effort to shake off the past. Very often it’s like being WITHOUT a lighthouse, stuck in that storm. Treading water, waiting for someone to show up, trying to keep your head above the waves while the shit beats on you from all sides. Sometimes we feel like we COULD keep swimming, for a very long time, if we just had a minute to catch our breath.
Sometimes we just need a break.
In the 1950s, Curt Paul Richter, a Harvard graduate and Johns Hopkins scientist, did a series of experiments that tested how long rats could swim in an inescapable bucket of swirling water before sinking.
Dr. Richter found that under normal conditions, a rat could swim for an average of 15 minutes before giving up.
However. The doctor found that if he rescued the rats just before they sank, dried them off and let them rest briefly, and then put them back into the same buckets of circulating water, the rats could swim an average of 60 hours before drowning.
SIX. ZERO. SIXTY EFFING HOURS.
If a rat was temporarily saved, it would survive 240 times longer than if it was not temporarily saved. TWO HUNDRED AND FORTY TIMES LONGER. HOW DOES THAT EVEN MAKE SENSE. How could these rats swim so much longer the second time, especially just after swimming as long as possible to stay alive?
The answer is HOPE. REFUGE.
The rats were able to swim longer because they were given hope. Because they knew that there was refuge, if they just kept going. The rats were able to swim longer because they had energy THROUGH hope. Because the thought of refuge was SO EMPOWERING they were willing to fight for it. The rats knew what refuge felt like, and they were willing to swim for it. They PUSHED. They kept swimming.
Just keep swimming.
KEEP HOPING. Keep looking. FIGHT to find your refuge. Don’t stop looking until you find it. It is out there somewhere. Find the thing that makes your heart sigh with relief. Seek out the places in your life where life lets go a little, where you can sink down into comfort and rest. Find a rock to stand on under the swirling water, or a Lighthouse to sit in.
Find a Lighthouse that is sound, and safe, and secure, no matter how furiously the storm rages around you.
And when it’s over, when the storm stops, poke your head out of the door not for seek of rescue, but to kick some ass. And take some names.