Peniel: The Gift of Lily

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Dear friends,

Warm greetings from southern Maine.

Lily is my Peniel, the Face of God in human form, and I want to tell you a story about why I see her this way.

Last year on October 6, I took a walk down the street I love most in the world. Hills Beach Road is a quiet lane on a tiny peninsula in southern Maine. It juts out into the Atlantic Ocean with stunning view on either side. The air is fragrant with pine trees, beach roses, lilac bushes, seaweed, and ocean salt. The sounds you hear are gentle waves, lovely birdsong, and the friendly greeting of neighbors. Every inch for me is suffused with sacred memories from my childhood. (The picture below is from a walk with my mom on Hills Beach Road in 2019.)

On my walk last October, I made my way to some rocks overlooking the bay and a beautiful island. The waves lapping at my feet set a peaceful rhythm, and I hit “call.” I then talked with Duane, my spiritual director, for an hour about the fears in my life. I was receiving death threats for my work, we were exiled from our beloved home in Ethiopia, and our future was entirely uncertain. We needed time in solitude, and we made a pilgrimage here to rest and celebrate Lily’s birthday.

As the waves kept time, Duane told me a beautiful story from Native American culture. 

A boy had reached his moment to become a man. And so his tribe sent him out into the lonely darkness of the forest alone at night. If he could survive this frightful trial, his sacred passage to adulthood would be complete, and he would become a leader in his community. 

Throughout the night, the boy carefully listened to every ominous sound in the forest: “Was that a predator? Or an attacker? Will I survive this night?” His fears surged within him as the darkness closed around him. 

As the sun slowly dawned, the boy heard a sound in the distance. It seemed the danger he feared was finally upon him. 

But as he looked deep into the forest, he saw his father step out from behind a tree where he had watched over his son the entire night. In the dark forest of his fear, this boy believed he was alone and on the brink of death. But he wasn’t. From the start, he was invisibly guarded by his loving father, and thus his sacred passage to adulthood was made in safety with joy in the morning. 

Duane’s words filled me with hope as I wrestled with my fear. He reminded me that our Father is invisibly with us in the dark forest as we transition from one stage of our lives into a new maturity. I took a picture to mark the moment and walked back down the road to return home to Lily. A deep sense of peace for our future welled up in my soul. 

When I stepped inside the sun porch, Lily surprised me. She had made her very first painting, two days after her birthday.

Lily loved art and sketched as a girl. But she was never given the opportunity to take lessons, and her gift remained undiscovered and dormant. Up to October 6, she had no experience with paint, and her only experience with brushes was as a self-trained makeup artist. All of her supplies were purchased from the Dollar Store, and Lily wasn’t even sure if she would use them. I had no idea she was painting as I talked with Duane.

But she was. And in her first painting, Lily depicted a Maine sunset with the last lights of day glowing over the purple ocean. Two birds soar above the waves and represent our togetherness in the vastness of creation. In the blazing light, a third bird is subtly visible over the horizon. This gull represents the faithful presence of God with us in our uncertain journey, just like the father in Duane’s story.

 

Lily’s painting blew me away. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was hard for me to believe this was really her first painting. The beautiful color-mixing, the vast subject matter, and the sacred symbolism were stunning.

Since the first day I met Lily, I could see the deep ocean in her eyes. Through the years, I had seen glimpses of its depths. But this was an entirely new revelation of Lily’s inner ocean.

We then drove a thousand miles to Illinois, returned to our home in exile, and I hung Lily’s painting next to my desk. I saw it every day as I sat down to write my new book Why Pray? Seven Practices for Flourishing on the Edge of Faith. Her ocean-scape became my inspiration. Still, Lily herself wasn’t sure that she’d ever paint again.

But Lily painted. In fact, over the next eight months, Lily has made over sixty paintings. And she hasn’t only painted; she’s already published two of her paintings in outstanding journals – Cultivare in the U.S. (2022) and Pace in Singapore (forthcoming).

Lily’s diverse subject matter has been breathtaking — forests, oceans, icons, farms, mountains, single flowers, elegant cloth, Ethiopian motherhood, pure abstraction, and an impressionistic portrait of me in prayer. To this day, she remains entirely self-taught. But Lily has been tireless in her study and practice. This painting of two shepherds tending their sheep on a forested farm is one example of what she’s been painting:

Our daily rhythm for the last eight months has been something new and energizing: we wake up, I pray and write, Lily makes coffee and paints, and we compare notes in the evening. This process has plunged me into the oceanic depths that I saw in Lily’s eyes fifteen years ago on our first date. In the past, it was always me who worked through the night as Lily went to bed. But now our roles reversed, and it was Lily who said, “I think I’m going to keep painting” as I rolled into bed and called it a day.

Observing Lily become the artist she has always been has deeply moved me. I’ve witnessed her vast emotional range with new eyes. I’ve seen her rugged discipline. I’ve seen her ecstatic creativity. I’ve also seen the terrifying emptiness that comes when you completely empty your soul into something that claims your passion. Sharing our work and its emotional complexity has created an unprecedented intimacy between us.

This morning, a day after my birthday, I walked on Hills Beach Road again. The fragrant air filled my lungs, and the hypnotic rhythm of the waves soothed my soul. I sat in silence on the same rocks where I talked with Duane about my fears. This time I reflected on the gifts that Lily gave me for my birthday.

Lily is generous and gave me many sacred gifts – an inscribed pen for signing my new book, an elegant watch to keep me on time, a photo-book full of pictures from my journey and many of your faces, and letters full of her love for me.

But Lily’s most magnificent gift to me was her latest painting – entitled “November in Illinois.”

 

Tears welled up in my eyes as I removed the cloth from the canvass. Much of our life together has focused on our beloved Ethiopia. But Lily wanted to celebrate the place where I was born – where my life began with my family and friends, the neighborhoods and schools that formed me, the scenes and seasons that became the landscape of my soul. Lily wanted to honor and share this part of our home in the season we cherish.

I could hardly believe what I was seeing. This painting was clearly the work of the same artist that I met on October 6. But less than eight months later, Lily’s brilliant color-mixing, daring subject matter, and remarkable fusion of realism and impressionism blew me away.

“November in Illinois” so magnificently captures the complex beauty of my birthplace. It displays the blazing beauty of the sunset in Illinois’s forested flatlands at the cusp of summer’s warmth and winter’s brutality. A path leads in and out of the canvass and brilliantly leaves ambiguous whether you’re coming or going. Beside the path, a muscular tree trunk anchors the painting’s expansive movement in peace. Once again, the divine bird subtly soars behind the tree as the canvass glows with light in the magic hours of Autumn.

This painting is an icon of sacred presence. In each brush stroke, in each blade of grass, I see the revelation of Lily’s Christ mind and the articulation of her luminous soul. The canvass is her book, the colors her words. The calm unfolding of her painting pours out the passion of the ancient cathedral inside of her.

When I graduated from the University of Chicago in 2015, I said in my dinner speech, “Lily, you dazzle me.” But today I am dazzled by Lily like never before. In less than eight months, she has produced over sixty stunning paintings and already published two. Without any formal training, she has moved from painting a simple scene to a stunning study of light, creation, and the divine — our home.

There sleeps within each one of us such wondrous, divine beauty. It may take decades and much suffering to reveal itself. I have observed Lily’s ache for many years and heard her express her fear that God had neglected to give her a gift. But then one day, on October 6, amidst beauty and peace in Maine, the bud broke through her soul’s soil, and Spring sprang to life in Lily. The mansion of her soul was revealed, and the cathedral continues to rise to heaven today.

Lily, I love you. You’ve become my favorite painter — my Van Gogh, Monet, and Afewerk Tekle in one. The brilliant beauty inside of you — forming through your hidden gift, devastating loss, and persistent growth — astonishes me. Your gentle patience and rugged courage astound me. Thank you for loving me so generously and for so gorgeously pouring out your soul in your art for the last eight months. I know the passionate labor it requires and the terrifying emptiness that haunts it. You fill my birth with joy and unchain my fear for the freedom of heaven. You are my Peniel.

Dear friends, perhaps like Lily and me, you are haunted by the uncertainty of your future and the frightening question of whether God has neglected you. I invite you to join me in learning from Lily. She is teaching me to trust that God actually loves us, that God is a generous Gift-Giver, and that God’s timing is perfect – even when this takes decades to be revealed. God is with us in the dark forest as we transition from one stage of our lives into a new maturity.

May God give us patient hope in our waiting, passionate courage in our labor, and oceanic joy in our new birth.

With all our love from Maine!

***

“Awaken the divine Presence which sleeps in each man and each woman. Know each other in the Love that never changes.” Terrence Malick

 

 

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