“Voila…escargots!” How urbane, my Parisian date, waving the little tongs. Then, with a swirl-and-flick of the slender spearing fork, he flourished the bite-size meat.
“Ouvrez grand,” he coaxed.
Open wide? I faked a cough, stalling. His invitation to dine had not mentioned gastropods. Eyeing the warm, greenish morsel, I reached for my water instead. So much for impressing him with my discerning palate.
A Gallic shrug, a swallow, a sigh of pleasure—then, his left eyebrow cocked. Again, he wielded the implements. This time I opened…halfway. Sauced with butter and parsley, basil and garlic, it stuck. to. my. tongue. A snail. Rubbery texture, ‘shroom-y aftertaste. Just protein, I told myself.
I nudged the platter his way. He lavished attention on every bite.
Sometimes I picture fellowship with God as slipping into a chair, saved for me, at a candlelit table for two. Spiritual appetite stirs my imagination. So does Saint Paul.
“Pray without ceasing,” he said.
As a young believer, my conversations with God felt lively and layered as sweet chili sauce, soothing as homemade custard. Over time, the settings changed, but not the Host. However, my hunger for frequent, vibrant connection faded. I had yet to divine the cutlery, those various tools and strategies that help sacred dialogue flourish long-term: through grace, yes, but also through resolve and repetition.
Expending attention on something largely dismissed by others—like prayer or a lowly mollusk—appealed to me, a skosh subversive, but nicely.
Initially, I made devotion a game: (Hear a bird? car horn? train?—offer praise).
Then I added singing: (Red light?—hum a chorus, a hymn, a Holy Ghost scat).
Later, I set my cell phone alarm: (High noon?—join those around the world who pray for peace).
- Which tactile cues in our daily lives could also be used?
- Do significant dates or seasons suggest a specific response?
- How might the rhythm of our breath link with language?
Hardwired for novelty, our sensibilities quicken when encountering something new. To develop the sinew of an unhurried elasticity, we could sample multiple approaches to prayer, day after day, throughout the day.
Consistency—can it be measured? Should it be?
By perseverance the snail reached the ark.
— Charles Spurgeon, The Salt-Cellars:
Being a Collection of Proverbs, Together with Homely Notes Thereon
WHAT DOES TENACITY LOOK LIKE?
Snails, nicknamed bellyfoots, undulate on a muscular sole cushioned by mucus released from a gland: boneless glide—even upside down. Or while braving right-angle ascents.
After a friend scaled the lower Himalayas, I asked, “How’d you keep going?” He explained an endurance technique for steep elevations: the hiker’s rest step.
“You focus on one foot at a time. With each step upward you pause,” he said, “allowing your weight to sink into the rear foot, knee locked.” A ten-second suspension, midstride, helped his muscles regroup.
“Then you repeat the process, locking the other knee. It’s a rhythm you have to get used to. Then, the improbable gait increases your mileage.”
Roman snails, prized worldwide for escargots, ooze along at 2.5 inches per minute. With 63,360 inches to a mile, it would take the little creatures roughly 2.5 weeks, 24/7, to venture one mile. Tenacity starts looking heroic.
Snails, which are nocturnal, alter my sense of proportion in other ways. I’m sometimes prone to insomnia. Anxiety can make a single sleepless night seem to last a year. It helps me to curl up, pull into my shell and deep-breathe various names for God. Wakeful hours also lend themselves to requesting provision and strength for widows and orphans, the homeless, people battling insomnia or dread. Better to lift their needs than feed my fears.
When you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again,
if you want to know who you are, watch your feet.
Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.
— Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace
I’m a lover of rhythmic exercise. After watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I adapted Mr. Rogers’s gentle practice. While swimming laps he’d silently remember people by name. Nothing more than this.
Wow. I needn’t always have something specific to say! I started syncing names to my jogging cadence, simply commending people to God’s care.
Some believers simplify their waking hours more radically by forgoing mealtimes to concentrate faith on a particular issue. That lone escargot I swallowed as a coed was likely harvested at winter’s outset, when many snails retreat into their shells to fast. Considered internally cleansed during this phase, they can be tipped straight into the kettle to feed the hungry.
Or be left alone, in peace.
ALWAYS: AN ALTERNATE TRANSLATION
Author Henri Nouwen says this about Paul’s prayer imperative:
The literal translation of the words ‘pray always’ is
‘come to rest.’
This rest, however,
has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain.
It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle.
— Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart
Had my creative prayer attempts over-focused on doing rather than being? Or were they personal fiber optics, an expanding network pulsing with signals sent, connections made?
Perhaps I’d been growing pseudo-snail antennae, divinely designed to locate nourishment’s source.
Either way, how does one rest amid needful work?
“THE PLACE OF ORIGIN”: TERROIR
Visually, that French noun looks like an offshoot of “terror.” It doesn’t help that it sounds like a T. rex, low on protein. The word (pronounced tear-WAHR) holds layers of meaning: habitat, climate, environment and, most germane for me, “growing practices.”
Terroir also includes the character of a locale, the lifegiving, ambient presence.
Dare I say baseline? Wherever we work and worship, Love undergirds our experience, even when we question a Maker seemingly slow to respond. So often we feel unheard, alone, our labors unseen. Do we persist? Is God really listening?
Ric Brewer, of Little Gray Farms Escargot, tends a quarter of an acre on the rainy Olympic Peninsula. Local terroir supports his goals: his land shares a similar latitude with certain elite snail farms in France. But it’s not enough.
“I’m still learning every day,” Brewer says, “[about] the optimum methods to grow them.”
Prayers feel that way for me.
He sang as if yawning. You might remember Herbert the Snail’s iconic solo, in Candle’s mid-century album, The Music Machine: “Have patience, have patience, don’t be in such a hurry…”
I used to lead story time in a preschool. A circle of blue tape marked out the seating. We’d take our places, and before speaking, I’d lean forward, make eye contact with each child.
“It takes every single one of us,” I’d say, “working together,” my voice softening, “to create…silence.”
Wriggles calmed; eyes opened wider. We loaned one another part of our stillness. I’d tell them folk tales; spellbound, the kids traveled with me.
Need I mention snails congregate? And that a group is called an escargatoire?
Children gravitate toward mystery. Whether stilled by its presence or brimming with startling observations, their gathered attentiveness delights and inspires me. One comment triggers another. Then another. I don’t always wait long enough to fully receive the gift of their fresh worldview. Sometimes I’m overbooked and under-the-circumstances. One little fact cheers me to no end. When feeling swamped by correspondence and cyber-technology, I savor knowing the ubiquitous @—which pervades my inbox—derives from the Italian word chiocciola (snail).
Maybe I need to search out more incognito reasons to smile, already half-hidden around me.
I was the kid who counted snail shells as private currency. Roaming our backyard, which bordered a weedy lake dredged from swamp, I finger-sifted chalky shapes the size of my thumbnail from pea gravel. Each discovery fed my school’s-out-appetite for a summer vocation.
Was that when I became a wonder junkie?
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt marvels over spirals, noting mathematical ratios echoed within snail shells, human DNA, basic music structures the world over—even the Milky Way.
The same goes for the whorls in the human ear. Consider the depth of listening possible when—hungry to encounter God—we let ourselves spiral into rest.
German theologian Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your life is ‘Thank you,’ it will be enough.” Voila! Another delectable way to prolong the Conversation.
What if instead of addressing my jaws and lips and taste buds, my Parisian date had addressed my heart?
“Ouvrez grand,” I hear the Spirit say.
Supports me on its giant palm;
And like a…simple snail, there cautiously
Unfolds, emerges, what I am.
—Philip Larkin, Collected Poems
Perhaps this is rest.
Snails also play a gentle role in Laurie Klein’s new poetry collection, House of 49 Doors: entries in a life, recently accepted for The Poeima Poetry Series/Cascade Books. You can find out more at Laurie’s website.
Cover photo credit: Alexas Fotos