notes from a monastery
by DAN PHILLIPS
Abbey Retreat Day 1
Nice day. A little overcast. Weather perfect. "We need some time without activity, without words, without people. We need these not to escape from activity or words or people, but to get our heads on straight and our hearts beating to the proper rhythm so that we can work creatively, so that we can speak wisely, so that we can deal with people gently and compassionately. (Thomas Merton) The door to solitude opens only from the inside. Peace is the seed-bed of righteousness and peacemakers will reap its harvest. Key to spirituality - "move the WORD from the mind to the heart." When a person comes to know God His/Her tongue is silent.
Monastic Notes - Day 1, Part 2-Sleeplessness posted at 01:45pm 10 Aug 2004
The absolutely worse thing about being at the monastery is that I can not sleep and I don't know the reason why. It is always that way when I am here.
I forgot to bring my pillows this time, and some medicine I was taking. I can blaime that. Or, that I drank a cup of decafinated coffee after Compline and Father Kelty's evening monastic message, but the results are the same. No sleep no matter what. It is really frustrating.
Wayne and I were talking to a former monk we knew tonight. He stayed at Gethsemani for 13 years, then left. "Why did you leave Jerry?" I asked him. "I was tired of the silence and I was lonely," he said. It reminded me of something Jennifer Lash wrote. Referring to nuns she said, "You know them, but you never really know them. Their life is really with their silence and themselves." Like so many of us, dreams and reality often get mixed up.
Father Matthew Kelty is 89 years young. Each night he speaks after Compline. Father's Kelty's talk tonight was meaningful. At one point he was talking about prayer and he said, "Prayer enhances the vision. Keep the conversation going." Yes, that's it, keep the conversation going.
I met a young man tonight who is 20 years old and has just gotten out of the marines. He is considering becoming a monk. "Why did you come to the Abbey of Gethsemani," I asked him. "Because I read Merton's No Man Is An Island." Yes, Merton has his ways.
It is 11:00 p.m. The first service for Tuesday is in 3 hours and 15 minutes. There is not a sleepy bone in me. I am just killing time playing on this Sidekick.
One good piece of news today was an official request from an Episcopal Church in Florida to come in February of 2005 and lead a conference on Thomas Merton. That will be exciting. A foolish big question -- what if Thomas Merton had a sidekick by Danger.com?
I brought two meaningful books with me : On Pilgrimage by Jennifer Lash and The Art of Travel by Alain De Botton. I just dip into them a little, mostly the library here is terribly sufficient.
Earlier this evening I drove 8 miles to send the previous blog and call Janet and Melinda. When they found this place in 1848 it was in the wilderness and still is. In Father Kelty's words, "These 3 counties have always been Catholic wilderness surrounded by Baptist wilderness." A thought --maybe this sleeplessness is really a waiting for God in the dark.
I remember after my cancer surgery on December 31, 2003, that I stayed in the recovery room for a lengthy 4 hours. I remember a nurse I had never met, a young nurse named Melissa, who spoke to me first when I awoke. "Brother Dan, when I saw you on the surgery list, I prayed that I could be your nurse and take care of you !!!!!" It still touches me to think of that. He gives his Angels charge to stand by us. That still brings tears to my eyes, even just now. Oh sleep. O sleep. Where art thou?
11:26 p.m. What am I waiting for? I reread some of the prayer requests I brought from the hospital. I always let people know when I am coming to the Abbey so they can give me their requests and I spread them before the Lord.
One I received says this, " I have a special request. Please pray for my sanity, my patience, my courage and my good will, pray that I may keep my sense of humor with my two toddlers. Pray for me that I do not use my two toddlers as an excuse not to go to church on Sunday." Another request says, "Please pray that I may win the lottery."
11:46 p.m. 1 sheep jumps over the wall. 2 sheep jump over the wall.
Abbey Retreat: Day 2
1:05 a.m. - Tuesday. 2323 sheep jump over the wall Someone once said that the secret of a successful retreat is to eat a lot, sleep a lot, and pray a lot. (Sleep? What's that?)
Its 1:46 a.m. I am going to put on my clothes and take my Bible and prayer list to VIGILS. The service begins in 24 minutes. I go to the kitchen, get a half glass of milk, some homemade cheese, and a piece of bread.
Outside I see a car coming up the highway by the monastery fence. It turns in at the monastery. Someone is coming to Vigils. At 2 a.m. The bells ring. I go to the balcony in the chapel. Already 6 monks are praying and preparing for the service. This praying at 2 a.m. is serious business! One can tell. There are 7 psalms we pray. 99, 5, 10, 14, 19, 23 and 63. All the monks are here for this 2:15 a.m. service, 40 in all. It is an austere setting. Besides the chapel lights, only 1 small candle and an icon of Mary and Jesus are seen. The service ends at 2:48 a.m. The lights in the chapel dim and grow dark. --------------------------------------------
9:00 a.m. ALIVE I am finally alive. I slept a little, thru Lauds and Mass. At 6 a.m. I made it to breakfast, a glass of milk, cake like rolls with cream cheese, oatmeal, grape juice, and silence. Then fitful sleep through the "Praying the Psalms" course, which I really wanted to hear B-U-T, well some sleep is nice. At 8:45 I shower. After taking my clothes off, I turned around naked and was startled by an icon of Jesus on the cross looking down on me. I felt embarrassed.
The first cup of coffee was at 9. I sit outside and write this. Again, it is a perfect day. A lawnmower runs in the distance. "How Merton hated lawnmowers," I think as I sit under the shadow of his tombstone cross.
I read again, Jen Lemen's "Tortured Thoughts About Prayer." "Part of the work of the kingdom is to sit in waiting rooms, to hope against hope that god will be present, that god will sit with you, that god will not forget," she says. I pray for Jason, David's son, who is 17 and has cancer really bad, and for Garrett who just turned 18, and for Jen that God's talents continue to multiply and manifest themselves in her, and for Mike and Melinda as they prepare for marriage. I am overcome by God's Presence. Sometimes the silence says it all. Even the lawnmower's song has rhythm and sacredness about it. And tears weld up in my eyes.
After my quiet time, I re-read yesterdays notes, then spent time taking digital photographs of places important for me. For instance, I clean off the grave of Daniel Walsh, not only a good friend of Merton's at Columbia, but also one who greatly influenced him toward his becoming a monk. He died in 1975 and is buried here. Other pictures are of the prayer garden, places where I sit and read, and statues I often pass. It has been a peaceful morning. From A Spiritual Journey http://hiptop.com/hiplog/read/4/2006/ Brodan@tmail.com
Tuesday Evening - Notes From A Monastery posted at 10:22am 11 Aug 2004 Tuesday Evening
After Father Kelty's evening devotion on mercy and our need to be merciful, I sit on the steps leading away from the chapel.
I watch the people leave and head for their homes. The weather is still perfect ! 70 degrees. A dog barks in the background. I am weak. I don't feel well. My head aches. I try to pray.
The sun's reflection on the hills begins to dim. I watch white clumpy clouds float by. I don't have the energy to walk far. I bury my hurting head in my hands. "God Alone," says the sign that enters the monastic garden on my left at the bottom of the stairs.
A passing retreatant ties his shoes. I feebly walk toward the hills, see my friend Wayne meditating, and stop and talk to him until the darkness arrives, then a glass of milk and bread and a tylenol Wayne gives me. I sleep fitfully with hurting head. How difficult it is to feel spiritual when physically one is faltering.
Abbey Retreat: Day 3
Wednesday Morning - August 11, 2004 - 4:29 a.m.
I get up, drink some coffee, and head for Lauds. I get a piece of wheat bread and a cup of strong coffee and sit in semi-darkness and pray outside the kitchen. It is dark outside, only a small flood light for protection.
"Lord I thank you for the darkness and the bread and the coffee and that you are here in this place of peace and prayer. Thank you for another morning!" I walk outside, see the bright semi-moon and stars and follow the clear ringing bells up the steps into the chapel. --------------------------------------------
Steer the ship of my life, good Lord, to your quiet harbour, where I can be safe from the storms of sin and conflict.
Show me the course I should take.
Renew in me the gift of discernment, so that I can always see the right direction in which I should go.
And give me the strength and the courage to choose the right course, even when the sea is rough and the waves are high, knowing that through enduring hardship and danger we shall find comfort and peace.
(Saint Basil of Caesarea--from. The Glenstal Book of Prayer)
Great messafe from Father Anton on the Thumbprint of God in our lives. "God gets us where he wants us." We hit rock bottom and God sends people or an angel to help us. God draws straight with crooked lines. We are a link in the chain.
Home from the Abbey posted at 05:22pm 12 Aug 2004 Left the Abbey of Gethsemani at 7 a.m. This morning. Ate lunch at home, then a nap. Good to be home. I enjoy the silence but am glad to get back in the swing of things.
notes from a monastery
by DAVE NIXON
Abbey Retreat: Day 1
Silence is no longer a stranger to me. The peace that hangs in the air here at the monastery is more like a long and good friend from whom I've been apart but with whom I instantly pick up the thread of dialogue we were last holding. There are now enough quiet moments in my life that the contrast I feel in coming here isn't stark as it used to be. Nature, however—I felt her absence very sharply this evening.
At dusk and before Compline I walked across the highway to the newly paved road leading to the gravel and dirt path, leading to the fields of grass and broomsage, leading to the large pond tucked neatly away behind a small stand of trees, leading to the water’s edge. Walking the gentle swells of ground on the way to the pond, pockets of warm and then cool air passed over me, air that was meant to be tasted as much as breathed. Sitting still and quiet beside the pond I watched as two pair of boisterous geese came gliding in, announcing their presence with forceful honks that bounced off the water's surface and spread out even as their webbed feet touched down and sent a series of ripples to the pond's outer edges. The frogs around the edge were croaking in full force, and crickets were raising hypnotic chants to the Almighty. To my left and right, both high and low, chipmunks were scampering over the ground and squirrels were winding through tree branches, both stealing their last bits of play before retiring for the night. A star or two were already visible overhead, preceding the thousands that would soon follow. And not a person was around.
The show was free and there will be repeat performances, encore presentations every day and night for as long as anyone cares to watch. Except for the few brief days each year that I'm here, I will certainly not be watching, and this strikes me not so much as odd but as something broken and in need of fixing. I hear that the world's population is converging on cities. More and more people are packing up their bags and moving to the large urban centers. If you ask me tonight, I'll tell you they're all going in the wrong direction. What I heard a short while ago by the pond was symphonic and delicious, the only show worth watching. And even though the concert was sometimes loud, it was always easy on the soul. Every note was an addition to life.
Returning from the pond to the monastery tonight I walked backward along the gravel road leading to the paved road, leading to the Abbey, leading to my bed. What I saw. A line of orange and yellow fire silhouetted the still barren trees in the distance, and a thin strip of pale blue tinged with pink hung over them in a tight embrace. Below the fire the undulating fields of broomsage and grass were retreating into a mystery, being enfolded into deep browns that now only suggested the presence of forms. The sky above the fire line rolled smoothly from light blue in the west to near cobalt on the eastern edge, all forming a backdrop for a new show that was gathering in strength above my head. In the east was Ursa Major, at the zenith was Orion, and toward the west were Saturn and Jupiter. I've watched Jupiter and Saturn all year from the city as they've tracked across the sky from east to west, arriving earlier every night. Tonight I see they were only phantoms, ghostlike apparitions. But these, oh these had substance. They look brilliant and sharp enough to draw blood if you were just tall and brazen enough to touch them.
And now I'm wondering just how pale my own life has grown in the city, but it's a question I don't care to answer tonight. Maybe tomorrow. Tonight is for adding, not subtracting. Tonight I am simply happy to be here and happy to have been in the audience.
At Compline tonight we chanted Psalm 4, and the line I think of is, "You have put into my heart greater joy than they have from abundance of corn and new wine." Yes. Amen. Good Night.
Abbey Retreat: Day 2
He lay confused on the bed in his small room. Perhaps the confusion lay in his sickness, which had, as most illnesses do, come upon him suddenly. A brief day earlier he had felt fine and was eager to make headway in untangling elements of his life in this extended period of quiet, but now he was caught in a malaise that had sapped his energy, his ability to think clearly and, consequently, his will to accomplish anything. Staring dully at the wall was the only activity that matched the vitality he felt.
This was not how he had envisioned his day. In fact, it was so far away from what he had hoped that he took it as a personal offence. Who, in fact, had dealt him this injustice he couldn’t say, but he felt it all the same. Something that was supposed to be his was being denied him. Some vague Powers That Be were thwarting him and now he was both miffed and slightly depressed. He lay beneath the plain crucifix at the foot of his bed and tried from time to time to seize a thought as it passed through his head. If he could find something substantial enough to grip, some idea worth thinking and writing about, then he could use it as a lever to pull himself out of this physical distress and into something productive. But every thought gave way, snapped off and fell to the ground, orphaned from its roots and disconnected from any sensible whole.
“Have pity on me, Lord.” This was the only thing he could think to say, so he said it out loud, for he felt his weakness acutely. After a stretch of resistance there came an easing of the discomfort. He recited his Lord’s prayer and came to the line, “Give us today our daily bread.” He didn’t reason through its meaning. Rather, he approached it head on and accepted this weakness as bread he was given to eat. It wasn’t the food he had wanted, but it was food all the same. And then he did something very peculiar. He sat up in bed and placed his bare feet on the speckled terrazzo floor. Gaining his equilibrium, he stood and removed everything he was wearing—his clothes, the gold ring on the third finger of his left hand, the digital watch—and turned toward the crucifix. With head bowed and hands raised, he prayed to be identified with Christ in weakness. Then he stretched out his arms and pressed his body against the whitewashed concrete walls, feeling the cold enter his skin.
Abbey Retreat: Day 3
Dark ashes in the form of a sloppy cross stained his forehead. The vertical stroke was bold and dark, sliced in the middle by a wide and bent horizontal line, the whole thing off center and almost directly above his left eye. Minutes earlier Father Matthew, poised before him on platform, had looked at him and said in his think Boston accent, “Remember, o man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And then with his thumb the priest had marked him as a dead man walking.
He had not intended to receive ashes. Most of the day had been spent sick in bed. When he dragged himself to breakfast early that morning after a poor night of sleep, he noticed a large and dark smudge on the forehead of retreatant leaving the kitchen. His first thought was that the woman had either forgotten to wash her face or had been careless, but as he entered the kitchen he saw dark patches on the foreheads of all those in line. Ash Wednesday. He had forgotten. And then suddenly he felt very conspicuous and conscious of his own clean face. It was as if he had stumbled into a clandestine meeting and would, in a matter of seconds, be identified as an intruder and asked to leave. He considered leaving anyway, but hunger dissuaded him. After breakfast, he slept the morning away and didn’t come down again until dinnertime, at which time he noticed that the ashen crosses had either worn off or been washed off the retreatants almost entirely. And then he went back to his room and back to bed. At supper that evening everyone looked normal again. The event was behind him now, he supposed. He was, consequently, surprised that evening after Compline when Father Matthew, having finished his homily, pulled out a small tray of ashes and offered to mark anyone who had missed the event earlier. Impulsively he stepped forward.
As he left the small chapel and walked out into the warm night, he realized that no one had ever addressed him with such directness about his impending and unavoidable death. He had pondered it many times on his own, but this man had touched him, marked him, and pronounced him mortal with a solemnity that was absent from his own private musings. The priest might just as well have been a doctor administering triage at the scene of a horrific accident, who passing among the victims said, “This one we can’t save” before moving on. His senses reeled at the unexpected consequences of the priest’s words.
Descending the concrete steps, he moved quickly down the wide corridor between the retreat house on his right and the monastery wall on his left. In a few seconds he came to the double gates of iron which opened into the monastery gardens. Inscribed in concrete above the gates were the words, “God Alone.” He grasped the sturdy handle, pushed the heavy gate, and passed through into the dark garden, ascending seven steps that emptied onto the stone path leading to the front doors. “Remember, o man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” He was remembering. At the end of the stone path, he paused momentarily at the steps to the front door and turned to look at what was behind him. Some acknowledgment was needed.
The stars overhead in the black sky, the scented air, the beautiful outlined trees, the white slip of the moon, the exquisite silence and peacefulness of the Abbey countryside, this and everything else he considered dear and worthwhile—none of it could stay, he thought. He would need to leave it all behind. And for just an instant he wanted to cry. But he did not cry. Rather, his lips widened almost imperceptibly, and a pang of joy struck him softly but directly on the heart. He thought of the illness he had had yesterday and only now seemed to be emerging from. He remembered the crucifix and the impress of cold stone on his naked skin. He thought beyond that to a band of blooded light dividing a curving, receding, and muted landscape from an austere, open, and firelit sky. The breeze he felt tonight was the same breeze he felt then, warm and comforting. He thought, too, of those whom he had left miles behind but would soon rejoin if he should live that long. These friends, that beauty, this sickness all justified any amount of life given him. And knowing in this dark garden, poised at the foot of the front door, both his beginning and his end, he turned and made his way up the steps very grateful for the middle.
That night he did not wash his face.
|Dave Nixon is a writer and the director of Community House. He teaches classes and conducts seminars on a variety of topics such as simplicity, post-modern thought, spiritual disciplines and esablishing residential communities. He and his wife Jody have been married for 27 years and have three children: Kimberly (20), Carrie (17), and Jonathan (15). His webpage is titled SOUL GALLERY . This trip was taken during Ash Wednesday, 2004.|