March 16, 2005

Notes from my monastery journal

When I arrive at the monastery, I take a four-hour nap. That night I sleep again for eight hours. On Friday, I am amazed at how good my body feels when I am not tired. Catching up on sleep is always the first thing that needs to be done before I can be contemplative.

Always, before even going to the chapel, I take a walk though the barn. I love the smell of a barn, the straw and manure, all those rich animal smells that bring back wonderful memories. About a hundred lambs have been born already. They've come a bit early, all blamed on a renegade ram who apparently got in with the ewes last fall. So they have been born early into a snowy March world, and they prance about the barnyard in the snow, bleating and butting up against their mothers to nurse.

The west guest cottage is tiny, one living room, a galley kitchen, and a bedroom. But the living room has a fireplace and a floor-to-ceiling window that faces south. I have spent many hours sitting in the big chair by that window, savoring the sunshine that covers me from head to toe, writing in my journal or watching the snow fall. The hills outside the window are interwoven. The nearest hill is a sheep pasture, curving with glittery snow; on the next hill, pine trees are sprinkled with white. The farthest hill is a mix of farmland and a hardwood forest. Steep hills do so much for a view.

I watch cars coming up the narrow monastery road. Cars coming here travel fast, eager, impatient. I imagine drivers all jangly and frazzled, frustrated that their cell phones no longer work, their minds racing faster than their cars. Cars leaving the monastery amble down the hill, sometimes stopping to watch a donkey near the fence or to gaze at the apple orchard all piled in fluffy snow. Even when they reach the point in the road that is crowded with trees, they move slowly, reluctant to leave. Perhaps if they travel quietly, carefully, they can bring home some of this peace.

To get to my favorite spot in the monastery, I climb down the stone steps inside the chapel and into the crypt. More than a hundred candles burn on the low stone altar. I sit cross-legged on the floor to gaze into the flames. Each flame burns in a little pool of clear liquid wax, held within a glass jar. All around me is darkness. I love the darkness at the monastery. It's a darkness that does not make me feel invisible. Everything around me fades into the darkness, even the stairs and entrance way, and I am left staring into, illuminated by, light.

Friday evening, after Compline, I walk Another Guest up the hill to the women's guesthouse, where she is staying. It's dark, with clouds covering even the thin sliver of moon, and I can tell she is afraid to walk up by herself. The road, which winds up a steep hill and across a sheep pasture, has not been plowed, and more snow is falling. Wet flakes of thick spring snow stick to my hair, my eyelashes. With the wind blowing white across the field, it's hard to tell where the road is but I look at the dark outlines of the trees and try to guess. At the top of the hill, we turn to look back at the cluster of buildings below: the chapel, with its steeple blending into the night sky, the old stone farmhouse with its porch lights brightly lit, the cosy yellow windows of the two small guest cottages huddled beneath the huge old barn.

We are walking through about a foot of snow (Brother Tractor is a bit relaxed about plowing). Our footsteps are muffled in this quiet snowy world. Once we have passed the crest of the hill, the darkness surrounds us. "Do you know where we are?" Another Guest asks, looking around nervously. City girl.

Just around another bend, and the women's guesthouse comes into view. It's an old farm cottage, painted white with a stone chimney. Little white lights are strung inside the enclosed porch, candle lights glow in the kitchen windows. Here, near all the light that spills from the house, you can see the snowflakes falling against the black sky. Even though it's March and I am tired of shoveling the driveway, tired of putting on layers of clothes, tired of brushing snow off my car - moments like this remind me again how much I love winter and the way it transforms the places I love.

Prayer is sensual at the monastery: the spicy smell of incense, the flickering of candles, the low chanting of psalms, the long dark robes, the slow music of the harp. I always sit in the same spot in the octogonal chapel, front row, along the southeast curve, so that I am staring right at the two curving lines of monks. I watch their faces while they sing. Brother Beekeeper told me once that some of the monks find this unnerving: "How come she doesn't look at the book like everyone else?" But they are used to me now, and I get smiles as I take my place.

Brother Joking is one of the newest monks. He won't make his Solemn Profession until 2007. The process of becoming a monk is not unlike the tenure process.

"Hey," I say when I see Brother Joking in the bookstore, "They haven't kicked you out yet?" He and I exchange insults until we both start laughing.

"I saw you talking to Brother Beekeeper inside the chapel," he says to me, "You are always getting him into trouble. Breaking the rules. Maybe we should throw YOU out."

I shrug, unafraid. "You can't. I'm a guest. And you've taken that whole hospitality oath. No matter how obnoxious I am, you have to be nice to me. Or you go to hell .... isn't that how it works?"

Brother Joking is the gardener at the monastery, and he is eager to see all the bulbs he planted last fall come to life. Since there's more than a foot of snow on his gardens, I don't think that's happening any time soon.

Friday afternoon, I sit behind the desk in the monastery bookstore and put labels on pamphlets. Always, at a monastery, there are tasks to be done. I like to help out because it makes me part of the community. While I work, I talk to Older Woman From Town, who tells me about her twelve children, all of whom are grown up. Later, I take a shift with Brother Silence, an older monk with a long white beard who works with me for over an hour -- and never says a word. Not a single word. That is the way that Brother Silence is. When I work with him, we are both quiet, but it is not an uncomfortable silence. He'll smile and look up on occasion but he has not the need for words.

I wake up early Saturday morning and build a fire in the fireplace of the little cottage I am sharing with Monking Friend. Always, I am the person in charge of the fire. It has always been this way. Yesterday I roamed the barns until I found the spot where the monks keep the firewood and I carried in an armful. Now I drink my morning tea by the crackling flames, listening for the chapel bells that will call the monks to prayer.

Saturday afternoon, I am still putting labels on pamphlets. It's peaceful to sit quietly in the bookstore, a public lobby of sorts, filled with paintings, books, plants, and beeswax candles.

"I see you are doing penance," says Brother Joking when he comes through.

"Yes," I say, "I figure I can do a bunch of these pamphlets and then go out and commit some cool sins."

"Ah," he says, "That's being pro-active."

He turns, "Maybe I ought to do some of those pamphlets."

Benedictine monks pledge themselves not to the order but to a particular house. These monks have vowed to stay here, on this hill, this farm, for their entire lives. They will be buried here on the hill above the chapel near the west sheep pasture. Brother Beekeeper entered this monastery in the fall of 1960. He has lived here my entire life.

Sunday morning, we join the townspeople for coffee, tea, and baked goods after Mass. I discuss my plans with Monking Friend. I am going to do reiki on LovelyAccentWoman after lunch, and I am meeting Brother Beekeeper at 3 pm for a hike. Monking Friend rolls her eyes: "You are the only person I know who can come to a monastery and have a busy social calendar."

Late that afternoon, Brother Beekeeper and I hike across the east sheep pasture. It's snow-covered so the sheep are huddled mostly around a huge stack of hay. Some of the sheep move away as I approach, running skittishly, all in a line, but some crowd up to me, butting their warm heads against me, running their mouths over me to see if any part of my clothing is edible.

Up against the haystack, we are sheltered from the cold March wind. We lean against the hay and talk, breathing in the fragrance until I notice a ladder lying on the ground. Beekeeper obligingly holds the ladder while I climb to the top of the haystack. Because the sheep pasture is on a hill, I feel amazingly high - higher than the barn, the cottages, even the chapel with its steeple. I stretch my arms to the sky and jump up and down, remembering a scene from one of the Little House on the Prairie Books: "I'm flying!"

When Brother Beekeeper finally convinces me to come down from the haystack, we hike into the woods, where the snow is sometimes past my knees. It's slow going but we are busy talking so we don't care. When my feet start getting cold, we tramp back into the barnyard to look at the ewes and play with the newborn lambs. Even though the wind has turn cold, bitterly cold for March, we linger. It's the last afternoon of this retreat and I want to make it last.


bitchphd said...

What I like best about this is the way it reminds me of what I have always enjoyed so much about the religious (meaning, members of orders, as opposed simply to people who believe in god): so often they have the most relaxed, playful senses of humor, including about their faith. It's really delightful.

jo(e) said...

Along that same vein, professor b, I think I am always a bit afraid of people who claim to be religious but who do not have the ability to laugh at themselves. People who take themselves too seriously are not much fun to be around. And usually not very humble either.

kp said...

I loved this post. I actually feel more relaxed after reading it. I have an image of this place now in my head. I can see the snow and sheep when I close my eyes. I can breathe a little more deeply. Thank you.

(How does one arrange this kind of thing(to go and spend time at monasteries)? Are they on the internet?)

Phantom Scribbler said...

I wanted to make this post last. Your writing is so evocative, jo(e). You're spreading secondhand wintry peace -- and lowering blood pressure -- all over the blogosphere. Thanks.

Psycho Kitty said...

Oh, what a beautiful passage. What a beautiful journey.
Are you a reiki, Jo(e)? If I'm not being too intrusive, would you email me sometime? I would love to ask you about that but I'm not going to hijack your comments to do so. (But if you don't wish to, no worries.)

jo(e) said...

Psycho Kitty; Yes, I'm a level two reiki practitioner. I learned it during the summer of 2002 so I haven't been doing it that long. I'll send you an e-mail if I can find an address on your website.

kp: Yes, most monasteries have websites nowadays so that you can make reservations. There are also a couple of books that list them: Sanctuaries by Kelly or Guide to Monastic Guest Houses by Regalbuto.

What Now? said...

jo(e), What a lovely post--so peaceful and retreatful! Welcome back, and I'm glad you had such a peaceful time. And congrats on your computer's homecoming as well.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

Wonderful. It just sounds like a most wonderful experience to have midsemester. I'd be envious only it isn't very zenlike :)

Nels said...

How beautiful.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

Ah, I am again jealous--wish I were there. You make EVERYTHING so much fun, jo(e)!