October 31, 2007


Walking into stillness

It's a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space. By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness. —Pema Chodron

Perhaps the best part of spending four days at a monastery is the experience of finding space and stillness. Of course, for me stillness doesn't necessarily mean sitting still. When I want to escape my own circling thoughts, I usually go outside for a walk. I need the rhythm of my muscles moving and the sound of my breathing to help me achieve that stillness, that spaciousness.

All around the monastery are miles of hiking trails that go up and down the hills, along the edges of sheep pastures and through the forest. The monks keep about 300 sheep so the pastures are pretty extensive. The fluffy white bodies of the sheep contrast with the brilliant fall foliage and still-green fields. The pastures are edged by woods, mostly on the steep hillsides, woods that smell of dead leaves and mud.

I kept my winter coat buttoned against the cold wind that rushed against my face, swept through my brain, and kept me awake and alert and very much in the present moment. From atop a hill, I looked down at the monastery, the white steeple just visible amongst the trees. How different things look when I am able to pull back and gaze at them from a different perspective. I walked until my fingers were numb with cold, and then I retreated to the chapel. Shivering, I pulled open the heavy wooden doors and stepped into the warm, musky air. That familiar smell of incense and melting wax is a scent that always makes me feel safe.

Inside the chapel, I climbed down the long stone staircase into a crypt, a dark room lit by natural light streaming though stained glass windows, set high on the walls, and the flickering light from the vigil candles that cover the low stone altar in the center. I sat in in my favourite spot, cross-legged on the floor on the stone floor, and gazed into the vigil candles, feeling pleasantly tired from my hike and entirely at peace.

And here's the steeple


Songbird said...

As usual, such images!

listie said...

Your pictures are so beautiful.

ppb said...

This is a beautiful post in 20 kinds of ways.

But I admit it, I was hoping for a reprise of the pirate costume story, in honor of Halloween. Because I'm juvenile like that.

Sounds like the trip was really well appreciated.

jo(e) said...

PPB: Ah, but the pirate costume post was written in February -- not a Halloween story at all. And the post I wrote for Halloween last year brought me all kinds of hate mail.

jo(e) said...

What is with Blogger this week?

It took me about ten tries to publish that last comment.

amazedlife said...

Just wanted to let you know that I savor the pictures here almost every day. I'm currently in a not-very pretty place (a swamp in Southern Sudan - much of Africa is stunning, but this place has a lot of mud and not a lot of color), and I often desperately need to see something beautiful. I look forward to your photos.

my15minutes said...

I love reading about your spiritual retreat. I've done that a few times, and aspire to make it an annual event at the least. That stillness and silence is so important to cultivate in order to have an interior life!

Anonymous said...

You got hate mail about that Halloween post?? This year, most of the major news outlets ran an article expressing the exact same ideas ... The most surprising part was indeed the parents saying, "well, what choice do I have?"

Bitty said...

Clearly I desperately need a monastery in my life, if only a metaphoric one.

Since you blogged while gone, I assume the monastery is wired? Or is it near wireless access? (I don't fully know how wireless works, frankly.) I have this vision of monasteries that has nothing to do with logging on!

jo(e) said...

Bitty: I wasn't online while I was at the monastery -- I posted stuff after I returned.

You are right that part of a monastic retreat is being unplugged.

susiej said...

Your quote at the beginning was so poignant. I started writing my blog to release so much grief when my Mother died. I don't write about my grief -- I write about the things I would tell her about if she were here. And that simple act has helped me so profoundly.
Thank you for this pause.

Yankee T said...

OOOOOH, Jo(e)...a great series of posts.