Written on 6/20/2020
Today is the Trump kick-off rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I wake up in anticipation of watching the news this evening. That will be the day’s biggest excitement. Until then, things will be quiet. As usual.
I haven’t left my home other than a very occasional drive, brief walk, or trip to the grocery store in a week over three months. I try to take an interest in what is around me, but it becomes more difficult. Reading is a challenge. I sometimes forget to water the plants. I’m too old and tired and scared to participate in street demonstrations so that adventure hasn’t drawn me out. The most exciting event this week was when my friends at the Benedictine Monastery in Big Sur announced that a refrigerator had broken down, asking for help to purchase a new one. I’ve been fortunate not to suffer financially in this crisis (yet, I remind myself) and was happy to call Home Depot in Monterey and arrange for a refrigerator to be delivered.
The monks and the monastery are important to me. Over a decade ago, now, I went there for a retreat, on a lark, expecting an interesting adventure. I found a vision of how I would truly like to live. Standing in the large, rustic kitchen, next to the refectory, surrounded by old men in habits and a few younger employees, some women, helping out, I started to cry, because I realized “this is home.”
What felt like home? It wasn’t the kitchen, or the camaraderie, or the abundant good food, lovely as those things were. It was something related to the presence of these men. It was in the way they were so completely a part of this place, settled, indissolubly linked to the land. They were as present and fully invested as the hill on which the monastery was built or the omnipresent morning fog which seemed to rise from the land as much as it fell from the sky. And this presence evoked a larger Presence, no less impressive for being Unnamed, at least insofar as I was able to comprehend.
Since then, I’ve spent many happy times at the monastery. A year or so after that visit, I went to the associated urban monastery in Berkeley, where I officially became an oblate (lay associate) with all the requisite ceremony. On other occasions, I’ve made the three-hour drive down the coast to the mountain at Big Sur to spend joyous days in quiet and loving companionship. Rarely have I known richer moments then sitting with the diminutive Father Zac in his tiny sewing room in the old, decrepit ranch house, his Shi Tzu, Tigger, nestled at his feet, chatting away as Zac repaired habits on the old Singer machine. And laughing a good deal. Father Zac’s time in the cloister has not erased his earthly humor and penchant for off-color jokes, which he tells with sly expertise and considerable panache. Or breakfasting with elderly Father Thomas, a rather worldly other-worldly chap, with advanced degrees in theology and philosophy, who has lived in rural India and urban Rome (teaching at the Vatican no less), speaks multiple languages, and has applied his advanced musical training to the creation of the contemporary chants sung by the monks in English at the celebration of the Daily Office. In the evenings in his hermit’s cell, he composes chamber music on his computer, none of which has been heard by an audience or played by musicians on real instruments. He occasionally confides that he rather hopes that, after he passes, someone will unearth these electronic manuscripts and virtual performances, and they will find living musicians among the monks of the Order to play them, somewhere, sometime.
You see, I’ve learned that, contrary to what is easily imagined, cloistered monks do not leave themselves and their personalities when they abandon the world. Rather they plant themselves in their cells, and, mysteriously, blossom even more fully into the men they might have been in worldly professions. They are more, not less, of themselves.
And this is what I find myself wondering, three months plus into my own cell experience, if I have, perhaps, become more and not less than myself. This, after all, is what I have wanted—to live like a monk, to be planted and nurtured in darkness, to bring forth my unique self-hood in a way the world does not allow.
But mostly, I sleep in, rant on Facebook, and worry about politics and pandemics.
But still, underneath, something Unnamed is pushing its green way through the soil of my soul.
I don’t know what it means, but it means something. That’ll do for now.