Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Lessons from Gethsemani Abbey – Part II, Rhythm of Life, Matrix of Nature

[Continued from Part I]

4. Finding a Healthy Rhythm – One of the aspects of having an exoskeletal structure in which to live, move and have one’s being is that it doesn’t take a lot of effort to plan one’s life. At the abbey, I found it easy to meet the schedule of the community. While the bells awoke me at 3 AM, I must confess to never having made the 3:30 matins while there. But I was up for the 5:30 lauds each morning and retired to my room following the 7:30 compline and blessing each night. I ate my meals in silence at the designated times and in between services spent my time doing what the retreat guide had suggested: being silent and open to G_d.

A land of cows, soybeans and wooded hills

By the end of the week, I was ready to go home. Our drive home from the monastery began on a mystical note. We drove the backroads of Kentucky on a route Google maps provided us through misty fields of soybeans and corn punctuated by farmhouses and barns with Amish hex signs over the doors. But within a couple of hours, our reverie ended as we rejoined US 27 headed into the dysfunction junction of highways in Chattanooga. And by the time we reached Atlanta, the noisy chaos of “civilized” life was once again upon us.
Now that I am home, I have no monastery bells to awaken me. In my retired life, I have no schedule to follow. If I want to be rooted in community, I must seek it out. If I desire silence and solitude, I must create and protect it.

Next week I begin my two year program with the Living School for Contemplation and Action in New Mexico. One of the initial considerations of this holistic educational experience is the rhythm of one’s life. My time at Gethsemani has prompted me to consider that. And upon return from Albuquerque next week I will need to begin creating a rhythm that can make my time at the school worthwhile.

Finding a Healthy Rhythm

I think a healthy rhythm will include a time to greet the day and thank the Creator for another day in the very good creation. For me this means greeting each of my three cats and two dogs upon rising, putting on my morning coffee and going into my jungled yard barefoot to touch to earth and give thanks for its beauty.

A healthy rhythm will include time to walk. We are fortunate to live near a beautiful city park which includes a 1.75 mile walk around Lake Underhill. Ironically, the bridge over the center of the lake is appended to an eight lane expressway with traffic whizzing by just above one’s head. The juxtaposition of the morning rush hour with the peacefulness of the lake, mist rising from its surface, and smiling people and their dogs walking its shores, is always striking. Intentional engagement of the body while disengaging the mind is essential for a balanced life.

Time for Meditation and Contemplation

A healthy rhythm will include meditation and contemplative prayer. Increasingly I am convinced that these are essentials to even a modicum of mental and spiritual health. And I have long believed that any kind of social justice work must be rooted in a meditative prayer life.

A healthy rhythm also will include being grounded in spiritual community. More than mere support, we need others to provide new ways of seeing the same things we cannot find on our own. We need them to call us on our crap from time to time. And we need their presence to remind us that we are not alone and that the place we most often hear G-d’s voice and observe the image of G_d is in the person of the other we engage in community. I am grateful for the St. Richards community and the fellowship of kindred souls online.

A healthy rhythm will include time to read, reflect and write, just as I am doing right now. And a healthy rhythm will also include time to spend in nature beginning with my own jungled yard and with the wonderful animals, both human and non-human, who share my life and remind me of G-d’s loving presence. And it will include time to prepare healthy food at home, not relying on take out or sit-down meals at restaurants long on convenience but often short on nutrition and the joy of preparation.

Finding a healthy rhythm is central to living a life of integrity and authenticity. This is no easy undertaking. It involves unlearning years of bad habits when I was busy selling my soul to the Factory. I can only do my best. But anything worth attaining is worth working for. As our Book of Common Prayer’s Baptismal Covenant puts it, “I will with God’s help.” For all these insights, I am thankful to my time at the Abbey.

The privilege to live among nature

5. The Matrix of Nature – One of the things that is striking about the communities at Iona, Taize and Gethsemani that I have visited in the last three months is their settings within nature. Iona Abbey sits amid a magical setting of sea, rolling pastures complete with black and white sheep amidst and archipelago of islands that lies off the coast of Scotland. Taize is located in an ancient village in the French countryside studded with vistas of rolling hills with silky white cattle, ruins of ancient monasteries and riots of flowers everywhere. Gethsemani sits amidst the farmlands of northern Kentucky punctuated by wooded knobs, fields of soybeans and corn all overlain by crimson sunsets.

In one of his writings Merton comments that he was “privileged to live in nature.” Having grown up in the woods of Central Florida on land that my father, brother and I cleared to build our home, I had always taken nature for granted until I went away to college. Now that I live in the middle of a metropolitan area of over 2 million, I sometimes find myself wishing for those rolling hills dotted with black Angus and gray Brahma cattle and woods where owls can be heard hooting at night and stars long since rendered invisible by city lights can still be seen overhead.

A generative matrix

It is, indeed, a privilege to live in nature. But, more than that, it is, for people like me, a necessary aspect for any kind of generative life. I think it is no accident that those who have lived at Iona, Taize and Gethsemani have been so highly productive in writing, art, music and liturgical innovation. The fertility of the natural setting gives rise to the fertility of the creative spirit and manifests itself in a wide range of expressions.

I think that is the reason that over the years I have created a green oasis on our large corner lot in the midst of this city. The trees and shrubs I have planted along our property’s edge provides a green wall between our home and the madness of the city around us. While it cannot screen out the noise of helicopters overhead during rush hour or the emergency vehicles as they rush by enroute to tragedies, the green wall provides a sufficient break from the outside world that our home has no drapes in any of its windows except the curtains in our bedroom to black out the light early in the morning.

That green wall was intentional. When the rubble had finally been removed from our home after the hurricane in 2004, I cordoned off our yard and began working to regrow the jungle that had once stood there. Regrowing trees from stumps left by chain saws and planting new trees where others once stood, I slowly but surely recreated my yard even as the reconstruction of our home languished for nearly four years.

This was the way I worked through the grief of the loss of my home, my mother and our beloved beagle which all came at once threatening to overwhelm us. Today the jungle continues to be the place where I work through the grief of the end of my time in academia while preparing for the next stage in my life journey. But more importantly, it is the place that alternatively grounds me when my reading and reflection become too ethereal and inspires me, sending me back to my computer to write once again.

New Coverleigh is hardly on the scale of any of the holy sites I have recently visited. But I recognize in the rhythm of life I am establishing here the essential role that this natural sanctuary in a sea of urban life plays in my life. And for that, I am grateful.

Quietness is the ultimate expression of humility

The Means, Not the End

As I left for Gethsemani some three weeks ago, I included this comment in a blog entry about that trip:

“If Iona was the place to discern it was time to leave behind my life as a full-time academic, Gethsemani is the place I begin wrestling with the obvious questions in its wake: What now? What might G-d be calling me to do, to become? Where might I be called to go and among whom shall I find my new calling? What challenges will I encounter?”

A long-time friend who has himself been to Gethsemani twice for silent retreats sent me this note the day I arrived there:

“Let me suggest…that you not go there with the intention of wrestling with your future.  Let go of that need to control...because knowing IS a form of control.  My spiritual director, a Trappist for two decades, told me repeatedly, ‘Just go there and be quiet.  Quiet verbally, quiet mentally, quiet spiritually.  Don't go there with an agenda.  Don't even go there to listen.  Just be quiet.  Not so you can hear the still, small voice, just quiet for the sake of quietness.’

He was right.  Quietness is the ultimate expression of humility….I pray that your time at Gethsemani will be as rewarding as my own. I can tell you it almost certainly will not be what you expect.  It may be much more.” 

I struggled with hearing this at first. I am still not sure that one’s making themselves available to hear what direction might be offered them is a control issue. But, given the fear and pain of not knowing what one’s future holds, the hope for if not expectation of some direction or at least some reassurance that one is on the right path does speak to issues of security, not trust.

As it turns out, at the end of my week at Gethsemani I had little more idea about where the path ahead is taking me than I did when I left for the Abbey. The impenetrable mist still begins no more than a couple of feet beyond my last footstep. But, as my friend suggested, what I did hear was not what I had hoped for but more than I thought I would discover. And perhaps it was exactly what I needed to hear.

I come away from Gethsemani with a better sense of how this journey will proceed even as I remain uncertain of where it leads. The insights I gained about the rhythm of a life devoted to this journey were unexpected. But, in retrospect, they will likely prove invaluable. And for that I am deeply grateful.

Insights into the rhythm of life devoted to this journey

One last insight I would share from my week at the abbey. If there is anything I have learned over my nearly 62 years of life, it is that while spirituality is a profoundly human characteristic, it plays out in about as many different ways as there are human beings. Despite the most fervent desires of the guardians of institutional religions to attain uniformity of belief which sufficiently affirms their own faith constructs to allow them to believe them, one size does not – indeed, cannot – fit all.

As I lay in my bed serenaded by the bells of Gethsemani I also had a chance to finish Daniel Horan’s The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton. Horan makes a good case for the shaping of Merton’s thought by his Franciscan heritage. Merton was a member of the Franciscan third order for a decade and spent several years teaching in a Franciscan college prior to coming to Gethsemani. Horan expertly laid out the alternative orthodoxy of Franciscan thought rooted in the work of John Duns Scotus and Bonaventure and deftly showed where this was evident in Merton’s work.

I had to smile as I read this. It reminded me of why I am a Franciscan and, as much as I admire the brothers of Gethsemani, why I am definitely not a Trappist. And for that final gift of clarity, I am grateful.

“The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God. Such a one is alone with God in all places, and he alone truly enjoys the companionship of other men, because he loves them in God in Whom their presence is not tiresome, and because of Whom his own love for them can never know satiety.” – Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (1955) 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


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