For the raindrop, joy is entering the river. — Ghalib
For the raindrop, joy is entering the river. — Ghalib
Assumption Abbey — 7:25 a.m. Light snow fell last night. The only sound in the pines the twittering of small birds. Statue of Mary — long, flowing hair draping her shoulders as she gazes up at a 45-degree angle toward heaven — stands in front of the chapel, innocent yet womanly.
At breakfast, a retreatant named Carol (who refused to reveal what kind of work she does lest she not get any peace) says that the main reason she likes coming here is that the monks leave her alone. Indeed. Also here are four young men from Evangel College in Springfield, MO and a lay religious man from Maine who has come to visit a monk friend.
My morning walk along the brook behind the monastery is interrupted only by a woodpecker drumming his song over the hills and a crow acknowledging the new day with his “caw, caw, caw” in the trees. Fresh deer tracks angle into the stream and then back into the woods.
At first I stroll … but the farther I go the more determined my gait becomes. Soon I get sensations like those I had exploring the woods and strip pits around Frontenac alone as a boy; all high-tingled. Feeling the Holy Spirit deeper inside me with each step into the woods.
As I pick my way through the undergrowth, I think about “The Cloud of Unknowing,” a 14th century, Zen-like, Christian text by an unknown mystic. One that says we should go directly to experience grounded in love, rather than knowledge, on the journey to God.
When I get to the clear, surging water of Bryant Creek, I spy two sticks trapped in the flow near the water’s edge. One stout, about two inches in diameter. The other willowy, maybe three quarters of an inch at one end, then tapering to a half inch. They bear the mark of beaver — chewed off at an angle and their base and bark stripped away. I first retrieve the smallest one, then use it to work the other one close enough to pull in.
My sacred staffs in either hand, I climb the mile through the forest back to the abbey, stopping only once — to pray where the stream falls three feet over a rock shelf into a clear pool.
Back in my room, I sit for a while reading “Sacred Hoops, Spiritual Lessons Of A Hardwood Warrior.” It’s coach Phil Jackson’s, account of how he shaped himself and the twelve-man roster of the Chicago Bulls into champions using the ‘triangle offense’ and a philosophy based on a combination of Christian, Zen and Native American spirituality. I find a passage that requires reflection and look up and around the room.
Page 2 of 3 - I’m in an old, green, vinyl recliner with gray and blue duct tape repairs on the arm and seat. The door (kitty-corner from the me across the room) is made of a heavy hardwood. Maybe walnut. Above it a wooden transom of the same wood. Near the door, hooks with assorted hangars. Continuing around the room to the right, an old wooden chest of drawers and an inlaid wooden cross with palm leaves attached hangs near the thermostat. Below them a single bed with a faded blue, chenille bedspread. Two large windows with plaid drawstring curtains let gray light into the room.
To my left a small wooden desk on which sits a little brass lamp and a psychedelic green, blue and yellow electric alarm clock. On the floor next to the desk, a fold out, foam rubber, sleeping pallet. Then the door to the toilet and shower (shared with the guest in the next room), a small sink and mirror, towel rack, and, finally, the heavy, wooden door again.
The passage in Jackson’s book that’s caused me to reflect is, “The power of We is stronger than the power of Me.” I think not just on basketball but also on how it links with Father Richard’s short homily at Mass earlier. After the day’s gospel reading about the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, Richard (whose hair fell out just yesterday because of the radiation treatments he’s taking for a brain tumor) said that the message behind it might simply be that we should come closer together.
That the Mass, indeed the Eucharist itself, was intended on this very day to do that — bring us closer together. “The power of We is stronger than the power of Me.”
In the middle of considering Jesus as the ultimate coach and team builder — master of mindfulness and bringer of the mystical triangle offense (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to his twelve man team — there is a knock at my door. I open it and there stands none other than Brother Gabriel, alias Timothy Friend, former All-State Wyoming guard, now playing head fruitcake baker and early morning Trappist prayer of prayers for peace, healing and forgiveness.
“You just reading that?” he queries, surprised.
“Yep,” I respond. “It’s pretty good.”
Within minutes he’s in tears as he tells me the story of losing his older brother. His hero. Shot hoops in his socks on the hardwood during half time of his brother’s high school games. Tells me of how his brother died alone. “They handed him to me in a box.” he says several times as he tells the story of his journey to the funeral.
“Sounds like you’re hurting over not having the chance to say goodbye,” I offer. “Yeah ... I hadn’t thought of that ... but yeah, that’s it.”
Page 3 of 3 - Before we part, I have him look through a large sack of caps (kinda’ like rag rugs for your cranium) woven by artist friend, Holly Reed. He tries several on his just-shaved head before making his final selection, then leaves smiling.
At breakfast the next morning, I visit awhile with Wally, a semi-hermit who helps out at the monastery and lives alone a mile or so up the road. When I ask about his place, he looks at me clear-eyed, smiles lovingly and says, “I’m gonna’ die up there. I’m 76. I’ve turned the corner. Ready to go.”
Back in my room after Sunday Mass, Gabriel and I hug, then he heads back to the cloister and I head to my car. Brother Dominic, wearing his goofy red stocking cap, walks me out through the parlor. Brother Anthony, who will be ordained a priest at the end of March, comes out to bid me farewell and tell me he’s sorry I can’t make the ordination. “Thanks for inviting me,” I say. “I’ll keep you in my heart that day.” We clasp hands through the window, I start the car, and back away.
For the first fifty miles, I drive through a fog so thick that I can barely see the road. I imagine it is the mystic cloud of unknowing accompanying me home, reminding me to stop trying so hard to ‘know’ where I’m going and simply experience it. Be more like Wally, loving, clear-eyed ... and ready to go.
This monastery story was originally published February 21, 2000. If you’d like to read more columns like it, you can purchase my book “Where The Pavement Ends” at Paradise Mall, the Pitt State bookstore or Amazon.com.