My brother Steve sent me a book titled “Unbelievable,” by John Shelby Spong, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church and liberal Christian theologian who calls for a fundamental rethinking of Christian belief. It reminded me of a particular visit to Assumption Abbey nearly twenty years ago. What follows is a recollection of it.
ASSUMPTION ABBEY, AVA, Mo. - Saturday, 8 a.m. Drove here yesterday afternoon with my oldest son (Yoda in long pants). It was an exquisite father-son drive — full of healing talk and laughter.
Stopped for supper — wonderful Chinese buffet — at the Red Dragon in Ava, then navigated the switchbacks to the monastery listening to Mozart. After chanting with the monks and listening to them sing the sweet Mary song at Compline, we sat together in centering prayer, the only sound the whisper of the paddle fans above us.
As my son settled in his room to read, I slowly walked the mile down to Bryant Creek. Hills, light, wildflowers, birds, hornets and some very pesky gnats greeted me in the divine liturgy of nature.
After hunting stones in a slow meditative squat along the shoreline near the low-water bridge (the water a pond on one side and a romping rapids on the other), I lay on my back on the old concrete shelf — at a 40-degree angle, perfect for gazing — and looked up into the harmony of it all.
The sky was soon a colossal basilica dome bending over pine, oak and sycamore trees, with a holy stream flowing elegantly from everlasting to everlasting through the nave below. The ocean blue of the dome was infused with cirrus clouds, low-hanging and pink. They appeared to whoosh in over the distant dark green of the piney hill and swirl like the breath of God. Like brush strokes in a Van Gogh painting.
"This is a great truth," I thought to myself, as I continued to watch the sky change from tableau to tableau. I was so filled with awe that if an angel had alighted next to me and said, "Pretty cool, huh?" I would not have been the least surprised.
On the walk back to the abbey, the dome turned navy blue and a thin fingernail of moon appeared in its western curve. Extraordinary peace settled into my heart. I had the urge to weep.
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Sunday, 4:45 a.m. Woke at 2:30 and read in bed from Thomas Merton's journals: "What does the lonely and absurd man have to teach others? Simply that being alone and absurd are not things to be feared. But these are the two things that everybody fears; they spend all their time reassuring themselves that they make sense, that they are not ridiculous, that they are acceptable, desirable, valuable and that they will never have to regard themselves as really alone. None dares face the fact. Yet facing this fact (that we are all absurd and alone) is the absolutely essential requirement for beginning to live freely."
I tossed around in bed, first thinking about my own absurdity, loneliness and fear; then about Father Theodore — the heart and soul of Assumption Abbey for me — in a hospital in Springfield, Mo., recovering from a quadruple heart bypass. Said some prayers for him, then got dressed and walked the dim hall to the guesthouse kitchen to make instant Folgers.
My coffee finished, I sat alone in the shadows of the front parlor, my favorite early morning space. Outside, I noticed movement. Spied Brother Dominic gently swinging on the portico while the chanting of the other monks emanated from the chapel. After a few minutes, the chanting ended and the big monastery bell began a slow toll. Dominic rose and came slowly inside. Never noticed me in the shadows as he flipped off the outside light, unlocked the gift shop door and disappeared around the corner.
I smiled to myself, content to be in the shadows, just outside the edge of light. Thought about the morning before when old Wally — the septuagenarian semi-hermit who worked in the Catholic Worker movement with Dorothy Day in the 1960s and now lives in an A-Frame up the road — came ambling in the front door with a backpack and began rummaging through the liturgical books on the shelves in the gift shop.
When he saw me sitting in the half-light, he said hello and we embraced. Then he told me — his eyes burning with the ethereal fire that comes from living alone in the woods — that, because of some surgery on his foot, he’d had to spend several months in the past year living within the community of monks at the monastery, his movement limited to a wheel chair. "I nearly went ape ——," he said.
We spent a little time talking about what he teasingly referred to as the "propaganda" on sale in the gift shop before he said he needed to get to his job in the fruitcake bakery.
"Aww, J.T.,” he said with a gentle smile and angel eyes, as he turned and walked into the half-light of the hall that led to the cloister, “it's all metaphor anyway. All metaphor."
— J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and celebrant. He also operates Knoll Training, Consulting & Training in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-231-0499, email@example.com, or 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, KS 66762