Friday, March 9, 2007

Peregrinations: Monasteries for the rest of us?

Review and Reflections on: Dennis Patrick Slattery, Grace in the Desert. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.

Certainly a man I can relate to. Halfway on his life's journey (statistically speaking at least), teaches literature, worries about not researching and writing enough even as he feels guilty for his selfishness, has a wife and two sons, lives in Southern California (lucky him in Goleta and he gets to teach at the Joseph Campbell-inspired Pacifica Graduate Institute!) but does not have (until recently for him-- now he does and gets a sabbatical in the true sense of the word- whew!) a permanent academic position. His growing up was in a repressed home full of rage, grudges, and inability to communicate openly. DPS as I will call him also is Irish Catholic but estranged and not really a practicing believer so it seems. However, he thirsts for the spiritual and gets the call to seek monastic solitude in which he will not escape but stare down his demons.

How did I find this book,? Not my usual fare, for I eschew inspirational enlightenment at least as it's shelved in a store. Well, I was looking for information on the Camaldolese hermits in Big Sur (which relates as time will tell in my bizarre free-association to my wife's own grand scheme halfway through life too) and in a LAPL search found through cross-references this account. I had recently visited, all too briefly, Mount Angel Abbey and the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe on my weekend in Oregon. This book told of the latter, of Big Sur, and if not Mount Angel than the sisters down the road. I had already been working on a draft of my own recollections from that quick glimpse stolen from the free time before and after my Irish Studies conference. When I found out about Slattery, the name alone impelled me. I requested the book which had been checked out, and waited for the only copy in all of our City of Angels to arrive. It did, and here are my notes and a bit of my reflections. Not a perfect book, and I'm not bowled over by the poetry interspersed except for a couple of "prayer-poems" alluded to later. Too little on the actual places to get a sense of where he is. Too much interior ruminations that are told well enough to admirably avoid showboating, but also more what you'd read in a journal or post on a blog or tell to a spiritual director or an AA buddy rather than publish. So says more reticent me about such matters> DPS is definitely more confident than I am about such expression. For that matter, so's the wife over at on Blogger. And don't forget for foodie fodder. Back to the monks, my own jottings about not the style or success of the book but its contents are recorded below to preserve my thoughts until my own Oregonian thoughts can be added in a future blog post.

Thomas Moore opens this narrative with his preface, reminding us of a spirituality being open to multiple possibilities rather than the worrying over the nuances of belief. (xi) DPS recalls as do I of his neglect of his family due to his own worrying over courses, writing, research while his wife wanted to see a movie or his sons needed time. (4) Midway through his own Dantean journey, he ‘wanted to reimagine my life from the point of view of eternity,” seeking to-- as Michael Novak phrases it-- act earnestly but without attachment to the results. (3) DPS tires of the Church’s “Main Street theology,” longing rather for the back alleys and haunted corners of facing his mortality straightforwardly. Prayer, he reflects beginning at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, is not petition but entering a presence. Not that God is there. If we knew he/she/it was, why then have faith? The possibility, not the inevitability, of what he seeks in the divine invites him towards silence. God may take him over, or he may not. Not sure of what he will find, but DPS opens himself to the chance– the readiness is all, I guess, to quote Hamlet!

He begins to peer into the dark silence where God may reside, beyond the logos, the manifestation, the word made flesh. This emptiness preceded the light, the flesh, the world, and us. DPS reflects on the love of poverty, and how this shows the “blessed are the poor in spirit” confronts his own memories of a life lived by his parents grudgingly, under an alcoholic father, a too-thrifty mother, a cowed family. Solitude is a “strong potion” best sipped slowly and rarely. Thoreau’s relevant chapter in “Walden”– Of the “subtle powers” of heaven and earth: “We seek to perceive them and do not; we seek to hear them and do not. Identified with the substance of things, they cannot be separated from them.” (41)

DPS writes movingly about the shy foxes and stillness of Big Sur, the bursting grapes and his father’s torment as DPS wanders Napa Valley at the Carmelites, and at the Sonoma Zen Center takes on Zendo early morning and the oryoki “eating handout” rituals that are both compelling in what they resemble and awkward for their strangeness for one raised Irish Catholic. He learns to rake the rocks in circles so they enter into one another– the duty he’s assigned slows him down, so what takes us fifteen minutes in our world is transformed. “The task was to imagine the process rather than rush to results.” (35) I wonder how we would all live if we worked with such mindfulness, and how we’d sustain such wonder after repetition wears down novelty. Which is the whole point of order for a monk, to remain in one place, to do the same things, and not to escape the world but to face his own mortal frailty within it, without escape, distraction, or respite. Terrifying, not comforting, to face this brutal rawness of spirit, as DPS learns well.

At the “Byzantine monastery of the Ukrainian Catholic Church” hermitage somewhere up near Mendocino and Ukiah in the dry hills, a ramshackle and searingly hot setting understandably discourages him, as he had been in the redwoods the day before happy beside a night campfire. Often, as here, he is the only one at the places he visits, seeming to be “off times;” this does seem to fit into his self-imposed challenge to isolate himself and to face his own fears freed from others. He forces himself not to flee this strange setting where the monks all have concentric salt rings from sweat on their black robes (wearing them must be a penance) and finds grace there to stay.

Here he thinks of Eckhardt: We don’t know God if we’re unaccustomed to “inward things.” We are like men who have wine in our cellar, but no idea of how good it is as we’ve left it untasted. (57) Off to the Trappists near Lafayette, Oregon, the same place I stumbled upon suddenly when driving down Highway 18 with the vague idea to kill some time before my conference started at George Fox U and sent with tourist guide in hand to search for candy for Layne. A sign, in more ways than one, so I hung a quick right and three miles down the road it nestled off to the right into the mountains. I recall Merton mentioning it in a “rainforest.” No candy there at Our Lady of Guadalupe, yet I wanted to buy honey but feared its breakage in my luggage. So a monastery cookbook purchased instead at the condo-like, handsome buildings with “well-designed wooden walkways and stairs” as DPS too found them. (61) He was able to see the chapel; when I was there it was a giant hole to be a church, hemmed in by massive construction machines and tall boards surrounding dirt. Ironic that the noise followed me there, as it did at Mt Angel a few days later atop that Benedictine hillock above the flat Williamette plains full of Christmas tree farms.

That chapel also brought him a fetching glimpse of a young female retreatant there with her father. DPS uses this opportunity not to castigate himself, after a suitable pause of self-mortification, but to enter the erotic nature of our relationship with the divine; he looks to the Song of Songs. He reads Merton who advises us that poetry is a fine corridor that parallels the recesses of prayer into the mystic. “Memory can be a frightening and revelatory place to be pulled into. It can take on the landscape of the underworld itself and must be entered with a guide who can retrieve one if necessary.” These words of DPS were on the only page (other than one at the end, more about that place later) highlighted in my LAPL copy, and they deserved attention.

Walking in the forest, as I had too briefly around “St Therese’s Trail” up along a creeklet and up and over some woods down towards the enormous pond, DPS tells of us attraction to nature as an entry into the spiritual. I share this pull even if I am much less outdoorsy than he is. He puts prayer-poems into his chapters when appropriate, and the two I liked were about tree loam at the Monastery of Mount Tabor (of the salty, shy monks) and eating blackberries that the Trappists could not find a buyer for that harvest and so left for the animals, and DPS, luckily. As he picks them, he reflects on the fall leaves: “Their response to their own death was to burst into color.” (65) Just as I type this, it occurs to me that I too saw their beauty in my visit at the end of last October, and now I do recollect the reddish and burnt-orange too, so unfamiliar to me from a dry sparse place, and now this spring the dryest weather in our history: 2.4 inches of rain is all so far. The hills around me are always green for Paddie’s day, but not this year. Fire burnt some of the scrub last summer, but even where it never flickered, all around here is but a nubbin of green weeds as if stubble on a lot of beige bony beards.

He feels courage from this place where the dark and silent became his friends on a path there towards an abandoned hermitage. He forgets the idea of God and basks rather in a presence. Discussing the monastic call as not of retreat but of advancing towards one’s foes, “it marks where the world’s problems congregate in great and intense numbers, in a puree of difficult motives and decisions, to be dealt with in the desert of one’s cell, the wilderness of one’s own heart.” In Ireland, I muse, there is a strange place name, Dysert O’Dea. The desert is from the Irish adaptation of the word desert in the sense of a hermitage, so those monks 1500 years or so ago also knew that the arena (Latin for “sands”) did not need tumbleweeds or siroccos to do its worst and its best, to scour clean the soul and shave down the bristling, egotistical, self and spirit.

The rest of the book follows DPS into the Benedictine nuns’ well-stocked pantry and warm welcomes at Shalom Prayer Center in Silverton, near as could be to Mount Angel, although the abbey’s not mentioned here. He meditates on Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen, formidable women open too to respectively the terror and the awe of the mystic ravishing of one’s self. He seeks detachment from passion too, to mute his own inner voice so he can listen.

In Portland he gazes at a spider’s web until it becomes almost an hallucination and the gossamer seems to fade as he keeps focusing upon its weaver. He listens to a tape whose speaker considers how often we say ‘take’ rather than ‘give’ to preface an action we do. With lectio divina he learns how to meditate rather than simply read a verse, as if to savor it, squeeze it, pull the sap from its core. With the Franciscan sisters he ponders Veronica and Simon of Cyrene on the Via Dolorosa, and how they– unlike Jonah!– volunteered and intervened out of their free will.

At another Trappist monastery, in Huntsville, Utah, he finds what I can relate to: developers eager to exploit and exhaust what land still stays largely untouched by us. Greed and wealth are invading the valley of the monastery, as ski resorts and recreational sites mar the ranges and rills. Here the aura of his journey grows somber; the cows have been separated from their calves. For three days, like Rachel lamenting, they low and moan inconsolably in the fields. They can be heard constantly, above the chants and the quiet both. Finally, they weary and, as every year at this time, return to their 362 days of whatever world they inhabit. DPS wonders about a scientist’s claim that 96% of our world is invisible, and if animals perceive these planes of existence that we cannot.

Again returning as so many of us do to Merton, DPS after finding and becoming compelled by a curious find in the thick bushes, a deer’s dismembered but still fresh and attractively buffed leg, thinks about his desire to atavistically wear the bone, and his instinctual attraction to the trophy. The silence of the invisible deer’s death, the grief of the cattle, and the necessary attack by the wolf or coyote all remind him of “a dismembering experience.” (105) “Silence evoked presence, and I entered the dark mystery of solitude through its welcoming beam.” There, in the desert of a cell, the wilderness of a heart, DPS begins to break through into aridity, a process hastened by his next visits that take him into the Southwest.

At the fittingly named Nada Hermitage, this Carmelite outpost in the high desert of Colorado again is an isolated place where he is the only visitor. His six days here manifest the soul’s predicament within dryness, meagerness, and fortitude– appropriate for followers of John of the Cross and his dark night of the soul. He suffers altitude sickness as a crushing chest pain in the middle of a terrifying night, and is relieved to find it is only a physical and not a mental or spiritual affliction. The mountain is greater understanding, the desert one’s abnegation, and the cloud the “brilliant darkness” of the mystic pilgrim. (117) Purgation, illumination, and union.

With the Dominican sisters on Albuquerque’s outskirts– of course becoming tract homes more than semi-rural by now– he finds contentment and good-naturedly finds the sisters label his food in the fridge as belonging to “The Hermit.” He’s the only retreatant. Visiting the Cibola (city of gold that the conquistadores sought?) National Forest eight thousand feet up, he reflects on Max Picard’s “The World of Silence”: nature’s silence is permanent, “it is the air in which nature breathes.” (125) Finally, the Redemptorist-founded (none of them seem to be there now?) Picture Rocks Retreat Center near Tucson returns him to the serendipitous. The Hohokam tribe 1500 years ago left petroglyphs of people with headdresses, bigger folks holding the hands of smaller folks, animals and jets and stars and smiling cats. In this harsh landscape, what comfort did these drawings give them? Not just “follow your bliss” but your blisters, DPS sensibly if soberly finds: this is the real path to paradox, nothingness, and self-surrender. The stations of the cross along the rock art juxtapose their own unity of suffering and triumph in adversity for a fragile human’s journey. Eckhardt reminds DPS that being born into nothingness is really resurrection. Abundance is found when one gives one’s self up for good, literally and figuratively I suppose. Egoless, free of the “merchant mentality” the fetters drop away. There, in nature’s silence, we may breathe and be nourished by the presence that washes away our ego-driven self.

The problem: how to take back these hard-won insights into the busy world of the city? His fifteen weeks of peregrination end with a tender evocation of his father, who he remembers glimpsing from the stairs, kissing a plastic statue of the Madonna, a child astonished and touched that his rage and sorrow tried to find a haven in prayer, although, as DPS reminds us, prayer is not enough to rescue one from such torments as his father endured. Or perhaps made others endure. DPS faces his own similarity to his father, and his own ego-driven emptiness. He tries, however, to ease this violence with forgiveness. He recommends poetry as solace. He finds stability free at last from his childhood wounds. He welcomes liberation through grace. The positivity of nothingness?

After the narrative, notes at the back list a few other Western sites. I have visited St. Andrew’s Priory (which is not a “Trappist Cistercian monastery” as he claims on p. 137) and the Serra Center on the old Ridge estate (I think!)– the first mansion in Malibu. I even think I stopped once long ago in front of the Mt Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara; it may be “within the Benedictine tradition” as he says, but the Order of the Holy Cross is Episcopalian as he does not say. We forget in America the Anglican religious orders– so used am I in thinking of the C of E and the dissolution of the monasteries, the martyrdom of the Carthusians, and the persecution of all those recusants and the Jesuit spies they harbored. La Casa de Maria used to be Immaculate Heart when they were an order themselves; I went there once in high school for a day and still can see the wildflowers and I girl I had a crush on who was there with my parish group.

Holy Trinity Monastery has, as is highlighted in my library copy, “an inviting mix of priests, sisters, oblates, and married couples.” (139) What an Irish sort of idea– the old monasteries in the Celtic church were supposedly on this happy and pleasant (and perhaps sensible in the times of famine, rapine, and invasion) model. I think it is there where one retreatant lives who I try to keep in my thoughts and send good wishes to. He was my high school religious teacher, a priest on the up escalator, one who my dad (and I agreed) thought would be a bishop and a fine leader one day. Well, he got his diocese, promoted to clean up his predecessor’s sexual scandal and financial embezzlement. He instead repeated both errors, involved in a he-said/ he-said blackmail of a suspiciously trained priest with two different names from El Salvador. Lawsuits, banishment, exile apparently from what my classmates told me a decade ago when the second scandal broke at an Arizona monastery. So this may be it. If so, I hope he benefits from such an refuge with adobe chapel, hidden museum, and beautiful nature preserve north of Tombstone. But maybe a bit of devilish justice remains for him. DPS warns visitors to “bring mosquito repellant.” (140)

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