Archive for May, 2010

Just Being

My final full day at the Abbey. It is the first day I did all the prayer times. It was good to do. I have more appreciation of how the monks pray. They do this everyday. On the movie, the priest says they started doing this the day after they arrived and have been doing it ever since and will do so until the end. But it is 9 PM and I am truly worn out.

These are the monks' graves, next to the garden.


Thomas Merton's marker.

Today, I did a long hike to Cross Knob. (Knob is what they call their hills/mountains here.) At the top of the knob is the original cross that set on the original steeple. The sanctuary was renovated to make it more simple in 1966. The original structure was Gothic inside – not really matching the monk’s lifestyle. Now it’s more Shaker-Catholic.

That was the only hike in the woods I took, though I walked the circuit of the garden several times, including one doing the Stations of the Cross with a small booklet given to me by a priest here.

Mostly what I did today was read and write and pray. I’m keeping two “journals” this week. This one is more a listing of my activities. The other is more a journal of my thoughts and feelings and prayers. Sometime I may put some of those thoughts in the activity journal, but for now I’m like a trucker keeping two sets of books.

I will miss the silence. I will miss the time just to be – no “doing” is required of me this week. Strangely, I will miss seeing the retreatants. Already some have left and I miss seeing them. This is very strange because I don’t know their names, their backgrounds, their stories of why they are here – anything, really. Yet I feel a kind of bond with them.

If we ever see and recognize each other we’ll hug and say, “I remember you! You were at the silent retreat the same week I was!” And then we won’t have anything to talk about. We’ll have to start at the beginning, learning about the stranger who just gave us a hug.

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I have not said much about the worship times. They are fairly short and fairly monotonous (so it is good they are short!) But I try to make all of them I can when I am not hiking or writing. Today I attended all but the early morning 3:15 and the 5:45 (with the 6:15 Eucharist). I go back and forth on attending. I don’t “get” that much from them, though I kind of like chanting the Psalms antiphonally. This evening, though, I decided that tomorrow I am going to do the full rounds. I realized that I can always not do this, but if I’m ever going to experience the daily schedule of prayer that these monks have, it will be now.


When I came back from my walk, I went to the Abbey library to find a field guide for birds. They have one. I’d seen a brilliant blue bird. I found its picture then turned to the description. It is the Indigo Bunting. The description had a fascinating piece of information: “Sparrow-sized; Male in bright sunlight, brilliant turquoise blue; otherwise look black…Indigo Buntings have no blue pigment; they are actually black, but the diffraction of light through the structure of the feathers makes them appear blue.” There must be a parable or sermon illustration in there somewhere. Being dark until the sunlight shines through us, then turning a brilliant color, but it’s not really us, it’s the Spirit. That’s a first effort.

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Although I am trying to keep silence, today I have found myself at times when words seemed necessary. After the lesson this morning, an old gentleman, I’d say in his 70s or 80s was walking behind me. He started talking about what the monk had said and how he was having trouble with it. I glanced around and realized I was the only other person around. He was talking to me! I nodded. He began talking about his father’s end of life, how we cannot choose when or how we will die, which he understood the monk to be saying. (I did not get that from what he said, however.) The old man said, “I’ll never forget my father calling me over. He was a coal miner. He was paralyzed on his left side, but he used his right arm to call me over. He didn’t get to choose how to die, you know?” “No, he didn’t” I said. Then the monk walked by and the old man said, “Father, let me ask you something…” and walked away from me.

As I was leaving the Abbey grounds for my walk, a woman was taking a picture of the entrance sign. I asked, “Would you like to be in the picture?” “Oh, I never look good in pictures,” she said as she handed me her camera. She stood by the sign, reading it as I snapped the shot. I think she takes a nice picture. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.”

I walked a two mile trail to an artesian well today. On my way, a man joined the trail I was walking about a tenth of a mile ahead of me. I had my binoculars and would stop often to look at birds and butterflies and whatever else I got curious about. Eventually, he stopped at a trailhead and waited for me to catch up. “Do you know anything about these trails?” he asked. “Yes, I walked that one yesterday. It goes up a steep hill to where the fire tower used to be.” I pulled out my map. “Oh, you have a map.” “Yes, I got this from the gift shop, but they also have them in the registration center.” “I saw that. I just didn’t get one. So where does this trial go?” “It goes about a mile further to a well beside a creek. That’s the way I’m headed.” He looked at the map, handed it back to me, said, “Have a nice walk,” and headed back toward the Abbey.

At lunch, I asked the woman keeping the kitchen, “Is there sweet tea?” because none was out. She said, “Kathleen is the only one who puts out the sweet tea. None of the rest of us will serve it. So if you want it, you’ll have to get it out of the refrigerator yourself.” So I went to the refrigerator. There were three pitchers marked (by Kathleen, undoubtedly) “Sweet Tea”. I had to laugh as I poured my tea. Apparently, there is a schism in the kitchen crew. I’m not sure if it’s  nutritional or regional.

I stopped by the Abbey bookstore. “Do you have anything with the statues on it?” I asked. I’d looked through the gift cards and paintings. “We used to have some photographs, but we don’t have any more.” “One more question – Can you tell me where a drug store is?” “We have a Dollar General, or would you need a Wal-Mart?” “Wal-Mart.” Then she gave me directions.

When I walked into a used book storenear WalMart, the owner greeted me, asking, “May I help you find something in particular?” “I’m just browsing,” I said. I found the room with non-fiction. I was looking through the books for a while when she poked her head around the corner and startled me, asking, “You doing okay back here?” I jumped back. We both laughed. “I’m fine.” “Sorry to startle you.” “It’s okay.”

At dinner, I went to the silent room to eat. As I ate, the morning hiker came over and whispered, “Just wanted to ask, did you pull some water up from that well?” He laughed, as did I, as I said, “No.”

What is striking about keeping silence is that it is fairly easy to keep up with every conversation you had in the day. I try to keep my words to a minimum, but without seeming too strange about it. I’m not going to feel guilty because I’m not going to be legalistic about it. Actually, abstaining from something so common as conversation is something I’m enjoying.

I am doing some readings on the practice of silence as well. Here’s a quote from M. Basil Pennington’s  O Holy Mountain!: “Silence is the very presence of God – always there. But activity hides it. We need to leave activity long enough to discover the Presence – then we can return to activity with it.” Sounds like a sabbatical to me.

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I spent the afternoon reading my book and journaling. After several hours, I decided to take a break and go to the library, where I could also get some water and use the restroom. On the way back to the meditation room, I noticed a priest in the chaplain’s office. He had no one with him, so I invited myself in. We had a good conversation. I had no agenda, really, but then did ask about blind spots, which I’d just been reading about. He suggested centering prayer was a way God would reveal my spiritual blind spots.

It was nearly time for Vespers (5:30) so I went to the chapel early to practice centering prayer. After vespers and dinner, I went for another hike, since it had not rained at all. I remembered that the Gethsemane sculptures were commissioned in honor of a divinity school student who was martyred in Alabama during the civil rights era, but I did not remember his name, which is on a plaque there. I wanted to get the name, so I could look up his story sometime –  and I wanted to see the statues again. His name was Jonathan Daniels. (After my walk, I found a scrap book in the registration area with some articles about him.)


As I looked at the statues again, I noticed something on the sleeping disciples I’d not noticed before. The one disciple who is sleeping in a sitting position has a shoulder that is a different color – like bronze statues that people rub and make an area stay shiny. It may just be the way the metal has worn – or maybe it was people coming by to look, then trying to shake the shoulder of Peter – “hey, wake up!”

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Far Tar hike

I had a hard time sleeping last night. One reason is the strangeness of the room – but that usually doesn’t bother me in a motel. The biggest reason is that no motel rings bells at 3:15 and 5:45 and 6:15 AM for prayer services. I had my window open to keep the room cool. Tonight, that window is going to be closed and fastened tight.

This morning I went to a different dining room. I discovered at last night’s orientation that there is one serving line but three dining rooms. The first is the room I ate in yesterday, which requires silence of the retreatants, but has recorded music or lectures playing.. I liked the music yesterday – it was instrumental music at lunch and a college chorale at dinner. But this morning, there was a lecture playing. I did not want to hear a lecture in a silent retreat, particularly after short night’s sleep, so I went to the middle dining room which is kept in complete silence. It is an interior room with low lighting and no windows. Just down the hall is the dining room in which conversation is allowed. I think that would be good for persons really uncomfortable with this much silence, especially if they came with a friend or spouse – I think several people did.

After lunch, we had an optional study on the spiritual life led by Father Carlos. He is a Pilipino with a good sense of humor. I enjoyed his lecture, so plan to attend each morning.

This is the road that leads to a trail to the fire tower site. Abbey elev 571; Fire tower 900.

After the lecture I hit the trails. Rain was forecast for the day (it never came) so I wanted to get as much walking in before the rain prevented it. I took a two hour hike up to where the fire tower had once been. The elevation at the Abbey is 571. The tower location is 900, so it was a strenuous hike up that hill. I enjoyed the company of a turtle at the top as I ate my orange.

I tried to find the trail’s continuance, but could not. It is on the trail map, but either has been discontinued (the map is dated 9/15/2004) or has become overgrown with all the rain here lately. I did walk the rim of the mountain for a while, which may have been the trail, but then it dropped steeply, so I turned around and headed back the way I came.

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I decided to continue hiking until dinner time, though I could hear a lot of thunder coming from the west. If I got wet, I could live with it. One trail took me to a stone house, a “refreshment center”, it said inside. There was a wooden chair and a lectern with a copy of the Psalms in large calligraphy. Then, I saw that there was also a pitcher of water and cups – so it really was a refreshment center. I had not brought any water with me, so this was a perfectly timed gift.

My hike took me though woods, over creeks and through meadows with long grass. The latter is one trail I should have avoided. I pulled ten ticks off of my clothing after leaving that trail. The trails were pretty well marked, but at our orientation tonight the monk told us of a retreatant last week who got lost in those woods and farther. She started out at 8:30 AM, got lost and found a farmer 22 miles away later ten hours later! I got back after a three hour hike in time for the 5:30 prayer service and just before the rain reached the Abbey.


This first day has been fairly easy for me. I love walking in the woods, listening to the birds, looking at the may apples (with their May fruit attached!) and Jack-in-the Pulpits, just enjoying God’s creation and expressing my appreciation to Him for it all. I plan to read some tonight, and probably a lot tomorrow if it does indeed rain all day. It will be a day for reflection and journaling.

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The Gethsemani statues are very powerful, life-sized representations. I kind of wished someone were with me at the sleeping disciples, so I could crawl among them and get my picture made. That would have been a fun shot.

But as you go up the trail a bit and see the statue of Jesus on his knees, his back arched, head raised, arms upstreched with hands over his eyes, you are shocked back to the reality that this is no laughing matter.

I sat on a rock nearby to reflect on this image. I don’t understand substitutionary atonement or paying off the devil or any of the other theories on why Jesus died. None really make sense to me – and I told God that as I sat on that rock. But I know something happened that fulfilled God’s plan of salvation, and I believe Jesus did that. All I really know is that Jesus came because “God so loved the world…” It’s hard to explain love and what it will lead One to do for the beloved. I went to the front of the statue to stand.  

I wanted to do something. Something symbolic and meaningful and emotional, but nothing seemed appropriate for me at that time. A hug? No. A pat on the shoulder? No. Brush hair from his forehead? No. So I took a picture and walked on.

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