I wrote this piece 13 or 14 years ago--it was published in The Sun.
Reading it over, I'm appalled at my lack of charity, my arrogance, my blindness. God bless those monks. I thank them.
Here's to a rich and fruitful Lent for us all.
I've just driven 550 miles from L.A. to a monastery in the desert. I’m not sure what I pictured when I decided to book this ten-day retreat, but it wasn’t this: a jumble of outbuildings and abandoned sheds, piles of barrels draped with blue tarps, a labyrinth of dirt roads. I circle around a couple of times, spot a sign saying "Registration" in the window of the bookstore, and park. After eight hours on the road, I'm hoping to be greeted by a calm, prayer-centered soul in a rough brown robe. Instead a heavily made-up woman named Dot startles, turns down the volume on an Amy Grant tape, and flutters around trying to find someone to replace her at the cash register.
We walk together the few hundred yards to a barracks-like structure and she ushers me into Room 1. I do a quick inventory--two twin beds, midget bedstand, broken Venetian blinds. "There's no…desk?" I venture.
Dot rolls her eyes and replies tightly, “If I could make a suggestion, next time you go on a retreat, you might want to inform the people of your needs beforehand"--as if a desk were a piece of esoteric equipment; as if
I'd asked for a pack of condoms or the local porn channel.
This all leads to a two-day long Rube Goldbergish comedy of errors with various dear people painstakingly attempting to locate a desk. Finally one of the monks approaches me in chapel, looks furtively around, and whispers, “We’ve finally found you another room. Room 12."
The kicker is, when I go over to look at it, Room 12 doesn’t have a desk either. At which point I realize my room is fine. My room is wonderful. Hot water, heat, an outlet for my laptop, a porch.
Out back, I saw a beautiful orange bird this morning. There are cottonwoods and cholla, and a little stream running through.
I'm here because I need a break from my life—the book nobody wants to buy, the one-bedroom apartment where I write, Tim, the breast cancer with which I was diagnosed last year and, after voluminous research showing the negligible benefits of chemo and radiation for my Stage 1, Grade 1 type of case, decided to treat with surgery only. "Oh, you're using holistic medicine," people say approvingly. But I am not using holistic medicine. I am not seeing an acupuncturist, a nutritionist, an herbalist; I am not taking vitamin supplements or Laetrile or mistletoe tea. Aside from cutting down on fat, I am doing pretty much what I was doing already, which is hanging out with other sober people, eating sensibly, exercising, writing and praying.
But you got cancer doing that, I can hear people thinking. So I got cancer! People get cancer, they die from cancer! My problem is not cancer. It's lack of faith, lack of acceptance, living in illusion. That's the real reason I'm here.
This big place is apparently run by six or seven monks, all of whom appear to be in the throes of deep spiritual crisis. The Divine Office (also known as the Liturgy of the Hours; generally, starting at dawn and at intervals throughout the day, consisting of Vigils, Lauds, Vespers and Compline) is the heart of Benedictine spirituality and, at every other monastery I've attended, it's prayed with the utmost attention and reverence. Here the monks show up, no matter what the hour, looking like they just crawled out of bed. One, a sixtyish fellow with bloodshot eyes, practically lies down in his seat after quavering the entrance antiphon; another, a tall rawboned youth with hacked-off hair, crosses his legs, gazes out the window and dangles his breviary in one hand. This, it turns out, is the abbot. I was appalled for about five minutes and then I realized I am so clueless and broken right now I feel much more at home with these folks than I would with people who were perfect and reverent and assured.
I've planned my week at the monastery so that my last day will be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. For the last three years, I've given up coffee; this year I'm going to try foregoing sugar, too. A hundred times a day, I contemplate how horrible this will be. Like a fool, I refrained from bringing my own coffee machine. The upshot is that for the last two mornings, I've woken before dawn and driven fifteen miles to the local Circle K for a jumbo "Dark Roast"—which turns out to have no more of a jolt than the watered-down slop they serve in the dining hall.
Still, knowing myself, I will now make the trek to Circle K every morning.
The adobe chapel, set on a little north-facing rise, has rough-hewn lintels and tile floors and a Lady of Guadalupe alcove. There's a courtyard with a fountain and roses out front, and off to one side a cemetery, its stones adorned with plastic flowers, American flags, and faded Christmas bulbs.
Vigils is at 6:30 a.m. and Lauds at 8, followed by breakfast. Mass is at noon; 6:00 Vespers is followed by dinner; Compline is at 8:30. Tonight, it being Saturday, Compline was early. Right in the dining hall, as soon as we'd finished eating, one of the monks threw around some psalm sheets, plopped down on a metal folding chair and halfheartedly sighed, "I guess it's time to sing."
And we sang.
And it was great.
Now I know how they keep the place running: the army of oblate-volunteers who come from all over the country and spend the winter in a nearby RV park.
The first night I met a retired couple named Fran and Earl who immediately informed me they'd been coming here for eleven years. The next night I met a couple named Lois and Vern. First I met Vern. "Oh I met a nice couple last night who do the same thing you do," I said. "Fran and--"
"We've been coming here twelve years," he cut in, "they've only been coming eleven."
Next I met Lois. "I was just telling Vern I met some of your neighbors last night," I began, "a very nice couple named Fran and Earl--"
"They've only been coming here eleven years," she interrupted. "We've been coming twelve."
No wonder the monks look distracted. In addition to hosting retreatants, they run a drop-in center for local Native Americans, a gift shop (prickly pear cactus jelly, beeswax candles, locally-grown apples), and a library. A well-stocked library! In the bookstore this afternoon I picked up Thomas Merton's Disputed Questions (it's almost a cliché to read Merton, who I’m not even that crazy about, on retreat) and started an essay on solitude I wanted to finish without buying the whole book. I know! I said to myself. It's probably a long shot, but I'll see if it's in the library. So I wandered down and this portly old monk was sitting in a tiny cinderblock room reading a book and eating candy.
"Um, do you have any Thomas Merton?" I asked (thinking, in my usual tolerant way, Have they even heard of Merton in this backwater?).
"Fourth aisle, halfway down on the left," he answered genially, flipping a switch and waving me into the back room I hadn't even noticed.
And I went to the fourth aisle and there were shelves of Merton, it looked like they had every book Merton ever wrote: volumes and volumes of journals, letters, essays, the whole works, and not one, but two copies of Disputed Questions. To top it all off, when I went to sign it out, the monk said, "Just jot down your name and phone number in the ledger." "I'm staying here," I told him, "do you still want my home phone number?"
"Might as well," he replied. "That way, if you want to take the book with you when you leave, feel free. Just mail it back when you're done."
Now that's my kind of library.
I've also discovered that right down the street is the Kiowa Mountain access road, which slopes gently through gorgeous desert scenery for, according to the guy who runs the drop-in center, twenty-three miles. There's a gate but it doesn't say No Trespassing on it, so I climbed over this morning and walked about an hour each way. Clear blue sky with mammoth clouds, mountains in every direction, cottonwoods like fluffy lace, just beginning to green. And dead, dead quiet, except for four or five cars. All of the people waved, and two stopped to ask if I wanted a ride.
I have to have a mammogram--my first since the surgery--when I get home.
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time: "When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear;/so do a man's faults when he speaks. (Sirach 27:4). Which segues into the Gospel reading: Can a blind man act as guide to a blind man? A student is not above his teacher...Why look at the speck in your brother's eye when you miss the plank in your own? (Luke 6:39-45) All three examples, the missal pointed out, are about people wearing masks, pretending to be something they are not. The blind man pretending to be able to see, the pupil presuming to be a teacher. I see this again and again in my own life: the very thing for which I've been judging someone else I need to work on.
The elderly priest who said Mass today weighs a hundred pounds tops, talks in a squeaky mouse voice, and possesses the humble, peaceful, firm but self-deprecating air of the truly enlightened. First, he asked for our prayers because he has a bad heart--by the looks of him, I don't doubt it for a moment--and then he gave a wonderful homily. He said if we're human we have human hearts prey to all the temptations and shortcomings listed in the Bible. He himself has been subject to all of them, including lust, he continued and, and has only been able to resist the vast number of women who have thrown themselves at him (big laugh here, of course) because of his prayer life. The thing to do during Lent, he explained, is try to die to your worst shortcoming.
And if you want to figure out what your worst shortcoming is, examine what you complain about in others, and then examine what distracts you in prayer.
I'm starting to see something. Whenever I get a glimpse of myself in someone else, instead of recognizing or acknowledging it, I hate that in them. Hate their weakness and ineffectiveness, that they don't know how to save themselves either, that they feel lonely and despised, too.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Love yourself as your (like you, deeply defective) neighbor.
For once, in chapel this morning, I was actually able to attend to the meaning of the Psalms and readings. I've been praying the Divine Office on my own for two years, but usually I'm still so dumbstruck I'm doing it at all, so self-conscious, so eager to "progress," that I never get around to orienting myself toward Christ. That's my distraction in prayer: I make it all about me. I keep doing it because I figure it's pleasing to God; because maybe after 30 or 40 years, I'll be purified; because there's only one way to make it be about Christ: to keep on praying.
And in the meantime, every once in a blue moon, I “connect,” the way I did this morning.
Today after Mass this old hunchbacked monk stood in the alcove and drained four good-sized goblets of leftover communion wine in about ten seconds--I mean he was just swilling. (Of course I would only notice this having been such a giant lush for so many years myself). Afterwards, a middle-aged Mexican man wearing a flowered shirt, patent leather dance shoes, and jeans with a waist about twenty sizes too big came in, knelt before the altar with his ass crack fully exposed and proceeded, in a piercing, frantic stage whisper, to pray. He eventually made his way around the entire sanctuary, stopping in front of every statue, pulling up his pants as he went.
Everyone here, it's beginning to dawn on me, is in some way deformed. One of the monks has a withered leg, another a goiter. A man with a breathing tube sat at my table at dinner tonight, the woman beside me had no chin, and morbid obesity abounds.
With the diet, it's small wonder. One of the RV women is in charge of cooking. Last night dinner consisted of pork chops encased in an inch of greasy breading, a string-bean casserole enhanced with suet, and a tray of deep-fried, syrup-drenched apple fritters that must have weighed a pound apiece. I happened to be sitting at the same table as the chef, and it came out in the course of the conversation that she makes a "black bread" for Ash Wednesday (they serve only bread and water that day). "What's in it?," I asked eagerly, hoping it might by accident contain a stray nutrient or two.
"Oh they've begged me for the recipe,” she replied coyly, “but I won't give it to them. Four Seasons wanted the ranch dressing recipe from my restaurant, but I wouldn't give that out either"...
I don't know what horrified me more: that she had been connected with the operating of a restaurant, or that she imagined I would want to duplicate anything she had cooked.
From Merton's The Sign of Jonas: "I ought to know, by now, that God uses everything that happens as means to lead me into solitude. Every creature that enters my life, every instant of my days, will be designed to wound me with the realization of the world's insufficiency, until I become so detached that I will be able to find God alone in everything. Only then will all things bring me joy."
That is fine, but I need to learn the difference between detachment and contempt. Because the point of detachment is not to realize how different and elevated you are: it's to realize how ordinary you are: how exactly like everyone else, how desperately in need of help. How can a person have a prayer life and eat such shitty food?, is the subtext of my complaints about the cooking. But someone could just as easily look at me and say, How could anyone have a prayer life and still be so anxious, so petty, so endlessly self-absorbed?
The truth I don't want to face is that I'm deformed, too. Spiritually and emotionally it goes without saying, but now physically, too: the lumpectomied breast, the faint purple scar.
"Hence the solitary man says nothing, and does his work, and is patient, (or perhaps impatient, I don't know) but generally he has peace. It is not the world's kind of peace. He is happy, but he never has a good time."
That's from Merton's essay, "Philosophy of Solitude." I love that: he is happy but he never has a good time. Well—I’m halfway there.
I am trying not to get too worked up over it, but Tim has an obstruction in his throat that feels to him like a growth. He's going to see the doctor today and when I talked to him last night--the pay phone behind the chapel, the lit booth a beacon in the dark--I saw for the first time that he is really very worried about it. I haven't been that worried, because he seems otherwise healthy. But last night I said, "Well you feel all right, don't you?" and he said, "No, I don't. I feel tired." Oh, God, I thought, what if we both got cancer? So I prayed last night and am praying for him today. I even asked for him, out loud, in our petitionary prayers in chapel this morning.
Glamorizing the monastic life is something against which I have to be constantly on guard. I've always thought of myself as a solitary who never has enough solitude, but I'm beginning to see it's not more solitude I need: it's accepting the solitude in which I already live, accepting that the search for God has to be conducted without complaining, without wanting to be recognized. My whole life--this burning flame of love for Christ--has to be lived in secrecy and hiddenness. Partly because it can't be communicated and partly because, just as when Christ was alive, nobody is much interested. Not my family, not the majority of my friends, definitely not my husband. And I'm just starting to realize what the saints knew all along: it is always going to be like this.
The loneliness is not the obstruction. The loneliness is the path.
I was hoping to see the sun rise this morning, and I did see the sky lightening, eventually, though there was no spectacular sunrise. I came expecting springtime in the desert: flowering mesquite, balmy nights. Instead, it's been freezing, overcast and windy. I scheduled my visit mere days too early: next week at the latest, the RV people say, the weather will turn and it will be in the 80's.
"Fire and heat, bless the Lord/Cold and chill, bless the Lord," as the psalm says.
It's fine, I am grateful for my polar fleece.
There's a nun here from Baltimore, about my age, named Georgina, who has leukemia and breast cancer. They give her five years at the outside, she told me last night. I might drive her into town to get some supplies as she is constipated, exhausted from radiation and, like me, having a hard time with the food. At dinner, I saw her give a big smile to Jim, the retreat master I'd decided I didn't like, or who didn't like me. Constantly, I am reminded of my meanness.
Here's Merton again, from "The Power and Meaning of Love": "There is no way under the sun to make a man worthy of love except by loving him. As soon as he realizes himself loved--if he is not so weak that he can no longer bear to be loved--he will feel himself instantly becoming worthy of love. He will respond by drawing a mysterious spiritual value out of his own depths, a new identity called into being by the love that is addressed to him."
The day was dreary and windy—again—but I took my two-hour walk nonetheless. Sun breaking through the edges of the clouds, snow-topped mountains, low-hanging blue haze. Sea green and purple prickly pear. Red dirt, green bleached grass.
Not thinking about much, except how to be better to Tim. I've been struck with pangs of tenderness now that I'm away; he is so precious, so worthy of love, so fragile. So fragile and I'm so hard on him. I do the exact thing Merton warns against: I treat him like an object, worthy only insofar as he is of use to me. One of the central dynamics of our marriage (in my mind) is that he is IN MY WAY: when I want to pray, when I want to cultivate other friendships, when I want to work, when I want to do the thinking that gives me the material for work. Some of this is objectively true, and some of it is me blaming my sloth on him because he's a handy target. But whether or not it is true, what a sad, hard way to look at any person, much less your husband.
To want to "progress," whatever that means, more than you want to love a person, to see Christ in them. To see Christ in the other is progress: the only progress.
Outside my window a woman with a St. Benedict medal hanging from her neck and a chainsaw in her hand is eyeing a long row of firs. It cannot be an accident that the sound of our machines so perfectly mirrors the state of our souls. Leaf blowers, digital alarm clocks, snowmobiles, jet skis. Yesterday, on my walk in the “wilderness,” I could hear an ATV as I started out. And then the SUVs roll by, not many of them, thank God, but there will be more next year and more the year after that, kicking up their gravel and clouds of dust, scaring the animals, in a big hurry to go nowhere. And to drown out the anguished cry of their hearts.
Just like me.
I do begin to see that the weather, the people, the surroundings, the conditions, never make that much difference. One second is one second for all of us; we all get twenty-four hours in a day, to do with as we will. Merton had the same problems in the monastery that I do: not enough time to write, not enough time to write what he wanted to, not enough time to read, not enough time to pray, not enough silence. A constant longing for solitude, constant infringements upon it, the constant realization that he was blowing whatever chances for prayer he had. People who drove him crazy, people whose spirituality he didn't trust, the tension between obedience and a call. That is the spiritual path; nobody can avoid it.
So much to reflect upon, so much meat, so much happening in these quiet orderly days, punctuated by prayer. Even with no responsibilities, there still aren't enough hours in the day to give praise, to get lost in wonder. It was so lovely and cool and fresh on the trail this afternoon. And I was thinking about an observation of Walker Percy’s: that Christianity is so on target because the heart of it is the acknowledgment that man has a problem; that man is in deep, deep trouble. Yesterday I actually started thinking that if Tim got lymphoma and died, at least I'd have more time to write. That is the extent of my selfishness, God forgive me.
I'm beginning to see what Christ meant by "Blessed are the poor in spirit." It's only when you're able to admit how utterly lost, utterly broken, utterly prone to sin you are that you reach a place of truth, that you do down on your knees, desperate just to touch the hem of His garment. I think St. Thomas Aquinas probably realized something like that when he said near the end of his life that all his books were straw—and lapsed into silence.
Last night I skipped dinner and went to the chapel for Compline at 8:30--pitch black outside, freezing cold--but they must have prayed it in the dining hall earlier because nobody was there. So I went to the Lady of Guadalupe alcove, where the light was, and said Evening Prayer by myself, and then sat by the Blessed Sacrament for a while. That used to sound so hokey and nunnish to me: the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Now I see it as a deep, mysterious gift. What solace, what peace to sit with Him: the Great Physician; the Master Anesthesiologist.
I swear it has gotten colder each day I've been here. It is now almost as bad as winter in New England, where I grew up. Taking a walk will be like penance.
Today I had a moment when, along with St. Ignatius of Loyola, I prayed from the center of my being, for Christ to take all of me: my freedom, my memory, my understanding, and my will. Of course it's easy to feel that way when I have had no cares or worries or interruptions for a week. One dose of "reality" and I'll be plunged back into confusion; overwhelmed anew--but I have to believe that all prayer is a step in the right direction, even if I feel at times like I'm regressing. Probably all spiritual progress consists in the deepening realization that you can do nothing without Him. Your life naturally becomes one of ceaseless prayer, because there is simply no other possible mode of existence. There is no virtue in prayer, no sense of “accomplishment,” any more than there is virtue in a drowning man who instinctively tries to keep his head above water.
I keep thinking of that reading from Sirach the other morning: "When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do a man's faults when he speaks." Or acts. Giving Sister Georgina a ride into town this afternoon, I saw myself through her eyes. First, she was a little embarrassed to be going at all as any retreatant worth his or her salt apparently does not leave the grounds for the duration of the retreat, while I, having gone on my pathetic coffee runs every morning, thought nothing of an extra trip. Second, she wanted to pick up some juice and tea because she's sick: I wanted to pick up some chocolate and a last coffee before Lent begins tomorrow. Third, my car was littered with crumbs and papers, while she, with her spotless clothes and perfectly-groomed hair, I'm sure has her car steam-cleaned every other day.
To top it all off, I repaired to my room afterwards and proceeded to eat the entire giant Cadbury bar I had purchased at Safeway while Cheryl was loading up on chamomile tea and apple juice. I'd told myself I'd save half for Tim, but no, by six o'clock I had eaten the whole calorie-laden bar all by myself. After judging everyone else for being fat.
It doesn't matter where I am, my faults will be revealed.
Ash Wednesday. At Morning Prayer, a reading from Isaiah about fasting: "If you bestow your bread on the hungry/and satisfy the afflicted;/Then light shall rise for you in the darkness,/and the gloom shall become for you like midday"...When I go into the dining hall for a cup of tea, each table is bare except for a loaf of dark rustic bread (the secret recipe!) and a white crockery bowl filled with dirt and stones.
Later, at noon Mass, the scatterbrained abbot starts to sing "Alleluia" after the opening antiphon and the wizened-up sick old holy monk interrupts with a kindly, "No, not during Lent." "I know, I know," he replies loudly before plowing on...And yet, though we've never exchanged a single word, after a week I find I feel a deep affection for him. What a job! To keep this big place up and running; to deal with the monks, the oblates, the community (last Sunday I noticed he was gone and overheard someone saying there's a shortage of priests in the area and that he was scheduled to say seven Masses that day); to reconcile the contemplative life with the active life. In his homily, he talks about prayer as a method of detaching from thought, and observes that one way to do this is to sit in silence with a sacred word. The word many of the monks use, he says, is the Aramaic "Maranatha": Come, Lord Jesus. The chapel is packed and, for a second, I wonder if this "middle-America" parish is ready for contemplative prayer. And then I realize that this whole place probably operates on nothing but prayer, that I know nothing about prayer.
"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return," the priest repeats afterward, over and over again, as we file up to have our foreheads anointed with ashes.
I spend the afternoon packing and, after Vespers, wander behind the chapel, skirt the duck pond, and find my way to the outdoor Stations of the Cross. Like the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Stations have always struck me as slightly musty and old-school, but someone has put a lot of thought into designing these--I know from the brochure that they incorporate natural features of the landscape--and I can't think of a more fitting way to end my visit.
I start at Station 1--Jesus is Condemned to Death--noticing a nearby creosote. "This desert bush," the reflection on the placard reads, "forced to survive with so little water, reminds us of how Jesus felt as he stood before his merciless accusers." I pause to pray for a couple of minutes, then make my way around a boulder to Station 2--Jesus Bears His Cross: "This heavy stone, an impossible burden, is like the cross Jesus was forced to carry to Mount Calvary."
The path winds up a hill; I trudge on, the sun sinking in a pool of red. Station 3--Jesus Falls For the First Time: "These interlocked branches, so rare an occurrence, show that the cross is an unnatural formation, emblem of a fallen world." Station 10--Jesus is Stripped of His Garments: "The spines in this ancient cactus remind us of the Crown of Thorns Jesus wore; of the many humiliations we, too, suffer in our lives." Station 12--Jesus Dies On the Cross: "Just as the trunk of this burned-out tree is stripped bare, so we will be stripped of everything: property, success, looks, health."
And suddenly I am weeping, weeping for RVers, for the overworked abbot, for the old men and the abused children the world over, for the people so alone they never get prayed for, for Sister Georgina, for myself. I've tried so hard to be good: praying the "right" way, giving up coffee for Lent, being mature and responsible and accepting and spiritually advanced about my cancer. But it's not about being good, it's about becoming human. It's not about pretending that cancer don't suck in every possible way (because in my stripped-down state, I realize I have not fully "processed" it; I am terrified of getting sick and dying); it's about consenting to bear those things just as, in some mysterious way, every other human being bears his or her own individual crosses for me.
Christ wasn't mature and responsible and accepting when they drove the nails through His precious hands, His beautiful sacred feet. He knew the worst spiritual anguish any person can know: “Father, Father, why have Thee forsaken me?” And yet...He doesn't forsake us; He dwells within us always. That's what the Resurrection--that light way in the distant future, after these seven dark weeks of Lent--tells us. I don’t understand it, I don’t even believe it half the time, but that's what I've staked my life on.
The dinner bell rings and I salivate: I've been fasting all day. Tomorrow I'll leave the silence and the cottonwoods and the birds, and make the long drive home.
But for now it's time to walk through the gathering dusk and join the others--the young monks and the old; Dot, Jim, Sister Georgina; Fran and Earl, Lois and Vern, the woman in charge of cooking.
To bow our heads.
To eat the good black bread.