Pray without ceasing


Abbey church

After spending Saturday with a friend in central Massachusetts, I stopped on my way home at Saint Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Spencer.

Abbey church

Decades ago, I’d visited Saint Joseph’s as an exhausted graduate student at Boston College. The campus ministry program there had advertised a silent weekend retreat at Mary House, a retreat center right next door to the Abbey, and I jumped at the opportunity to take a weekend away from my life as a frazzled grad student juggling teaching with my own studies.

Cross and cloud

Several campus ministers ferried me and a group of undergraduates–I was relieved that none of them were my own students–to the Mary House, where they provided an abundant supply of food and gave us the freedom to spend the weekend however we wanted. We came together for meals, which we ate in silence while one person read to the rest of us, a monastic practice known as “refectory reading.” Apart from meals, we were free to come and go as we pleased, either staying close to the Mary House or venturing over to the monastery grounds.

Grass and sky

I don’t remember much from that decades-ago visit to Saint Joseph’s Abbey, but I do remember how lovely the grounds were. I spent one day walking the grounds with its rolling hills, beaver ponds, and wild turkeys, and the beauty of the landscape seemed to reflect the tranquility of the monks’ practice.

Cross and clouds

I also spent a lot of time on that retreat tucked away in visitors’ chapel, which was (and is) tiny, dark, and cavernously quiet, like the bottom of a deep well. If you visited the chapel during one of the regularly-scheduled prayer times, you could hear but not see the monks reciting the Office from their choir stalls, which were contiguous to but visually hidden from the chapel pews: no peeking.

Visitors' chapel

Since I hadn’t come to Saint Joseph’s to peer at monks, I’d intentionally visit the chapel during off times, when I knew no one else would be there. To me, the draw of the place wasn’t the presence of mysterious monks: I’d read enough Thomas Merton to imagine what the life of a monastic was like. Instead, I went to the chapel to drink in the silence left behind after the monks had gone. As an inactive Catholic who had practiced Zen meditation for years, I craved the deep steep of silence the Abbey church provided, its stone walls almost oozing with prayer.

View from under a maple

Yesterday as I drove the winding road to the Abbey church, its stones unchanged over the several decades since I had last been there, my heart was heavy with the news of the world: white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, the Denier in Chief sowing discord from the White House, and the threat of nuclear annihilation looming everywhere. How can you retreat to a silo of silence when the the world is on fire? Or, better yet, how can you not seek spiritual solace then?

The visitors’ chapel was just as tiny and dark as I’d remembered, and the silence was just as profound. After briefly praying in the shadow of an altar illuminated by a stained glass image of Mary and the infant Jesus, I went back outside to admire the monastery fields bathed in the long-angled light of late afternoon.

Monk walking with trees and geese

And that is when I saw him: a lone, white-robed monk walking down a quiet road through a grass-green field. In the distance, a flock of geese moved through the grass, either grazing or floating in an invisible pond hidden behind the crest of those rolling hills. The monk walked slowly, deliberately, neither hurrying nor dawdling, and he stopped briefly to look at the same geese I was watching. Surely the scene was just as idyllic and lovely from his perspective as it was from mine.

The world is on fire, and everywhere people are consumed in the flames of anger, fear, and bigotry. Where can you find the still, small voice who wants nothing more than to help this suffering world?

Rain slicked

Every morning, I follow the same basic routine: a daily liturgy that involves taking the beagle out and in, loading the dishwasher, taking out the trash and recyclables, cleaning the kitchen litter box, and filling various food and water bowls. It takes me about an hour and fifteen minutes to do these mundane chores, and I do them every day: weekdays, weekends, days when I feel like it, and days when I don’t.

Skull

Because I’ve repeated this same set of chores so many times, I’ve streamlined the process. I don’t do these tasks willy-nilly; instead, I do them in the same order every day, one task following the next like a wheel rolling into a well-worn track. Because my body knows exactly what it needs to do, I don’t have to think about what comes next: I don’t have to think about anything at all. When I set my feet on the floor, they know where to take me.

Wall at Central Square

I’ve come to see my morning routine as its own kind of meditation. When I lived in the Zen Center, I had a different sort of morning routine that involved bowing, chanting, and sitting rather than dish-washing, litter box cleaning, and bowl-filling. When the Zen Center wake-up bell rang, you stumbled out of bed and into the Dharma room, and practice happened whether you were properly awake or not. Because you’d bowed, chanted, and sat so many times before, your body knew how to complete these actions whether or not your mind really “wanted” to.

Wall at Cenral Square

To many, this might sound like the epitome of mindless practice: you just go through the motions whether you feel like it or not, as mindless as any automaton. We live in a culture of emotion that believes the heart is the highest authority, so it’s downright criminal (or worse, hypocritical) to do something when your “heart isn’t in it.” But Zen isn’t a way of the heart; it lives even deeper in the body, down in the rooted tangle of the gut. Anyone who’s lived in a Zen Center knows that following a mindless routine is the way to mindfulness: because you don’t have anything to do but show up, your mind is free to pay attention without equivocation.

The Wall at Central Square

C.S. Lewis famously argued that the routine monotony of liturgy is what makes it a transcendent experience. Only when your body and mind are trained by the predictable repetition of a church service is your spirit free to commune:

Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it “works” best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

ZEN

When I’m immersed in the routine of dish-washing, litter box cleaning, and bowl-filling, my mind feels free and unfettered, free to wander where it will. An entirely ordinary but profoundly satisfying kind of peace arises when you don’t have to wonder what comes next: you just do your job. In the evening, I repeat a routine that complements my morning chores, taking the beagle out and in, emptying the dogs’ water bowls, and mopping the floor. There are moments when I’m leading the beagle to or from the dog pen when I wonder whether I was a farmer in a past life, the simple routine of animal husbandry—food and water in, waste out—feeling both familiar and reassuring.

No comp

I’m currently reading Brad Kessler’s Goat Song, a nonfiction narrative about the pastoral joys of goat-tending and cheese-making. I’ve never tended goats or made cheese, but what Kessler says about his experience of goat-milking sounds so akin to my experience tending a menagerie of pets, I suspect only the details of our respective practices differ:

Maybe it’s just the routine, the same objects in the same place (the wipes, the teat dip, the feed bucket, the scoop). The smallest change upsets the balance; the repetition builds a kind of faith (milk stand, hoof trimmers, hay knife, stool). Rote is the nature of prayer. Incantation is repetition. Saying and doing the same thing over and over until entranced. Ritualizing the same physical motion with your body as Yogis do. My movements here on this milk stand are a kind of davening, a morning prayer with goat.

After dark

“Rote is the nature of prayer”: this is a line I could live and die by, a mantra truer to my lived experience than any creed. Every day, the goats need to be milked; every day, the dishes need to be washed, the litter boxes need to be cleaned, and the water bowls need to be filled. Your life isn’t what happens before and after you’ve done your chores; instead, your chores are your life. Only after these tasks have become routine can you settle into the comfortable monotony that is prayer.

Marble altar

The chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a paragon of simplicity. MIT is a place where brilliant people think deep thoughts while solving complex problems involving complicated technologies. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that famed architect Eero Saarinen designed a chapel that is almost painfully austere in its simplicity: a windowless brick cylinder surrounded by a shallow moat and shaded by a grove of elegant birch trees. Everywhere else on campus is where Thinking Happens, but the MIT chapel is where Thinking Falls Away.

Altar and skylight

I didn’t take any photographs of the outside of the MIT chapel when I was on campus for a meeting yesterday, but I did take several photos of the inside sanctuary, which features a plain marble altar and a metal sculpture by Harry Bertoia. This sculpture flows like a cascade of glittering metallic dust motes from a circular skylight that serves as the sanctuary’s only source of natural light. I’d arrived on campus early yesterday, giving myself plenty of time to get lost on a campus where a maze of buildings huddles around an Infinite Corridor, the name of which is enough to make you think you’ve left this world for an alternate one. But inside the chapel, there are no infinite corridors, only this present room, this present window, and an Infinity that streams down from above.

The simplicity of Harry Bertoia’s metal sculpture is so alluring, it finds echoes in a piece of even greater simplicity: a student-designed display of thousands of origami cranes folded, strung, and hung in the MIT Stata Center in memory Officer Sean Collier, who was slain while on duty protecting the MIT campus and community.

Skylight

Where do souls come from before we are born, and where do souls go after we die? Is there, somewhere, an Infinite Corridor where souls stream as free and unfettered as sunlight, and where time stretches inevitably into eternity? These are complicated questions, and their solution lies beyond my ken. But here and now, in this sadly mortal world, I know that sometimes the simplest gestures resonate with infinite profundity.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Simplicity.

St. Ignatius with clown wig

One of the core tenets of Ignatian spirituality–that is, the spiritual practice of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order–is the practice of finding God in all things. I’m not sure a clown wig is one of the “things” Saint Ignatius was thinking of when he established the spiritual exercises practiced by Jesuits around the world, but I’d like to think that even Ignatius would find a bit of humor in whatever prankster decided to decorate his statue with a colorful bit of whimsy.

St. Ignatius with clown wig

Boston College is a Jesuit school, so Ignatian attitudes abound there, as evidenced in this prayer map to campus. Although I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, I like teaching at a school where spiritual practice is actively encouraged.

Gasson bell tower reflected in Fulton Hall

Acknowledging that students are in school to cultivate a spiritual as well as an intellectual life seems much more humane than trying to teach young minds in isolation. In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf suggested that “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” and perhaps we might add “or prayed well.” How can students learn if their entire beings, body and soul, have not been tended?

Love your body week

During the eleven weeks I’ve been teaching at BC, I’ve carried a camera with me, as I do everywhere, and I’d like to think my practice of taking and sharing photos has more than a bit in common with Saint Ignatius’ practice of finding God in all things. What is it, after all, that photographers do but try to find a spark of spirit that might otherwise go overlooked?

In loving memory

This is my Day 15 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.