I am at the Holy Trinity Monastery in St. David, Arizona. It is raining, and the only sound is the gentle fall of rain on leafless trees, droplets of water, little shining crystals on the dark branches before my window. And on the banister of the terrace before me are 5 peacocks and peahens, their magnificent, extravagant, impossible iridescent tails hanging over the edge.
They are just sitting there, making no sounds. I know that if they become aware of me they will run off, so I join them in their silence, for a moment, unmoving, aware of only peacocks, and the sound of rain.
It is strange……the Monastery is so quiet, there are not even the sounds of sparrows or ravens, no dogs or coyotes. It is also rather deserted, probably because it is winter and mid week. The land has the familiar peace I have so often found in places of worship of all kinds, rising through the soil as one walks, an essence. It does not matter what I "believe".....prayerful or sacred places are not about the intellect. There is a striking statue of Saint Benedict by the cloisters; he is holding a book, and there is a raven at his feet with, apparently, a rock in his beak. I do not know what the raven means, but the white statue is welcoming. I find myself watching my breath as I walk, clasping my hands behind my back. Maybe the monks and nuns who lived here did that, and I am just picking up a memory in the land...........
It is actually no longer a Monastery, not since 2017 when the Vatican, I assume, recalled the few monks and Father still living here. But it is managed by a faithful group of volunteer Oblates. They are all elderly……I wonder if they will be able to attract younger people to manage this special place? It seems a great shame to me that the monastic life is so little understood in our frenetic and materialistic world.
Last evening, as the sun went down, I saw the peacocks, some 15 of them, sitting on a garden fence before a huge pecan tree. One by one I watched as the peacocks silently flew into the tree, finding their particular spots, while the others waited for his or her own “take-off”. This was clearly a daily ritual. I was struck by how orderly this procession of the peacocks to their nightly roost took place. Peacocks……… one thinks of them as loud, stupid birds…..but here at the Monastery, where many generations of peacocks have lived freely, they are a tribe going about their business. Just as the Monastery is devoted to silence, so they also seem to be. They are silent, and mysterious. And beautiful in their other worldly iridescence among the gray and brown of winter leaves.
How did I end up here? Not entirely sure.
As I was driving without a destination a day ago, I vividly remembered a book I read called “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye”. Harold is in his 60’s, living a conservative retired life with his wife. They do not really speak any more, as they navigate around each other with many years of habitual co-inhabitation. One day Harold receives a letter from someone he has not seen in over 20 years, someone who is dying and has written to let Harold know she remembers him fondly. In his habitual numbness, but English sense of propriety, he decides to write her a simple letter, a card that says something like “thank you for your friendship, best wishes, Harold Frye”. Then he decides to walk to the post office to mail it himself.
Except when he gets to the post office, he decides to walk on to the next Post Office, to the north, and mail it there. And yet, when he gets to that post office, on the outskirts of town, he still has the letter in his pocket, and he is still walking. And so the unplanned and unannounced and even unconscious pilgrimage of Harold Frye occurs.
Perhaps I am like Harold. I just decided I needed to get away, from the Holidays, from Facebook, from cars, away from all the noise, and the noise incessantly sounding in my own head, right now: but I had no idea of where to go. None.
But I have a car, and I packed a few things. All the way down 22nd street to the freeway, I still couldn’t decide where I was going…..west, to Phoenix, maybe Sedona? A long way, and Sedona is expensive. Or south, to Patagonia? Head to New Mexico, the solace of those wide open spaces…..even though it is an even longer way than Sedona? It was only when I got to the freeway underpass that I pulled into the left lane for route 19, heading in the direction of Patagonia, which at least had a bird sanctuary and a coffee shop. I’d see what happened from there.
As I drove I felt better. I turned my phone off. In Patagonia I had a coffee, discovered that the only hotel was ridiculously expensive, then thought what the heck, I’ll head to New Mexico, why not. The mood I’m in I could drive all night anyway. The road from Patagonia to I-10 is scenic, with a snow covered mountain range in the distance. In Saint David, a little town on the way to Benson, I remembered there was a Benedictine Monastery. Always curious about it, I stopped, inquired about retreats, and here I am. Ask and ye shall receive, truly.
Lately I’ve been having those winter-born (what a wonderful word, “winter borne”)…… “dark nights of the soul”……….which look, practically speaking, more like being overwhelmed, brittle, snappish, and exhausted on a daily basis and being increasingly disturbed by it. I am running a successful AIRBNB “enclave” with 8 units and a helper and a few other guests. I have made a nice, indeed beautiful place, and the people there, always changing, are mostly intelligent, decent people - visiting nurses, snowbirds, interns, students, etc. Yet how sweet, how precious silence is now, when your day is a staccato of people I must talk to, phones that ring, texts and emails that demand my attention. And always something I have to clean or replace, or someone I have to listen to. As most of us, a life of over stimulation, of too many fragmented demands on one's fragile attention.
I am glad no one notices my inner landscape of late, as I do my duty and nod pleasantly. To me, of late, everything sounds like “yap yap yap”. There. I said it, at least to myself. It is like endlessly being barked at by a chihuahua. Our world - like an entire fleet of chihuahuas. Everyday, a litany of inconsequential complaint, vented commentary, monologue for the sake of monologue, appeals for money, offers for deals, electronic voices, irritated drivers……exhausting. And, as I am an empath, all the human pain in there too, all the human pain I can’t help, increasingly am too frayed to hear.
I hope no one who lives at my property reads this last comment. But, the fact is, no one who lives with me, encounters me day in and day out, would read anything I write anyway. And although the property I have developed is a sculpture garden and painting gallery, it is a rare guest indeed who actually seems to notice the art. Why should they? They are renting a room. And yet…..how ego inflating it once was to me to see how very incurious people are of their environments.
Certainly, if any of my guests do notice, they rarely comment. People don’t think about art by and large, unless it is in a museum or a gallery. Or now, I suppose, on Instagram. Instant art! For myself, I have come to believe art is a language, albeit an archaic language, one has to be educated in, like learning to speak Latin. Certainly, it requires what our lives increasingly lack......contemplation. Without that introduction, artworks are just a backdrop that ‘specialists’ understand, dismissed as irrelevant. Or a colorful passing tidbit to consume like a candy.
People do not see that a painting is a conversation, a window into another world……in this case, my world. For me, the works have numinous names and places in the landscape of my life. The bodies of work on my property are the best of me, my personal shrines and devotions, and now I just want to protect them from the infidels, so to speak. If they don’t see it, it is safe, and those visionary depths the paintings and sculptures arose from are also underground.
But……I don’t really think this is healthy on my part. All artists secretly want to share.
How did I end up being so invisible, being someone who cleans, washes, makes sure the thermostat hasn’t been changed or the window left open, must remember daily to examine the garbage can or the traps in the bathroom sink, often must act as a tour guide or an occasional concierge? I used to enjoy it, but now I go to bed with a bottle of wine every night. My few friends are all as “busy” as me, busy with the demands, mostly, of economic survival.
And I suppose the punchline of this writing is that it is time to change things. Amazing how we can fail to see the obvious.
Why do I feel ungrateful, shamed, for saying that I am unhappy? I should be content. With an income at 70, a self employed job, when so many others face poverty in their old age, I am fortunate. Yet here, in a monastery where hundreds came to seek God........I think it doesn’t matter whether I am “right” or “wrong” in my discontent. This refuge is about transcending the “shoulds” for a day. I am willing to sit on a bench, and listen to the melancholy, winter borne voice of Saturn.
I crave what I am given in this very moment. A contemplative life. Time and simplicity to turn to the well of Bridgit, and the bottomless reservoir of art that calls, like Undine from the depths of the sea, whenever I am granted solitude. It does not matter what I “think” I should do once I rejoin the noise and distractions of my life. How I think I should adjust myself, learn to shield, be more grateful, be more compassionate, like myself better, take yoga, lose weight, volunteer, and so on and so on…….my soul, for lack of a better word, is speaking.
“When we are living in accord with our inner reality while simultaneously suffering the depredations of this discordant, dis-eased world, we nonetheless have supportive energy, clarifying affects, and a sense of purpose. When we get off track, these same manifestations turn against us. While the world rushes to pharmacology to numb the inner discord, the question remaining is simply and obviously this: What does the soul want, as opposed to our protective but regressive complexes? This simple question is intimidating because such an agenda can very quickly lead to the larger rather than the smaller in our lives, necessarily re-framing our sense of what our life journey is about.”
James Hollis Phd. “Living an Examined Life”
It is time to stop, to seek the necessary nourishment arising from quietude, to find my center again. I feel blessed to have stumbled into refuge for a few days, to be with Silence, and the great iridescent beauty that sits on a fence, or walks before me in the world, waiting to be noticed.