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 remember peacocks as noisy creatures, with a piercing cry. How strange those peacocks are, motionless, silent. 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.
The Monastery is so quiet in fact, there are not even sounds of sparrows or ravens, no dogs or coyotes. It is also mostly deserted, probably because it is winter and mid-week. The land has the familiar peace I have so often found in places of worship, a peace rising through the soil as one walks, an essence of place stepped and pressed into the land itself. It does not matter what I "believe" in such places.... 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 who lived here did that, and I am just picking up a memory in the land.
The Benedictine Monastery in the small eastern Arizona town of St. David is actually no longer a Monastery, not since 2017 when the Vatican recalled the few monks and Father still living here. It clearly once had a good-sized population that gradually diminished. As I walk, I try to imagine monks here, tending to the gardens, the shrines, the retreat buildings in the rain, or in the hot summers of this part of the country. It is still managed by a faithful group of volunteer Oblates. I notice that they are all elderly……I wonder if they will be able to attract younger people in the future to manage this special place? It seems, as I reflect with the meditative presence of the peacocks before me, that it is a great shame that the monastic life is so little appreciated in our frenetic world.
Last evening, as the sun went down behind rows of pecan trees, I saw the flock of peacocks, some 20 of them, sitting on a fence before a particularly ancient pecan tree. I watched as, one by one, they flew without sound into the tree, finding their particular perches. Each bird seemed to wait patiently 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. Yet at the St. David Monastery, where many generations of peacocks have lived and roamed freely, they are a tribe going about their business. Just as the Monastery is devoted to silence and prayer, so they also seem to be. They are wrapped in brilliant shades of quietude. Beautiful in their other worldly iridescence among the gray and brown of winter leaves.
How did I end up here? Not entirely sure. By Grace?
As I was driving without a destination a day ago, I vividly remembered a book I read (while spending the night on a bench in the ultimate liminal zone of Heathrow Airport) called
“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye”. ** The central character, 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 of cancer in a hospice far away to the north of the U.K. She has written to let Harold know she remembers him fondly, and to say goodbye. In his habitual numbness, but equally habitual 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”. He does so, and then decides to walk to the post office in order to mail it himself.
Except when he gets to the post office, he decides to walk on to the next Post Office, one at the north of town, and mail it there. And yet, when he gets to that post office, on the outskirts of town, he discovers that 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 commences.
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 a credit card. 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 mystical 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 (cleverly cowboy vintage) 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, “winterborne”) …… “dark nights of the soul” ………. which look, practically speaking, more like being overwhelmed, brittle, snappish, and exhausted and increasingly disturbed by it. I am running a successful AIRBNB “enclave”, still working thus in the “service industry” at the age of 72.
I have to work and know few who can afford not to these days. I am glad sometimes that no one much notices me, or my current inner landscape. To me, of late, everything sounds like “yap yap yap”. Sometimes I feel like contemporary life is a bit like being endlessly barked at by a chihuahua. Our modern world - an entire fleet of chihuahuas. A demanding litany of inconsequential complaint, vented commentary, monologue for the sake of attention, 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 loneliness and fear and despair and grief and human pain I can’t help, and increasingly feel too frayed to listen to.
When I’m not “in service” changing sheets or scrubbing floors, I am an artist. (Yes, one can be an “emerged” artist and not wealthy. In fact, most artists have to find other means of support.) The artifacts of that 50-year career surround my property. I have to say, running an AIRBNB has been somewhat deflating, as I have noticed that most people don’t think about art unless it is in a museum or a gallery. Or now, I suppose, on Instagram. Instant art for an increasingly microscopic attention span!
For myself, art is a language, albeit an often-archaic language, one that one has to be educated in, like learning to speak Latin. Certainly, it requires what our lives increasingly lack ......contemplation. Patience. Without that introduction, and time, 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 (in me) are also underground. Even if they are in plain sight.
How do I feel about all of this? I often question my discontent; I am often despairing of contemporary life. Yet here, in a monastery where many came to seek God........it doesn’t matter whether I am “right” or “wrong” in my discontent. It doesn’t matter what I think at all.
I sit on a bench and listen to the melancholy voice of Saturn. Wise and winter-borne Saturn.
I contemplate a cast-off, brightly turquoise, feather on the ground, gleaming as it catches a bit of sun. Here I am, enjoying this pentimento under the surface of time, given the grace and simplicity to turn under, within, below the fallen leaves, into the dark. It occurs to me that it does not matter at all what I “think” I should do once I rejoin the noise and distractions of life. Here is refuge, here is the power of silence. Silence enough to listen, and 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”
As the Winter Solstice approaches, I bless the Dark, the nourishment that comes from this time of incubational dormancy, from quietude. I am grateful to have stumbled into welcoming refuge for a few days. To sit listening to the rain and privileged to join the silent, watchful witness of a great iridescent beauty that sits on a fence before me, waiting to be noticed, listening to the rain.
*I learn later that the Raven was a friend of Saint Benedict who helped him by removing bread that had been poisoned by a jealous rival. http://communio.stblogs.org/index.php/2011/07/saint-benedict-and-his-friend/
** The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye by Rachel Joyce (https://www.rachel-joyce.co.uk/)
“I love where we live. I love the stretch of sky
from east to west. I work in a shepherd’s hut in a field, looking over the
valley. It’s a place that feels alive with light and water and stories. My own
view. My own silence.” ….
Shortly after I posted this article in my Blog (www.threadsofspiderwoman.blogspot.com) I found this earring by the trash can in front of my house. It looks a great deal like a peacock feather to me! I have no idea where it came from, but I will take it as a bit of guidance and affirmation. The world is always speaking to us, I reflect, if we can only pause long enough to listen.
This is so gorgeous Lauren, your writing is masterful. For those who read this blog I want to add to your point about the monastic life's not being understood now. For the last few years I have been reading Thomas Merton, books about Merton too. He was a Cistercian monk (a branch of the Benedictines). He lived from 1915-1968, wrote roughly 70 books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of letters. His monastery was Gethsemani in Kentucky, and he was there from 1941 until his sudden death in 1968. He went through a lot of changes, and though he struggled with his vocation, he decided to stay at his abbey as a solitary hermit.
This is the important part. Merton was drawn to the world and to the world's struggles, suffering, and action in history. He was frustrated that his abbey was very conservative and limited his activities, sometimes censoring his work. But he managed to live in the world as a writer, and his influence on Catholics and other spiritual seekers has been enormous. He was interested in what was happening outside the monastery and he was a genius of open-mindedness. He was profoundly prophetic and visionary about the nuclear threat and the burgeoning Vietnam war. AT THE SAME time, he came to believe with utter conviction, that his purpose (put by God of course) was to be a "solitary" in order to pray for the world and contemplate God's truth undisturbed by the trivial BS of the world. He sorted out what was important from what was merely distraction from striving towards higher purpose and vision. He saw absurdity and waste, selfish egos, destructiveness and violence, and the systematic institutionalization of corporate materialism, which he saw as a kind of indirect devil-worship. He felt he could be drawn into the world's folly and knew it would tamper with his real vocation. So despite the famous friends, the best selling books, the adulation, he kept returning to his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, though they chafed mightily. He knew in his marrow and his soul that the monk could help the world more by being removed, contemplative, and committed to that solitary contemplation for communion with God. Clearer vision than could EVER be found as part of the world's material-historical agenda.
Lauren, this is a heartfelt, wonderful essay. Thank you.
Thanks so much for your kind comments. Barb.....wise words, I need to return to my readings of Merton. One other thing I think on is this: in Hindu thought, the last passage of life, after student and householder, is to become a pilgrim, to give up the things of the world and reflect. I think this is what has come to me, although it seems I need a brick in the head sometimes to wake up. There is a reason why people "retire".
This is so beautiful and wonderfully honest. In this pilgramage of yours, though, please don't surrender your art (or your blog). I love every image you have ever posted here. There's such depth and such spiritual meaning that I always come away from your blog feeling renewed.
And yes, that earring sure looks like a peacock feature! Talk about a great and affirmative synchro!
Thanks so much to all of you, and thanks Trish............you who have written books about spirit contact and synchronicity. I have a number of times been blessed with finding symbolic objects that are meaningful to me, that for me represent spiritual contact or affirmation. I will place this earring on my altar as remembrance and reminder.
The unseen woman has revealed a little something of herself, and very beautifully. Writing, too, is an art, particularly when the expressed feelings resonate with the reader. Thanks. Uplifting. Shari and I have wondered about the monastery at St David, and the notion of just driving or even walking away — anywhere — is a constant temptation.
Tom and Shari, you can rent a hermitage casita there for a night or two easily mid week. I do not think you will find yourself disturbed by any living beings, not even peacocks. I think a lot of late of the Hindu idea that the last part of life is the pilgrimage of old age, giving up of things and ambitions to seek reunion with the soul............
Beautifully written, a touching and descriptive insight into your soul. I'm so glad that you found a successful way to reclaim the inner peace and calm you were seeking. Thank you for sharing Lauren...
I am rereading this in 2021, laid up with a sprained foot. This piece is so powerful, it holds up in the memory. Lovely to visit the monastery again. Miss you Lauren, and hope you are feeling some peace. We will talk soon.
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