The Gift of the Canyon

Morning sun and shadow in Zion Canyon

The first day in Zion our Road Scholar group walked on the canyon floor along the Virgin River, and I craned my neck to look up at a landscape unlike any I’d ever seen. Eons ago the sand dunes that covered this plateau petrified, and now the red rock walls towering above us offered a sense of the river’s long and languorous lovemaking with Navajo sandstone.

Early the next morning half our group began the hike up to Observation Point, knowing we would climb 2100 feet over the next four miles. The sun had yet to clear the eastern rim, so we walked in shade, bundled in warm clothes, just the twelve of us as opposed to the hundreds we’d encountered the day before. The trail was mostly wide and even as it switch-backed up the canyon wall and offered sweeping views down to Weeping Rock where we’d begun and across the canyon to the western wall. I fell into a slow and steady pace.

Echo Canyon

Perhaps an hour into the hike, the trail turned down a gorge called Echo Canyon into a scene so surprising and lovely that it stopped me in my tracks. Instead of being on the edge of a canyon wall I was suddenly inside, folded into the curves and undulations of stone, which were touched in this moment by the sun’s first tender kisses on red rock and secret pools.

It took nearly three more hours to reach Observation Point. As the group spread out, I often walked alone, up, up, up, taking breaks to peel off layers, drink water, and look at the desert world around me – slickrock paintbrush growing improbably out of a crack in the rock and striations in the curved canyon wall that I paused to study as I would a work of art in a museum. At one point I heard rumbling nearby and with the instincts of a city girl whirled around looking for a truck almost in the same instant that I realized how ridiculous that was. Instead, somewhere close but out of sight, rocks were crashing down the hillside. This is unstable country, I remembered our geologist guide saying. Was I about to be buried in an avalanche? The clatter faded. Or had Tom hiking somewhere ahead of me been hit by falling rock? I pressed on. Eventually the trail leveled off, and I came out to the point, where I found the rest of the group safe and sound. At 6500 feet we snapped photos and enjoyed stunning views down the canyon.

Mary at Observation Point

In the following days, as I hiked in Bryce, the Valley of Fire, and Red Rock Canyon, my thoughts kept returning – not to the height I’d attained at Observation Point, but to the quiet moment when the trail veered into Echo Canyon. What was it about that place? I guessed it was the intimacy of the lusciously curved red rock walls surrounding me. We’re used to being onthe earth, but in that passage of undulating stone I had the sense of being init. Unlike in a tunnel or cave, though, I was immersed instead of enclosed, in the light instead of in darkness. Maybe this glimpse of geologic time, a peek at eternity, hints at what the cave of the heart looks like.

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Never Again

On the day of the student walkout to protest gun violence, I was scheduled to staff the reference desk at ten a.m., a responsibility I could not reasonably forego. Early in the morning, I huddled with other staff. What could we do in the library? Lakshmi suggested we use our new intercom system to ask for a moment of silence. This might sound oxymoronic in a library, but at ten in the morning the Foothill College library is bustling with students checking out books, asking questions at the reference desk, and chatting with each other. Nevertheless, we agreed to try it.

And so, as hundreds of students, faculty, and staff streamed out of their classrooms and offices and headed to Cesar Chavez Plaza, I heard my own trembling voice echo through the library, “In memory of those who died in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month ago, please join the library staff in standing for a moment of silence.” The names of the seventeen victims stood on a list at the reference desk, remembered now by strangers here on the other side of the country from where they fell. I looked around. Some students went on about their business, but many others took a break from their books, devices, friends, and together we all stood without speaking or doing. I let two minutes pass before I switched the intercom on again, thanked everyone, and reminded them of the gathering in the plaza.

Over and done, but outside was a different story. Not two minutes, but seventeen. One minute for each life lost on February 14th. A minute is nothing compared to a life, and yet, it is something. Those holding silence were not monks or hermits, but young people bursting with energy, community college students juggling classes with jobs and families; they were professors accustomed to lecturing, for whom every minute of class time is precious, needed for the knowledge they want to impart and the experiences they want to create for their students. Friends who were there later told me that a sociology professor tolled the minutes with a Tibetan singing bowl, and each minute more people streamed into the plaza. Wind blustered, footsteps fell on pavement, bodies shuffled, but no one spoke as the bell resounded across the crowd.

This had been happening since seven a.m. when the walkouts started on the east coast, a wave of silence sweeping across the entire country. Honor and protest and hope are the gifts of those seventeen minutes, multiplied ten thousand times. May the silence bear fruit.

Gezouten Boter

cheese market in front of the Gouda City HallThe first cookies I baked when I moved to The Netherlands came out of the oven flat, not just in shape, but in taste. Part of the problem, I discovered, was the flour, which is processed differently than in the States in a way that reduces the amount of gluten, and part of the problem was the butter. At home I took it for granted that our default butter is salted. Back in the eighties and nineties an American baker had to go out of her way to find what we call sweet butter, but in Holland the default butter is unsalted. Dutch salted butterIt took several tries before I realized that all my recipes assumed the dash of salt from the butter in addition to the teaspoon explicitly stirred into the cookie dough, and I learned to seek out gezouten boter in a larger store than the corner grocery. And what about the flour? For special-occasion desserts it was worth driving to The Hague (home of the country’s embassies and hence a city  that caters to foreigners), to the import shop I’d heard about through the American grapevine, where I spent way too many guilders for a pound of Gold Medal flour from home.

Pumpkins and turkeys were also absent from Dutch grocery stores, but Americans abroad are resourceful when it comes to our holidays. Each fall a few members of the American Women’s Club of The Hague drove across the border to a farm  in Belgium that grew pumpkins and returned with a carload to resell as a fundraiser for the club. I often wondered what my neighbors in the little village of Waddinxveen thought about the jack-o-lantern gleaming from my window on October 31st.

Waddinxveen, small as it was, boasted a poultry shop, and my first November there I timidly inquired about procuring a kalkoen. The poulier’s face lit up, and it became clear he’d recognized my American accent. “It’s for your harvest celebration, isn’t it? I’ve heard of this!” He didn’t carry turkeys, but could special order one for me in time for the holiday. As he scribbled my information on an order pad, he asked what I’d be serving with it. “Aardappelen en …” Hmm, my Dutch vocabulary did not yet include words like stuffing and cranberries. Over the next years, he came to recognize me. “Ah, mevrouw Thomas, here for your oogst kalkoen, eh?”

Mary and table set for Thanksgiving dinner

I began my married life in Holland, and those years were my first attempts at cooking a Thanksgiving dinner myself. At first, it was just my husband and me, but each year we found more American friends to celebrate our holiday with in a country where the fourth Thursday in November is an ordinary workday like any other. With our homesickness like salt in the dough, friends became family around a table, a turkey, and blessing: a little island of home in the Dutch sea.

 

 

From the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods

Library House at Wellstone

I’m at a writing retreat, staying in a rustic cabin with no electricity or running water called the Library House. Perched on a deck among oak trees, it felt like home as soon as I walked into its book-lined walls. I set my suitcase down and perused the titles before I unpacked, saw how thoughtfully they had been chosen and approved too of how they had been organized: travel, biography, poetry, entire shelves for favorite authors like Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, and a whole section just for fun. I had arrived for a weeklong writer’s residency, but was tempted to spend the next seven days devouring as much of this eclectic, enticing library as I could.

Instead, I settled at the desk with my laptop and a fat binder containing the rough draft of my novel. When darkness folded my little cabin into the night, I lit candles and at some point, despite my thick wool socks, noticed that my feet on the stone tiles were cold. Out came the sheepskin rug from under the rocking chair to lie under the desk instead. I have learned to move it around to wherever my feet are.

desk in library house at Wellstone

Home is a place you’ve made your own, usually by moving in with all your worldly goods, but sometimes just by rearranging what you find in your temporary abode. I know a monk who has traveled the world and feels at home wherever he lays down his yoga mat. Even a room in a Motel 6 can become a sanctuary.

I came here to write in solitude, away from the delights and distractions of my daily life, and found a tribe of writers with a place for me, a communal life that leads to contemplation and a contemplative life that nourishes community. We all have questions here. What is the very best word to write down next? What will I do when I leave this place? I want an agent or editor to tell me definitively whether I should start my novel at chapter 15 instead of chapter 1, but instead I sink into the ground made fertile by this balance of contemplative and communal. This is my home ground, this is where I can dig deep to find the answer.

A New Asceticism

Remember the character Silas in The Da Vinci Code? He wore a sort of spiked garter called a cilice under his clothes, and in between murdering members of the Priory of Sion, he privately flogged himself. You can think of him as a caricature of the old asceticism, based on the Platonic notion that the body is the tomb of the soul, an obstacle to be overcome on the spiritual path. Through fasting, celibacy, and the kind of harm Silas inflicted on himself, the ascetic hoped to free his or her soul from the cage of the body.

After a bout of anorexia when I was a teenager, I have mostly resisted fasting as an adult; it’s as if two years of crazy dieting was enough to last me a lifetime. Nor have I been given to celibacy or self-flagellation (at least not the physical kind!). So I was happy to see Cyprian Consiglio’s suggestions for a new asceticism in his recent book Spirit, Soul, Body: Toward an Integral Christian Spirituality.

The main topic of the book is what he refers to as a new anthropology, the premise that “each human being is not just body and soul, but spirit, soul, and body, three interpenetrating realms of our being human“ (p. 72). I often hear the phrase “body, mind, spirit,” but Father Cyprian deliberately uses the word soul instead of mind to encompass not just the rational mind, but “all the strata of the soul, the psyche – the subconscious, higher states of consciousness, the collective unconscious, and psychic powers” (pp. 73-74). And what is the difference between soul and spirit? Father Cyprian explains that “the soul has the potential to open to something more, which is the pneuma, the spirit, the point where the human spirit opens on to the Spirit of God, the universal Spirit” (p.74).

Because the human body is interpenetrated with soul and spirit, the new asceticism suggested in this book cares for the body instead of punishing it. Father Cyprian recommends, for example, a healthy diet and daily exercise, especially practices like tai chi and yoga that help us recognize and strengthen the mind-body connection. (Assuming, as I do, that the antioxidants in dark chocolate and red wine are good for you, I’m well on my way as a modern ascetic!)

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Lest our spiritual practice become solipsistic, however, this new asceticism also asks us to think about the environment and social justice. Spirit, Soul, Body was published before Laudato Si’, the papal encyclical “on care for our common home,” but they share these themes. While a biologist can easily make a case for protecting the environment – we are part of the interconnected web of life on this planet, and what’s bad for the biosphere is bad for us too – Father Cyprian and Pope Francis argue in addition that the earth is sacred, and like the human body interpenetrated by soul, it is to be reverenced. The pope considers “soil, water, mountains: everything …, as it were, a caress from God” and goes on to quote the bishops of Brazil: “nature as a whole not only manifests God but is also a locus of [divine] presence. The Spirit of life dwells in every living creature and calls us to enter into relationship …” (¶ 84 and 88). Caring for the environment and working for human rights are sacred work.

So, as a practical matter, what does a new asceticism look like? Father Cyprian mentions a friend who uses the acronym SONG to help answer this question: “through our yoga, we reestablish right relationship with Self, Others, Nature, and God” (p. 112). As I consider my own life, I think I’m pretty good at self-care, but I need to focus a little more on the ONG in this spectrum. What if I gave away as much to charity as I spend on clothes? Shopped more at the farmer’s market and brought home less plastic packaging from Trader Joe’s? I could start composting, help out at the next beach cleanup, abstain from meat at least once a week (just like Lent!). And even though the new Mazda Miata I’ve noticed in the parking lot at work is gorgeous and enticing, maybe, just maybe, my next car will be hybrid or electric.

All around me is inspiration: the acquaintance who teaches nonviolent communication in prisons, friends who are vegans and vegetarians, my sister and brother-in-law who cycle almost everywhere they go. Please leave a reply if you’d like to share a practice that helps you stay in right relationship with self, others, nature, and God.

As Best I Can I Write Your Praises Down

Written December 29, 2015 at New Camaldoli Hermitage

New Camaldoli view

It would be foolish to think that my humble Papermate pencil and I could offer up praise sufficient for the gifts of this morning. The waning gibbous moon was sailing into the west when I left my room, while in the east Venus glowed in the rose-rimmed azure sky that had already yielded her stars to the approaching dawn. In the chapel white-robed monks chanted ancient psalms by candlelight and sang of the old prophecy: “For us a child is born.” In the sanctuary bread was broken; together we ate, men and women, monastics vowed to this place and guests visiting from the world, together we drank from the common cup.

“Open your hearts to God’s tenderness,” the presider encouraged us in his thick Italian accent, he who dreamt during the night that an angel told him, “Keep it simple, Angelo. The more you speak, the less people hear.”

Let the garden outside my window speak, the bluejays and the little brown rabbit who come to breakfast here, the early narcissus blooming in the corner. The book of nature falls open to this spot on a mountain by the sea. Here in the day’s first rays of light is the praise sufficient to the gifts of this morning.

Title from a poem by 16th-century Italian poet Vittoria Colonna.

The Gift of Tears

bird of paradise plant

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On a stormy night, rain drums on the giant bird of paradise outside my bedroom window, but it stands steady in the gale, for evolution designed ribs in its broad leaves: wind will split them rather than topple the plant. Before I knew this, the rips and fraying in the leaves seemed to mar the beauty of the garden, but now I understand them as its salvation.

So too do I understand the gift of tears. The sorrowing speak of heartbreak because that is how much loss hurts and how shocking the face of evil is to the good person, but red eyes and a salt-streaked face mean that the heart opened instead of breaking.

So take off your armor and lay down your sword, let the grief blow through you, for whether you be tender or hard of heart, the gift of tears will save you.