The Hard Work of Staying Still
One day last fall, just after 3 a.m, I found myself on a country road in the high Ogden Valley near Huntsville, Utah. It was the first morning of a three-day retreat at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity, a Trappist-Cistercian monastery, and I was walking the half mile from the guest house to the church for Vigils, the first of seven times each day that the monks gather to chant and pray.
I am not Catholic. As a child, I did not attend church of any kind and my adult observance can best be described as “Cafeterian,” drawing nourishment from many spiritual traditions. But the abbey offers retreat to anyone who seeks renewal, and for three days I had an apartment in the guest house to myself and an invitation to use my time for contemplation in whatever form I chose.
On a moonless night, the earth was inky black and the sky a field of diamonds. I did not, however, find myself in a world of ethereal quiet. I might have expected the chirp of night birds, the strange wooden cooing of Sandhill cranes, the bark of town dogs a few miles away, or even a truck groaning up a distant grade. All of these were present but only as bass tones to a more pervasive racket, an eerie, high-pitched call and response back and forth across the valley from high up in the hills. I didn’t recognize the sound: certainly not coyotes and too high-pitched for donkeys — unlike any bird call I could imagine. The sound wrapped me in its mystery and I had a thought that often occurs when I stop to really listen, even in midday: a world exists outside my knowing because I am asleep.
Later, Father Charles, who coordinates the retreats for women, told me I had arrived at the height of elk mating season. Of course. I should have known. I had heard bugling once or twice in my childhood, but I remembered it as much lower in pitch, and in fact elk make many different sounds. On subsequent mornings, I heard a range of calls as well as other signs that the animals were near: the sound of hooves running in the field beside the road, the stick-on-stick clatter of antlers as two bulls sparred. All this in the pitch dark. By day, the elk were nowhere to be seen, but I took comfort in knowing they were about, taking refuge, as was I, at the abbey.
The Abbey of our Lady of the Holy Trinity was founded in 1947 with 34 monks from Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky and is one of twelve Cistercian-Trappist monasteries in the United States. (There are also five convents.) The monks observe seven periods of Scripture, prayer, and song throughout the day known as the Liturgy of the Hours: Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. The ancient chants — historically in Latin but now in English — are sung in unison. In addition, the monks devote their lives to private prayer and manual labor.
Monks who enter a Trappist monastery live out their lives in community. Today, 15 monks live at the Huntsville Abbey and their average age is 80; there have been four funerals in the past year. There are more stones in the graveyard than plates on the table. They have no novices. “We are praying for that to change,” Father Charles told me.
The Abbey is self-supporting on 1800 acres of crop and range ground. Traditionally, the monks did all the ranch work themselves. Now, in deference to their ages, they lease out the land but still do the maintenance and housekeeping themselves as well as process creamed honey and run a book store and gift shop. One monk, a fine woodworker, builds grandfather clocks.
I had been under the impression that Trappist monks observe a vow of silence, but that has never been the case. They follow rules of silence that were stricter in the past than now, but they have always believed, as they explain on their website, that silence ”is a form of charity to others, but it is not absolute. Charity may sometimes oblige persons, including monks, to speak at the right time and in the right way.” The words have stayed with me. Often I am so distracted, so “busy,” that I feel far removed from a world in which I know how to speak — or do anything else, for that matter — “at the right time and in the right way.”
Recently, a friend reminded me of a quote from advertising: “I know half my advertising dollars are completely wasted; the problem is I don’t know which half.” And then commented that she felt that way about her busy-ness. “It’s usually only in retrospect that I can see things that really didn’t need to be done,” she wrote, “or at least not done in the frenzy with which I approached them, or indeed would have been much better left undone.”
She identifies a quandary that many of us feel. We are dancing so fast that we hardly hear the music. We fall in bed each night too exhausted to imagine that the ceaseless tasks that engage us might be a form of what the Tibetan Buddhist master Sogyal Rinpoche calls “active laziness.”
“Eastern laziness,” he writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,“ is like the one practiced to perfection in India. It consists of hanging out all day in the sun, doing nothing, avoiding any kind of work or useful activity, drinking cups of tea, listening to Hindi film music blaring on the radio, and gossiping with friends. Western laziness is quite different. It consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so that there is no time at all to confront the real issues.”
Many of us want to confront the real issues: how to live responsibly on this Earth, practice love for one other, and live in gratitude for the miracle of our existence — but we have forgotten how. It is one reason I went to Huntsville: to grow quiet enough to remember. It was not a complete retreat. I was “too busy” not to bring a writing deadline with me and I spent a few hours each day in the Huntsville library. But for a little sliver of time, my days were not so very different from those of the monks, in form if not in depth: I attended many, though not all, of the hours; I spent time in private meditation; I worked quietly with little outside distraction.
The Trappists are not teachers in the active sense. They do no ministry outside the monastery. In their words, they devote their lives “to live the gospel in our particular way for the sake of our brothers and sisters throughout the world.” They pray for us, and they provide a model of commitment and reverent industry through the quiet order of their day.
The monks live the strength of their vows to a degree that few of us can imagine. But as they observe the hours, they remind us that we all make vows with time, something which David Whyte eloquently explores in his book Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity:
“When we make a good marriage with time, … whatever sanity, patience, generosity and creative genius we are able to achieve in life is not solely within our own remit. It comes from a real conversation with something other than ourselves…The closer we are to the productions of time — that is, to the eternal — the more easily we understand the particular currents we must navigate on any given day…
To say yes …to [something] that we know we cannot do with any sanity given all our present commitments … would be the equivalent of promiscuity, of faithlessness and betrayal. Stress means we have committed adultery with regard to our marriage with time. If we want to understand the particulars of our reality, we must understand the way we conduct our daily relationship with the hours.”
I did not come home from Huntsville having entirely healed my marriage with time, and I know myself well enough to doubt I can completely resist the seduction of unnecessary busy-ness. But the retreat reminded me of the power of contemplation to create a spaciousness where our larger commitments can come into view. This seems a simple truth and in fact the Greek word for truth, aletheia, means a clearing. No matter how full the hours, I need to make time to hear the elk bugling in the hills, the monks chanting in the chapel, and the still small voice within.
Teresa Jordan is the author or editor of seven books on the American West, including a study of women who work on the land and in the rodeo, Cowgirls: Women of the American West, and the rural memoir, Riding the White Horse Home. She blogs at The Year of Living Virtuously (Weekends Off).
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