As some of you know, back in my early 20’s I spent a short while at a Benedictine Monastery here in Florida. At this point in my life that has been the most important moment I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been busy working on teddy bears, we all know that. But, I don’t think I’ve spent enough time working on my spirit. And for some reason (and we learn to never question reason), I’ve had the most profound desire to go back there, feel the place again, the lake, the grotto, the temperance of noise in the head.
I’ve contacted the monastery with a simple email asking what would be required for me to come back for a retreat. You know, just for a few days to freshen up the soul.
I’m waiting to hear back from them.
There is something unusually strong in me right now to go back there again.
I feel I need to go back. Maybe to remember something? Or to learn something new? To FEEL something that no moment in life can hand to you unless you touch it. No books can share the knowledge, no music care share the joyousness. You must live it.
I thought I’d share some writing of mine from that first time there 15 or 20 years ago at that monastery…..where my life changed forever.
I stepped slowly from the guesthouse, my sounds muffled or impeded by the merry chirping of the crickets, and the sudden coo of an owl. There was no moon and no light. All the matter that God had made was hidden under a blue of nocturne.
Down the short road I stepped towards the abbey, clutching myself tight against the quick chill of an unusually brisk autumn eve. The tall Spanish tower that served as a steeple was dark and ominous, but glowed somewhat, as if it were something preternatural, a ghostly beacon of some kind, ready to shout with fire.
With a slight creak of those huge wooden doors, I stepped within the confines of the abbey church, shutting them behind me with a heavy resistance. They didn’t want to close. Alas, once the hinges snapped tight, there was no sound other than my sullen footsteps in the abbey. It was a stillness that terrified me. It was warm in here. It was also disturbing, as though I were trespassing upon some kinetic energy ready to embark in spastic flight should its stillness be interrupted.
I moved towards the massive crucifix. The simple stain glass windows captured and pulled in whatever light the moon had to offer. My footsteps had become like thuds, like monstrous, heavy thuds in a slow rhythm that sounded like distant bombs. The closer I stepped towards the crucifix the more I noticed that the iridescent light heavy with the dark frame of night was casting clean cuts along the chiseled muscles and limbs of the murdered messiah.
There was a shifting movement of air in the room, as if like breath, and it made a ruffled sound as it hit the acoustics of the abbey walls. Past the pews I timidly stepped towards the crucifix, transfixed by His eyes. They were red and real, but not human at all…as if they belonged to an animal. I felt frightened, for there was something in the air, some feeling that was painful almost, some feeling akin to the ghostly coldness of pin sharp needles against the skin. And slowly there was a bubbling in my subconscious as the muffling in my thought turned towards audible and apparent voices, voices that I had carried with me since the beach of Key West, since that night of nightmares and visions that had led me finally to this monastery.
In my mind I heard the monks chanting, but only slightly, for their pristine prayer was drowned out by the sound of sobbing, women crying, soldiers laughing, and spectators gawking in bewilderment. Yes, I think what I was hearing was the moment at Golgotha where He was summoned by divine design to His own execution. I could almost smell the dust of the desert, feel the arid sand within my nostrils. And when lowering my head to catch my step, I could almost see the dunes beneath my feet as I made way for His body hanging limp there from two boards fashioned into a cross. And above his head screamed the regal announcement of his crime against the state: SEDITIO. And when lowering my head to catch my step, I could sense I passed both women named Mary, and I dared not look at them. The pain upon their faces the same horrific degree of crying and screaming I had seen in the mother of the man whose memorial the monks had massed not too long before. Their bodies shook when they cried, their own fingers bled from the making of fists, fists held high to the sky screaming “Why?” But, this was all but a vision in my mind as I stepped along side the pews and icons in the abbey church, timidly approaching the crucifix, whose eyes were too detailed in their artistry to be anything but real.
I had made my way past the altar and stood now at the very bottom of the crucifix, staring at His impaled feet, watching what I was convinced was sweat and blood mingle down along side His ankles, then drip past His toes to the floor where they disappeared into nothingness. My eyes studied Him carefully, the eyes slowly moving from His bound feet to His thighs, then upwards to His stomach, His abdomen, His chest. It occurred to me then, that this particular crucifix that had bewildered me since my first moment arriving in the monastery gave the impression of Christ as He may have appeared just one second before death. The closer I looked the more it seemed to have been chiseled in representation of the last gasp, the last push of air from his living form, as if caught inhaling for the last time. And how important that seemed to me. The body of Christ, still alive, though pained, though tortured and near His dismal end, was still alive, still here, still in need of saving, of comfort, of pity, of solace. This symbol meant something so much more than the representation of a religion. It was the essence of that religion; that if a Christian were to claim that name and call himself “saved” then he must remember the body of Christ. The living human community was near death always, near its dismal end always, and in need of solace, pity, and comfort. But, that last breath, that last push of life into his caving veins was the hope and salvation that all true Christians should strive for. Yes, as if in suspended animation, that last breath, this chiseled crucifix before me was the human community, the Christian community at the final second before death, where that last breath kept Him alive, though He was sure to die in suffering. That last breath was the chanting of the monks, was the charity of the poor who have nothing, but give all. Should the Christian forget any of this, that final gasp is released from the crucifix, from the living body of Christ, and He would die. The real, Christian God of mercy and hope would die. And all that we would be left with is a relic, an artistic chiseling of a murder in the desert two thousand years ago.
I raised my hand to touch it. Alas, I was suddenly repelled by it, afraid in so many ways to experience it, my mind so filled with visions, my subconscious so filled with sound, I feared that should I dare feel the crucifix my hand would be met with legitimate flesh. He seemed real, alive, and if I should disturb Him, He would be cross with me. Angry. Those heavy lidded eyes looking down at me with anger, vengeance, sadness, and acceptance all clearly repelled me to leave Him be.
I felt I had finally come face to face with God. Trembling, I fell to my knees, but did not pray, dear reader. I did the contrary. I did what I felt the extent of this journey had required me to do. I questioned Him. I whispered in the darkened abbey, my eyes alight and wide and staring at the dead man.
“I wish You would just talk to me. Just tell me what You want from me. No symbolism, no mysteries. Just talk to me. My heart wants to be here in the monastery. I feel such a want, such a need to be here that I can’t imagine my life anywhere else. But, You don’t want me here, do you? I’m supposed to aspire to be You. And that’s the problem. Because every time I’m told how much I’m supposed to be You, I’m then told of its impossibility. What do You want from me? Why did You bring me here if I wasn’t to stay? Why did You hand me this beauty? I get so mad at the way they portray You sometimes. I get so angry with them. Is that why You look like you do to me? Is that why I see Your face hanging there with such a scowl? Is it because they portray you incorrectly? Why do I feel a fondness for You? Why do I feel that, though sometimes I cannot understand You, or what You want from me, You always understand me, always pull, tug, or push me to where You want me to be? But, again, when all of that is said, when I sit here nearly ready to scream at You, why do I get so angry at You? Or is it really You I’m angry with? Or that vision of You they’ve painted.
“I can almost see your chest move slightly with breath. Do you want me to save You from the grave? Is that what You will of me? To take You down from that cross? It would seem fitting. You saved me. You resurrected me at the moment I was at my last breath, so why shouldn’t it be fitting that to repay You, I save You, too? My body tingles ever so slightly in Your presence. Its my body, I think, finally aware of its surroundings, its reality. Or is that Your breath and not the air? The breath of a man left hanging at His last moment of death, is that the breath of a man whose execution has continued and continued and kept on for thousands of years?
“What was Your perfection anyway? When was it that You had finally realized how much God moved through You, then gave Yourself over to God? So much that You were willing to die for Him? Is that what aspiring to perfection is supposed to be? That I give myself completely over to God inside me? That I hand my life over, my self over to the point that I would be willing to die for Him? For You? Is that it? I wish You would just talk to me. Just talk to me…..You confuse me, You give me headaches, You give me as many reasons to turn from You, as cling to You. What do You want from me?”
I was sobbing quietly, as my voice grew louder in speech. “If You perpetuated miracles in Your step then just talk to me….Let me hear Your voice. I’ll ask You again. What do You want from me?”
“To be as wise a serpent and as gentle as a dove.”
Startled by the voice, I turned round to find Brother Robert in the doorway….
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