I found the abbey and felt relieved. I liked the idea of contemplation, of silence. I was looking forward to the spaces between the events (between praying and eating). When I arrived I went to the porter’s office where I met Brother Joseph. He was heavy with a beard and a bit doddery and un-kept. His scapular had crumbs on it. A real bachelor who gave me a genuine welcome.
“Hello,” he said with neighborliness as if I had known him for years. The Benedictines are known for their hospitality and I felt this. He asked me where I was from.
“Ventura County,” I said. He gave me my key, “can I leave if I want?” I asked.
This is probably not the first question someone asks on retreat, but I found a yoga studio on PCH called Black Sheep Yoga that was convenient.
“You’re your own boss,” he said. Unfazed by my inquiry. My first order of business was to stretch my legs so I saw a path not far from the parking lot and began to walk. Soon I realized I was walking on a path with the Stations of the Cross, but walking in the wrong direction. I’ve never been one to follow rules so I continued. The trial had big eucalyptus trees on both side and some pine trees and shrubs. The path was green and soft. Each station had an engraved story about Jesus’ journey from being condemned to his death. I saw the last station of the cross first. The burial. A woman passed me while walking in the correct direction. She looked at me askance.
Soon after, the bell tolled for the monks to attend vespers. I immediately thought of Thomas Merton, who wrote Seven Story Mountain which is his memoir about his life leading up to his stay at a Trappist monastery. Spiritual growth as action story.
I entered the church. The image of Christ rose behind the alter. A Byzantine painting on wood block. Jesus was two dimensional- stern and serious. The church was cold. Built with cinder block like an armory. Not exactly a picture of joy, but there was an inscription on a piece of wood that read “The Good Shepherd” that suggested being looked after.
The monks came out in pairs. Their hands tucked into their habits. It was a solemn affair. There is something archetypal and cool about being a monk, at least to me. There’s a fearlessness and a commitment that’s attractive. No looking back. Could I do it? Live their life? There was maybe twelve or fifteen. They began to sing. The cantor was not particularly impressive, nor was the singing from the monks. I noticed one didn’t sing at all. I dropped my book down and watched his lips. He seemed to make no attempt. Nada. I know that Merton upset a lot of his fellow monks when he accused them of being introverts as opposed to contemplatives. Nobody wants to be called a phony, but what was I? I felt uncomfortable, nauseous almost, why did I come?
The sun was setting just behind the alter. One elderly monk rode out on a buggy, partially entering the sanctuary. Like me he looked out the window. He seemed more interested in the elements outside. In the dusk. Against the mountains, the light changed from pink to a soft purple. I caught myself gawking at the monks. Aren’t they bored with this routine? That would be my first objection. I put my book down and listened. The effect was much better. The monks ended their prayers with a hymn to Mary in Latin. Their voices rose up against the bruised night sky and it softened me.
I was the only one at the retreat house, so I was the only one at dinner. The host met me. We prayed. He gave me brief instruction on how the buffet works. I ate with the handyman but we didn’t sit at the same table. He had glasses that were too big for his face. They slipped down and he pushed them up when speaking.
“The place really emptied out,” he said “the bishops were here for a week, what a week!” He made the sign as if drinking too much liquor, “but they deserve it.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Are you here tomorrow night?” The handyman said.
“Good, because the cook is back and you’re in for a treat. Some guy on a fishing boat dropped of two massive yellow tails. He was on the boat for fifteen days.” He held both hands out wide to show me how big they were. “That’s definitely on my bucket list. I’ve been out for a day but not no 15 days.” He pushed up his glasses.
Bucket list? This term has haunted me from the day of diagnosis because I don’t really have one. I should. I guess? Nobody has asked me because it would be awkward, I suppose, but this is my moment after all, isn’t it? To do what I want, what I’ve dreamed of? Not having one is like not being excited about your birthday.
The fact is I just want more of the same. My life is great the way it is, so I tell myself to just go slower. That’s about all I want. Having said that Dee’s aunt called me to offer encouragement.
“You’ll get over this,” she said, “and we’ll meet at the Prada Museum.” That sounded pretty good. To check out La Guernica up close, or to watch Los Blancos verse Atletico Madrid at The Bernabeu. Still, my intuition tells me that everything I need I have right now.
I finished up and walked back to my room. The halls were dark. Vacant. The silence that was my friend suddenly abandoned me. I felt the foreignness of the place. Why did I want to do this? I found my room. It had a simple desk and bed. A sparseness that felt right but it was early. Only 7:00 pm. The silence began to stalk me at this stage. I needed a distraction, but what? Wasn’t this the reason for going? Sajal Rimposhe says that we in the west don’t meditate on the death experience. Got that right – who wants too?
In the morning I left the good shepherd to become one of the black sheep. Patrick was the teacher. He was wiry and unshaven and hyperactive. He struck me as the type that turned it all around with yoga. That he turned away from addiction or drunkenness. He had an edge. An unwieldy energy and tattoos. Ganesh was on his right forearm. The Hindu God who removes obstacles, or places them in front of people, depending on what’s needed. Some say desperation can be a gift. When I was first diagnosed I couldn’t sit still, especially at night. My mind relentlessly pounded me with possibilities none of which were good. Dee invited me to a yoga class and desperation landed me in the right place.
I took my spot in the back of the class wondering when Patrick would start. I was a novice who had only gone to a couple of classes. Patrick was Loud and overstimulated. He sent out mixed messages, too.
“Don’t overdo it! Know your limits! This is not about being western and pushing it! This is not about achievement!” He told us. He sat with his legs folded. “I don’t want anybody hurt in my class. Got it!” He yelled at us and put on a 70’s classic rock sound track. While Credence Clear Water belted out Proud Mary he told us that when our bodies say “no”, we should say “maybe we can go a little farther?”
I did my best to hide in the back of the class. I have terrible form and poor alignment so I like to be invisible. I went into down-dog then lunge and Patrick walked by me so he could square the hips on the young girl next to me as Bob Seger belted out Night Moves.
Way up firm and High
Patrick moved us so quickly I found myself lost. He told us not to breathe through the mouth. Then He reminded us that the first thing we do when we’re born is breathe and it will be the last thing we do
“So it’s kind of important, isn’t it?”
Night Moves, Night Moves. It’s funny how you remember, I remember I remember I remember….
Then he said something beautiful.
“Dedicate your hour to someone else, give them your energy.”
I left the house for my retreat angry with Dee. I was pissed off for a reason that I could no longer remember. Residual anger lingered like a hangover, and she was the first person I thought of. I dedicated my hour to her.
After the class Patrick thanked me for practicing with him. He showed a genuine interest me and after a brief conversation he suggested some books to read Be Here Now by Ram Dass was one of them.
When I returned to the monastery I went to the cafeteria. I fixed myself a sandwich. A monk passed by and stopped.
“Nice that you have come to pray with us.”
“It’s nice to be here.”
He asked me a few more things about myself. Where I was from and the work I did. He told me a joke that wasn’t funny but he liked it. He laughed hard. We eventually got the reason I came.
“I have lung cancer that has metastasized,” I said, “I didn’t smoke.” I threw that in so I wouldn’t be judged.
“So you have a lot to think about,” he said and smiled as if this was an opportunity. At first I was taken aback. Easy for you to say, Padre! But he looked at me a while longer. He moved slowly through the conversation.
“My name is Brother Daniel,” he said. We shook hands and I could feel that two of his fingers were partially missing. Have not we all been wounded in some way? As much as we don’t like failure, imperfection, or loss this always seems to what connects us most. Someone once told me when it comes to living the spiritual life that you “talk big and walk towards it.” This is what Patrick taught me in his own frenetic way. This is what the monks at the Prince of Peace Abbey showed me by their example.
“It’s wonderful that you are here,” he said, “you’ve come to the right place.”
Indeed I had.