I can hardly believe I’m writing this, but: next week at this time, after more than two years, I’ll finally be back at the monastery. I’ve had my bus tickets for weeks and have made the most difficult decision I face for any trip: my reading materials. For spiritual reading I’ve got Cassian and Bernard of Clairvaux; pleasure, Jane Austen (Persuasion); poetry, an anthology of Christian verse and, probably, Wordsworth. Maybe Milton. (Yeah: Milton.) And for lectio: the Gospel of John. Then again, I think I always do the Gospel of John when I’m at the monastery. Maybe I’m in a rut. If so, it’s a pretty good one.
I can’t wait to see the Brothers; I can’t wait to see the sheep (the lambs!); can’t wait for Vigils; can’t wait for Compline; but can’t wait, most of all, for the silence. I’ve been thinking about silence a lot lately, at least as far back as Lent, when it emerged as a primary theme of my forty days. But I wasn’t really “thinking about” it. I was sitting in it. Just sitting. Just feeling it. And somewhere in there I remembered a Saturday afternoon at the monastery when I was down in the crypt sitting before the Blessed Sacrament. I’m sure I was praying initially, but then suddenly I fell silent. Words gave out, just kind of fell to the floor. And as I sat there, the longer I sat there, I realized that silence actually had a texture, a thickness. It was thick with presence. With the presence of God, I thought for a moment, a fraction of a moment. And then even the word “God” fell to the floor.
I get up at 4:00, 4:30 every morning so I can, even at a distance, pray Vigils with the Brothers. Despite the propaganda about “the city that never sleeps”, it’s actually fairly quiet at that time of the morning, the neighborhood calm. And sometimes in the silence, in those deep pools of it between the Psalms, I’ll suddenly get a line for a poem, sometimes just a fragment, but very often something in perfect iambic pentameter. Just comes to me out of the silence. And the more it’s happened, the more I’ve realized that that’s the way it always happens, even, later in the day, at my laptop, when I think I’m “working” on the poem. My “work” is really just putting myself in the spiritual disposition to pull more lines from the silence. Michelangelo famously claimed that all of his statues already existed in the raw blocks of marble he worked from, and that all he was doing was releasing something that was already there. I’ve come to see the writing of poetry as much the same thing: it’s not so much an act of assemblage as of carving; of letting my own words drop, as they did that afternoon in the crypt, and carving a poem out of the silence I first experienced there. It’s only in that silence that I feel how consistently and delicately my life is poised on the edge of grace, and every poem I write—at least every one that works—somehow traces that edge. Here’s one I wrote that same visit. It’s called Monastery Song.
I seek the mundane joy, the movement dry
from psalm to psalm, from phrase to holy phrase,
from breath to breath, that thus my numbered days
might one by one toward endlessness apply.
I seek within the silence to descry
the heartbeat of some deeper song of praise
and let its sacred rhythm as it plays
in me my very fiber magnify.
I claim the dream of father Jacob here,
my head set restless to the pillow stone:
the midnight dream of an ascending grace;
and wake with him to daylight’s strange veneer
to know again what I have always known:
that truly God is present in this place.
Keep me in your prayers, everyone. You’ll certainly be in mine.
6 thoughts on “Carving”
Have a blessed time. My prayers go with you Pax Lindy Redmond
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I’m at the monastery now. I’ve been here since Friday with 10 men in my charge who next month will be ordained deacons for the Archdiocese of New York. This is my first time back in 3 years. I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed it. Enjoy your stay.PaxDeacon Frank
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In a spare moment pray that my three year absence can end with the return of strength to travel. Like you and so many others I need to be back with my silent teachers. V
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You’d have been in my prayer anyway, Victor, but I’ll happily fine-tune it with this intention. God bless.
You have inspired me today….to move forward, to write, to pray more. To seek the silence and let the words drop and not be in a hurry to gather them up. To be still and know that he is God. Ann Andzel
‘—that truly God is present in this place.’
Thank you Jeffrey for giving us all a taste of our monastery home in your text but especially through your poetry. ‘From psalm to psalm, phrase to phrase, breath to breath.’
It gives deeper meaning to what we have been practicing over these long days, weeks and months that when the Monastery is in our heart, the presence of silence is near at hand.