I’ve just driven 550 miles from LA to a monastery located in the desert a couple of hours northwest of Las Vegas. The moment I spot the Celtic cross atop the adobe chapel and pull in, I see that one of my lessons for the next week is going to concern the gap between expectations and reality. I’ve been picturing a flowering-cactus-festooned oasis; instead, the property is next to a state highway and is home to more double-wide trailers than cactuses. All the California monasteries I’ve visited have been neat, quiet, and orderly. This is a sprawling welter of outbuildings, abandoned sheds, and piles of barrels draped with blue tarps.
After circling the labyrinth of dirt roads a couple of times, I spot a sign that says, Registration, in the window of a ranch-house-turned-bookstore. After eight hours on the road, I’m hoping to be greeted by some calm, prayerful soul. Instead I startle a heavily made-up woman named Dot, who turns down the volume on an Amy Grant tape and flutters about trying to find someone to replace her at the cash register while she shows me to my room. (Could the arrival of a retreatant be such an unusual occurrence here?)
Dot walks me the few hundred yards to Manna House — a barracks-like structure with an unkempt yard — and ushers me into Room 1. She seems strangely fixated on the door lock: “Don’t lock your door until you go to bed at night,” she exhorts. “We don’t have keys. Lock your door from the inside at night, but don’t do it during the day. Do it only at night, and not until you go to bed!”
I’m only half listening as I case the room: two twin beds squished foot to foot, a midget nightstand, broken Venetian blinds. “There’s no desk?” I ask.
Dot stops in midsentence. “Oh, dear,” she says reproachfully. “I hope you didn’t expect the Waldorf-Astoria.”
“No, no, of course not,” I hasten to reassure her. “It’s just that I’m used to doing a lot of writing on retreats, in my journal and so forth.”
But I’ve departed from the script, and Dot is pissed. “If I could make a suggestion,” she says tightly: “the next time you go on a retreat, you might want to inform the people of your needs beforehand.” As if a desk were a piece of esoteric equipment; as if I’ve asked for something outlandish, like a pack of condoms.
There was more, but the point is that it all led to a two-day-long comedy of errors with various people making failed attempts to get me another, more suitable room. (At the time, there were exactly three retreatants on-site, and at least twenty available rooms.) Finally, one of the monks came up to me in chapel, eyes darting about as if there might be spies in the vicinity, and whispered conspiratorially, “We’ve found you another room — Room 12 — but it won’t be ready till tomorrow afternoon.”
And the kicker was Room 12 didn’t have a desk, either — at which point I realized that my room was fine. It was wonderful: hot water, heat, an outlet for my laptop (I’ve got it perched on my lap!), a little porch, and nobody with whom to share the bathroom. I saw a beautiful orange bird this morning. Out back, there are cottonwoods and cactuses, and a little stream running through.
I’m here because I need a break from my life: the book nobody wants to buy; the one-bedroom LA apartment where I write; my husband, Tim; the breast cancer (stage one, grade one) with which I was diagnosed last year — and which, after voluminous research, I’ve decided to treat with surgery only. When people hear I’m not taking chemotherapy, they say approvingly, “Oh, you’re using holistic medicine.” But I am not using holistic medicine. I am not seeing an acupuncturist, a nutritionist, or an herbalist. I am not taking vitamin supplements or laetrile or mistletoe tea. Aside from cutting down on fat, I am doing pretty much what I was doing already, which is hanging out with sober people (I’ve been a recovering alcoholic for fourteen years), eating sensibly, exercising, writing, and praying.
But you got cancer doing that, I can hear people thinking.
So I got cancer. People get cancer. They die from cancer! My problem is not cancer. It’s lack of faith, lack of acceptance, living in illusion. That’s the real reason I’m here.
The entire rambling monastery is apparently run by just six or seven monks, all of whom appear to be in the throes of deep spiritual crises. At every other monastery I’ve visited, the Divine Office — the prayers recited at the seven canonical hours of the day — is prayed with the utmost attention and reverence. Here, no matter what the hour, the monks show up looking as if they’ve just crawled out of bed; they slump and slouch and scratch and yawn, seeming crabby and bored. One, a sixtyish fellow with bloodshot eyes, all but lies down in his seat after chanting the entrance antiphon in a quavering voice. Another, the sad-sack guitar player, strums the opening chord of each hymn, then sings in an emotionless, all-but-inaudible monotone. A third, a tall, rawboned youth with hacked-off hair, crosses his legs, gazes out the window, and dangles his breviary in one hand. This, it turns out, is the abbot.
I am appalled for about ten minutes, and then I realize that I am so broken right now I can’t afford to pass my usual judgments, which only make me feel more separate, anyway. I feel much more at home with these folks than I would with people who seemed perfect and reverent and assured. Six years after converting to Catholicism, I was beginning, for the first time in my life, to feel assured. But breast cancer and literary failure and general confusion have blown all that apart, leaving me feeling raw and clueless all over again.
I’ve scheduled my week at the monastery so that my last day will be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. For the past three years, I’ve given up coffee for Lent; this year, I’m going to try forgoing sugar, too. A hundred times a day, I contemplate how horrible this will be. Here is the extent of my coffee addiction: for the past two mornings, I’ve awakened before dawn and driven ten miles to the Circle K in Watkins (which, like most Western towns, appears to have been built in the last fifteen minutes) for a jumbo ersatz “dark roast.” This would be almost justifiable if the coffee were actually good, but it has no more of a kick than the watered-down mud they serve in the monastery dining hall. The problem is, I can’t wait until they open the hall at 8 A.M. to get my coffee.
Knowing me, I will make the trek to Watkins every morning that I’m here.
The adobe chapel, set on a little north-facing rise, has rough-hewn lintels, tile floors, and a statue of Our Lady of Guadelupe. There’s a courtyard with a fountain and rosebushes out front, and off to one side a cemetery, its tombstones adorned with plastic flowers, American flags, and faded Christmas bulbs.
The Divine Office usually takes place in the chapel: Vigils and Lauds in the morning; Mass at noon, and Vespers and Compline in the evening. Tonight, however, Compline was held early, right in the dining hall. As soon as we’d finished eating, one of the monks tossed around some psalm sheets, plopped down on a metal folding chair, and halfheartedly sighed, “I guess it’s time to sing.”
And we sang, and it was great.
Now I know how the small staff keeps this place running: an army of oblate volunteers — laypeople who dedicate themselves to a religious community — come from all over the country and spend the winter in a nearby RV park.
My first night, I met a retired couple named Fran and Earl, who immediately informed me they’d been coming here for eleven years. The next night, I met a couple named Lois and Vern. “Oh, I met a nice couple last night who do the same thing you do,” I said. “Fran and —”
“We’ve been coming here twelve years,” Vern cut in. “They’ve only been coming eleven.”
No wonder the monks look distracted. In addition to hosting retreatants, they run a drop-in center for local Native Americans, a gift shop (prickly-pear-cactus jelly, beeswax candles, locally grown apples), and a library. Make that a well-stocked library. In the monastery bookstore this afternoon, I picked up Thomas Merton’s Disputed Questions (even though it’s almost a cliché to read Merton on retreat) and started reading an essay on solitude. I wanted to finish the essay, but didn’t want to buy the book. Thinking it was a long shot, I decided to try the library.
I walked into the tiny cinder-block room, where a portly old monk was reading a book and eating candy.
“Um, do you have any Thomas Merton?” I asked — thinking, in my usual tolerant and humble way, Have they even heard of Merton in this backwater?
“Fourth aisle, halfway down on the left,” he answered genially, flipping a light switch and waving me into a back room I hadn’t noticed.
In the fourth aisle, I found what appeared to be every book Merton ever wrote: volumes and volumes of journals, letters, essays — and not one, but two copies of Disputed Questions. To top it all off, when I went to sign the book out, the monk said, “Just jot down your name and phone number in the ledger.”
“I’m staying here,” I told him. “Do you still want my home phone number?”
“Might as well,” he replied, “in case you want to take the book with you when you leave. Just mail it back when you’re done.”
Now, that’s my kind of library.
I’ve also discovered, right down the street from the monastery, the Kiowa Mountain access road, which (according to the monk who runs the drop-in center) slopes gently through gorgeous desert scenery for twenty-three miles. There’s a gate, but it doesn’t have a No Trespassing sign, so this morning I climbed over it and walked the dirt road for two hours: clear blue sky with mammoth clouds; mountains in every direction; cottonwoods like fluffy lace, just beginning to green; and dead silence, except for four or five passing cars. Each driver waved, and two stopped to ask if I wanted a ride.
I have to have a mammogram — my first since the surgery — when I get home.
The reading at Mass this morning was “When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do a man’s faults when he speaks” (Sirach 27:4).
Which segued into the Gospel reading: “Can a blind man act as guide to a blind man? . . . A student is not above his teacher. . . . Why look at the speck in your brother’s eye when you miss the plank in your own?” (Luke 6:39-41).
The elderly priest who said Mass weighs about eighty pounds, talks in a squeaky voice, and possesses the humble, peaceful, self-deprecating air of the truly enlightened. He began by asking for our prayers because he has a bad heart — by the looks of him, I don’t doubt it — and then he gave a wonderful homily in which he said that, if we’re human, we have human hearts that fall prey to all the temptations and shortcomings listed in the Bible. He himself has been subject to them all, he said, including lust, and has been able to resist the vast number of women who have thrown themselves at him (big laugh here) only because of his life of prayer. The thing to do during Lent, he explained, is to try to die to your worst shortcoming. And if you want to figure out what your worst shortcoming is, he suggested, examine what you complain about in others, and then examine what distracts you in prayer.
Examine what you complain about in others. I’m starting to see that, whenever I catch a glimpse of myself in someone else, instead of recognizing and acknowledging it, I hate that part of them. I hate their weakness and ineffectiveness; that they don’t know how to save themselves, either; that they feel lonely and despised, too. To love your neighbor as yourself, you also have to love yourself in your neighbor.
For once, in chapel this morning, I was actually able to attend to the meaning of the Psalms and the readings. I’ve been praying the Divine Office on my own for two years, but I’m so self-conscious and eager to “progress” — so dumbstruck that I’m doing it at all — that I forget to orient myself toward Christ and instead make my prayer all about me. But I keep doing it because I figure it’s pleasing to God, and maybe, after thirty or forty years, I’ll be purified; because there’s only one way to make it be about Christ, and that’s to keep on praying. In the meantime, every once in a blue moon, prayer is like it was this morning.
Today after Mass, I saw a hunchbacked monk stand in the alcove and drain four good-sized goblets of leftover Communion wine in about ten seconds — I mean, he was just swilling it. (Of course, I would notice this, having been a lush for so many years myself.) Afterward, a middle-aged Mexican man wearing jeans about twenty sizes too big came in, knelt before the altar with his ass crack fully exposed, and proceeded, in a frantic stage whisper, to pray. He made his way around the entire sanctuary, stopping in front of every statue, pulling up his pants as he went.
It’s beginning to dawn on me that everyone here is in some way deformed. One monk has a withered leg; another, a goiter. A man with a breathing tube sat at my table at dinner tonight. The woman beside me had no chin. Morbid obesity abounds.
Given the diet, it’s small wonder so many people are overweight. Last night’s dinner consisted of pork chops encased in an inch of greasy breading, string-bean casserole enhanced with bacon and suet, and deep-fried, syrup-drenched apple fritters that must have weighed a pound and a half apiece. I happened to be sitting at the same table as the “chef,” and it came out in the course of the conversation — which mainly consisted of compliments from other RV-park residents on the cooking — that she makes a special “black bread” for Ash Wednesday (when only bread and water are served).
“What’s in it?” I asked, hoping it might by accident contain a stray nutrient or two.
The woman cast her eyes down and replied modestly, “Oh, they’ve begged me for the recipe, but I won’t give it to them. Four Seasons wanted the ranch-dressing recipe from my restaurant in Idaho, but I wouldn’t give that out, either.”
I don’t know what horrified me more: that she imagined I would want to duplicate anything she had cooked; or that she had been connected in some way with the operation of a restaurant.
From Merton’s The Sign of Jonas:
I ought to know, by now, that God uses everything that happens as a means to lead me into solitude. Every creature that enters my life, every instant of my days, will be designed to wound me with the realization of the world’s insufficiency, until I become so detached that I will be able to find God alone in everything. Only then will all things bring me joy.
That’s fine, but I need to learn the difference between detachment and contempt. The point of detachment is not to realize how different and above-it-all you are, but to realize how ordinary you are, how exactly like everyone else, how desperately in need of help. How can a person lead a life of prayer and eat such shitty food? is the subtext of my complaints about the cooking. But someone could just as easily look at me and say, “How can anyone lead a life of prayer and still be so anxious, so petty, so endlessly self-absorbed?”
The truth I don’t want to face is that I’m deformed, too. Spiritually, emotionally, and now physically, too: the lumpectomied breast, the faint purple scars.
Hence the solitary man says nothing, and does his work, and is patient — or perhaps impatient, I don’t know — but generally he has peace. It is not the world’s kind of peace. He is happy, but he never has a good time.
I love that: “He is happy, but he never has a good time.” Well, I think, I’m halfway there.
I am trying not to get too worked up over it, but my husband Tim has an obstruction in his throat that feels to him like a growth. He’s going to see the doctor today, and when I talked to him last night — on the pay phone behind the chapel, the lit booth shining like a beacon through the dark — I heard for the first time the worry in his voice. I haven’t been worried, because he seems otherwise healthy. But last night, when I said, “Well, you feel all right, don’t you?” he said, “No, I don’t. I feel tired.” Oh, God, I thought, what if we both got cancer? So I prayed for him last night and again today. I even mentioned him in our intercessionary prayers in chapel this morning.
Glamorizing the monastic life is something I have to be constantly on guard against. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who can never get enough solitude, but I’m beginning to see that it’s not more solitude I need. Instead, I need to accept the solitude in which I already live, to accept that the search for God has to be conducted without complaining, without wanting to be recognized. My whole life — this burning love for Christ — has to be experienced in secrecy, partly because it can’t be communicated, and partly because, just as when Christ was alive, nobody is much interested: not my family, not the majority of my friends, and definitely not my husband. I’m just starting to realize what the saints knew all along: that it is always going to be like this.
I woke early to watch the sun rise this morning, and though I saw the sky lightening, there was no spectacular display of colors. I came here expecting springtime in the desert: flowering mesquite, balmy nights. Instead, it’s been freezing, overcast, and windy. The RV dwellers say I scheduled my visit mere days too early: next week, at the latest, the weather will turn, and it will be in the eighties. The Psalm says, “Fire and heat, bless the Lord. Cold and chill, bless the Lord.” I’ll bless the cold, but I am grateful for my polar fleece.
There’s a nun here from Baltimore named Georgina. She’s about my age and has breast cancer and leukemia. Her doctors give her five years at the most. She told me this last night as we were walking to the dining hall. Tomorrow I might drive her into Watkins to get some medical supplies: she is constipated, exhausted from radiation, and, like me, having a hard time with the food. At dinner, I saw her give a big smile to Jim, the “retreat master,” whom I’ve decided I don’t like. Constantly, I am reminded of my meanness.
Here’s Merton again, from “The Power and Meaning of Love”:
There is no way under the sun to make a man worthy of love except by loving him. As soon as he realizes himself loved — if he is not so weak that he can no longer bear to be loved — he will feel himself instantly becoming worthy of love. He will respond by drawing a mysterious spiritual value out of his own depths, a new identity called into being by the love that is addressed to him.
It’s another gray, windy day, but I took my two-hour walk anyway: Sun breaking through the edges of the clouds, snow-capped mountains, low-hanging blue haze. Sea green and purple prickly pear. Red dirt, bleached green grass.
I wasn’t thinking about much, except how to be better to Tim. Now that I’m away, I’ve been struck with pangs of tenderness and guilt. He is so precious, so worthy of love, so fragile — and I’m so hard on him. I do the exact thing Merton warns against: I treat him as an object, worthy only insofar as he is of use to me.
Because of his work schedule, Tim is often home when I’m trying to write, and my fear is that if I talk to him for ten minutes in the morning, I’m going to get sucked in and waste the whole day. It’s a lack of faith, I suppose, that I’ll be given the impetus and energy for a productive day; coupled with the misconception that a productive day cannot have any human interaction in it; compounded further by the illusion that I have no value apart from productivity; and complicated by the fact that I really do need quiet and solitude in order to work. In other words, a mixture of truth and lies, good motives and bad. And the plaint of writers since time immemorial.
One of the central dynamics of our marriage is that Tim is in my way: when I want to pray, when I want to cultivate other friendships, when I want to work, when I want to sit and think. Sometimes this is objectively true, but other times it is me blaming my sloth on him, a handy target. In any case, true or not, it’s a sad, hard way to look at any person, much less your husband. I want to “progress,” whatever that means. But to love a person, to see Christ in him — that is progress: the only progress.
Outside my window, a woman with a Saint Benedict medal hanging from her neck and a chain saw in her hand is eyeing a long row of fir trees. It cannot be an accident that the sound of our machines so perfectly mirrors the state of our souls: leaf blowers, digital alarm clocks, snowmobiles, jet skis. Yesterday on my walk, I could hear an all-terrain vehicle as I started out. And then the SUVs began to roll by — not many of them, thank God, but there will be more next year, and the year after that, kicking up gravel and clouds of dust, scaring the animals, in a big hurry to go nowhere. Just like me.
I have begun to see that conditions like the weather and my surroundings never make that much difference. One second is one second for all of us; we all get twenty-four hours in a day. Merton had the same problems in his monastery that I do here: Not enough time to write, not enough time to read, not enough time to pray, not enough silence. A constant longing for solitude coupled with constant infringements upon it, and the realization that he was blowing whatever chances he had for prayer. People who drove him crazy, people whose spirituality he didn’t trust, the tension between obedience and a personal calling. That is the spiritual path; nobody who wants to find God can avoid it.
Even with no responsibilities, I find there still aren’t enough hours in the day to give praise, to get lost in wonder. The weather was lovely, cool and fresh, on the trail this afternoon, and I was thinking about something novelist Walker Percy once said: that Christianity is so on target because at the heart of it is the acknowledgment that man has a problem; that man is in deep, deep trouble. Yesterday I actually thought that if Tim got lymphoma and died, at least I’d have more time to write. That is the extent of my selfishness. God forgive me.
Last night, I skipped dinner and walked in the freezing cold to the chapel for Compline, but they must have already held it in the dining hall, because nobody was there. So I went to the Lady of Guadelupe and said the evening prayer by myself, and then I sat by the Blessed Sacrament for a while. “The adoration of the Blessed Sacrament” used to sound hokey and nunnish to me. Now I see it as a deep, mysterious gift. What solace, what peace to sit with Him: the Great Physician, the Master Anesthesiologist.
I swear it has gotten colder each day I’ve been here. It’s now almost as bad as winter in New England. Taking a walk is becoming like penance.
Today I had a moment when, like Saint Ignatius of Loyola, I prayed from the center of my being, Take all of me: my freedom, my memory, my understanding, and my will. Of course, it’s easy to feel that way when I’ve been relieved of cares, worries, and interruptions for a week. One dose of “reality” and I’ll be plunged back into confusion, overwhelmed anew. Still, I have to believe that all prayer is a step in the right direction, even if I feel at times that I’m regressing. Probably all spiritual progress consists of the deepening realization that you can do nothing without God. As this awareness grows, your life naturally becomes one of ceaseless prayer, because you see that there is simply no other possible mode of existence. There is no more virtue in this than there is in a drowning man’s attempts to keep his head above water.
I keep thinking of that reading from Sirach the other morning: “When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do a man’s faults when he speaks.” Or acts. Giving Sister Georgina a ride into town this afternoon, I couldn’t help comparing myself to her. She was a little embarrassed to be going, as apparently any retreatant worth his or her salt does not leave the grounds for the duration of the retreat, whereas I, having gone on my pathetic coffee runs every morning, thought nothing of an extra trip. She needed to pick up some juice and tea because she’s sick; I wanted to pick up some chocolate and one last coffee before Lent begins tomorrow. My car was filthy; she was spotless and perfectly groomed.
To top it all off, on our return, I repaired to my room and proceeded to eat the entire giant Cadbury bar I had purchased at Safeway while Sister Georgina was loading up on chamomile tea and apple juice. I’d told myself I’d save half for Tim; but, no, by six o’clock I had eaten the whole calorie-laden bar — after having judged everyone else for being fat. It doesn’t matter where I am, my faults will be revealed.
Ash Wednesday. At Morning Prayer, we listen to a reading from Isaiah about fasting: “If you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.” When I go into the dining hall for a cup of tea, each table is bare except for a loaf of dark, rustic bread (the secret recipe!) and a white crockery bowl filled with dirt and stones.
Later, at the noon Mass, the daydreaming abbot starts to sing, “Alleluia,” after the opening antiphon, and the wizened old monk interrupts kindly: “No, not during Lent.”
“I know, I know,” the abbot replies loudly before plowing on with the service.
Though we’ve not exchanged a single word all week, I can’t help but like the abbot. What a job to keep this place up and running; to deal with the monks, the oblates, the community. (Last Sunday, I noticed the abbot was gone and overheard someone saying that, due to a shortage of priests in the area, he was scheduled to say seven Masses that day.) In his homily, he talks about prayer as a method of detaching from thought and observes that one way to do this is to sit in silence with a sacred word. The word many of the monks use, he says, is the Aramaic maranatha: “Come, Lord Jesus.” The chapel is packed, and, for a second, I wonder if this Middle American parish is ready for contemplative prayer. Then I realize that this whole place operates on nothing but prayer, and I’m the one who knows nothing about it.
“Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the abbot says over and over as we file up to have our foreheads anointed with ashes.
I spend the afternoon packing and then wander out behind the chapel, skirting the duck pond, to the outdoor Stations of the Cross. Like the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Stations have always struck me as slightly musty and old-fashioned, but someone has put a lot of thought into designing this course; according to the monastery’s brochure, it “incorporates natural features of the landscape.”
I start at the first Station —Jesus is condemned to death — which is located near a creosote bush. “This desert bush,” the placard reads, “forced to survive with so little water, reminds us of how Jesus felt as he stood before his merciless accusers.” I pause to pray for a couple of minutes, then make my way around a boulder to Station number two, Jesus bears his cross: “This heavy stone, an impossible burden, is like the cross Jesus was forced to carry to Mount Calvary.”
The path winds up a hill, and I trudge on, the sun sinking in a pool of red, until I reach Station twelve, Jesus dies on the cross: “Just as the trunk of this burned-out tree is stripped bare, so we will be stripped of everything: property, success, looks, health.”
And suddenly I am weeping: for the old men and the abused children; for the people so alone they have no one to pray for them; for Sister Georgina; for myself. I’ve tried so hard to be good: praying in the “right” way, giving up coffee for Lent, being mature and responsible and accepting about my cancer. But finding God isn’t about being “good.” It’s about becoming human. It’s not about pretending that cancer doesn’t terrify me. It’s about consenting to bear those crosses just as, in some mysterious way, every other human being bears his or her own crosses for me.
When they drove the nails through Christ’s precious hands, his beautiful, sacred feet, he wasn’t mature and responsible and accepting. He knew the worst spiritual anguish any person can know: “Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?” And yet God doesn’t forsake us; he dwells within us always. That’s what the Resurrection tells us. That’s what I’ve staked my life on: that light far in the distant future, after seven dark weeks of Lent.
The dinner bell rings, and I salivate: I’ve been fasting all day. Tomorrow I’ll leave the silence, the cottonwoods, and the birds, and make the long drive back to LA. But for now, it’s time to walk through the gathering dusk and join the others: the young monks and the old; Dot and Jim; Sister Georgina; Fran and Earl, Lois and Vern; the woman in charge of cooking. It’s time to bow our heads and eat the good black bread.