From Thomas Merton: “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”Years ago my friend Ruth Ozeki told me about a famous Japanese book from the 14th century, Essays in Idleness (or The Harvest of Leisure), written by a Japanese Buddhist monk. I suppose she thought I would appreciate the book because of my own forays into the country of idleness, or, as I said for a few years, “gainful unemployment.” Now I am gainfully and happily employed in the work of ministry, which is a 24/7 sort of job (maybe I’m making up for my years of idleness!), but I find that times of idleness are even more important, not less, in this life I have now.
And so I found myself here in a stone hermitage at St.Benedict’s monastery, otherwise known as Snowmass Monastery, for five solo days in the heart of winter, starting Christmas Eve, because, luckily for me, my current Colorado congregation celebrates Winter Solstice rather than Christmas, and so my winter holiday obligations were officially over. This Trappist monastery on nearly 4,000 acres of land, up above Snowmass in the Colorado Rockies, home of Father Thomas Keating, maintains a few small hermitages, offered freely, in the Benedictine spirit of hospitality.
I’ve been in seminary and trying to learn the art of ministry for years now, so this kind of open time has just not been possible for a long time. As I drove the snowy roads on Christmas Eve from my house in the valley up into the wild open mountains, I wondered, “Will I remember how to just be? Will I be frantically trying to study something, just out of habit? Will I feel guilty that I am not answering emails?”
I did remember how to be idle! I suppose it’s not surprising, given how much of my life I’ve spent in silent retreat. I turned into the mile-long road to the monastery, sitting at 8,000 feet in a snowy bowl surrounded by high ridges, and felt the deep familiarity of entering sacred space; drove up the hill to the hermitages and felt something in my heart ease.
I parked and walked up the snowy path to my little octagonal hut, rabbits (more on rabbits later) scattering this way and that under the trees, and I felt home in the silence. And so for five days I drifted, dreamed, sat in zazen, slept, watched sky, watched snow fall, read poetry, wondered, wandered, opened, breathed.
I found a phrase from a dream about process theology, dreamt more than a year ago, in my journal – the journal I have barely written in this past year - “Everything brimming over with divinity.” That’s what it was like. On Christmas Day is began to snow, and it snowed and snowed, all day, all night, the light crystalline snow of western Colorado, like feathers and sugar combined, glittering in the light, everything covered up with snow, mountains hidden, and I remembered Norman Fischer’s story of being a young Zen student and wandering in the snow reciting the Heart Sutra, around and around in a sort of joyful delirium. A rabbit came and peered in at me, its paws on the glass door, then hopped away into the storm.
In the afternoon of Christmas Day I put on my big warm winter boots and my warm down jacket and headed out in the snow, my car already buried. It seemed like I was the only one here. I found the path down to the main retreat house, through the Gambel oak, and kicked my way down through the deep powdery snow. Half way there I could just make out the outlines of a bench, completely covered. I unburied an edge of it and sat down, warm, the only sound the delicate sound of snowflakes landing on me – my hat, my eyelashes, my jacket, my boots. I was so still for so long that a rabbit (I told you would be hearing more about rabbits) came right up alongside me, looked at me, and hopped way.
The next day was clear, a blindingly blue sky and snow sort of day. I shoveled out my path and around the car (greeting the rabbits, of course), helped a monk dig out his plow, which had nearly been swallowed up by snow, and then sat and read and thought and drank tea.
I thought my heart might burst with happiness and gratitude. And that night I walked the mile or so down the road through the open fields to the main monastery for vespers, the air so cold it was nearly frightening, despite my layers and the thermos of tea in my pack.
In the dark the monks sang songs to the Holy Family and to Mary, and afterwards I walked back, only now the full moon had risen over the hills, and miles of snowy mountains were illuminated with its brilliance.
And so it went. Ordinary moments -- making meals and eating, brushing teeth, shoveling snow. Sleepy moments. Waking to moonlight. Moments of tears, of gratitude, of laughter. Taking off the armor, re-acquainting myself with my life and my practice, remembering why I am doing the work I am doing, and what matters.
It is such a privilege, to be able to take time out from work and ordinary life for this plunge into beauty and solitude. If I had fewer resources, if I had a family to care for, if the great generosity of the donors to this place had not manifested in a way that makes being there affordable.....so many causes and conditions had to come together to make this possible. I never take for granted how much silence and depth have been part of my life, and what a blessing they have been.
May all who need idleness find a way to it.