At 4.15 the sunrise is still a couple of hours away. The sky is black and the familiar constellations are scattered across it in unfamiliar patterns. The moon is half gone but its light still shines off the snow, stretching to the mountains in every direction around me, with such brightness I could read by it. My breath freezes. The frozen snow crunches under my boots as I walk this most beautiful quarter hour of the day along the dirt road to the monastery chapel. The coyotes call to each other from valley to valley. Is it really only half a dozen times I have done this?
The only illumination comes from the moonlight in the tall stained glass window depicting the Madonna and child. How can a space so simple and bare be so holy, so beautiful? The monks gather on the steps. The old one, whose name I do not know, begins the plainsong, his face aglow with the seriousness of these words he has repeated every morning for, what? Decades? "Whoever drinks the water that I give shall never be thirsty again." I who have heard it only a half dozen times repeat it under my breath and feel my heart lift. I bow with them. "Glory to the Father and to the Son, and to the Spirit who dwells in our hearts....both....now and forever, amen."
I look around the table. We have held hands for a silent grace. Although I have dined with them three times a day for a week, I have never spoken to these people, any of them, not once, nor even made eye contact, but I feel connected to each of them. I have watched them pray, and seen them walk and sit each in her own silence. Each, like me, has a reason for being here which is strong enough to justify giving up a couple of weeks. We eat the salad and the still warm newly baked bread, drink the soup. It is so good. Fresh and healing and lifegiving. Prepared for us with such love.
There is still enough time before the afternoon sit. I start up the old road, past the tumble down log cabin and turn left to climb Bernie's Hill. Four Elk look at me, startled, and bound off through the sagebrush. The going is hard in the thin air but I count out my steps, climb 50, stop and rest. Soon the retreat centre is far below me, as is the monastery over the valley. Between them both, perhaps a kilometer from each, is the little stone house where I sleep. Far away, commanding all, is Sopsis. The mountain is shaped like a pregnant woman lying on her back and the Comanche and Ute people told that she was giving birth to this holy place, this valley which is one of the thinnest places I have been in. I acknowledge her, my ancient sister, and wish her blessing in her long travail.
He is stooped with age, but even so, he towers above me. I had not expected him to be so tall. Or so real. What can I say to him who, over so long, has given me so much? His eyes are deep and kind and searching. He knows my name. He knows my name! And where I am from and why I am here. "Thank you for being here," he says, "Thank you for coming all this way." I am lost for words. What do these terms mean? Wise? Holy? Enlightened? Now I know.
Several times in the course of the retreat, tears come for no apparent reason: God's psychotherapy says Thomas Keating. No need for analysis. Something is on the way past and requires no particular thought or action on your part. Consent to God's action, to God's never ceasing presence in your life and in all things.
He holds my hand and smiles at me. Thank you Father Thomas. Thank you.
There is a snowshoe rabbit eating grass in one of the bare patches left by the melting spring snow. She looks at me, nervous like the elk, but doesn't run. I watch her nibble the brown dry blades and realise something which of course, everybody knows because it is so obvious. Every part of her is made of grass. Every atom of her fur and eyes and little beating heart used to be an atom in a blade of grass. So how does this dried mat of last year's autumn growth become a brain, and a spine and those long alert ears? In her, somewhere is a tiny ovum, which holds half the story. If I placed it in my hand I would not be able to see it, and yet it holds all the knowledge required for all the processes to perform this miracle. And I am aware of process. And process enfolded in process. And process which knows itself. And that as I look at the rabbit I am looking at myself. Perhaps one day when I can adequately explain all this to myself I will be able to explain it to you.
I have just arrived. Emmy, from Ohio walks with me down the dirt road to the monastery. She is as extroverted as I am introverted so we make great walking companions, except that we continually stumble over each other's accents. "Pardon?" is our every other sentence. This is my last conversation before I enter the grand silence. She has been here many times and is full of advice. She shows me the bookshop but tells me, "oh, don't read anything. It'll just get in the way. If you must, read something small. Bite sized." I buy a book of poems by Mary Oliver. Small. Bite sized. The first one hits me, wallops me down and I spend the next week processing it.
There is the heaven we enter
through institutional grace
and there are the yellow finches bathing and singing
in the lowly puddle.
It is the last sit. We have all left grand silence. We are seated in the pre dawn around the perimeter of this stunning, strong, airy prayer space. The huge window looks out to Sopsis. Today we meditate for only half an hour. Sherry, one of the wise and holy women who have led us and nurtured us with such expert and careful grace, rings the gong three times to mark the end. None of us move. None wants to break this precious silence, nor end the warmth of this 20 strong community which has formed over the last ten days and which has held us all so softly. But we all have a return to make and gently we begin to stir. Slowly I rise. I pack. Peter, who has shared a house with me gives me a ride into Aspen in his old truck. We share a little, and I realise that he is someone I could be friends with. He unloads my suitcase at my hotel and we hug. He sets off on his long drive to Washington State and I am back; though whether I am back in our out of the real world I do not yet know.