Openness to letting life unfold and, in a sense, dancing with it, usually resolves most mysteries sooner or later. It is the "later" part that is often the real challenge in life and Monastic life is no exception. The schedule of a monastery revolves around the communal prayer marking the various phases of the day and night. These liturgical celebrations, known as the Liturgy of the Hours, anchor the monastic with a certain spiritual stability as he or she lives the mystery. Death has no such predictable timetable.
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Openness to letting life unfold and, in a sense, dancing with it, usually resolves most mysteries sooner or later. It is the "later" part that is often the real challenge in life and Monastic life is no exception. The schedule of a monastery revolves around the communal prayer marking the various phases of the day and night. These liturgical celebrations, known as the Liturgy of the Hours, anchor the monastic with a certain spiritual stability as he or she lives the mystery. Death has no such predictable timetable. By popular request, Chantal, David, Abbot Francis, and other characters from Office of the Dead are back. Their personalities and adventures are presented in a deeper and richer context through Vigils: from the Office of the Dead. Monasticism and medicine find entirely new ways to synthesize and present themselves through the ecumenical and ethnic medium of Vigils: from the Office of the Dead.
LANTAU ISLAND, SOUTH CHINA SEA, ASIA, March, 1998. Did I really wake up hours ago to the thunder of drumbeats at 3:30 a.m. this morning? Our call to keep vigil through chant and meditation back in the States is done through a bell, which we consider to be the voice of God calling us to prayer. Drums or bell, the call has always been loud and clear.
Life’s mysterious events, however, are not always so clear. Openness to letting life unfold and, in a sense, dancing with it, usually resolves most mysteries sooner or later. It is the “later” part that is often the real challenge in life.
Deafening silence now. The sea is just far enough away so that the waves can be heard only with the ear of the heart. Ahhhhh. I am peacefully alone at last. It is so profoundly wonderful to be quiet and to just be. My muscles seem to be melting like wax in the warmth of the sun. My ministry keeps me deeply involved with so many fine people and I consider it a great gift. Right now, however, this is a great gift!
The guestmaster told me that the entire community of Chan Buddhist monks and nuns, the Chinese equivalent of Japanese Zen monastics, would be at a community meeting all morning long and that I would be in complete solitude. He seemed to think that I might get lonely or become frightened, but I am far from either. Maybe the guestmaster’s concern has something to do with the fact that I am halfway around the world from home. Anyway, we Christian monastics call our community meetings “Chapter.” Many Christian monastics do not even know why such gatherings are given that name. My understanding is that it comes from the practice of reading a chapter of the Rule of the monastery at such a communal get together. I wonder what the Chinese name for their monastic community meeting is. Who cares about that? The point is that I am completely in solitude on this remote Asian island, far away from stress and responsibility.
Slow down mind. It’s not necessary to think about such little things now. Those little musings sometimes fill my entire meditation. When I look at other people who are meditating, they seem so tranquil. So many others have said the same thing about me and to me. At times it is tranquil, but for meditation to be truly fruitful, it needs to be turbulent at times also. Saint Francis de Sales encourages us not to base the “success” of our prayer on feelings. Likes and dislikes, in prayer or in anything else, we are encouraged to embrace them all—at least with the higher part of the soul. The lower part of the soul often rebels and that doesn’t make us bad, just human.
Even these so called “holy” thoughts can be a distraction or a defense from letting go and letting God in to do whatever God wants to within me. I know that it is not necessary to think about such mundane, or even lofty, things most of the time, especially during meditation. Conserve energy and effort for bigger and more important issues. Sounds like a good resolution to make. May the intense stillness here deepen the imprint of that resolution on my soul so that I can remember it when I return to the States. The barely perceptible breeze kissing my face is beginning to help me slow down within. Wonder what they are talking about at their meeting up there in the monastery common room. I’m doing it again! Let the distracting thoughts just drift in and out of your mind like autumn leaves. How many times I’ve given others that advice.
The early morning orange glow reflecting off the ocean fills the treetops with an iridescent shimmer. The heat is not really oppressive but adds to the wave-like quality of the atmosphere and helps my runners’ muscles become a lot more languid. My spirit begins to melt into God. Gentle dance-like Chinese qigong moves have prepared me for a period of sitting meditation. The small Asian gazebo-type structure, in which I sit in front of the monastery as I look down into the lush green valley below, feels womb-like. I cannot see the hermitages of the monks and nuns but know and sense the presence of the hermits who saturate the forest surrounding the monastery with their powerful energy. It is as if their qi, or life force, and mine have become one. This makes great sense since the Source of all qi, as I view things, is One—God, mediated in Christ. In the beginning was the Dao.
My vigil is held in complete silence. The monastic Office of Vigils in a Christian monastery is a liturgical service held in darkness, sometime before the dawn. During Vigils monastics all over the world celebrate the God who is about to break into their day once again, and the God who will come again at the end of time. It invites us to be open, prepared, gently watching and waiting for the Spirit to guide and enlighten us. There I go again with “holy” thoughts that are keeping me from being quietly present.
The calls of the large birds soaring above blend in with the brush of God’s breath upon my face and arms. My spirit soars with the rest of God’s creation. What a wonder to be here. Thank you, Jesus, for my friend, Ignatius. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lynn, must have had a premonition about his future vocational choice when then named him Ignatius. He joined the Society of Jesus, often simply called the “Jesuits,” which was founded by his patron saint, Ignatius of Loyola.
Slow down mind. Let’s get back to simply being in the presence of God. No need to think. You do enough of that at other times. Breathe in; breathe out. Again, breathe in; breathe out. Sit at Christ’s feet as the patrons of our monastery, Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Jane de Chantal suggest that we do. Prayer is simple; stop complicating it. Just listen.
Interesting parallel. I chose the monastic name Francis de Sales after our founder. My friend Ignatius and I have so much in common—the source of our names, our Christian religious vocations, though in different religious orders, and our love of Eastern spirituality. Just be; just be; just be.
Peaceful quiet, time and place no longer exist. Lost in the Void. No more thoughts.
AHHHHH!!! The whispered voice was a like clap of thunder. It was as if I were a lightning rod and the words had permeated every cell of my body the way a bolt of electricity making a jagged path through the sky could do.
The figure next to me thought more than said: “I want to take you to my hut in the woods.”
I was disoriented. Time had passed, but I didn’t know how much time. I don’t know why the voice of the short hermit monk with shaved head and gray tunic top and knicker-like pants did not send my physical body soaring right through the roof, but it didn’t. The voice seemed to speak more to my spirit than to my ears. Oh well I thought, with a bit of the philosophical humor which I often use as a coping mechanism, he will either kill me or it will be fun.
“Thank you very much. I would love to see your hermitage.” Did they have counterfeit hermits here in Asia? I hoped not but really didn’t care, my spirit of adventure was in gear. In minutes we were in the thick of the glistening green forest. The huge brightly colored stone archway behind us, which marks the entrance to the complex of monastic buildings, was no longer visible. The ancient symbol of blessing in each top corner of the arch flashed into my mind. I recalled how Hitler twisted that symbol into a curse during the Nazi regime.
I would never find my way out of this maze and back to the monastery without an escort. Where are Hansel and Gretel when you need them? Anybody got any breadcrumbs? Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
What is that? What is he saying?
“…You are very involved in healing others. You are growing in your sense of adventure, and you love to do new things. Your world is expanding day by day. You are in our country to visit your friend and do some work for God.”
I missed most of what he had said but caught the latter comments. How did he know these things? We had never met and even the guestmaster knew very little about me. He must be reading my qi.
Qi is the life force, which keeps us in existence and sustains all things. It is primarily the qi that is worked with in Chinese medicine, the context or blueprint in which I practice as a medical qigong doctor. Qi radiates from us and can be perceived and understood and interpreted by another, especially after he or she has had training in meditation, Asian medicine, or prayer. This sort of intuitive reading is extremely helpful in the diagnosis and treatment of imbalances. In the West we would call them “disorders” or “illnesses.” The imbalance can be in body, mind, or spirit. Typically all three levels of being are influenced by a relatively larger imbalance in any one area.
The information gleaned from reading qi is not used exclusively to treat imbalances. Many times it helps us to understand ourselves or make positive life choices in harmony with who we truly are. My mysterious and, hopefully, benign guide appears to be an expert in reading qi!
Where is this hut anyway, on the next island? We have been walking about fifteen minutes now. Glad I have my running shoes on. Yesterday helicopters clattered over the forest and landed to pick up the body of an old woman hermit who died in her hermitage after a lifetime of meditation. I wondered then what it looked like down here in the woods and now I was finding out. Lord please don’t let the helicopters come after me today! The guestmaster became quite anxious when he saw the camera I was innocently carrying as the choppers fluttered above. Of course I would not take pictures of the event. Some cultures think that taking pictures is like stealing a part of the soul of the person being photographed.
Eventually we came upon a little house, more than a hut really, but simple and well kept. It had white plaster walls and was surrounded, actually almost swallowed up, with foliage. We entered through a dark brown door into a simple sitting room with a Buddha straight ahead against the back wall, and a small rectangular window on either side of the approximately four foot high gray statue. Although the sacred image could be viewed as oversized for the room by Western standards, there was still a lot of room to sit and visit in.
The mystery monk offered me a simple bamboo chair with cushions of green. I sat and he then placed a light blanket over my legs. It was slightly cool in the shaded hermitage, probably a chill radiating off of the concrete floor. He seemed to materialize a tea set out of thin air—a rectangular rosewood colored box with a red clay teapot and four small handleless cups on top. Soon the water on the little stove in the next room was boiling and my monastic brother was making green tea for us. It is ironic how green tea can make me feel at home halfway around the world. The real feeling of “at homeness” comes from being with other monastics.