I first encountered Mary Earle's work several years ago in her book Beginning Again: Benedictine Wisdom for Living with Illness and Broken Body, Healing Spirit: Lectio Divina and Living with Illness. Her books helped me fall even more in love with the balanced way of monasticism and to see it as a profoundly healing path as someone who lives with chronic illness. Benedictine spirituality has taught me tremendous gentleness and compassion toward my body. Mary, who is an Episcopal priest and spiritual director, has written many more wonderful books as well including Celtic Christian Spirituality and Marvelously Made: Gratefulness and the Body. I am delighted to share her wisdom here about being a monk in the world:
Dancing with Creatures
They wake up, bright eyed and bushy tailed. They charge out onto the deck, ready to catch up on smells, sounds, light and evidence of visitations during the night. Our household includes me and my husband, a very large cat and three border collies. It is these creatures that so intimately guide my life as a monk in the world at present. They always take me back to the world—to its physicality, to its immediate presence, to its wild freedom.
I am writing with the dogs at my feet. They have just come in from an intense game of ball (border collies do not do relaxed games of ball). These friends and companions have given me the choreography for dancing as monk in the backyard, in the neighborhood, in the park. Maggie, who is now 14 ½, and Graford and Fiona, both four years old, love these routines. Sometimes they come back in the house redolent with the oils of rosemary or thyme. Sometimes they smell distinctly of Copper Canyon daisy. And occasionally they have the stinky odor of some other animal’s urine, having relished a morning roll in the grass.
My love of animals began in my earliest days. Our first border collie, Chico, came to live in my house when I was a toddler. Over the years, various cats and dogs have companioned both my family of origin and the household I created with my husband Doug and our sons, Bryan and Jason. I have always known that these creatures are kith and kin. Their ways of knowing, seeing and accompanying have formed my own patterns. They know intuitively that there is a right balance for rest, play, work, attention (prayer) and eating.
I used to think that my sense of the animals’ wisdom and companionship was a little strange, and kept this information to myself. Then, in the mid 1980s, a dear friend gave me a volume of Celtic prayers. Soon I found myself drawn ever more deeply into the literature of that tradition. When I stumbled upon Beasts and Saints, a collection of stories of desert elders, Celtic saints and their companion animals, edited by Helen Waddell, I realized my own monk-dance had ancient origins.
In those stories about Celtic saints, we have the wondrous examples of animals seen in their otherness. They are not romanticized, nor are they deemed “quaint.” These creatures are capable of leading us into a way of living and being that invites befriending the other. These stories remind me that the animals have their own manner of perceiving and knowing. They are outward and visible signs of God’s creative fruitfulness, capable of surprising us with their own capacities for memory, intelligence and skill.
The 6th Century Irish saint Columbanus wrote, “If you wish to know the Creator, come to know the creatures.” Because these creatures come forth from the same source as humans, we are related and inter-related. We are created to live interdependently. And these creatures, great and small, may heal us of our peculiar tendency to behave as if we had brought the world into being. The creatures remind us that none of us made ourselves. And they remind us that biodiversity is an outward and visible sign of divine creativity and design.
As “co-hermits” (to use a term for these animal companions from the Celtic saints), our border collies help us pattern our days. Every morning, weather permitting (which in central Texas is more often than not), I spend time on our screen porch with the dogs, the Daily Office and my journal. From time to time, Graford will charge out into the yard, intent on some small movement in the trees. His alertness leads me to put down my pen and behold the “Book of Creation,” that vast book of ongoing revelation. Graford’s ability to see and hear what I cannot continually and playfully reminds me of my various limitations. His phenomenal awareness of sound, smell and movement serves to direct my gaze.
Once he has checked out what is going on, Graford trots back up to the porch. Sometimes he sits by my chair and waits for me to start a little conversation: “What did you see? What did you smell? What have you got to tell me?” And sometimes he just wants to sit, head on my foot, savoring our friendship.
In my various bouts with chronic illness, these dogs and cats have been such kind and healing presences. At one point, when I was on bed rest for a long time, our cat Grendel, who was an adept spiritual director, came and practiced the “laying on of paws” on my chest. Whenever I would start to get up, he would fix me with his big hazel eyes and ever so slightly prick my chest with his claws. It was his way of saying, “Stay put. Let your body heal. Let go.”
Befriending, companioning, tending, teaching—the creatures who share my life as a monk in the world are active participants in the process of healing and praying, resting and being made new. They make me laugh. They help me to see anew. They say again and again, “We are with you.” They remind me that my own vision is always partial, always but one perspective. They call me to be mindful of the stunning variety of life around the planet, and to find ways to honor that variety.
Like the Celtic saints and their “beasts,” these dogs and cats stand in their own identities, offering steadfast friendship and insight. As “co-hermits,” they offer such lively possibilities for rhythms of prayer, rest, befriending and activity.
“If you wish to know the Creator, come to know the creatures.”
Mary C. Earle is a writer, spiritual director, retreat leader, and Episcopal priest. Her most recent book, Julian of Norwich: Selections from Revelations of Divine Love—Annotated and Explained, is now available from SkyLight Paths Publishing. Her other works have focused on the Celtic prayer tradition, the desert elders, and the spirituality of living with illness. Her website is http://marycearle.org/.