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I have been trying to read
the script cut in these hills—
a language carved in the shimmer of stubble
and the solid lines of soil, spoken
in the thud of apples falling
and the rasp of corn stalks finally bare.
The pheasants shout it with a rusty creak
as they gather in the fallen grain,
the blackbirds sing it over their shoulders in parting,
and gold leaf illuminates the manuscript
where it is written in the trees.
Transcribed onto my human tongue
I believe it might sound like a lullaby,
or the simplest grace at table.
across the gathering stillness
simply this: “For all that we have received,
dear God, make us truly grateful.”.
—Lynn Ungar, Bread and Other Miracles
Dearest monks and artists,
I am delighted to share the newest in the dancing monk icon series I am commissioning from artist Marcy Hall. Above you will find St. Benedict dancing with joy. The quote comes from his Rule and I am absolutely delighting in the freedom and playfulness of these images which evoke the spirit of our Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks. (You can see St. Hildegard here).
Those of you in the U.S. this week are celebrating the feast of Thanksgiving. I have always loved this holiday with its emphasis on gathering with friends and family and sharing gratitude and the harvest. Of course, here in Europe it is just Thursday, but I have been keenly aware of the many profound blessings of my life. Gratitude is a practice I cultivate daily, and I think essential to being a monk in the world. It is deeply connected to simplicity and living lightly on the earth, because the more we honor the abundance of things the less we need to grasp and accumulate.
I have been traveling in Norway this past week for the first time. John and I began with four days in Tromso, which is in the arctic circle, and then three days at Lia Gard retreat center in Koppang, about three hours north of Oslo.
We traveled to Tromso because of a longtime desire to see the northern lights. Each night we went on a different outing to be under the wide sky and wait. This anticipation felt very much like preparing for the season of Advent, this hope, this growing sense of wonder. Nature does not adapt herself to our needs and desires and there is something refreshing about this holy indifference, a reminder that we are not the center of things. We humans, with all of our needs and wants, can’t have absolutely everything at any moment just because we want it. We had to simply wait and hope.
There were many beautiful things that happened in the waiting. We arrived in Norway on the night of the full moon and each night she appeared, sometimes for only a few minutes and sometimes for several hours to reveal her silvery light reflecting on snow. Each time she elicited a depth of awe and each night she appeared in a new form as she was waning. We went dog sledding and had beautiful conversations about life in Norway with Norwegian locals as well as those from the U.K., Malta, Slovakia, and Japan who had all relocated. We talked about cultural differences, about religion, and about what makes life worth living. We rode for hours on a boat at night across the dark sea guided by moonlight. We wandered hand in hand down city streets in snowfall and snuggled into cozy cafes to warm ourselves.
I loved being embraced by the darkness there, entering the long nights felt like a perfect way to prepare for the season of holy birthing. We arrived only a few days before the time of the polar nights begin, when for two months the sun does not rise above the horizon. I loved that the cafes and restaurants were not brightly lit within to stave off the darkness, but all had dim lighting and dozens of candles as if to invite us to rest into the gift of this time and remind ourselves of a different rhythm called forth by this season.
The northern lights did not appear in our time there and yet we hardly feel disappointed with such riches. We are so grateful for the opportunity to behold so much beauty and are ready to return again and wait and hope. Attentive waiting is truly a spiritual practice. So often we grow impatient with the world around us not moving fast enough for our liking. We want to know the answer or have instant gratification. Advent reminds us of another way. It is truly a season for monks with its call to spaciousness, to slowness, to enter the mystery of things. Advent calls us into gratitude for the promise of things to come, as well as the abundant blessings right in our midst, if we only slow down enough to receive them.
Over the weekend we gathered with over twenty dancing monks, mostly from Norway, but also Sweden, Denmark, and the U.K. At first I was worried about the cultural and language barriers, about how well these ideas would translate, but that quickly dissipated as I witnessed how much they also hungered for this other way of living. It seems the whole western world suffers from rushing and busyness. I found great hope in our shared longing for the monk’s path. I delighted in our shared joy over the artist’s expression.
As you prepare for the start of Advent this coming weekend, what might you be able to set aside for more silence, more time to simply rest, less doing and more being?
If you would like to join the Abbey community for attentive and prayerful waiting through the gifts of Celtic spirituality, please join us for our online retreat which begins this Sunday. You can find out all the details and register here.
My hope for you is that this season of birthing the holy invites you into a place of deep rest and yielding to the seed breaking forth deep within your own soul.
With great and growing love,