Monk in the World Gust Post: Nancy Collins-Warner 

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to our Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Nancy Collins-Warner’s reflection, “Circling Stones.”

On the hill behind our little cabin, perched in a river canyon, is a circle of stones I laid out a decade ago. As taught by an Elder, stones are placed in each of the directions with a larger one at the center. I enter from a particular direction on a given day; walk it clockwise (rarely widdershins); or simply be with the whole inscription on the earth, under an imminent sky. I call this the Old Ladies Circle, imbued with spirits of this place within the Niimipuu (Nez Perce) homelands. I go there to pray: praising, releasing, inviting.

***

An early memory of stones: I go with my father in the farm pick-up to a place about an hour away from our home. He lifts and loads large shale slabs to make a set of steps from the front porch down to the bottom of the small knoll on which our house sits. I watch as he digs and levels out a place for each step with a shovel, sensing, but not really knowing, the labor it takes. Everything is metaphor: memory, story, what remains vivid from the past.

***

Along the steep trail that climbs up our back hill are stones of all sizes that have loosened and tumbled from the embankment opened when the rustic two-track was made almost 20 years ago. A few years back I was drawn to nudge some of these rocks into small circles along the trail. Now, as I ascend, it seems to me that some of the rocks have arranged themselves into sister-circles – that I have not been the only one at work here. Each circlet is a prayer, as it was when first made, as it is this day, for whatever is passing through my awareness.

***

We live in a place where most of the warning signs on the highway along the river below, read, “Watch for Rock”. In the canyon, wherever a place has been disturbed to make roads or clear space for a house, an exposed hillside or rock wall sheds. When it rains, rocks loosen from their mooring and tumble down. During a dry spell, the friable earth cannot hold the weight of a stone which eventually yields to gravitational pull. I watched an 8” diameter rock catapult a quarter mile down hill, coming to a halt only when it landed on the road below.

***

Daily walks are essential to our well-being, and during CoVid confinement they have offered new discoveries. I have been beguiled by some of the stones along my routes. The underlying formation here is basalt, an igneous rock; it can be angular or oddly rounded, depending on what has happened over the millenia. Stones that have rested in one place for some time have on their surface smooth, pale green, leaf-shaped lichen and emerald pin-cushions of moss. These brighten with moisture. I ponder this new-found appreciation of stones at the age of 75, the qualities of which they remind me: endurance, acceptance, humbleness.

***

For more than a decade, my husband and I have been guests in a tiny village in SW France, initially drawn there by a writer’s retreat. The village itself, the walls that keep it upright on the side of the mountain, is made of stone. Our friends tell us that up to a century ago, every villager, old and young, knew the art of stone-wall building and repair. It was an essential skill for living in that place. Now, we marvel at how the stones fit together, how they have settled so securely, the walls adorned with moss and lichen, the houses solid as they were 500 years ago. Beautiful and formidable, at once.

***

The chapel building of the Benedictine monastery where I have been retreatant and volunteer for three decades, was constructed more than a century ago of blue poryphery, quarried from the hillside behind the community. The nuns helped bring the stones down by wagon to the building site where master stonemasons built the edifice which still beckons to worshippers, as well as tourists, in this part of Idaho. Stone on solid ground, framing countless prayers, the liturgy of the hours, Eucharist…but most of the time the walls hold a great beckoning Silence. 

***

I did not intend to write about stones. I thought to tell about the art of living small, then moved on to exploring shades of grey. The spiritual challenges of being an Old Lady were considered. But the rocks and stones kept pressing on me. I circled them, drafting one or another of these reflections. I finally understood they were at the heart of what I could say: let the stones speak, yield to what seems hard. I barely passed Geology 101 my first semester of college; I was awe-struck by learning how the earth forms itself, but could not make sense of the exams. More metaphor: the deep learning, the superficial measure. What remains?


Raised in the Palouse Hills of SE Washington, Nancy Collins-Warner now lives in the Idaho Panhandle. After fulfilling years as teacher, librarian, advocate for women and children, and Hospice volunteer, she gratefully savors being an Old Lady.  Poetry is the way she prays.

You might also enjoy