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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Personal: Moments That Justify My Life – The Night of Light: Pentecost at Gethsemani 
25th-Feb-2009 11:31 pm
San Marco Erik and I
During the recording sessions for Prophets of Joy, Fr. Chrysogonus Waddell, OCSO had invited me and Erik down to his home monastery of the Abbey of Gethsemani for the Feast of Pentecost, which was coming the following Sunday, May 26th that year. Chrysogonus had been up at Notre Dame to take part in the recording sessions, where his own Easter hymn "Sleepers Awake! Christ Is Now Risen!" was being recorded, as was his masterpiece, "Rosa Mystica." We eagerly accepted the invitation, glad to once again return to the monastery. I had only been there for the first time just that previous October, about the same time I began to work on the journals of Thomas Merton for Prof. Larry Cunningham which would eventually be published as A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk's True Life. This would now be my third or fourth trip to Gethsemani, because the Abbey had come to feature as a strong wing to the spirituality of the Freek circle in which I had been moving during the past year, as did the writings of Merton, Gethsemani's most famous resident.

We drove down Saturday night, the evening before Pentecost itself. It was a warm, late May night, growing more pleasant as we made the six hour trip from South Bend to the Bardsville, Kentucky neighbourhood of the Abbey. I'm sure we spoke of the end of the school year quite a bit, although time has taken the actual details from me, here. Erik's graduation from Notre Dame, along with that of Doug, Mark, and Bob, certainly figured in our immediate consciousness, along with the immanent beginning of Erik's two-year commitment to the Alliance for Catholic Education. The Folk Choir recording was also a recent adventure that certainly must have been commented upon, as was the home-recording/second album of older or rare songs that George and the Freeks had just recorded: The Senior Week Sessions, which we listened to in the car. Certainly I was still complaining about Erik's having broken one of my ribs. The night after graduation, as the Freeks celebrated at midnight out of the mobile bar Doug had set up out of his backpack on the edge of the campus fountain the students call Stonehenge, Erik had tossed or chased several of his friends into the water. I was the last of these, trying to avoid notice, when Mark and Bob grabbed my arms and Erik wrapped his own meaty arms around me, flipping me into the fountain while I felt a rib on the left go POW! as he yanked me upward. I had been holding this above his head for the week since, especially since I was supposed to record a solo the next day, Monday, as the Folk Choir began its recording project, and it was fun to try to make Erik squirm for having injured me. I also remember that we heard the Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Running" on the radio as we drove, and we talked about how anemic their version sounded compared to Mark's vocals on the cover of it that George and the Freeks had played three weeks earlier in the LaFortune Ballroom at Notre Dame, during one of Erik's final gigs with the band.

It was midnight when we finally pulled up to the monastery, where all was silent and still. We knew the codes for the combination locks to the building from our previous visits, and we let ourselves into the Guesthouse, in order to use one of the bathrooms to wash up and brush our teeth. Stepping out into the hall, we nearly jumped out of our skins when the ghost-like form of one of the monks materialized next to us. I daresay we startled him just as much. He was the monk on nightwatch duty, and we quickly explained that we were friends of Chrysogonus's, down for the feast. He might have remembered seeing us before, because he accepted this without so much as a blink and immediately (and as according to Benedict's Rule) offered to try to find us space to stay, although all the guest rooms were full. We thanked him, but told him that we already planned to sleep on the hill across the road, and had just popped into the building to use the washroom. So we walked out into the warm night and spread out sleeping bags or blankets on the short-mown grass on the top of the hill crowned by a cross, opting for the far side of the hill, away from the monastery and the road, looking over what the monks called Saint Bernard's Field, where we might not hear the occasional passing car so much.

I had been asleep for about two hours when I woke up some time around 2:30 or 2:45am. The night had been transformed. The overcast sky was now matched by a mist on the ground, hushing sound, leaving the air thick. But the air was also thick with fireflies, and they were numerous enough that the shape of the land – the slightly rolling hills and fields as I stared off toward the southwest – could be made out despite the darkness. The sparkles of the insects, all within a few feet of the ground, mimicked the curves of the land, making them visible, and glittering in the night. And more striking: the overcast sky now flickered with almost constant flashes of heat lightning. And so I was surrounded by light: the sky and the earth flickering and pulsing in time with one another, silently, with all the world still and quiet.

I stood, both deeply moved and yet somehow also quieted inside by the vision before me. A surge of prayer welled up within me, but there were no words: just a sense of satisfaction, or of gratitude at being given the chance to experience what was happening all around me. With a sudden, shuddering and violent gasp Erik sat straight up, as if yanked by some violent dream straight from sleep into trembling consciousness. I jumped a bit, and maybe laughed, but whatever woke Erik was left forgotten as he saw me standing there in the night, and as he, too, became aware of what I was looking at. And so now together we stood witness to the night of light.

Time passed.

After a while, we became aware that we had been hearing some distant rumbling to the west, almost smothered by the close, warm air and mist around us, and that this sound had been going on for some time, strangely parallel to the sense of stillness or silence that had been part of this experience. We took it for the sound of artillery, which could often be heard coming from that direction, from the Army's firing range at Fort Knox – a noise that had often annoyed the peace-minded Merton as he was writing about war and peace in his time at Gethsemani. In time, we thought that the rumbling seemed to be growing louder, somehow, and we found ourselves turning toward the west/northwest and staring in its direction. It was strange, it seemed to me, as I kept looking in that direction, that the night seemed especially dark over there. Erik stood, looking with me, as the lights continued to flicker around us. A deeper black, solid almost, certainly seemed to be filling a circle in my vision. The rumbling came again, louder for certain this time, and the circle of darkness seemed to slide over the hills toward us. A breeze suddenly blew in our faces.

"Run!" Erik shouted, grabbing his gear and speeding over the top of the hill and down the trail toward the monastery. I snatched up my own stuff as quickly as I could, and tried to lope after him, but my broken rib, though still tightly wrapped, kept me from both breathing deep or running easily, and Erik quickly pulled away from me. A first few drops of rain began to fall as I scurried across the road, as Erik slowed down to let me catch up. We rushed across the grounds and around the corner where the gatehouse once stood into the long, upward walk or courtyard facing the entrance to the Basilica. The doors were open and filled with light, as the monks were awake and just gathering for the 3:15 Vigil: the first of the day's Liturgy of the Hours. We raced up the walk toward the steps to the church as the sky opened up and torrents of rain began to fall, and the night of light gave way to the lightning of a more ordinary, but still spectacular, Midwestern thunderstorm.

The storm raged as the monks chanted the beginning of the day, and we giggled like schoolboys while taking our seats and shaking off what water we could. The readings were the readings of Pentecost, and when the reading from The Acts of the Apostles was read, the stunted steeple of the Basilica (long since cut short by lightning) would be filled with the howling wind of the storm outside as the text recalled the Holy Spirit coming upon the gathered disciples, "with a sound like a rushing wind." But before that, while the storm raged, the visiting Trappistine sister read the Book of Exodus account of God appearing to Moses on Sinai, coming to the end with the words, "Moses spoke, and the Lord descended upon the mountain with a voice like thunder." And at those words, the Abbey was struck, with an immediate and overwhelming KER-BLAAAMMM!!! of thunder following, rippling and echoing away through the building, and trailing off with a low growl.

Erik leaned over and whispered in my ear, "This place has the best effects!"
Comments 
26th-Feb-2009 02:09 pm (UTC)
Mercy. That is just awesome. Thank you so much for posting it.
27th-Feb-2009 12:20 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you liked it! I find that it's always difficult to try to capture moments like this without over-writing. I still don't know that I've done it. It's like a problem or challenge that I and another song-writing friend set ourselves: a moment we shared on a high mountain pass of keen, thin-aired quiet – and how we could try to capture that in a song. Can quiet be conveyed by noise, as it were? And so here, as I'm sure you've struggled with, the potential inadequacy in words....
26th-Feb-2009 04:31 pm (UTC)
So often I think you're way better at life-living than me.
27th-Feb-2009 12:27 pm (UTC)
Eh. Quantity over quality. I've got more to pick from! :-)

And, of course, the whole point of the "Moments That Justify My Life" exercise has always been one of "high points," and so is, by definition, not representative.
27th-Feb-2009 12:33 pm (UTC)
Eh. Quantity over quality. I've got more to pick from! :-)

et tu, Mike?
27th-Feb-2009 12:43 pm (UTC)
??

I just mean I've lived longer!
27th-Feb-2009 12:53 pm (UTC)
Yes, I parsed -- and you're the bajillionth person lately to remind me of the fact. Small but annoying price to pay at the moment.

Nevertheless, I think if you stacked up my first 27 years against yours...
27th-Feb-2009 01:08 pm (UTC)
Ouch. Sorry again: I didn't think of the negative stuff you've been getting lately on age. I just meant it as a "Don't put yourself down/count yourself out" kind of comment.

But on a more serious side, there's always a trade-off, isn't there? I have to remind myself that I chose to try to pursue experiences of a different sort, to do the whole "live deeply/suck the marrow out of life" thing, because now I am instead a bit freaked out to see how lately I'm finishing my Ph.D. compared to you, and wondering instead if I frittered away my life.

So maybe it's "six of one/half a dozen of the other," sister....
27th-Feb-2009 02:12 pm (UTC)
I suppose at some point everyone assumes they did it the backwards way, that something would have been easier. And they're -- we're -- right, but forget that every way forward has its challenges and advantages.
27th-Feb-2009 07:08 pm (UTC)
I don't know about "easier." I was thinking in terms of "more fulfilling." Usually I don't second-guess my life in this way. Even what tragedies I've suffered – and they are few and mild compared to most of the world's – have turned to some benefit to me, even if just one of perspective. But this one, of having opted away from the "Ph.D. by thirty" plan I was originally on: that one's been haunting me a lot.
27th-Feb-2009 07:15 pm (UTC)
I know it is. But honestly? I know way more junior faculty your age than I do my age -- and you still have a long and productive career ahead of you.

And I'm haunted too. As you know, my age was one of the things that really scared me about one interview -- and I believe that that school will prove to have picked someone older than me to "fit in" to their culture.

Call it a hunch, but I think the issue for you has less to do with the PhD-granting than other issues.
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