Ash Wednesday

April 26, 2009

Another little piece from my writing lab…

(desert pictures are copyrighted!!)

desert landscape

There is something haunting about the barrenness of the desert. The dry, cracked earth produces little more plant life than bristles, thistles, and thorns. I am sitting on the hillside overlooking St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California. The cemetery rests behind me, just up the winding dirt path. The sun is unmerciful, but I shiver, defenseless against the wind. It is Ash Wednesday. I have never been to a monastery before. I envy this rhythm of life so firmly established here, so deeply rooted in history, tradition, and meaning. I envy the unrushed movement of the brothers as they go about their daily tasks with studied patience. Mostly, I envy the cultivated attitude of reverence toward solitude and stillness. Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season, is marked by fasting, prayer, and quiet. I have hiked up this hill, away from the monks and visitors, in order to break the silence with my sad song.

desertMy experience at the monastery is nothing like I had expected. I’ve never been in the desert before. I’ve never really been able to understand the draw of barrenness and wasteland on the human soul. I find rest and restoration for my thirsty soul in the calming presence of green and growing things, in the canopies of the Appalachian mountains, in the cool shade and roar of the misty waterfalls. Retreat for me is seclusion in the deep forest, crunching leaves and underbrush under my feet or drinking hot tea under a warm blanket at the picture window overlooking an undisturbed lake. But the desert? I never understood how one could draw peace and strength from a place where nothing grows, where it is at once hot and cold, where desolation and isolation reign. I never understood until this moment, perched on a bolder with my hair wild and lashing my face, watching a hawk in flight. I see him take off, flapping wildly in his ascent, struggling in the wind. Suddenly, the fight is over; the hawk catches a thermal and glides, free and calm, coasting on the breeze that carries him along the way. I’ve never actually seen a hawk fly over the desert before. There is no peace like that moment when the wind takes over and the wings can rest on the journey. I see myself in this moment, resting mid-flight and trusting that the wind will hold me up. I never expected to see myself here in the desert. I stop singing. Suddenly, silence is everything.

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Lent is the season of repentance, the space between Christmas and Easter when one’s spirituality is devoted to sin, darkness, and death in preparation for the joy, blessing, and life that come with the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. I never liked Lent or paid much special attention to it as part of the church calendar. But this year, the year that marks a quarter-century in my life, Lent has taken on an unexpectedly profound significance. Being a graduate without any sense of definition for my occupational future has thrown me rather roughly into a deep, unstable darkness. My identity is wrapped in a shroud of uncertainty. My right-brained creativity should be my salvation, but it has only fed into the anxiety of left-handed living. Lent reminds me just how weak I am.

I am an anxious person. When I don’t understand, or when I feel out of control, my anxiety overwhelms me and destroys any chance I have at the rest I have been called into in this season of life. I am most anxious when I lack the words to express myself or define the world around me. This season of waiting, this moment of rest on the journey, has produced an intense experience of rootlessness. I have been like the hawk-flying2hawk, flapping anxiously upward, desperate for the invisible breeze and unable to find it—until that moment on Ash Wednesday when I see the hawk rest on the very wind that had caused him to struggle in flight. In that moment I realized what the Abbey brothers have always known: silence is the sister of waiting. I have been trying, and failing, to describe this place I live in these days, this holding cell between my past and future life, between who I have been and who I am becoming. I have been failing because it is an impossible task, like the hawk fighting the wind. The time has come for silence. The time has come for acceptance of this weakness, this waiting. Words fail and anxiety immobilizes; rigor mortis sets in. I do not move on, not because I will not but because I cannot. I wait because I can do nothing else, but in the waiting—I am learning—I must be silent, as silent as the grave.