Thursday, February 23, 2012

ash thursday

Yesterday was very much an Ash Wednesday for me. I was up almost all night the night before, making over the first page of the Lenten devotional project I have been creating for a ministry I'm involved with. The Holy Spirit spoke through my beloved and together we found images. Then she went to bed and I experienced grace in discoveries. All that was good. Waking up, driving home, I resisted the urge to deny the 'fasting' I've taken on: reading my blackberry while driving. I never text while driving (or rarely) but I do read it quickly on occasion. I prayed on an abstinence and heard the terms quite clearly: no glancing, peeking, quick-checking at all. No blackberry unless the engine is off.

I could not believe how hard that was. I started counting the number of times I had the impulse in the three hour drive home. 14, 15, 16. My life became vivid before me. I am ruled by what I do. Then the day unfolded more challenges. I was too late to pick up the puppy in the kennel morning hours, by just 15 minutes. (And I hate being home without hana.) A series of mails awaited me, from irate students looking for feedback to their projects so they can get to work on the next assignment due Tuesday. Understandable impatience! I did what was easy there, extended the deadline. Whew. But it unhinged me a little to hear their anger. One fellow in particular, whom all the faculty find challenging, was pointed in his comments. I resisted the urge to write him back telling him what I think of him. I did, however, assign him a task as part of his project that I've been thinking about for a while. I had thought it might be unfair to ask it of him, though I know it is something he needs to do and won't unless made to. My own stung anger allowed me to put it in front of him. I checked several times for vengeful tone before hitting "send". But I'm sure I'll hear from him.

In prepping the devotional I searched Google Earth for an Episcopal monastery I used to attend in California. Mount Calvary retreat house, a Benedictine enclave I had cherished in the 80s as a respite from the fast life of being a film student in Los Angles, was calling to me in memory. I had a strong desire to see again its gorgeous courtyard gardens, filled with desert and mountain vegetation, the stone wall on which I would sit and write, my legs dangling a bit dangerously on the other side which dropped down into Rattlesnake Canyon (which the retreatants soon discovered on their afternoon hikes, was aptly named!). I was longing for a taste of that sun, the feeling of it baking my arms. Once, when I was chatting elsewhere with a Benedictine monk about my stays there, he replied. "Oh yes, we all dream of going there one day. Spread like the gardens of Babylon along the high mountain ridge." I remember the relish he took in saying something like that, perhaps waiting for my raised eyebrow. But I just nodded emphatically. The monks who lived in that precious place high above the world took such pleasure in its gorgeous surroundings. I would watch them work, in jeans with weathered tanned faces: they could have been from any neighbouring ranch. At night, one of them pointed in silence (the Great Silence) to the extraordinary view that spread below: the bay lit up by bobbing lights of boats and small buildings, even in November. We stood there in awe together absorbing that beauty in silence. I always stayed in the 'Mother Julian' room, which looked on the interior courtyard. It was my first acquaintance with a mystic whom I would later turn to many times for wisdom and direction.

The earth swirled into view and North America shifted on its axis, pointing slowly down to California. As I pushed the arrow on the intended spot and waited with anticipation, the location growing larger in that marvellous way of this tool, my heart suddenly dropped. There was an open pit of white. I checked it on Google Maps. Same image. Something was terribly wrong. Some fast sleuthing determined the grim reality: the entire abbey had burned to the ground in raging mountain forest fires that had ravished thousands of homes in the Montecito hills above Santa Barbara in 2008. I started to cry.

More sleuthing revealed the continuing story: the monks have relocated, they are now in an urban reality, nestled in the downtown core in a bit of land that still seems to allow for some garden and a bit of walking paths. Searching the blog archive, I found the entry in 2008 that described the terrible devastation. In a way that is so characteristic of the ordered religious, the focus was entirely on the suffering of others: the lost homes and lives; the many neighbours and friends irrevocably touched. Then I saw the pictures: the ruins, the emptiness.

I had not previously wanted or thought about that monastery (or I would have found this out before now). But suddenly it was there, sadly lost. Why was I led to that on Ash Wednesday in the midst of a stressful day? I switched off my computer and started to meditate. Soon I heard and felt God's presence. A request came: the blackberry reality is just a beginning. Switch off your computer for an hour a day, I heard. Yes, while you are home - not while you're out!

Despite pressing students and anxiety about the next day's devotion, I did so. It was terribly hard and I didn't last the whole hour. This morning, after posting the next devotion, I tried again and managed it. The silence was deafening. My own mad life rushed in my ears. Submitting to these abstinences will be very challenging!

I am starting this blogging today but am not holding myself to daily posting. What will be will be and may not even happen again. Unless, of course I scribble notes in that hour I'm offline.