October 3, 2000
As soon as there was a dim first light I began gathering up my things for the trek to the showers. I was surprised to find the bathroom so warm! There, as in my room, the pilot light for the gas heater added just enough warmth to temper the desert darkness.
the roar of the river
the gas heater
How can such a simple thing as shower faucets be so unendlessly variable? I tried this and that, cold and hot water in waves until a comforting waterfall came down over me. How good it felt to wash away the night and the trip. The room was so clean and fresh that it joined me in feeling great. I loved the punched tin frame around the mirror. Its patterns kept pulling my attention from looking at my very still-tired face.
I dressed and walked up the hill to the chapel for mass.
even my cane
The pre-sunrise morning was full of rabbits on my path. They would sit there in the red dust, studded with white marble, staring at me as if they had some message for me; as if they were talking in a silent language they expected me to understand. Do I stop to listen to rabbits or hasten on to the chapel?
on my path
As I climbed the last and steepest approach to the church I could hear chanting. In the cold, thin air it seemed a perfect combination. From the sound I assumed that my walk up here had taken too long and now the doors were closed to me. I sat down on a wooden bench to watch the first rays of the sun touch the cliff tops across the river. As the light increased it seemed the chanting was connected to it.
the desert sunrise
deep in the desert keeping alive
the heart of the sun
Gradually the warmth came across the river valley to warm me. As I leaned against the mud walls of the chapel, it seemed that they vibrated with the voices chanting inside. It was as if all the chants that had ever been raised in this structure were captured, compressed and expressed between my tired shoulders to give my spirit wings. Out I soared over the yellowing cottonwoods, over the yet-dark river waters, to the tops of cliffs capped with the gypsum of old salt lakes. Not only could I cover distances but I was able to fly through the ages. The concept of god shrank in the magnificence of the view and then reversed itself to expand the glory of the Divine so there was not a speck of space without it.
the word of god
in the front of the chapel
striped canyon wall
Then I heard someone running across gravel. When I peeked around the wall of the church I saw a young nun dancing and giggling as a young man chased her carrying a laundry basket of dirty clothes. They got in a truck and drove out to the north. I figured that the service was over and that others would file out in my direction. Occasionally I'd hear footsteps and nuns would come out, bundled in wool scarves, thick socks and ugly male jackets over their black habits. It seemed that the three cars parked on the slope were there for nuns who came for lauds and then left.
The only man I saw was my neighboring guest, who has the huge honeymoon suite at the end of the compound overlooking the river for himself. He only nodded to me with a bleak tortured look on his face. I never did find more people, the way to the dining hall or my breakfast. I was numb and chilled from sitting out doors so long, so I walked back to my thankfully warm room where I drank bottled water and ate crackers.
breaking the fast
feeding the spirits
with my mouth
As soon as I noticed the door to the gift shop was open I went over for a cup of tea. I frightened an ancient monk having a danish roll who said, "Oh, I wasn't expecting anyone so early." When I said that I was a guest, he asked how he could help me. When I admitted to feeling rather lost, he stepped closer with concern and said, "Oh no! I'll help you." And he did. He asked, "Are you here to rest or to work?"
I admitted that I was here to mourn but that I was willing to work." Go see Brother Issac in the library he instructed. So I started up the hill again, regretting that I had not yet unpacked my hat.
This time the door to the church was open, so I went in. It has marvelous spaces and wood stoves in each of the four naves. Modern, but rustic wooden square chairs with cushions covered with hand-woven brown or black wool. To the right was the Virgin of Guadalupe painted in the Spanish style. She looked very sad as there was a child at her feet pulling open her skirts. Below this was a deeply carved 'window box' filled with sand in a tin box and handmade beeswax tapers. Even though I had no money with me (I am now in debt to the Catholic Church) I took a taper and asked it to light Aunt Evelyn's way through her death. After sticking the candle in the sand I wrote her name among the tiny white grains.
Still hesitant about where I was supposed to be, I walked through the gateway with a big sign saying "Private" where it seemed the refectory should be and indeed I could see through the glass that I was looking in at a library. There seemed no one else was there but an even older monk who was mopping the floor. I whispered, asking the hours the library was open and he sternly pointed to a sign: "1:45 – 3:00".
I walked around the atrium, ablaze with coxcomb, but found no dining room, though I saw a few persons at work at desks. Not getting anywhere with this tactic, I went back to the porter's bell bench. Following those written instructions, I rang the bell and sat down to wait for someone to come to my assistance. All that came to me was my own pen which I had left here earlier when I had sat here. As the sun got hotter on my bare head, I decided to give up and go back down the path to my room.
Rounding a corner of the head-high rabbit bush, some already in bloom with white tops, I met a monk in a blue work habit on the dusty road. There I found out that Brother Isaac was gone for the day, that this was Brother Andrea and that my watch was off 20 minutes (which was another reason mass missed me). He was very curious about my religious affiliations and my white clothes.
"I notice you are wearing only white. Does it have a religious significance?"
"Just because it feels right?"
"Yes, I try to wear colors but I cannot."
He blessed me and I came back to my room. Now, with more light, I solved the riddle of the strange metal device on my door. It is not a lock, none of the doors have locks, but allows one to open the upper half while keeping the lower part closed. Sitting on my bench of bed I have a view of the church nestled among the canyon walls. Sweet breezes of sage-clean air enter the dark coolness of my room like winged blessings. I am not alone.
my native land
yet a stranger in a community
Later, when I took my cup back to the gift shop for a refill, two women were
shopping, but the Brother bounced right out of his chair to put the kettle on to
heat more water for me. As he poured the water into my cup, I said: "I
don't expect you to wait on me."
"I am Spanish. That is what I do."
I was so taken aback by his statement that I could only whisper "Thank you." Seeking the warmth of the sun, I carried my cup around to the front of the two-story part of the building complex that faced the sun-lit cliffs. Crows were cawing as they flew the upper ridges.
earth mesa rock
Then something black caught my eye off to my right, coming across the ground over the pinkish flagstones. A huge tarantula. I sat very still as my fear of spiders ballooned out around me like a bad smell. Something very active and huge in me wanted to run over to stomp down on it but reason warned me that my big foot was a small weapon against such an animal and that it could jump several feet into the air. So I took the high road deciding not "to take a life" but to "live and let live". I practiced withdrawing my fears to let it go where it willed and to just observe it and myself. It ambled across the gravel parking lot and out of sight just about the time I began to really want to take a nap.
I prepared for dinner as if I was going out on a date! I changed my shirt, rebraided my hair and left plenty of time for plodding up the hill without getting into a sweat. As I plugged along, my neighbor guest passed me with his athletic trampling as if I was standing still. He was already sitting in his seat when I entered the cool chapel. I, panting, sat in his silence shared only by us. Suddenly a door opened and a priest walked to the huge stone altar directing in the center of the chapel. Here he bowed to the complete emptiness of the cloth covered stone. Then he genuflected to the north nave and walked over to sit down by a great knotted bell-pull which he began to pull vigorously.
poverty of the monks
in the thin mountain air
the iron bell
That same door kept opening and closing as the variously robed monks and priests entered to take their place around the circle of seats on the left and right sides. The younger ones bowed completely down to the floor on their knees, but the older ones bowed in the Japanese manner with their palms on their thighs.
offering up to me
Two women who were obviously visitors came in and sat down in the front row. It was clear to see that they were mother and daughter and very good-looking women with marvelous bearing. It was entertaining to watch the younger monks sneaking looks at them
the mystery of god
carved in stone
The chapel windows are orientated so that one continually looks upward, toward the sky and the high edge of the red stone cliffs. One did not need to look anywhere else except up into the face of god in the cliff.
The service lasted about fifteen minutes. Sometimes a young, thin-faced boy, who looked as if he had not received the nurturing he needed as child, sang out a line of the Psalms in his clear soprano voice and the rest of us would respond with other words in the same melody. This was very impressive for me and I was willing to hear more of this.
for our dinner
When the service was over Brother Andrea came charging across the sanctuary and motioned to the other guest and to me to come to him. He looped his arms through ours so that I finally felt I had been taken under someone's wing. Outside he introduced us. This Scott was from Petaluma! of all places. I judged him to be a rich computer guru, surely going through a divorce or emotional crisis or something so terrible he cannot look any of us in the eye. Brother Andrea chatted brightly with us as he led us to the dining room. Now I found out it was behind the library and the proper way to attend a meal was to first attend the church service. Here I was showed where my napkin lay in a big wooden trough and how to find my place at the tables by the wooden plague reading: "guest".
The tables, in the shape of a large 'E' completely filled the dark, low-ceilinged room except for in one corner where there was a lectern set upon a high platform. At each place setting was a page of songs and prayers that we recited together before taking our places. A tall, thin, white-haired man climbed up on a stool before the lectern, turned on a tiny lamp and began to read to us in a soothing sing-song voice. In a rush of swinging robes and white aprons, monks began to file out of the kitchen area carrying huge bowls and platters of food. Wordlessly they bowed before each person who took as much as they wanted. I wondered how their back and shoulders felt as they served the 20 – 25 people in the room. Everyone looked only at their own place and was free to think only on eating – or the story from England and the times of Thomas More and the King. Scott and I were seated alone in the middle leg of the 'E" yet the silence was so companionable that I slipped into a fantasy that I had eaten meals like this many times before and found this a comfortable return.
After servings of seconds of macaroni in a tomato sauce and a curry dish rich with left-overs, green beans with corn and a fruit dessert, one very distinguished gentleman (surely the Abbot?) tapped his glass with a spoon. The reader stopped mid-paragraph, marked his place with a pencil. When the dishes had been collected the reader announced the saint of the next day (Saint Francis) and gave a short history of his life. Then we stood to faced a painting on the one wall of Saint Benedict to whom we sang songs of praise and thanksgiving. After a couple more mumbled prayers we filed out of the room with us guests replacing our refolded napkins in the trough.
After dinner I was very hot and glad to get to my cool room.
and then the wind
begins to blow
crossing the canyon
footprints of the wind
atop a ridge
I took a nap and woke up feeling really lousy. The bad headache and chills told me this was my reaction to the altitude and that I had better get more fluid into me. A cup of chocolate gave me hope that I would survive. Decided to take some photographs which proved to need more energy and concentration than I had. The idea of going up the hill, sitting though a half hour of church just for more food was not what I wanted to do. I waited until the guests (now we have another one: a rugged Marboro man who is housed right next door to me) left for dinner and to go take another shower because my feet had gotten so dusty. While I waited I felt really awful and counted up the days I had yet to spend here and wondering "if I would make it." Writing in my journal seemed to quiet me and by the time I went to bed I was feeling good again.
Coming back from the bathroom I stood outdoors in a gentle warmth to look at the stars. At the north end of the canyon, between the dark walls shone the Big Dipper. It fit so perfectly into the shape of the land. There was enough light to see that clouds were forming in the west. If it rains here I refuse to walk in the mud just for food. The little snacks left from my trip were going to have to sustain me.
As I laid in bed trying to make my spine respond to the flatness I heard coyotes howling to one another. They sounded more like roosters being strangled.
my vow of silence
the blue tongue
a river's autumn
I heard the iron bell clanging and clanging as if it wanted to completely fill the canyon with sound to announce the deeper silence the monks would keep after compline.
the voice of God
in stone walls
Copyright © Jane Reichhold 2000.
More from HOLY GHOSTS October 4.