Tag Archives: Genesee Abbey

Rhythms of Creation in a Pre-Industrial Enclave

It is 5:30. I have slept straight through Night Vigil. The 3:00 hour slipped past without a trace, lost to me in forgotten dreams.

Now, on the last morning of my silence, I pull on layer after layer till only my eyes are exposed. I step out into the pitch black.

It is cold. There is a little machine in my pocket that tells me just how cold. Two below. I turn the machine off and slip it away. The road is covered with snow. 

Genesee Abbey chapel stands just less than a mile away, up a long windswept hill here in the Finger Lakes of New York. I can just make out the lights across the corn stubble still peeking through the fresh-fallen snow. My breath freezes on my mustache.

Why am I doing this? All week long, amidst every possible kind of winter weather, my car — perfectly serviceable — has waited for me outside Bethlehem House. When I first arrived, I slowed to a crawl as I passed dark figures leaning into the wind.

“Can I offer you a ride?” I asked uncertainly, fearful of interrupting some mystical communion.

The answer would come back in whispered tones: “Thank you brother, but I will walk.”

Silence. Solitude. Walking.

And listening. And seeing. And wondering.

Upon my return, friends will be curious: How was it? What did you take from the silence? What did you discover among the Trappists?

And I will stammer out a few feeble lines, settling weakly on this: The monastic community is a pre-industrial fellowship. The rhythms of life, the liturgies, the daily disciplines were all born long before Thomas Newcomen first scooped coal into a new kind of engine — a Spirit which for three centuries would possess every soul, every imagination, every culture, every human enterprise.

I will say that perhaps I have crossed back, to some small degree, to a life I have never imagined, before the Spirit of Buried Fire gripped the planet.

And I will recall how that Spirit has allowed us to bypass the rhythms and requirements of nature that mankind once was bound to observe season after season – summer and winter; darkness and sunlight; birth, death, and new birth. I will observe for the first time the degree to which I have imbibed the illusion that we could bring the creation under our control, and free ourselves from futility and toil. I will recall how these seductive illusions have made me a stranger to the planet of my birth, to my fellow mortal creatures, and to the demands of slow, orbital nature.

In this morning’s silence, all I hear is the steady crunch of my feet on the snow. A fingernail moon is rising in the dark eastern sky. The morning sun cannot be far behind. My cheek bones and temples ache in the winter wind.

My vehicle, using the energy equivalent of 2,000 human beings, can triumph over this unfamiliar harshness. The flash of ignition, the hum of the engine, and the shelter of glass and steel – and I am again Master. The Earth is no longer my fellow creation. She is not “thou,” but only “it.” Her creatures are not in fellowship with me; they are “resources;” they are “property.”

In the darkness, I plod on uphill. A car overtakes me and slows to a crawl.

“May I offer you a ride?”

The voice is soft and tentative. The driver does not want to interrupt some unseen communion. His offer reflects kindness. He knows we are almost late for the divine office of morning Lauds. He does not want to leave me in this darkness.

“Thank you brother,” my voice whispers. “I will walk.”

J. Elwood

Note: The writings of Larry L. Rasmussen (Earth-Honoring Faith) and J. Gustave Speth (The Bridge at the Edge of the World) have helped to form some of the thoughts shared in this account. I hope you will find time to read them.

Everything is Connected

I have been hearing three voices to challenge and shape my prayers and desires in recent days:

  1. A week of silence and spiritual routine at the Abbey of the Genesee, reawakening my connections with wind, ice, earth, sky, river, heartbeat, non-human creatures, and Spirit.
  1. Rereading of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si’, reawakening my sense of the connectedness of all things: “St. Francis would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naïve romanticism. For it affects the choices which determine our behavior. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of St. Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”
  1. And then, religious ethicist Larry Rasmussen sharpens the Pope’s “connectedness” reasoning even further: “While there is a deep human longing to belong to the same order that threw the galaxies across the universe and the planets into orbit, most of the cosmological and biological processes that gave us birth do not register in our sense of ourselves…. Modernity’s prized bubble – the built environment as our true habitat – leads to “apartheid” consciousness at the species level. Like whites in apartheid South Africa, we think that “our kind” can develop separately. Human beings collectively become the center and focus, drawing upon all the rest as needed. We do not regard ourselves internally related as kin to the rest of a shared and indispensable community that also lives embedded in the earth and cosmos. This constricted and alienated sense of ourselves is the species counterpart of self-absorption…. And while, as biosocial creatures by nature, we might acknowledge that our deepest human need is for social bonds and committed relationships – the opposite of self-absorption – we for some reason do not extend these bonds and commitments to other-than-human life. The outcome is the kind of anthropocentrism that smothers the cosmophelia (love of the cosmos) and biophelia (love of life) native to the kind of creature we are. Biophelia, the yearning for contact with other-than-human life, and cosmophelia, the yearning to belong to the same order as the stars, then languish, and we forget we are human beings tethered marrow and bone to evolutionary cosmic processes” (Earth-Honoring Faith).

For years, my friends have heard me throwing around references to the gospel as finding its source in “God so loved the cosmos” (Gr. “kosmon”) and its consummation in “the reconciliation of all things” (Gr. “ta panta”)  and its final word as “Behold, I am making all things new!”

And yet my own life hardly reflects this unity and community with the wider world of God’s creation. On the contrary, I see in myself heart-deep patterns that resist all of these redemptive connections: frenzied commitments to career, neglect of time in nature, a false sense of superiority arising from the unexamined references to the “image of God,” and tribal instincts that extend to nation, ethnicity, social class and religious tradition. And I recognize those same traits writ large in our nation as we retreat into exceptionalism, militarism, ethnocentricity, xenophobia, wanton disregard for ecosystems, expulsion of foreigners, and elimination of systems to care for the needy. We are not connected; we will build walls; we will arm ourselves with guns; we will sink or swim; we have a bigger button. We are not connected to anything beyond individual choice.

I decry these trends in our nation. But let me start by addressing disconnectedness in my own heart. And look, I’m running late for my walk in the woods…

J. Elwood