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.
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.”
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.