Ferial: 6-7 July 2012
In my silence, I seem to be visited night after night by the demons and memories of lives past.
Out here, life is stripped of conveniences and distractions, and one is forced to stand and to confront.
The battles of my patron saint, back in an Egypt long since covered in blood and sand, come crystal clear to me – out here – waiting, praying, working.
So far from home, I sift through each psalm to find something to turn over in my hand, to ponder: psalms in the night, psalms at dawn, psalms through the day until night arrives once more.
I listen to each reading come over me and recede back into the ether.
Here, in such a place, the best and the worst can be conjured out of red dust and a limitless horizon.
And the gardening and the bread making and the cooking up jams: all helps. All of it helps to turn one in towards the waiting silences that surround one’s simple prayers.
And as the lights are cut and the roaches and mosquitoes rule once more, the djinns come knocking at the door, at the bedpost. They pull back the blankets and try to untuck the net separating the deadly dangers of the Equatorial belt. The djinns enter one’s nostrils and swirl their way deep into the recesses of one’s dreams: pulling plot points and character transmogrifications: and sliding simple stories into operatic tragedies and travesties, pushing one again and again into the rôle of Fool.
Out here, the dreams are so feverishly colorfully convincing and so terrifying truthful.
A little discarded snippet of truth can be used by the djinn or the devil to weave the greatest of distortions and send the surest soul into flights of fright.
Some call this, spiritual exercises.
Others: a form of exorcism.
Words. But to build anew, the old must be torn apart (effectively through sincere conversion and continued prayer), triaged, and if need be chucked out whole.
And digging through: making space for that sought and sought as what it truthfully can only be: unknown.
And the gardening and the bread making and the cooking up jams: all helps.
And walking the cloister.
And sitting in the back of the pick-up surveying above the flood plain, learning the geography, again and again, gathering bits of memory.
Moments after writing the above words, after striping off the clothes of the day, and sliding between the cleaned sheets, under a well-tucked mosquito net, while waiting for the lights to go out as the power was once more cut, I looked down around the white sheets covered in rose blossoms to notice that the roses were not alone – scores of little black bugs were dotted across the surface, all wriggling toward what seemed to me to be their intended host: me.
At first I thought: fleas! But they didn’t jump. And then I thought: bedbugs, but they were out and about in the florescent lighting, and if I had bedbugs it surely would have been before now.
And I did not know what to do. Great Silence follows Compline, and so I began to swish them off and down the sides, like a careful Jain. But there were too many, and they kept coming. And then for a half second I wondered about those stories one reads in the collections of stories about the Desert Fathers, and illusions caused by the temptations and the demons. But tonight I took no Larium, and this invasion seemed real enough. And so, I began to pinch each little black entity in two. The bugs were climbing down (from the ceiling?), using the actual web of the mosquito net as a sort of Jacob’s ladder, swinging and wriggling their way into position, and then freefalling to the surface of the bed sheet.
I wondered if these little dots were bloodsuckers. I wondered if they would burrow into my pale flesh like the larvae of the dreaded Tumbu fly (found somewhere else in these parts). I wondered if my annihilation would even make a dint, or if this was simply a farce of a white man’s burden, positioned in a cell, in the Great Silence, in the middle of southern Uganda. This is what comes to one in the loneliness of the African night. And the djinns were there to assist the bugs, and to tousle with my mind.
I counted few new arrivals, and switched off the climber’s headlamp, and prayed for vivid ridiculous dreams.
At 3: 30 a.m., I sponge-bathed and dowsed my neck and hair with Deet. And dressed for Vigils, knowing that there would be mosquitoes waiting in the church.
At 8: 30 a.m., after breakfast, Sister B. and I began to plan a day of attempting to bake small loaves of Artisan bread in an oven heated by burning logs, without an oven thermometer and without a proper measuring cup.
And as the dough took, and rose in due course, and as we worked through the prepping of cabbage and potatoes and tomatoes and onions for the cook for the noonday meal and for the later supper, the simple power of simple work in simple community took over all feelings from the night before.
Sister B. wishes to get an undergraduate degree finally in Music, with a concentration in Liturgical Music, and we discussed the merits of studying with the Mennonites in Canada, versus reaching out to the Benedictines in Minnesota. Perhaps they could find a place for a bright hardworking sister with a large heart and spirit.
By 2:30, the loaves were baked and cooling. The dishes from the noonday meal were cleaned and dried and put away.
As with the day of making jam, Sister and I missed out on Sext and None, and Charles Cummings, O.S.C.O., in his chapter on “Work” in Monastic Practices might frown upon such transgressions. But this is not America. And Sister, a Benedictine and not a Trappist, wisely counseled the other day: “Work is prayer. Now stay and pray and let us finish our work for the benefit of others.” Even Cummings remarks in his book “Origen understood prayer in a broad sense as a life of love for God and neighbor.” And out here, in such a hostile landscape, doing things for others is prayer. So such should be seen in any environment, anywhere. But where there is little, the widow’s few coins take on the revealing significations of the eschaton.
And so does baking bread (take on the revealing significations of the eschaton).
And making jam…
And weeding. And tilling. And planting.
And washing clean the windows and sills of a monk who has gone to visit family in Kenya, and may be back before I go. Or not.
And teaching others to be able to use the computer or the Internet for the betterment of their brethren or their orphaned students.
And simply to stand next to some other living person, with nothing more to give, than shared harmony in prayer.
Out here, in such a community, each act of giving is received with equal value: each holds importance without hierarchy.
In the ancient The Book of Elders, an anonymous author pointed to all of this, when wrote:
“What [is] more perfect than love? What [is] more elevated than humility?”
Friends matter out here. As do strangers one meets briefly along one’s way. And “community” stretches beyond the limitless horizon.
“Toil, poverty, voluntary exile, fortitude, and keeping silent produce humility, and humility effaces many sins.” – Abba Isaiah, The Book of Elders, 1.9
“… [A} person ought before all things to acquire … clemency and love for all,submission, gentleness, long-suffering, patience… with a view to not paying attention to what is past but attending to that which is to come, having no confidence in one’s own good works and service, and ceaselessly invoking the help of God in the things that happen to one each day.” – Abba Isaiah, The Book of Elders, 1.7
“So when you arise at dawn each day, make a fresh start in every virtue and commandment of God with greatest patience, with fear and long-suffering, in the love of God… closing your tomb as though you were already dead, so that death seems to be near to you every day.” – Abba John Colobos, The Book of Elders, 1.13
“Do not let your hands be open to gather in; let them rather be open to give.” – Abba Chomai, The Book of Elders, 1.27
“And I said: Who will give me wings like a dove, and I will fly and be at rest?
“Lo, I have gone far off flying away; and I abode in the wilderness.
“… for I have seen iniquity and contradiction in the city.” – Psalm 54: 7-8, 10
“Rape / Murder / It’s just a shot away ” – ‘Gimme Shelter’, Rolling Stones
In the desert
Voices come to you
From far away
“Come apart, into a desert place, and rest a little.” – Mark 6: 31
Shalom – Shanti – Salaam –