The painter Harlan Hubbard said
that he was painting Heaven when
the places he painted merely were
the Campbell or the Trimble County
banks of the Ohio, or farms
and hills where he had worked or roamed:
a house’s gable and roofline
rising from a fold in the hills,
trees bearing snow, two shanty boats
at dawn, immortal light upon
the flowing river in its bends.
And these were Heavenly because
he never saw them clear enough
to satisfy his love, his need
to see them all again, again.
Wendell Berry, Leavings
I spent the week in northern Minnesota participating in an ecumenical dialogue on the pastoral life. The consultation was sponsored by the Collegeville Institute who gathered a small group of pastors and academics from around the country to dialogue with Eugene Peterson about his recent memoir, The Pastor. The conversations were generative and insightful as we worked through a series of questions related to the formation of pastors and the nature of the vocation.
The confab took place at St. John’s University, which is both a school for 4,000 students and home to a large Benedictine monastery. The campus is beautiful, situated on 3,500 acres of living forest with a couple of picturesque lakes stretching the landscape. Prayers were held morning, noon and evening in the Abbey Church (designed by modernist architect Marcel Breuer), which gave us a wonderful rhythm to the day.
While there we were able to view the St. John’s Bible, one of the few hand-written, illustrated Bibles produced since the advent of the printing press. Last summer, I saw the famous 6th century manuscript, The Book of Kells while in Dublin. The St. John’s Bible was carried out by Donald Jackson, one of the world’s premier cartographers. He gathered together a team of artists and calligraphers to produce the script and illustrations. The entire project took thirteen years and millions of dollars. The final volume of seven was just completed and delivered to St. John’s Abbey last week and the Benedictines hosted a mass to commemorate the occasion.
Each day we would pray with the monks, share our meals together and discuss the subject of pastoral ministry in guided conversations. We had some free time during the day to write and read and hike. At night we can back together for music and food and stories, including one evening at the home of Don Ottenhoff and Kathleen Cahalan which was like showing up at Babette’s Feast with an appetite.
from Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder by Kent Nerburn.
As a child of the woodlands, I had never had much of a sense of the plains and the prairies. But now, as the days passed, the hypnotic power of the land had overtaken me. I felt like a man on an island sea. The billowing, waving prairie grasses were symphonic in their ebbs and swells; the marching cadences of the passing clouds transfixed the eye. Sound was magnified, as if echoing against some vast, celestial vault. Thunder would roll in from beyond the horizon; the buzzing of insects would seem to be inside your head. It was equal parts peace and dread – a land of dreams and phantasms.
Two weeks ago today I was on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for a work week at Re-member. While there, I had to make a run up to Rapid City to pick up one of our students at the airport. The drive through the Badlands National Park was unbelievably quiet. I didn’t pass a car for long stretches of roadway. At one point, I stopped on the side of the road and climbed atop the rental van for a video panoramic of the landscape.
In Scenic, South Dakota, I sought some refreshment at the local saloon but it looked like it had been closed for some time. I was glad to see that Indians were allowed but sad to miss out on their misspelled “wiskey”.
Making the drive back to Pine Ridge, I was struck once again by the marvel of big sky country. The western landscapes overwhelm the senses. On the way back I played “Calling Out Your Name” by Rich Mullins. The late songwriter paid homage to the “Keeper of the Plains” with these words:
Well the moon moved past Nebraska
And spilled laughter on them cold Dakota Hills
And angels danced on Jacob’s stairs
Yeah, they danced on Jacob’s stairs
There is this silence in the Badlands
And over Kansas the whole universe was stilled
By the whisper of a prayer
The whisper of a prayer
And the single hawk bursts into flight
And in the east the whole horizon is in flames
I feel thunder in the sky
I see the sky about to rain
And I hear the prairies calling out Your name
I can feel the earth tremble
Beneath the rumbling of the buffalo hooves
And the fury in the pheasant’s wings
And there’s fury in a pheasant’s wings
It tells me the Lord is in His temple
And there is still a faith
That can make the mountains move
And a love that can make the heavens ring
And I’ve seen love make heaven ring
Where the sacred rivers meet
Beneath the shadow of the Keeper of the plains
I feel thunder in the sky
I see the sky about to rain
And I hear the prairies calling out Your name
Speaking of silence, as part of our cultural immersion program at Re-member, we went for a hike deep in the Badlands and sat still for an hour or so. Some fell asleep. Some stared at the clouds. Others daydreamed. But as we sat in silence, we paid attention to creation. I thought of a recent book by Gordon Hempton. Hempton is an audio ecologist.
Over the past three decades Hempton has circled the earth three times, recording sound on every continent except Antarctica: butterfly wings fluttering, coyotes singing, snow melting, waterfalls crashing, traffic clanging, birds singing. His work has been used in film soundtracks, videogames, and museums.
For nearly thirty years, he has awakened to each new day determined to listen to the world and record the sounds that can be heard. This lifelong work has also led him to an important discovery. In his book, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World, he contends that silence has become an endangered species.
In 1983 he found 21 places in Washington state with noise-free intervals of 15 minutes or more. By 2007 there were three. (One of them is Olympic National Park, which he is trying to save, and he will not reveal the names of the others, arguing that they are protected by their anonymity.) Whom can we blame? People, and planes. Hempton claims that, during daytime, the average noise-free interval in wilderness areas has shrunk to less than five minutes. Think of the snowmobiles roaring through Yellowstone, helicopters flying over Hawaii volcanoes, and air tours over the Grand Canyon.
Hempton thinks silence can be a gift and he has made it his life work to conserve sanctuaries of quiet. When asked why we should be concerned about silence, he responds:
It has become an increasingly rare experience to be in nature as our distant ancestors were. Even in our national parks today, despite laws to protect them, you are much more likely to be hearing noise pollution, particularly overhead aircraft, than you are to be hearing only the native sounds of the land. Yet to be in a naturally silent place is as essential today as it was to our distant ancestors. Besides spending time away from the damaging noise impacts present at our workplace, neighborhoods, and homes, we are given the opportunity not only to heal but discover something incredible—the presence of life, interwoven! Do you know what it sounds like to listen for 20 miles in every direction? That is more than 1,000 square miles. When I listen to a naturally silent place and hear nature at its most natural, it is no longer merely sound; it is music. And like all music, good or bad, it affects us deeply.
Upon leaving the Badlands, I thought of a song by the Zac Brown Band. Quiet Your Mind stresses the value of stillness and the importance of listening.
At the end of the water
A red sun is risin’
And the stars are all goin’ away
And if you’re too busy talkin’
You’re not busy listenin’
To hear what the land has to say
Quiet your mind
This monastery was one of the most important centers of scholarship in Celtic Ireland. Founded by St. Ciaran and strategically situated on the Shannon River, it housed a large community of monks and exerted an influence throughout Ireland. It’s a Heritage site known for having some of the finest high crosses in the world. Of particular note are The Scripture Cross, The North Cross, and The South Cross. The founder died of yellow plague, just seven months after the monastery was completed. He was 33.
Yesterday morning I drove to the midlands of Ireland and hiked Croagh Patrick, one of the highest points in the country and Ireland’s holy mountain. Patrick is said to have spent forty days here in 441 AD, praying and fasting that God’s blessing would be visited upon the land and people. Since that time, people have made pilgrimage to the summit to pray and see the spectacular views around the conical shaped mountain. A modest church is at the top of the peak. Surprisingly, there was a dog inside the church when I went in; not surprisingly, the dog was asleep. I’m not sure about the veracity of my translation, but I think “croagh” might be Gaelic for “bum burner.”
Approaching the mountain
St. Patrick Statue
The path up
Looking north from the top.
Dead dog tired in the house of the Lord.
Yesterday, I went in search of a wise man high atop Skellig Michael. The Skelligs are two mountainous islands eight miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. Skellig Michael (“Michael’s Rock”), the larger of the two, was home to one of the oldest Christian communities in ancient Ireland. Dating back to early 600 AD and St. Fionan, a group of monks rowed out to the greater Skellig and built their huts and oratories 714 feet up from the sea. The thousand year old pathway to the top of one peak consists of 600 plus steps which the monks made from the surrounding rock. There has been some controversy surrounding the site as two Americans fell to their deaths within the past year. A review board was trying to determine if access should be limited and/or if guard rails should be put in place at various stations along the way.
A local guide from the town of Portmagee took a small group of us to the island. I went into the Fisherman’s Bar first thing in the morning and one of the fisherman said, “No boats today.” The weather was too bad to land the boats at Skellig and the visibility was greatly reduced anyway. By early afternoon, the weather had cleared and we made the hour long trip to the island. On the boat were two Portuguese; a couple originally from Germany and the Czech Republic, but now living together in Wales; a man from Cork, Ireland; the young boat skipper and his small dog, Nini. We spent two and a half hours on the island where the earlier weather had turned away most of the tourists/pilgrims. By the end of the day, we were the last six on the island. I felt like I was on LOST and kept listening for the sound of the smoke monster.
On the way back we slowly passed by Little Skellig, which is described as one of the wildlife wonders of the world, home to 29,000 pairs of gannets, seals tanning on the lower rocks and a host of other bird species (a puffin pictured below).
Little Skellig on the left; Skellig Michael on the right.
(Tens of thousands of gannets salting the Little Skellig)
My 1996 Bonneville has a problem. From time to time, she just decides to power down. I’ll be driving down the highway and then, all of a sudden, the engine just shuts off. It’ll do this once every few days. I’ll pull off the side of the road, wait a minute, and then it’ll start right back up. I’ve taken it to my trusty mechanic on two separate occasions, but, of course, the car refuses to act up when it’s at the shop or taken out for a test drive. I thought it might be a fuel intake problem and tried an Internet tip suggesting I keep the tank over half full. No luck. It’s some weird electrical malfunction. Yesterday, the Bonnie died on me at Rangeline and Wilkes. I pulled up to the intersection and she gave up the ghost. I put on my hazards and directed traffic with my hand for a few minutes. Eventually, I pushed it through the intersection and parked on the side of the road in front of St. Francis House. What a fitting place to be! Vow or no vow, I was among the poor whom “you always have with you.” They watched from the front porch. I waited by the side of the road. Then, the car started again. Maybe this was an epiphany, a place of encounter. Perhaps I should pray to the patron saint of automobiles, if there is such a thing. Or look for a mechanic named Frank who has a way with wayward vehicles. Or maybe I should join a monastic order and become a peripatetic vagabond. Or, perhaps I should give my clunker to the government in exchange for a better ride.