Everywhere but the Sky

My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature, to know [the Divine’s] lurking places, to attend all the oratories, the operas, in Nature. To watch for, describe, all the divine features which I detect in Nature.

-Henry David Thoreau, On Man & Nature

I wanted to find God in the land, in the soil, somewhere closer, less ambiguous than the sky, a place I could touch, dig into. In exchange for some grunt work, the Benedictine Mothers of Our Lady of the Rock Monastery invited me into their lives of rising with the sun and caring for the land and animals that brought them prosperity. They believed that their work and prayer were one, a symbiosis they called Ora et Labora in latin. Milking the cow, weeding the garden, hauling hay bales, all meditative opportunities for prayerful intimacy with earth, animal, God. As a community whose members are not going out into “the world” generating income, work for monastics means sustenance. They become masters in animal husbandry and butchering, gardening, farming, canning and preserving, herbal medicine, cheesemaking, foraging, sheep shearing, wool spinning, weaving; the land is their teacher and provider. They do not point to the heavens for providence.

From the ferry in Anacortes I landed on Shaw Island, the seven mile home of the Monastery and two-hundred other residents, situated on the Salish Sea just south of Canada in Washington State. I arrived both humble and skeptical, revering these nuns’ spiritual dedication and questioning it deeply. I came to experience a taste of farm life, island life, but mostly to fall into the rhythm of a monastic’s spiritual life, craving the discipline that guides their daily routine. By no means did I wish to become a monastic or even to pursue Catholicism, but I believed their path might open my eyes to seeing the universe in a new light.

I had long been curious of the ascetic lifestyle, so oppositional to the societal systems preached as normal in modern society. These Benedictines shatter the celebrated School of Individualism by denying personal finances and any sense of social mobility. Donning head-to-toe, all black habits, they live communally sharing meals, chores, living spaces, automobiles. Vows of chastity, obedience, and isolation define them. Yet, they are tied to hospitality, making their living mostly through opening their doors and lives to any passersby who might give a donation. They are connected to nature and they embrace solitude. I was interested in all aspects of their religious life, but I was most intrigued by their active practice of silence. Seems paradoxical, the act of not acting. But I learned it was more challenging work than farm work, and that the rewards are great for those who sit still, alone, silent.

I worked alongside Mother Thérese (the Prioress), Mother Hildegard, Mother Dilecta, Mother Mary Grace, Mother Catarina, Mother Felicitas, and Mother Ruth as they prayed in meditative labor. All over the age of seventy, one just a hair away from ninety, these wizened farmers taught me the ins and outs of the farm life and entrusted me with the care of guests in the guesthouse. They also invited me to participate in their formal prayers in chapel. Traditionally, the Benedictines chant the Liturgy of the Hours; eight prayer times a day. At Our Lady of the Rock they maintain the latin Gregorian Chant, still beautiful in their creaky and wobbly old voices, but due to the nature of the working farm, with three hundred acres of land and nearly fifty animals to care for, the prayer times are condensed. “Christ understands that we are busy ladies,” Mother Caterina once told me in her Jersey accent, a spattering of tomato sauce down the front of her blue denim work habit and chicken feathers clinging to her wimple.

The monastic property consisted of two guest houses, St. Joseph for the men and St. Scholastica for the women, a preserving room for cooking, storing butchered meat, and processing produce and herbs, a dairy to chill raw milk and cheese, a chicken coop affectionately titled Chicken Heaven by Mother Caterina, a pig pen, a sheep house, and a large barn housing the two Jersey cows, the farm darlings, Claire and Luccina. A large sliding door opened up at the end of the barn, perfectly framing a bucolic scene of grazing Scottish Highland cattle, horned and shaggy haired, Cotswold sheep, and llamas and alpacas on a wide pastureland backdropped by a dense green forest. Tucked into the landscape were three gardens; a small koi fish pond surrounded by ornamental shrubs and vines that Mother Mary Grace nurtured and the blue herons frequently stalked, Mother Felicitas’s artistically laid out herb garden (which is still tended to at her 82 years of age), and the large vegetable and flower garden that was Mother Dilecta’s pride and joy. Extending beyond these terrains was the pastureland fenced in by forest with the Monastic chapel and enclosure sitting on a rocky hill, overlooking it all.

The nuns’ sleeping quarters were off limits to anyone outside of the religious community, but occasionally they opened the doors to me if they had computer problems I could help with or when Mother Hildegard insisted I give her Portugeuse Water Dogs, Koko and Bella, a haircut, despite my lack of haircutting or dog experience. Their home was a striking, Japanese-style building enclosed behind a wall of mossy stacked logs. Because the house at Our Lady of the Rock was literally built on a rock (I’m told they once said their prayers in the carved out heart of this rock before a chapel was built), multiple staircases and ramps led out and around the house so that the nuns never set foot on the actual ground. The first time I went behind the wall, I marveled at the black herd of them floating down the ramp to the chapel like phantoms in their long cloaks. The chapel lay just outside the wall, open at all hours of the day or night to any guest. The courtyard was a humble, zen rock-garden, but inside was grand. No bright colors or stained glass, just rich wood. Fifteen different types of trees from the Pacific Northwest made up the floor, pews, walls, ceilings and geometric cross-beams. A widely spaced bamboo fence called a grille separated the pews in the congregation from the nun’s pews, a strict tradition of Benedictine enclosures even though these nuns designated the seven mile perimeter of the island as their true enclosure, joining in on Fourth of July parades or playing in the island orchestra. A large marble altar sat in the middle and fresh flowers from Mother Dilecta’s garden were arranged in oriental vases. The Paschal candle stayed eternally lit in the corner of the chapel and the smell of incense made the air feel thicker in there.

I loved to sit in the pew and hear the Psalms being chanted during Vespers when all the wood would fill with the golden light that precedes the setting sun. Mother Dilecta squabbling Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy) like a tired bird in her operatic vibrato, Mother Prioress’s soft and angelic Pater Nostre (Our Father) that made the world outside go quiet, the sounding of the gong three times, symbolizing Christ’s ascension, by the hunchbacked Mother Ruth, once a Southern pecan farmer’s daughter, all made my arm hair stand on end in a good sort of chilling way. In Mass when they drank Christ’s blood and ate his body, there were often tears in their eyes. How intimately they felt the presence of their Beloved. One nun had left a marriage, two children, a tenured professorship and exciting life as a Marxist for this man. Another nun, multiple PhD’s, and a rumored heiress status. Some had surrendered their life in the outside world to follow Christ as soon as they graduated high school, as if there were never a competing option. May the power of Christ compel you. Yet, the patina statue of a gaunt man nailed to a cross that I stared at every day for eight months in that chapel could not offer me the salvation that Nature invited me into.

The priest would repeat Christ’s words, “My peace I give to you,” as we gave each other the kiss of peace during Mass. If peace was imparted, I received it most abundantly through the observance of patterns on the sea’s surface. More often than not, I attended church with the ocean instead. When the chapel bells rang in the morning to signify the beginning of Mass, I would wait for the Monastery guests to begin their walk up to the chapel, then sneak out the back door to grab my sneakers and jog the half-mile stretch of gravel road down to Hoffman’s Cove. Here, I’d scurry along the coastal cliffside, running my hands down the smooth, chartreuse green core of the Madrona tree, left exposed by the peeling away of its red paper bark, now lying curled like holy scrolls at the base of the tree. Finding a spot where I felt truly alone, I would sit and bow respectfully to the water below as the Mothers did to the crucifix upon entering the chapel. Clear, ungraspable mass, able to solidly reflect something as constant and as expansive as the sky, the Salish Sea was the only thing large enough for me to feel safe sinking my prayers into. The deep, dark vessel of blue swallowed all my vulnerabilities without expectation in return. I didn’t have to worry about my prayers being answered as I might a personified god, I knew they were simply being held by this billowing belly teeming with the unseen lives of over half the world’s creatures. During my silent masses at the sea, curious seals would often greet me, bald eagles and blue herons would swoop overhead and plunge into the ocean just feet away, convinced I was no threat to their breakfast. The salt-drenched seaweed smell of the air was the thick incense of this sanctuary, the rhythmic wash of the waves against the rock shore the resounding gong.

Sometimes, when I managed to break away from obligatory dinner conversation that often revolved around the question of me not being a Catholic, or if a generous guest would offer to do the dishes for me, the sea and I would convene at sunset for evening prayer. Against the serene backdrop of the docile sea in its evening rest, my mind was often a constantly unwinding ball of deafening thought pollution. Stillness is manageable, but internal silence requires either years of practice, or magic. One magic time, while watching the pastel stillness of the sky, the pink lava water lulled me into a state of emptiness. No thoughts, just heavy sweetness. As I became one of those thousand shells scattered where water greets shore, three black triangles, fins, rolling up and down in gliding curves slicing the horizon, brought me back: “Orcas!” I gasped out loud. I felt my tongue again, my lips, the cold on my face, my hands folded over one another on the nest of my crossed legs, the slightly faster speed of my heartbeat in its new surge of excitement. Despite their declining existence, Orca whales are commonly sighted in their water home throughout the archipelago via boat on open ocean, but it is incredibly rare for them to come through the narrow passage between Shaw and its neighbor San Juan. With my eyes fixated on the pod’s route around the corner of the adjacent bay, I lost track of the daylight and became intimately alone with all the night’s blue; top to bottom, no middle crease. Arthur Rimbaud once named this event of the sky mingling with the sea, Eternity. I bowed again, a humble partaker of this small piece of eternity, and felt the presence of tears. I thought of the nuns in the chapel receiving the heavenly host, their tears of humility, reverence. I was reminded that I had done nothing to achieve the vibrancy of moments like this one except for showing up and surrendering to stillness, that great teacher, that kind friend, and the Divinity that lurks there, ever so subtly, a lover’s finger down the spine.

The ocean had its own haunting and rhythmic chant of praise. At Matins, or middle of the night prayer, as the nuns chanted “Ave maris stella, Dei Mater alma (Hail, bright star of the ocean),” a mile below the chapel, the ocean lit up like cosmos beneath my fingertips on warm summer nights. Although a purely scientific phenomenon, one cannot escape the mystery, the total specialness of bioluminescence, as though the ocean is responding with playful gesture to the infinitesimalness of human touch.

In the breathing silence of the forest, the chant is there, too. The lush mosses hug the rock spine of the island. Each year a yard of soft, vibrant green is crocheted onto the ever growing bryophyte blanket covering the forest floor. I came to understand what the poet Mary Oliver meant when she wrote, “Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that they have no tongues, could lecture all day if they wanted about spiritual patience?” Patience and persistence. How long it must have taken them to hide the rocky crags below, pushed forcefully up over time due to the collision of tectonic plates and shaped violently by the glaciers of the ice age. Brightly colored mushrooms and lichens with names fit for fairytale books — pixie cup, angel wings, candy caps, and blood-spattered beard — litter fallen tree limbs and creep into the rock’s crevices. Silvery spider ribbons are strung across the forest’s decaying matter like party decorations on an ever expanding tomb. In the Spring, delicate blooms of calypso orchids, tiger lilies, trillium, sea blush, and shooting stars peek out of these fresh layers of compost, exotic and sparse; treasured gems hiding under a pile of green rubble. Completing the understory of the forest are ferns, Oregon grape, Nootka rose, salmonberry, horsetails, painful colonies of stinging nettle, and labyrinths of salal, its latin name like one of the Mothers’ psalms, Gaultheria shallon. Cascading above are the barked towers of Douglas-fir, cedar, and hemlock, creating a laced canopy to filter the sun’s rays.

Here in this kingdom of seventy different shades of neon, deep, earthy, wonderful green green green, all that was rich and full of life was mine by simple observation. Mary Oliver also wrote that to pay attention is our endless work. I took this notion seriously and worked hard in the forest, on my hands and knees, listening to the quiet ones tell me the secrets of life. They taught me the hiding places of the wild things lying dormant underfoot for months before thrusting forth their offerings, and let me partake in their world, offering sweet berries and savory mushrooms to eat, wild greens to chew on for a burst of flavor or to steep in tea for nourishment. Every day I found time to wade through the blooming green sea with delicacy for the fragile, wild world underfoot, finding a spot to sit and be still so I could watch it all spin, this slow business, this celebration. Examining the green world, I learned of the seasons and the cycles of life. I discovered how important it was that nothing established dominance, that death led to new life, that the threat to one tiny organism meant a threat to the entire forest, the interconnectedness of it all. If the sea was my confessional and my communion, the forest was the homily, teaching me how to see and love the world more fully. It was here that the moral disciplines of love thy neighbor as thyself and lay down your life for others became tangible concepts. The deep ecology of the forest penetrated me like a revival meeting. After returning from my visits in the woods, I felt as though I was now a slightly better version of myself and wondered how one could possibly leave the green cover of trees without feeling more alive.

The nuns never seemed to mind my absence from the chapel. The invitation to their spirituality was always an open swinging door. The more time I spent in the oratory of nature, the greater I understood the importance of their sanctuary. Sitting in the chapel listening to their chant, I could hear the wind in the forest and feel the gentle wave of the ocean’s surface in their praises. Similarly, they could feel the presence of Christ as they looked out at the ocean from their house on the rock and as they walked down the wooded road to the dairy barn to milk the cows each dewy morning. One sanctuary informed the other. Regardless of theological beliefs, everyone requires a place to feel protected, listened to, loved, awakened. And for those searching for a place to seek the Divine, there is no one size fits all. I couldn’t see God in the chapel until I first discovered God in the elements.

Through Ora et Labora, the nuns taught me how to witness Divinity in the seeds we pushed into the soil that became our food for the summer months, or in the carcass of a chicken laboriously deboned for dinner. There was profoundness, peace, nourishment when attention was fixed on these small wonders of the world. Because of this lesson, I was able to see Wonder in the tangles of green moss that formed a cushion underneath me when I’d nap in the forest, or in the dancing waters of the sea, or in the curious stare of a newborn doe emerging from the salal brush for the first time. The nuns of Our Lady of the Rock didn’t convince me of who or what God was, that wasn’t their purpose as spiritual Mothers. Instead, they helped me realize that God was lurking everywhere tangible. Everywhere but some imaginable place in the sky.

Tari Gunstone is a photographer, writer, and gardener from Portland, Oregon