Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Silence Before the Dawn

I was up really early this morning.

Last night I was quite tired, after a day that included digging one of our cars out of a snow bank and an afternoon fighting my way through the mobs in the Poughkeepsie stores. Faced with exhaustion, I managed to get myself into bed earlier than I usually do, which is a feat in itself, and which I found myself very glad to have done. And one of the results of this remarkable feat was that I woke up before 5 this morning, having had 7 hours of sleep and feeling rested and as though I had had my fill of sleep for the time being.

So there I was. I had an hour and a half before I needed to get my shower. I don't often have a nice stretch of time that is completely free and available for whatever I want. What to do? There is always meditation, of course, or Lectio, or study - things I don't usually get nearly as much time for as I would like. The only complication there was that I didn't want anything that felt even a little bit like work. I didn't want another task. December is a very busy time for us; sometimes it's almost completely crazy, what with guesthouse programs and people coming and going and needing to have time with one of us to reflect on their lives before Christmas, and Incense sales going through the roof and thank-you notes to be started on and so much else. And I do often get meditation and reading confused in my mind with just one more task that has to be done. I know better, but knowing better and reacting that way emotionally are, I have discovered, two different things.

So I didn't want a job, even (or especially) the job of praying. I wanted something that would feel like I had this lovely hour of free time to luxuriate in. It took a while, but not too long, to figure out what I was going to do. I threw on my robe and went down to the Common Room to make the morning coffee. All was quiet. No one else was up yet, at least no one who wanted coffee. So I made a carafe of good strong coffee, and filled my favorite mug with it and went back to my room, put my coffee mug on a little mug-sized heater that I have to keep it warm, and got back into bed.

It felt wonderful. The coffee was delicious. I lit a couple of candles (I am a real fan of beautiful candles) and they were lovely in the darkness. Everything was still; there wasn't a sound in the house. Outside were the sounds of the storm that we are in the midst of, principally the sound of sleet beating against my window. It was dark, with not a sign of dawn yet. And I felt the comfort of the pre-dawn hours that I really love.
Like a lot of people who pray a good deal, I am attracted to the night, especially to praying in the night. Keeping vigil is one of the most constant elements of monastic spirituality. There is something about getting up to pray before it is light that really nourishes my soul. I have never found it particularly easy to explain this attraction to those who think that this behavior is crazy, but it has always been true for me. This is the time I love to be awake and to pray. One of the happiest times in my life were the year that I lived with a monastic community in England that got up at 2:00 a.m. each morning to pray the Night Office. I know that most people find this outrageous, but I felt like I had been given a year-long wonderful present - I got to get up at 2:00 to pray. Even now in mid- summer I find myself quite out of sorts because no matter how early you get up, it's light, and that's not what my soul longs for.

So back to the darkness of this morning: this most interesting thing happened. This morning, having successfully arranged things so I wasn't feeling "on duty" or "at work" meditating and praying, I found myself praying and meditating. There was plenty of stuff to attend to: there was the sound of the sleet relentlessly whispering at the window; there were the candles across the room, giving out their message of beauty and the deeply symbolic gift of light; there was the silence of the early morning, waiting there to be savored. Gradually all of that took over. The simplicity that is supposed to characterize meditation came and carried me when I gave it just a little encouragement. I went 'in' and 'down', whatever those words may actually mean when it comes to describing these states. I was where I needed to be, comforted by my flannel sheets and my early morning coffee, and deeply present to the moment where I was. The Spirit seemed very close.

And I was more ready for the rest of the morning that I am accustomed to being. Matins was a real joy. Almost all of our guests have fled in advance of the storm, and the very few who are still with us did not choose to get up in time for Matins. So it was just us, and the weak dawn light and the Psalms and chants that have sustained this community for more than 100 years. The singing resonated around the Church, as it has been doing since the 1920's, when the building was put up, and it seemed completely right. And so the morning has continued to be: breakfast, with a nice quiche that our chef made before he went home last night in case he wasn't able to get in this morning (which he wasn't); and then mass with the chant and hymns that bring us back to this time in Advent and a very nice sermon that took us on a walk through the Scripture passages for the day and let us play with them as we would.

The day will continue like this. The service of Lessons and Carols planned for this afternoon has been moved to next week. We won't be going anywhere, because getting out of our driveway just now might not be impossible, but most of us will probably want to postpone that effort until the storm has passed. We'll enjoy the quietness and freedom of a Sunday to ourselves.

And I want to guard this day. I'd like to go on celebrating the freedom of that pre-dawn hour as long as I can. I want to play with the open space and love the whiteness that surrounds us and enjoy the stillness and let the Spirit be near.

Sometimes I learn more about meditation when I decide not to meditate than I do when I work at it really hard. Funny, isn't it?

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