Encounters with Silence – Thomas Merton’s Hermitage

*This essay will be featured in the upcoming book, Notes on Silence.  Order at www.notesonsilence.com 

“Questions arrive, assume their actuality, and also disappear. In this hour I shall cease to ask them, and silence shall be my answer.” Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (p. 361)

In May 2016 I was lucky enough to join a group on a brief excursion to Thomas Merton’s former hermitage. In this small cabin set apart from the Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton lived out the final four years of his life and monastic vows from 1964 until his untimely death in 1968. The hermitage may have only been a brief chapter in his life given his entrance into the monastery in 1941, but it’s been known to be the birthplace of some of his most transformative and inspiring writings, particularly those writings pertaining to contemplation, social justice, peace, and his vision of unity.

Since I’d been a Merton fan for years prior to this visit, I’d fantasized about the day I might be able to wander upon this particular cabin door. I always imagined Merton would’ve had mixed feelings about these pilgrimages. The precise place he sought for solitude and space was now being trampled on by onlookers and admirers on a regular basis. Though it had been nearly 50 years since Merton had last been within these walls, embarking on this private space seemed like walking in on someone in the middle of their work. It felt like an interruption. It felt as if I was peering into something.

Something of the mystery. Something of the unknown. Something fossilized in the silence.

Alas, I also knew that it was just a space, just a place, and its sacredness and mystical  tenor came from the spaciousness and intention Merton held within it–an inner stance which we’re all capable of, yet few come to know.

With 20 or so of us trekking up to the hermitage, I worked hard to contain my child-like excitement. Grinning along the way, I took note of the distance from the monastery, envisioned the walks Merton may have taken, and considered the steps that led him home. Our group gathered inside and out to hear stories from our guide, a current monk, and poet, who happened to know Merton from their time together at the monastery. Our thoughtful discussion considered the work and writing he created within the hermitage and the inspiration it had in our own lives. 

When it was time to go, the group began to quickly evaporate into the landscape back towards the Abbey. I sensed an opportunity to spend some time in the back rooms, and wandered into the quietude. After a few minutes had passed, I looked to the window to see the last of the group disappearing in the distance and realized I was entirely alone. Giggling with delight, I felt the hermitage sinking into the hush of emptiness, the tiny cabin seemed to be transforming into a stagnant memory of everything it once held. I sat in the silence.

Somehow, this time alone felt less invasive. I no longer felt like I was intruding but instead felt as if I was communing with something beyond the time and space. I entered each of the rooms in their silence— the chapel, the kitchen, the bedroom— and I spent another hour in the living room by the fireplace, desk, and bookshelves.

In the end, there was no mountaintop experience. It was an inspiring space, no doubt, but it was still just a space. It was only what we brought with us as individuals that made the place spectacular. I surfaced from this hermitage experience pondering the implications of seeking mysticism in such a place. While on this particular day it was more about reverence of space, I couldn’t completely eliminate the hope of getting in touch with that mystical encounter of which we are all so desperate for. And, perhaps I did get in touch with it. Perhaps I didn’t. Undoubtedly, I’ll never know. For the mystical encounter is always as undefinable as it is undeniable. The mystical encounter is always as elusive as it is palpable.

As much as I know that even discussing the idea of attainment only pushes me further from it, I can’t help but consider what it means. To go seeking for something which cannot be sought. To go on looking for something which cannot be found. To attempt to do something which cannot be done.

The only proper response I have to the beauty of such a silent space is… I’ll never know.

“…In this hour I shall cease to ask them, and silence shall be my answer.”

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Thomas Merton’s Hermitage, photo by Cassidy Hall

 

 

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Dear Nashville Statement

Dear Nashville Statement,

I used to hear your voice when I was a closeted LGBTQ+ person in the Evangelical Church.

I recall your commanding tone, almost always spoken by a man telling me which thoughts to think, which words to say, which feelings to feel. I remember your inflection and the flicker of heat in it that hatred brings. I know who you are. And you no longer scare me into thinking your thoughts, saying your words, feeling your feelings. You no longer scare me.

I remember the certainty in your emphasis. The ways you’d enforce your stances on God as if God was something or someone to be fully understood. For years and years, I sat in your pews and watched your men tell me what behaviors made me Christian and what behaviors didn’t.

I avoided reading you for a few days, Nashville Statement. There’s just no longer a place for your harmful rhetoric in my life. But, I’m learning that so much of life is confronting the narratives from which we have been evolving. Much of life is having dialogue with one another to understand our pains and see one another’s truths. So, I took a look today.

And there you were just as I remember.

Another aggressive move towards domination over the beautiful uniqueness of our society. Another frantic jump from fear of who and what is different from you. I wasn’t surprised to read your narrow words and your parochial views. I used to buy into and even parrot this jargon myself. I used to listen to and heed your hate-fueled notions. It is terrifying to think about how much influence you once had over my understanding of God and my fellow human.

I have grown. I have changed. I have evolved.

When I read your words of anxious flailing which leads to monstrous rhetoric, I was not surprised. I knew you would use words that did not come from the mouth of Jesus and morph them into thought that suits a misogynistic group; a group that perpetuates bounded behaviors by rhetoric of nonsensical legalism. I knew it would be man-led and focused on a fundamentalist interpretation of a book that has been translated and interpreted numerous ways at numerous times.

Your words are violent and harmful. Your tone is vicious and degrading. You ruthlessly force thoughts and words about sexuality and gender into the mouth of the risen one who never spoke a word of it, lest for love. The commanding word you use over and over, “deny”, suggests a dismissal of the freedom and infinite love I, and so many others, have found in Christ. You, the words you choose, the the tenets you cling to with white knuckles continues to place more emphasis on a theological certainty instead of loving. Instead of the inexhaustible love of Christ.

And, if you’re willing to let go and look… that boundless love is everywhere.

I see God’s vastness in sexuality and gender. I see God in my heterosexual friends. I see God my Catholic friends. I see God in my Muslim friends. I see God in my Jewish friends. I see God in my LGBTQ+ friends… I see God in the rainbow of our society. Your statement has made it more obvious than ever to me that you love your bogus rules far more than the very people before you. You care more about commanding than the wholeness of people living out their true-selves as created by God, as children of God.

I’ve been rewriting my narrative in the places where you’ve influenced my life and dismantled my personhood. I’ve been removing the poison that diminished who I was— the hatred, the self-denial of who God made me to be, and the parts that didn’t leave room for us all at the table. I have never felt sad letting you go. I am only sad that you remain in such a hate-filled way.

You are not saving anyone with these statements; you are killing them.

Loving your neighbor is not walking them into hating themselves or feeling suicidal. Loving your neighbor is not dominating them with what you think is right or just. Loving your neighbor is sitting with them and listening to them with a longing to catch a glimpse of God. Do we need to go on defining love when Jesus showed us so perfectly what it looks like?

Nashville Statement, I have a promise for you. I promise I will keep turning your tables and covering them with rainbow tablecloths. I will keep inviting those you so blatantly “deny” at your table time and time again. It is not your table. It is not my table. It is God’s table and God longs for us to find a place. So I will keep inviting. And, if you can leave your hatred and certainty at the door, I will invite you too. Because all are welcome. What if you found a place among us all instead dictating the size of a table that does not belong to you?

I serve a God whose artistry in creation is as vast as it can be within us. And this table is not for removing people or telling them to go away. The table was always meant to be shared. Shared beyond our vision. It is for our Muslim neighbors and our Jewish friends to join us, too. It is for our Atheist coworkers and Agnostic family members, too. For what is this table if it is not love, and what is love if it is not shared?

You may not care any longer since I’ve moved on from you, Nashville Statement, but I’ve since made friends who point me to God instead of trying to tell me exactly who God is. They suggest and do not demand. They question alongside me and shake their fist in horror with me. They talk to me and do not jump to argument. They welcome me and don’t need to or obsess over boxing me in to a denomination or sexuality. And we still meet at the table. 

Peacefully. Lovingly. Joyfully.

So, I hope you can peel back your sweaty palms that are so desperately clinging to a narrative that leaves out so many children of God. I know rewriting can be hard. I know reprogramming can be painful. I had to do it when I left you. You know the best part? You don’t have to do it alone. There’s a multitude waiting for us at the table. There’s a gathering waiting for us to be who we are in the God of love. Will you join me?

Cassidy

 

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Creating From The Wound

I live in Los Angeles, the epicenter of self-defining artists. And, like most people in this city, I consider myself an artist. However, unlike most people living in Los Angeles — I believe we’re all artists in some form or another. I’m in constant awe of the way people create, perform, produce, and refine their skills. I see this in the visual arts, parenting, writing, cooking, teaching, care-taking, and most avenues of life.

In LA, I’m constantly bombarded with things that take me away from my ability to create — the time in traffic, the busyness of a day’s work, the notifications on my phone, the amount of people. Because of this, I try to hike a couple times a week. Hiking seems to be an activity where I process through things in my life — often to the point of talking aloud as strangers walk by me curious about my babbling. More often than not, it’s reworking a conversation and my place in it, sometimes it’s prayer, and other times it’s just a subconscious dialogue I’d yet to consider. This personal jukebox seems to flow most easily in a natural setting; the safety of nature guides me into letting it all out. This sense of safety is not only ingrained in our genetics but is also evident in our psychological interaction with uniting our bodies with the earth.

“We’ve learned over hundreds of thousands of years, that when the birds are singing, we’re safe. It’s only if they suddenly stop that you get a really bad feeling.” Julian Treasure of The Sound Agency via In Pursuit of Silence

While hiking the other day, I unknowingly lifted my right hand to the left side of my face, holding it ever so tenderly, like a lost lover would. I stopped, closed my eyes, and began to weep. After a few seconds of embracing this deep grief, I finally gathered myself enough to keep walking, continuing to cup my own face as if I wasn’t alone, as if I was someone’s beloved, as if she was with me. And, as these moments turn out, I was indeed alone, on a trail, walking by strangers as I held my own face. And just how many times have I found myself grazing my own hand, twisting my own rings, comforting myself? More often than I’d like to admit, but less often than I’d like to feel. 

This alienated agony we all face reminds me of the bottomlessness of my need to belong. A human need that we all know so well. That the depth of my longing is quite simply a part of my being, a part of how I was created, a part of my insatiable thirst for finally feeling home.

“…The normal way never leads home.” John O’Donohue

I’ve often considered one of the few certainties of our lives (as if there were any actual certainties in life) to be found in our relationships. Because, let’s face it, this woundedness demands a sense of tangible security. A security that no human ought to be made responsible to carry for us — both because it is beyond human possibility, and as we well know — the pain never dissipates. The cracks never fill. Belonging feels momentary. Home is never really found. It is eased, comforted, soothed — but it is the precisely the agony of these stirrings that call us to our work. And that is the artist’s response. That is the response of the creative that leans into her image as being made in the image of her creator. That is the moment where we become the artist and create our work. The work so deeply intertwined with eternity — the work that meets the infiniteness of our fellow humans because it comes from the infinite broken-heartedness of our own being.

“We all have wounds. We all are in so much pain. It’s precisely this feeling of loneliness that lurks behind all our successes, that feeling of uselessness that hides under all the praise, that feeling of meaninglessness even when people say we are fantastic—1that is what makes us sometimes grab onto people and expect from them an affection and love they cannot give.” — Henri Nouwen

Our hearts are bottomless pits that no human can fill. But, that is a gift. A gift that must be poured out in the creative work. A gift that requires constant courage and vulnerability of the self. The artist points to eternity because she creates from an eternal emptiness, woundedness, and ache.

These are the things that keep the artist alive. Tenderness. Intimacy. Love. Connection. Community. There are certainly times a friend’s touch can reignite us. There are moments a companion’s gaze can reinvigorate us. And there are seconds our own hand on our face might remind us that we do indeed belong, if only to ourselves. These are the moments that must be recalled time and time again so that we might stay afloat and keep creating.

“Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.” — Audre Lorde

“…But I believe that loneliness is something essential to human nature; it can only be covered over, it can never actually go away. Loneliness is a part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart.” — Jean Vanier

This piece was originally posted on the Sick Pilgrim Blog.

 

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“Cassidy Hall found silence in an Iowa monastery and brought her discoveries to a new documentary” Des Moines Register

“A cricket chirped in the monastery’s library. That and the swish of a turned page, Thomas Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation,” was about it for sound.

Cassidy Hall stopped on page 81. Merton did not write on the absence of sound on that page but the abyss of solitude in the soul: “You do not find it by traveling but by standing still.”

Hall scrambled to write it down, as if it was a new line she had overlooked while reading the book three years ago when the direction of her life changed, when she took off around the country to seek silence in her soul. She would, in fact, travel great distances to learn how to be still.

Hall, 31, quit her job as a therapist in Ames not long after reading the book. She called the New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, where monks have lived in the Trappist monastery since 1849 in long periods of silence and contemplative prayer. She met Father Alberic Farbolin there and spent long periods talking with him about the infinite possibilities in stillness…”

Read the rest of The Des Moines Register feature article “Ames native goes on quest for silence” by Mike Kilen here.

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Photo by Rachel Mummey of The Des Moines Register

Faith and Doubt in the Labyrinth

I am easily led to anxiety in unfamiliar situations. I don’t like to do things with other people, and though I recognize the necessity in community, I’d almost always prefer to go about my day on my own, for comfort’s sake. Like most of us, I like certainty. Like most of us, I realize life isn’t very certain.

While walking a labyrinth with a group of friends last week, I was brought to a place of holding this uncertainty in a new way. In our preparation to walk, we reminded one another that the walk is not a maze, and no matter how lost we may feel at any time, we aren’t lost at all — as long as we keep our eyes on the path under us. We read aloud, “there’s no wrong way to walk the labyrinth.”

My anxiety led me to jumping in the labyrinth as soon as I possibly could, keeping only a few things in mind from our previous discussion. I chose to walk in with my hands down, symbolically releasing all that was hindering and holding me back — the heaviness that has been insistently upon my mind and heart in recent times. And as I sauntered into the center I recalled the only other thing I retained from our discussion — that the 6th petal in the center represents the unknown, and I was darting for it because that’s all I did know.

“Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people; these have been dragged, so to speak, from the river of infinite possibilities and stuck on the dry bank where nothing happens.”
–Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

…Read the rest of my guest post at The Sick Pilgrim Blog.

A Poetic Hope

“I don’t care to wake up in the morning without hope. Hope is a survival mechanism.” Norman Lear, Producer

I’ve been sleeping more than I usually do, and not because I need it. I’m waking up every day to the latest news alerts reminding me of our country’s status and that things can dramatically change overnight. Various forms of fatigue are taking over faster than we can define them: internet fatigue, news fatigue — there’s a new reason for exhaustion every day if only just for the need to stay informed. My tired eyes scrolling through the day’s news are about as slothful as my hope feels. And this innocent gaze into hope reminds me of a man at the Los Angeles Airport protest last week who was carrying a sign that read, “Praying With Our Legs.” Hope may be innocent, but it is not ignorant, and it is never inactive.

Still, our days are spent helplessly thrashing towards countless causes of great urgency that seem beyond manageable. The many tasks at hand seem innumerable and our collective flailing towards “what now” is so scattered that we’re left far more hopeless than hopeful. What does hope look like now when the urgency of so many calls leaves us floundering and spreading ourselves thin? What does hope look like when it’s drenched in despair and feels more hopeless than hopeful?

Hope is more like poetry, and our lives are far more poetic than we think.

The hope of hope itself is found in our ability to sketch it without defining it, as Audre Lorde said, “Poetry is an absolute necessity of our living because it delineates.” In this inexplicable mystery, hope allows me to move from fear to freedom quite simply by knowing there is something better. That something I may define with explicit clarity some days and only sense as a weeping ache in the direction of desire on other days.

“The hope that rests on calculation has lost its innocence.We are banding together to defend our innocence.” Thomas Merton, Message To Poets, 1964

Innocent hope is beneficial. It leaves room for evolving towards better, beyond the goodness we can see on these foggy days. Of course, this all sounds nice, but what does a poetic hope really mean without specific stances? What does such a hope decipher without clear proclamations against what is innately wrong? Hope may be innocent, but it is not ignorant, and it is not inactive.

Poetry often means what I need it to. I can pick up Mary Oliver and weep over lost love while maintaining love exists; I can walk through the words of Walt Whitman and predict a tone that is in unison with my own. Yet there remains a core to these poems – a style in the writing, a unified voice with nature, a spiritual timbre in the pauses. Poetic hope heeds the wisdom of those who have gone before us; it listens to those who have been in struggle longer and recognizes these are not newborn war cries.

“Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

Hope listens. It is vigilant to the cries of others, cries it may have previously ignored — but hope humbles itself to embrace the call of the whole. At the end of the day, we cannot be about hope if we are not about our fellow humans. So this is my war cry, a poetic hope. A hope that heeds the notes of those who have been here before, a hope that finds my entry points across the urgent calls, a hope that educates and moves in the ways of love, a hope that is active, a hope that is poetic, a hope that is truly hopeful. Hope may be innocent, but it is not ignorant, and it is never inactive.

“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.” Thomas Merton, in a letter to Jim Forest, 1966, reproduced in The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters by Thomas Merton

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Embracing Winter

 

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” Albert Camus

I’ve had a disdain for winter for as long as I can remember. When I was a child in Iowa, my older sister could get me to go outside only by explaining an exciting game we were going to play in the blistering cold. Her games usually involved making food – pizzas in the ground, snow cones in my hands, or building something else completely impossible. But every time, just as soon as the negative temperatures grazed my face, my imagination would halt and lay dormant against the frigid ground. I’d quickly become frustrated, irritated, and just wanted to go inside where it was safe and warm.

Recently, I found myself in an emotional and literal winter. While home visiting family and friends in the midwest, I was simultaneously drudging through my own difficult emotions as the first snowfalls arrived. One day, while shoveling the snow with a friend, I managed to conjure up a few words alongside my sarcastic smile, “thank you for teaching me to love winter again”. These synchronized encounters of winter have challenged me to consider winter as something I could learn to love, even if only because it’s here.

I’ve tried, like so many of us have, to enjoy my winter. To let it be and behold it for the miracle that it is. To cherish the snow falling as if I’m getting to see a snow globe live; to move through my emotional pain and accept it just as I am. This has proven much more difficult than I ever imagined. It’s much easier to despise the winter or suffer through it knowing spring is imminent, but what if it’s not? What if this is the winter that spring never enters into? What if these are the sorrows that never go away?

Though contrasting seasons can assist us in embracing the one that is present, what if a contrast never comes again? I so often hear and tell myself to live here and now – that the day before me is all I have, and I wonder what it might look like if I truly lived like winter is all I had? What if I basked in the freezing temperatures and reveled in the thoughts of snow? What would it feel like to constantly be okay with a flow of tears and an openly aching heart? Loving winter requires a vulnerability I’m still unfamiliar with.

It is certain that in my figurative winter, I’ve been opened up in a way I never knew possible. The rawness of my spirit has forced in a light often too bright to stand — but in my openness, it keeps shining in. Though this can be a painful experience and usually makes me want to dive deeply into hibernation, I’m managing to stay outside longer. I’m learning to be with the light of day. As it always is, getting in touch with my own soreness has made me more aware of those in pain around me. I find myself all the more often sitting side-by-side with those in need as we watch the snow fall together. Then, in our togetherness we become ready to shovel our neighbors out and play as best we can in the hideous bone-chilling cold.

For one of the first times in my life, I’m listening to the exciting games of winter and joining in their fun, doing my best to forget the pain of the wind against my face, doing my best to be here, now. Sometimes, or usually, my laughter is in vain, and my cheer is fake – but I’m still going outside and doing my best.

At the end of the day I know winter is a sure sign of spring, but it is still worthy of my imperfect effort to enjoy – especially knowing there are so many already out there scooping the sidewalks of strangers, just so we can all play.

“The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” Parker J. Palmer

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Ames, Iowa (Photo by Cassidy Hall)

Redwoods, Give Me A Word.

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Photo by Cassidy Hall

The towering redwoods of northern California have always mystified me. I’m constantly swept away with awe and wonder, as if I’ve rewinded my life back into childhood. With my gaze upward and my mouth wide open, I oooo and ahhhh at the way the light shines through the endless towers, the great elevated heights of trees, and squint my way through each crevice in hopes of seeing the array of creatures who call these woods home.

While on a stroll by a creek bed, I was so at ease with my surroundings that an overwhelming sense of equilibrium and a peace began to hypnotize me. I was startled back into the moment by noticing I was holding my own hand, as if the nature I was surrounded by intertwined with each of my fingers. Glancing down at my hands, I smiled in wonder, and continued my gentle clasp. I could breathe, feeling as if I inherently belonged to the moment — I to the trees, the trees to me, and the moment to us.

I’ve often wondered why these ancient trees bring me so much contentment and comfort. To me, this isn’t just about being in nature and reveling in her beauty. This is about growing trees that can attain the height of 378 feet with bark as thick as 12 inches; this is about a living thing whose arms (branches) can be up to 5 feet in diameter; this is about something that can live through 2,000 years (3,000 years for their inland relations, the giant sequoias)* worth of storms and remains standing; this is about trees who see, house, and intimately know generations of squirrels, birds, butterflies, bears; this is about trees who lived through the births and deaths of mothers and fathers of religious movements; this is about wisdom beyond human understanding, ancient wisdom.

This ancient wisdom is beyond any insight of words written on a page or stories passed from age to age. Though the desert fathers and mothers of 4th century Christianity often offered words, phrases, and a variety of insight to passing pilgrims asking for a word; these trees speak a different language, a universal language to thousands of generations of meandering pilgrims. This is the wisdom whose words speak to our deep mind in the silences and spaces between. This is the wisdom of the discourse we run father away from in our busy every day lives. Though we muffle it with destruction, it remains below our feet; though we forget it with distraction, it exists in the silences of our days. This is the wisdom whose exclusive interest is to be.

We live in a society that values the decided mind, yet the decided mind often doesn’t have room to be, because the decided mind is closed, shut, and unopened to the fluidity of being. The tree moves and dances with the winds, but remains a tree. The tree encounters wounds in the storms, but doesn’t cease to stand and be. This ancient wisdom points me back to wonder precisely so I can also be. So that I let the unfoldings of my own life open out, so that I may accept myself with the child-like wisdom of innocence, holding my own hand. From here I may evolve in the spaces where I lack understanding, so I may at every moment unfurl my tired clasping hands. And in doing so, I get to partake in this ancient wisdom, this deep beholding, and let it hold my hand.

To be, just as I already am.

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Photo by Cassidy Hall

* http://www.visitsequoia.com/redwoods-and-sequoias.aspx

This essay can be found in the book, Notes on Silence, by Cassidy Halland Patrick Shen. available on Amazon or the Transcendental Media store.

The Voice of the Heart

Listening to the voice of my heart has never come easy for me. I’m usually quick to assume a present feeling is final, an agony is forever, or that all of my questions should have answers and answers NOW. Yet, I know better. And, the more I grow through those fleeting assumptions–the more I find myself truly pausing and listening to the utterances of my heart–the more I’m truly in touch with those parts of myself that so softly speak my own truth.

…Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final…” Rilke, Book of Hours I, 59

I’ve found sacred pauses to buoy up my ability to hear those quiet whispers of myself: from going to monasteries, to turning off my car radio, and even truly sitting still in order to tend to “nothing”. Most recently, I returned from my second visit to Snowmass Monastery in Colorado where through the solitude and silence I was once again brought face to face with that interior whisper of who I am. Though the clarity is never striking or certain, it seems to offer a meeting place with the great unknowns and mysteries that somehow always know more, if even unspoken.

On this occasion to Snowmass Monastery, I arrived for more than just a notation on pilgrimage or for space and time away. I was attending the solemn profession of monastic vows that my friend, Brother Aaron, was about to take. He’d been a monk now for nearly eight years and was ready to make his vows of stability, obedience, and conversion of manners (Trappist/Cistercian Monastic vows*). Though I hadn’t seen him for nearly three and a half years, we’d been in touch via letters nearly every week since our initial meeting in 2013.

Much like all of my monastic trips, I settled in and rested for a moment before taking a familiar saunter into the church and meander around the accessible monastic grounds. Snowmass Monastery’s bookstore was a special stop for me to make, as it was where I’d met Brother Aaron nearly three and a half years ago. There, I sat on a bench, admired the new collection of poetry, and breathed in the beginning of a precious friendship, a sacred space of growth, and a familiarity with knowing I’m right where I should be in this very moment.

Just as I began making my way out of the store, a strangely familiar yet unrecognizable voice called out from the lawn near the bookstore, “Cassidy?” It could only be one person, someone that could know me so well to know my demeanor and recognize me by way of just that. Sure enough, it was Brother Aaron, and I finally received the true to word sign-off on each of his letters, “Big Hug”.

As we made our way back towards the guesthouse, we talked about all the friends and family pouring in from all over the map to see him on his special day. He spoke about how he was deeply moved by this and joyfully overwhelmed with all the love he was encountering. He explored with me the meaning of his choice in vocation, his decision to move forward with vows, and his sense of overflowing love with all those from his life who had come together for this important day. He told me that it seemed, “the closer I get to love in my own heart, the closer love comes to me.” That as he continued to be true and loving towards himself and love in his own life: his calling, his vocation, his personal truth–the overwhelming way in which love came to him left him speechless.

These profound words fastened to my attention throughout my time there and beyond – two weeks later they’re still searing into my being in a way that elevates my curiosity of what it really means to be true to oneself and one’s calling or vocation in life. How can one listen and be true to the heart’s quiet breathings, loud speakings, and miscellaneous messages in-between?

This dear monk has taught me time and time again of the great love we’re all capable of giving and receiving in our own unique ways and through our own unique vocations, but coming around to what that means for me certainly continues to evolve, as it does for each individual. Seeing his world come together in a way that renewed and fortified his own view on this was wondrous. As he was following his truth, listening to his call, exploring his heart – love flowed in from around the world for him, literally and figuratively.

Needless to say, I won’t soon forget seeing the solemn profession of monastic vows by my dear friend Brother Aaron. I can only hope to continue to strive towards those sacred pauses that continue to be a meeting place with the voice of my heart.

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Temescal Gateway Park, photo by Cassidy Hall

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*For more about Cistercian Spirituality, check out author Carl McColman’s Befriending Silence.