A Monkish Friendship: Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO (1940-2020)

“The monastic night watch is good practice in the art of waiting, as we patiently look for the coming of dawn. Monks and nuns wait in the dark, longing for the light of dawn but unable to hasten its coming. No one can force the dawn or bring it about in any way. It dawns in its own good time on those who wait for it. The ability to wait is characteristic of those who have learned to slow down and live in the fullness of the present moment. By quietly watching and praying through the night, I learn to live with the slow process of my own spiritual growth. I have no control over the future and I do not know exactly what will happen. I am asked only to stay awake and be ready because the light will surely come and will claim its victory over every form of darkness, despair, suffering, and death.”

–Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO, who died on January 15, 2020.

I first met Fr. Charles in Huntsville, Utah during my 2013 visit to the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity (now closed). I would visit and get to see him several more times before he left to live and work with the sisters of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, Virginia. Over the years we kept in touch via mail and email and I last heard from him on my birthday in November of 2019 (he never forgot!). The last line of that final email read, “All things pass.”

When I interviewed him in 2013, I was struck by his dedication to prayer and his longing to pray more. Despite having been a monk for over 50 years, he deeply desired more silence, solitude, and prayer in his life. While discussing why he initially decided to enter the monastery he told me, “When I was 20 I wanted to pray, I felt that the world needs prayer and I wanted to go to a group that was dedicated to the same ideal––that’s the way I felt I could make the best contribution to the world…”

We explored the topics of contemplation, silence, community life, solitude, prayer, and why he decided to be a monk. On the topic of contemplative prayer, Fr. Charles shared that although silence and solitude were ideal characteristics of contemplative prayer, he deeply believed in the monastic ideal of continual prayer: “it’s like carrying our contemplative prayer over into the rest of the day so we’re always trying to be in tune with God. The idea of contemplative prayer in itself is like a resting, silent, loving, attentiveness or attention, to the divine presence. In a relaxed and restful way––not a compulsive way. To relax in the divine presence, and to be attentive to it…”

Father Charles was visiting the Trappist Abbey in Vina, California (The Abbey of New Clairvaux) when he died after suffering a massive hemorrhagic stroke. At 80 years old, with 57 years of monastic vows under his belt, he was planning to transfer his vow of stability to The Abbey of New Clairvaux.

“All things pass.” And still I wonder if our paths might cross on that great infinite river of continual prayer.

Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO, Felicis Memoriae (Happy Memory). Requiescat in pace (Rest in Peace). 

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Photo of Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO who died on January 15, 2020, and my friend, Bill Rice who died on December 17th, 2014 (Father Charles sent me this photo from one of Bill’s final visits to Holy Trinity Abbey)
Father Charles was the author of a number of books including Monastic Practices, Spirituality and the Desert Experience, Eco-Spirituality: Toward a Reverent Life, and more. 
Some excellent stories about Fr. Charles can be found on Mike O’Brien’s Blog, including a story about Father Charles sharing with a journalist “I’m glad there’s such a thing as monks. I’m no good at anything else.”

 

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Notes on Silence… is here!

IMG_4104.jpgMany of you know I’ve been working on co-authoring a book with Patrick Shen. We lovingly titled the work Notes on Silence based on our extensive deep-dive into studying silence over the last four years. It includes nearly 300 pages of original essays, images, quotes, notes, and transcripts from the silence experts featured in the documentary film, In Pursuit of Silence (including but not limited to Pico Iyer (author of The Art of Stillness), Maggie Ross (author of Silence: A Users Guide 1 & 2), Julian Treasure (CEO, The Sound Agency), Helen Lees (Author of Silence in Schools), and many more. Patrick and I discuss encounters with silence in spaces like Thomas Merton’s hermitage and an anechoic chamber in Minnesota (Orfield Labs, named the quietest place on earth by Guinness Book of World Records), we expand on the dualistic nature of silence and sound, we examine religions and spiritual notations of silence, and offer numerous personal notes on our individual observations of and moments with silence.

THE BOOK IS HERE and we’ll be shipping out our first run of only 200 books this Wednesday, April 18th, 2018. Patrick and I will be signing all of the first edition copies which you can order here. If you’d like to learn more about the book, you can listen to our recent interview on the Encountering Silence Podcast.
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Incredibly grateful for this generous endorsement from author Carl McColman:

Notes on Silence is a treasure. Cassidy Hall and Patrick Shen bring a poet’s heart and an artist’s eye to the ineffable, wondrous mystery of silence, and in doing so they have created a book that invites you by multiple passageways to the hidden place where mysticism, beauty and emptiness dance. Their reflections, combined with striking photography and interviews with over a dozen silence lovers, make for a thoughtful celebration of its essential subject. It’s more than just a companion volume to their vitally important documentary In Pursuit of Silence — it’s a luminous work in its own right.”

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(A brief side note about the significance of the cover: The top and bottom images featured are photos by Patrick and I from The Redwoods Monastery and a forest in Taiwan. It wasn’t until later that we realized this wasa lovely representation of the book’s contents: East and West… The vastness of expressions and ideas gathering together in the peaceful images of trees… The inexpressible vastness and beauty of silence.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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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