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). 

CharlesAndBill
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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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.

To Be OK with the Blank Page

Originally posted on my HuffPost BlogIMG_7807

“You can’t anticipate a garden. Stuff won’t grow until it’s time to grow and when the season’s finished, it’s all over.” -Father Anthony, OCSO

My friend Dave told me once that to be ok with loneliness, you have to be ok with the blank page. Most of us can’t stop thinking or doing when we finally sit with our blank page; we just have to fill in the blanks spaces, the silences, and the quiet moments – covering their richness.

While looking back recently at how I ended up living in Los Angeles and working as an Associate Producer of the documentary film, In Pursuit of Silence, I’m able to see how I listened to myself in the quiet moments that I sat with the blank page.

In the midst of my career as a therapist in 2012, much of my time was spent talking to my clients about goals in their lives, encouraging them in their passions, learning what makes them come alive – while I sat on my own passions.

During that time I developed a growing fascination of monasteries, the lives of monks and nuns, and the words of various authors including Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. Little did I know I was beginning to not only sit with my blank page, but also engage with it’s vast and often undisclosed mysteries. Less than a month after quitting my job in 2012 I set out to all of the Trappist Monasteries of the United States from the Nuns in the Redwoods of California to the beer-brewing Monks of Spencer, Massachusetts.

The loneliness and aloneness while traveling alone were some of the hardest and most rewarding mysteries of this journey. It’s the blank page I found and still often find myself running from in order to do as opposed to be. It takes enormous practice and courage to be able to sit in front of that page and rewrite oneself, listen to the often terrifying truths of oneself and strip away the layers the world places on our senses.

My restlessness in these quiet and often silent monasteries was something I knew I needed to sit with and learn from. During these moments, I encountered many negative thoughts and feelings of which I had no desire to see, hear, or listen to. I once asked a nun if the inner noise ever goes away in these quiet times alone, and her response was that perhaps the more important question is why do I want to get rid of the noise in the first place? Even though they’re dark and often gross parts of me, they are parts of me. Living in total hatred of these dark parts of me only creates an unnecessary act of self-violence, just as potentially getting rid of it or hating it might create an unnecessary form of violence in a direction away from myself.

There was nothing pleasurable about thoughts of hatred and sadness within myself, but it was still an opportunity for greater love of myself and ultimately others. There was nothing joyful about sitting through dreadful emotions of the finality of life, the certainty of death, the unattained dreams, the wars of all forms of violence in the world and within myself, my weaknesses in loving others, the forgetfulness of kindness, the inconvenience of gentleness and generosity. Yet, selfishly, as I grew to know more of myself and came to greater self-acceptance, my love for others was deepened alongside my deepening understanding of others.

I once viewed the monastery as a museum – an aesthetic location of a tradition that’s been upheld for nearly thousands of years; a place where people can go to see monks or nuns as if they’re some sort of monument to religion or life. I began all of this with that view in part but certainly ended with a great reverence of not only tradition but more importantly, relationship. Each person I spoke with seemed to provide a pure and humble space where the ground was level, a place where I was truly present with someone, a place where despite our differences we could speak of our darkness and understand one another’s pains.

I used to just see silence as a place of recharging, breathing room, a quiet away from the noise, or even just a peaceful place. Silence has always served one of such feelings to me until I eventually end up getting to the anxieties of my every day life: the unending to do lists, the racing feelings of being unproductive, the worries and concerns of all I cannot control, etc. From my experiences at these various monasteries, I found that it wasn’t until I sat through these things in silence and space that I could reach a much deeper and often darker place of self-discovery, which led and still leads me to more of my true self.

There are no resounding truths or revelations to my pilgrimage in 2012. There are no seeable results or clear-cut facts, and no healed anxieties or depressive states. Instead, I returned in 2012 and still sit in 2014 with more beautifully unanswered questions, more curiosities of mysteries and more reverence for this life that I am able to live.

Now, I no longer have to look friends, family, or clients in the face and encourage them to pursue their dreams and passions while sitting on my own. Now, I can sit with a blank page and be ok.

“…The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful….” Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

 

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Holy Spirit Abbey • Conyers, GA

A trip that began with humility, upon arriving a day early late at night and being welcomed by a monk, ended with extreme elation, in being able to meet with several monks regarding the topics I had hoped to discuss.

Going from Assumption Abbey to Holy Spirit Abbey may be an extreme contrast – but not in terms of good to bad or holy to unholy. The contrast these two locations held seemed to be more about style and variety. Both Abbey’s had the dedicated core and clarity of the monastic life (often most described as: prayer, silence, solitude, work, and community).

Holy Spirit Abbey has an intriguing history, which is clearly described in their museum. Once a former plantation, the monastery land was taken over by the Trappist monks in 1944. I was greeted in the museum by one of the founding members, who is now 101 years old, still working, still praying, still engaging in silence and solitude, still joyfully asserting his commitment to this community.

The main thing I received from my conversations here was this: Aloneness, solitude, and silence are NOT isolation. When these monks seek time away or time alone, they still have the foundation of their brothers (or sisters) and community to rest assured upon.

Which makes me wonder – perhaps it was isolation in my life that led me to this trip and need of aloneness and solitude. In this journey, I’ve already felt more connection and depth with others than I have for quite some time. Maybe amongst people I isolate more frequently and define it as solitude? I’ve always said that just because one may be in a full home, surrounded by people, socializing – does not mean they don’t experience true and genuine loneliness. Which, I suppose, adds another point – aloneness is not necessarily loneliness.

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.” Thomas Merton