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Archive for August 5th, 2019

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Staring Down the Darkness

If you want to know what tranquility looks and feels and sounds like, then a good place to start is a ruined English abbey.  Set in remote corners in parklike settings, many of them ooze peace and quiet, and they are reminders of what life was like before the industrial revolution.

There aren’t many places in the first world where people can escape the grip of industrial noise.  But there are those few moments when technology loosens its grip and we are left to our own devices to cope.  Just such an experience happened to me last Friday.  That afternoon I had flown to Irvine, CA, and the next day I was scheduled to give a retreat conference to members of the Orders of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre.  As I sat down to dinner in the hotel cafe, it happened.  The lights flickered and for a moment civilization hung in the balance.  Then the Middle Ages returned.  There were no lights, no whirring machines, and no power to open the doors.  Then I and my fellow diners began to discover just how gently electrical power coddles us.  The elevator would not take me back to my room on the tenth floor.  There was no air-conditioning.  And those who dined after us were treated to cold cuts and snacks.

BC61C80E-BD07-4DF9-86C1-4A064247873AWhat surprised me was my reaction to the absence of light.  At 6 pm, when all of this started, it didn’t seem like such a big deal.  At that point the sun still shone brightly, but its gradual setting stirred me into a panic.  I had reserved most of the evening for some work, but then it dawned on me that when the sun went down the work would have to stop.  There would only be the primordial darkness.

Like monks had done for hundreds of years, I went to bed when the sun set.  There was nothing else to do.  Then I remembered that I am an early riser, and I prayed that the power would return by 3 am.  It didn’t.

When I woke up at 3 am my worst workaholic fears came true.  There was no point in getting up.  Short of a miracle it would be pitch dark until the sun rose just before 6 am.  So for three hours I stayed in bed, eyes wide open, staring at the darkness, waiting for something to happen.

For most of monastic history — and human history for that matter — monks lived in sync with the cycle of the days and the changing of the seasons.  They got by partially because they never saw electricity coming, so they didn’t know what they were missing anyway.  But still they coped, and one way to thumb their noses at the darkness was to recite the psalms of the night office by memory.  For the most part, however, they simply adapted because they could not control their environment.  It controlled them.

02878F3F-DB79-4FCF-827B-BBB5E5363008Of course electricity changed all that.  Still, twelve hours without it made me wonder whether we even realize what we’ve lost.  For one night I had to measure my steps because in my own room I couldn’t see where I was going.  There was neither radio nor television to keep me entertained, no light for reading, and my iPad could offer no solace because it was running low on juice.  The dimly-lit lobby could have been a haven, but the thought of having to climb ten flights of stairs to get back up was a real disincentive.  So I was left to settle in with my thoughts for company and with senses that were suddenly alert to even the faintest of sounds.

What surprises me most is that I’m grateful for the experience.  I discovered that I could live without access to light at the flick of a switch.  I could get around without an elevator, and I could make do with my thoughts as my only companion.  Life was possible, even without an iPad or a cell phone.  Who would have thought?!  In retrospect it almost seems like a revelation straight from the Almighty.

B20FFE5B-3C37-4640-A930-7DBBD4F2DA08NOTES

+As the final weeks of summer rush on us, we’ve hosted a variety of groups at Saint John’s, and this week our featured guests were the members of the Rosemount High School Marching Band.  Every August they come for a one-week camp, and it’s always fun to listen as their music wafts across campus.  Also at Saint John’s this summer have been members of three seminars at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  Hosted in partnership with Dumbarton Oaks, the Byzantine research institute sponsored by Harvard University, we’ve marveled at scholars who would spend a chunk of their summer studying Armenian, Syriac and Coptic paleography.

+On 2 August I flew to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA.  Four hours after I landed an electrical fire in a transformer closed the airport and cut the power to the hotel where I happened to be staying.  I later heard that we were the lucky ones.  Our power was out for twelve hours.  Other neighbors lost it for two days.

+On 3 August I gave a conference at a retreat for Orange County members of the Orders of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre.  The event took place at Saint Thomas More Parish in Irvine.

+The photo at top is the view of sunset from my hotel window in Irvine CA, shortly before everything went dark.  The other photos in today’s post show the ruins of Saint Mary’s Abbey, at the edge of York in the UK.

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