Praying in the Cellar

[Note–Fr. Anthony Delisi, a Trappist monk at the Monastery of our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA has written a book, Praying in the Cellar. I have been using his prayer method and am sharing this particular moment in my cellar with you the reader.]

There is often a darkness deep down things in the cellar especially in the winter. I have gone into my room and closed the door. I have gone into Fr. Anthony Delisi’s cellar. The cellar is little used after the fall canning season. The coal fired furnace has to be stoked. The sun sets early and rises late. The deep down darkness is ushering in the season of death. The leaves have fallen and are decaying. The frost and snow fall gently upon the earth. The darkness permeates my soul and deadens me. When I descend into the darkness within, I go down and down until I find nothing. Nothing! It John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul. Without even a glimmer of hope-light, I rest in the darkness. I meet the God of nothingness. In that nothingness I sense the fullness of life.

When we got married, a priest friend, Joe Stranc, gave us a book, Be Here Now. I wish I had read and taken that book seriously for the last 40 years. It says it all. That is all there is—being here now. Being present in this time in this place. The present moment is everything and yet it is nothingness. What a strange place to encounter the Creator of the universe—in the darkness of nothingness, a pinpoint of faint light in the dark depths, a small tiny whisper from the cloud of darkness.

In the hopelessness of winter darkness in my cellar-soul, I have rediscovered Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk from Plum Village in France. His Buddhist teachings are profound and I do not find that they contradict the best of Christian spirituality. Thomas Merton seems to offer no particular method for contemplation and yet he plumbed the depths of divine mystery. Father Thomas Keating teaches centering prayer—resting silently in God and letting go ever so gently of whatever thoughts and perceptions arise. As we sit, the Alice Miller repressed stuff of the past emerges and the Divine Healer makes us whole. It is an act of deep faith but, after all, the Holy Spirit is the Comforter and the Healer. We let go and we are made whole. Jesus’ primary ministry was healing. Why would he not want to heal us now?

Be Here Now. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches mindfulness—being present in the present moment, being centered. “As I breathe in, I breathe in peace. As I breathe out, I breathe out fear.” There are many variations on this centering mantra. Said three or four times focusing on the breath, it centers and calms you. It makes you mindful. It brings you back to all that there ever is—the present moment. Peace is in the present moment. I also remember a book, Chop Wood, Carry Water. Thich Nhat Hanh has developed a whole book of mantras to keep people centered while driving, washing dishes, etc.. I look forward to having it as a guide by my side. It is Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living.

Ched Myer, analyzing Mark’s Gospel in Who Will Roll Back the Stone, talks about the fact that we have lost our sense of place in the modern world. Our forebears emigrated here and appropriated land belonging to others. As the country expanded at the expense of the indigenous peoples, the immigrants moved and moved again. In checking the genealogy on my mother’s German side of the family tree, I have learned that my forebears in Pennsylvania in the 1700s petitioned the governor for protection against the Indians. Somehow it always happens. When you take something that belongs to someone else they tend to get “pissed.” In post-industrial society we feel no connection to place, to the land. We are on the move. We are a mobile people. Nuclear families are spread across the country and the globe. The sense of community is lost.

Now I understand Celtic theology better. It is earth-centered, creation-centered, place-centered. While not taking the traditional monastic vow of stability (to place), the Celtic monks wandered until they found their place of resurrection. Then, they stayed put and lived centered contemplative lives. This ties in so wonderfully with Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist teachings. Contemplate the string bean you are about to eat. It contains the sun, the moon, the wind, the rain. Think of the persons who cultivated the soil and grew this bean which will nourish your body. The very act of mindful eating connects us deeply with the God of creation and creation itself. It also connects us in solidarity. Am I eating a green bean that was cultivated, grown and harvested by exploited immigrants?

Last week I came upon a turtle laying her eggs in a hole she had dug on the nature trail. I encountered the mystery of life in that event. I also photographed a beautiful Red Shouldered Hawk the next day. The hawk and I were one. It was also the week of the Shuttle launch and the full moon. As we sat at New York New York Restaurant and looked across the Indian River at the faint gantry lights at the Kennedy Space Center, an orange orb began to emerge on the horizon. Soon it was a huge full-blown harvest moon shining across the wide waters of the river. I looked at the moon and the moon looked at me. [One spiritual pundit described contemplation as, “I look at God and God looks at me.”] For a long time the moon and I were one. The shuttle launched with a fiery teardrop fire tail and, at one point as it passed between us and the now bright yellow harvest moon, the shuttle and the moon merged as one.

I hear a knock on my cellar door:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone hears my voice and opens the door,
then I will enter his house and dine with him,
and he with me. (Rev. 3:21)
It is a bright new day. Jesus is inviting me to open the cellar door to the fullness and newness and brightness of life. This day I will dine with him in the kin-dom, in this time and place. He is setting the banquet of life table for us each and every day, each and every moment.

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