Butter Beets and Breath
Sunday dinner. Sabbath. And letting sleeping dogs lie. Peace be with you, friends.
Sunday dinner. Sabbath. And letting sleeping dogs lie. Peace be with you, friends.
Broadside wisdom and roadside theology. Crossing state lines, friends, with my eyes on the prize.
Barbara owns a Yoga studio in the North Carolina mountains where I found my way into a body and practice that still takes this recovering Baptist by surprise. A deep listener with quiet instincts, Barbara has a knack for sharing the right book at the right time. When she learned that an upcoming pilgrimage would include a weeklong stay at a monastery, Barbara recommended that I read St. Benedict’s Rule of Order in preparation for my journey. Named after the 6th century Italian monk whose simple guidelines founded the western monastic tradition, Benedict’s Rule continues to govern spiritual communities across the globe that share commitments to a life devoted to prayer, work, and service. Perhaps it’s unusual that I didn’t encounter Benedict’s writing as a graduate student of religious cultures. But it’s just as fitting that Benedict came my way in the Yoga studio where body and breath compete with my usual fare of book learning.
When Barbara passed the dog-eared book along one morning after class, her enthusiasm seemed somewhat excessive for a treatise on monastic life. Extolling the Rule’s practical approach to the living of each day, Barbara mentioned the benedictine vow of hospitality that requires all guests to be welcomed and received as Christ. The Yoga mat can be another place to keep on the lookout for gods and goddesses among us. Among the rituals that bring a practice to its proper close, students and teachers often bow to one another before breaking the silence with a shared offering: “Namaste.” Translated from the Sanskrit as “bowing to you,” this embodied liturgy is often accompanied by a blessing that honors the sanctity of all present. Stretched out on mats, we breathe in words that preach a universal gospel: “May the light in me, recognize the light in all others.” Or, in the words of Saint Benedict quoting both Jesus and the Apostle Paul: “May all guests who present themselves be welcomed as Christ.” Namaste, y’all. Onward!
With St. Benedict’s Rule and a Yoga mat in tow, I set out on a month-long pilgrimage. The British have a colorful term for the art of traveling purposefully toward unknown ends. I coddiwompled with gusto, communing intentionally and somewhat aimlessly with myself, with God, and with all others. I learned quickly that setting my sights on the divine meant that my carefully mapped itinerary would need to accommodate holy shenanigans of all kinds. Along the way, I encountered entire pantheons, saints and sinners, as well as a memorable young circus performer named Celeste with whom I shared a hostel dormitory room before heading into the wilderness. As my trusty Subaru and I navigated 13 miles of rutted dirt road leading into a desert canyon, a palette of blues, tans, reds, and browns painted a landscape warmed by the glare of the winter sun. The shadows were growing long as I pulled up to the guest quarters that would be my home for the next week. The small, L-shaped building wrapped around an open courtyard where a bulletin board posted a list of guests arriving that day. I found my name and room number and, after unloading the car, prepared myself to enter Benedict’s world.
Ensconced in a cozy room that opened onto the shared courtyard, I unpacked my clothes and the extensive travel library I hoped would provide just enough thought-work to keep some of the desert stillness at bay. In addition to curating my reading list, I had done my homework, studying the monastery website and chatting with friends who make regular forays to Christ in the Desert for their own spiritual retreats. I felt reasonably prepared for my monastic moment, but as I settled into the palpable quiet echoing off the canyon walls, I was grateful to discover a detailed guide that covered all aspects of the monastery’s daily schedule. I read about silence and its call to prayer. I read about daily work and its call to purpose. And I read about a Holy Catholic Church and its call to a table challenged by the radical inclusion promised by Benedict’s Rule. Ever the good student, I read the guide from cover to cover before grabbing my headlamp and setting out in the darkness. I was ready for my desert reckoning.
The monastery’s chapel sits underneath a tall limestone cliff where three crosses perched on the canyon’s edge transform the New Mexico desert into a biblical tableau. Two paths lead from the guest house to the chapel. One is a wide gravel road for day visitors; the other, a walking trail dotted by hand-carved stations of the cross. I walked the road that first night, worried about getting lost in an unfamiliar place. I was nervously contemplating unanswered questions as I approached the chapel’s wooden doors that stretched from the base of the simple adobe structure to its roofline. What would I find inside? Would I meet God face-to-face? Would she speak Latin? Would I be able to hear anything beyond the beating of my own heart?
After making more noise than anticipated heaving open the doors, I found myself in a different kind of quiet, gathered in from the desert stillness by the tangible intentions of those preparing for worship. Standing in the doorway, a prominent crucifix drew my eyes upward to large windows that opened to the surrounding landscape. With the desert fathers and mothers standing watch, I wandered into a worship practice dating to the writing of the Psalms themselves. In foreign lands and at home, we sing new songs and old. Raising up songs of praise and lament, we become a living chorus, a mighty stream.
As I settled into my seat, the brothers began trickling in for Vespers. Ranging from their mid-20s to late 80s, each brother entered the chapel differently, honoring the altarpiece celebrated as host of living word and body. Some knelt on one knee, others on two, while others still prostrated flat out on the floor in an act of full-body reverence that took my breath away. Before sitting down, each brother turned to the visitor’s section and nodded or bowed in greeting. And just like that, the simple gesture turned stranger into sister. I had been welcomed as Christ. When the chanted service began, I faked my way through an unfamiliar liturgy until I figured out when to sing and when to listen, when to sit and when to stand. I can still remember my awkward fumbling as I, too, bowed down. Allowing my body to try on a posture of reverence, my mind took me back to the Yoga mat and to the altars within.
At the conclusion of the service, the brothers once again acknowledged all guests before kneeling at the altar and filing back into the monastery. Two monks broke rank and turned to invite overnight guests to the dining hall for the evening meal. As the monks approached, the younger of the two introduced himself as Brother Benedict. “You must be Meredith,” he said. “Welcome. Did you find your room? Do you have everything you need? We’ve been expecting you.” It wasn’t an effusive greeting, but being called by name reverberated in surprising ways. Bible verses long ago committed to and subsequently lost from memory came flooding back: “He calleth his own sheep by name and leadeth them out.” He “hath known my name” and redeemed me. When Brother Benedict uttered my name after an afternoon of solitude, I felt deep kinship with the biblical legends who encountered the grace of inclusion in their own gospel stories. On the way to dinner, I wondered what this naming and claiming of one another in the image and vision and love of Christ might yield. I also wondered about how a radical and holy welcome might transform our capacity to love ourselves and one another.
Brother Benedict accompanied me to the guest entrance of the dining area where he pointed out the napkin I would use for the week. Ushering me along, he encouraged me to step up and help myself. “Don’t be shy,” he said. “Eat.” The evening meal was served buffet style, with the guests helping themselves from one side of the table while the brothers lined up on the other. I carried my simple meal of soup and bread to a long table where other guests were seated in silent companionship. As I sat down to eat, I found myself facing the entire monastic community. My afternoon reading had mentioned the layout of the dining hall where brothers and visitors would face one another as a sign of welcome and respect. I had been curious about how it might feel to eat somewhat face-to-face, navigating fork and knife in full view of God and everybody. I can share that it’s not for the faint of heart, this staring down the presumption of your innate holiness and the blessing of your inborn glory. But what a mantle to assume, this birthright in Christ. From their respective tables, the brothers smiled encouragingly and ate their meal, sitting comfortably with those who had come to visit. Finishing together, we cleared our plates and headed into the Great Silence until morning. As I went to bed that first night, I took stock of my first few hours at the monastery: I had been welcomed. I had been called by name. I had been fed. And so I rested in and as Christ.
Over the course of the week, I adapted to a monastic routine prescribed centuries ago. My early mornings were marked by long walks in the desert. Most afternoons, I journaled at the Chama River where unfamiliar bird calls interrupted the quiet that seemed to stake a claim for presence itself. Could I be present to the flock of geese flying low over the water; to the free-roaming cattle grazing nearby; to the steep pitch of the canyon walls; to the fullness of each breath? Some days, I joined in the work of the monastery. Stuffing envelopes for an annual appeal, repetition lulled me into an introspection that heightened my senses. Kneeling, chanting, praying, working, walking, breathing – the day was stripped to its ancient elements, punctuated by bells that clamored for my attention, calling me back to center. Come, they announced, in the name of the Father, the Son, and Her many mysteries.
I would be remiss to paint the monastery in sepia-toned hues and sacred anachronisms. The uniform robes could not mask the brothers’ individuality or their shared humanity. They laughed. They frowned. They bantered. The brothers also honored theological truth claims that contradicted my interpretation of the benedictine call to welcome. I stumbled across the fine print of the monastery’s hospitality during lunch. The reading materials had noted that the main meal would feature something called “table reading,” but offered no further explanation. When dining solo, I often bring along a book for company and assumed that lunchtime Lectio Divina would have us all reading silently. As we began eating, however, a brother stepped up to a lectern I had missed the night before, turned on the microphone and began reading out loud.
As luck would have it, or perhaps it was divine play, the brothers were enjoying Bishop Robert Barron’s latest book, To Light a Fire on The Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age. Robert Barron is a visible and prolific spokesperson for the Catholic faith. His Word on Fire media organization has been wildly successful at sharing modern catholic conservatism with a global audience. I am neither Catholic theologian nor Barron scholar, but I quickly discerned the maneuverings of a text deeply invested in delineating between secular word and gospel truth, between morality and modernity, and between those whose lifestyles affirm a particular interpretation of values and those who love and live anyway. As the table reading began, I found myself staring down the manmade fault-line between heaven and earth, wondering about those we sacrifice in our earnest, and often well-intentioned, attempts to separate the wheat from its chaff. For a full week, I listened to a tired argument about human sexuality and the moral failure of our time to protect the sanctity of marriage. It was a jarring juxtaposition, this holy posturing that drew a stark line in the sand of an otherwise expansive desert with more than enough room for all.
It challenged me, this collective table reading, because I had a hard time reconciling the generosities extended my body with a politic of exclusion that preached a separate and far from equal gospel. I didn’t ask how Barron’s theology informed the monastery’s actual practice of hospitality, but I read the room where church fathers and brothers nodded in studied agreement with the table reader’s well-worn argument. I had a hard time imagining all brothers or sisters feeling welcome or Christ-like at that table. Listening to an unyielding theology while staring down my own divine birthright, I questioned our individual and institutional capacities to embrace difference itself as the brilliance of a God whose boundless, all-inclusive love defies our sincerest efforts to contain Him.
After a week of looking and listening for the divine, I left the monastery behind and continued to the California coast to watch the gray whales migrate before heading back home. My journey was certainly far-flung and gifted lessons that continue to play out in my grappling to be a welcoming presence in this world. My particular path from Yoga mat to church pew – and back – travels on Ujjayi breath, a ritual practice that quiets my mind and reminds me to bring my body along for the ride. Ujjayi is “victorious breath” and I claim victory each time I clear my mind and remember that we are all called to honor the holiness within and within all others. When I am at rest, my mind’s eye sometimes sees brothers lying prostrate before an altar. When I feel the vibrations of shared, intentional breath, my body remembers the sound waves of chanted Psalms shaping the contours of worship. And when I go to the mat to claim my Alleluia, I honor the radical welcome we extend one another.
Namaste, and Amen.
November 7, 2019
The house is not particularly noticeable from the county road that cuts deeper into the yard with each lane expansion. It’s easy to miss, a mid-century ranch tucked under Auto Zone’s garish orange signage and dwarfed by the growing hospital complex across the street. If you happen to spy the house, it will be the young peach trees out front that catch your eye. Planted close to the widening road, the thin branches promise new life at odds with a house and home on borrowed time. The flowers in bloom also tell a story – one about a life measured by the star gazer lilies, gladiolas, hydrangea, clematis, and peonies that my grandmother coaxed from soil and seed each year.
I have been visiting this house, and the grandparents who once lived there, for most of my life. Although Batesville, Arkansas, is neither grand destination in its own right, nor on the way to other more fashionable places, it is the center of the universe. 1781 Harrison Street has long been the axis around which my world turns, in large part due to my grandmother Lou Ellen Harmon Ford who made that particular house my home. My grandfather called her Ellen, but to friends and family she was Lou. I called her Grandma. Gone four years now, my grandmother remains the world to those of us who bask in the glow of her memory that we trade back and forth like precious currency. An intensely private woman, my grandmother’s lifestory is not mine to tell. And even if it were, the rawness of her passing colors in too broad a stroke the bone-deep memories that ache when I probe them. On occasion, the next stage of this long grieving process rears its head and I find myself mapping outlines of the stories I’ll tell one day. For now, the closest I can get to this woman who was my shelter in every storm, is the house from which she lived a quiet life with an outspoken, iron-clad agenda: to raise and to raise up her family.
My sister has taken to calling my grandmother her “fierce Lou.” Having inherited both my grandmother’s name and her spirit intuition, my sister assures me that Grandma is still hovering. We all know that she’s impatient for my grandfather; biding her time on the threshold of glory until she can welcome her beloved to their new home. Until then, she tarries among us, bearing stealthy witness to our sincere, if fumbling, attempts to right the universe that she ran like clockwork from the small house that served as her personal command center.
And because I cannot quite capture my grandmother or her memory in one short story, I turn my attention to the house that was more than the sum of its many parts. Instead of telling you about my grandmother; about the hands that cooked, and cleaned, and sewed; and the mind that fashioned and managed a successful investment portfolio from an 8th grade education; and about the heart that loved Jesus, and the time and place that insisted he would love us better in pantyhose, full makeup, and our Sunday best. Instead of this lifestory, I can tell you only about the heating grate, and dresser drawers, and the kitchen table, and about the crack of light that shone under the door of my mother’s childhood bedroom. There, I would lie waiting on hot summer nights for my grandmother to come and preach a gospel that hung the moon and stars, bringing to my bedside an everyday holy that smelled like Merle Norman cold cream and bacon grease.
Much like Billy Collins pays homage to the bread and the knife – and somehow also the wine – to tell the story of what we are and are not to one another, I trace my steps from grate, to dresser, to table, to bed. All in the hopes of finding the things and places that might voice my grandmother’s story, partially staying the sentence of the unspoken and taming, temporarily, the power of that which remains to be sorted and said.
My grandmother was more than the bread and the wine; she was the whole goddamn garden. She was in every single cow she called “pretty girl” before assessing her value at auction; she was the ripeness of each vegetable she raised, pickled, and put up; and hers was the voice of generations of women who spoke only in hushed voices in the private sanctuaries of their homes, laying the whispered foundation for the growing chorus that now proclaims, #Metoo. She, like many others, had so much to share and too few avenues to be heard. This, then, is a story that tries to listen as much as it tells.
After a long day on my best behavior as a precocious middle child visiting my beloved grandparents, I was often glad to retreat to the privacy of my mother’s childhood bedroom. The bedroom sat at the end of the front hallway that runs the full length of the house. The hallway was carpeted in ‘70s era mustard shag that caught the eye of housewives across the nation, many of whom—my grandmother included—took great pride in covering gorgeous hardwood floors with sherbet colored synthetics. While the shaggy green sea covered much of the house’s footprint, the old heating grate was spared. The grate was somewhat of a mystery to me and my siblings. It coughed and sputtered when my grandfather lit the pilot light that went out frequently, carried off on the silent drafts that flowed through the house year round.
We visited most frequently in the summers when the grate lay dormant, noticeable only to our bare feet that sometimes tripped on the rough iron grid. But in the winter, we would drag plates and cups from the kitchen and dine around our personal fireplace, burning our hands as we dared one another to hold onto the grate for just one more second. I have fond memories of this antiquated heater and was deeply saddened when my grandparents upgraded to a “better” system capable of blowing hot air out of tidy ducts in the wall. On cold mornings when I’m fiddling with my own thermostat, my grandmother surfaces in memories that warm from head to toe. And so, an ancient grate binds my feet to my grandmother’s soul. And that might be the very definition of how holy ground works. It’s everywhere we touch the essence of one another and find ourselves warmed by the silent presence of those who’ve gone before.
Looking down the hallway from that blessed grate, you could see the door to my mother’s room. A four-poster bed sat between two windows; one faced Harrison Street, the other opened onto the driveway where my grandfather parked the truck. From that window, you could see the stone wall that separated my grandparent’s lot from my great-grandparent’s yard. In addition to the over-sized bed, the room was filled-to-bursting with its matching suite of furniture, including a large set of dresser drawers where my grandmother housed scarves, pins, hosiery, and all sorts of mysterious lady things for her equally mysterious lady bits.
I spent countless hours combing through those drawers, trying on jewelry and giggling at undergarments I couldn’t quite put together. The top of the chest of drawers was covered in photographs held in place by a large piece of glass. My grandmother kept that glass squeaky clean so that we could see the dog-eared pictures that told the story of her greatest loves. It was more than a set of drawers, really. It was the place where my childhood hands touched, felt, and tried on womanhood masquerading in my grandmother’s intimate wardrobe. And so, a chest of drawers binds my hands to my grandmother’s body by way of the clothes she tucked against the folds of her most private parts. When I put on one of my grandmother’s scarves, I drape a whole host of ancestors around me. And that might be the very definition of woman. A human body that births generations who find in dresser drawers the cloths and stories that piece together a life.
My grandmother prepared food for much of the day. While my siblings and I wiled away the afternoon heat in front of the television, my grandmother would be in the kitchen where she put up produce from the garden and served three home-cooked meals per day. She did much of the work herself, until it came time to set the table and put ice in the glasses. My sister and I would grumble as we tried to time our chores to match the commercials, but we worked side-by-side with my grandmother, learning our place in the world as we laid the settings and called the men to supper. The table was round and sturdy, its glossy sheen a testament to many years of use and polish. Of course, it was also more than a table. It was the foundation from which my grandmother doled out daily servings of food and formation – a piece of wood whose grain taught the importance of looking for the nature of something to figure out whether to move with or against it. And so, the smells of home-cooked meals and the sounds of kitchen work performed by skilled hands bind my senses to the pageantry performed on my grandmother’s table morning, noon, and night. And that might be the very definition of sustenance. It’s in the humble preparations that call us to shared tables where we feed one another.
There is one final place in the house where my grandmother performed a nightly ritual that brought each day to its proper close. Fed in more ways than one, I would retreat to the bed that my grandmother made with tight corners that I kicked out each night. I often closed the door before settling into bed, reading by lamplight until my grandmother appeared. She would enter quietly, hall light blinding, and leave the door propped open while making her way to my bedside. Settling in, she would begin evening proclamations that combined the fire and brimstone preaching of her childhood with a dose of Judge Judy and the storytelling of John Boy Walton.
I wish now that I had listened more deeply to my grandmother’s evening musings. At the time, these late-night conversations often interrupted the quieting of my own thoughts after a long day of living up to my grandparent’s loving measure. My grandmother didn’t seem to notice if my mind wandered and my responses dwindled away. She would press on regardless of my participation, imparting her often hilarious homegrown wisdom. Some nights, Grandma would visit for just a few minutes before reminding me to say my prayers as she closed the door and headed to the den where my grandfather was sleeping in front of the television. On others, she would settle in for a long while to cover a range of topics that invariably included the importance of my education and the salvation of my future husband. And so, my grandmother’s evening ritual binds me, wandering thoughts and all, to the ancient traditions of truth-telling and story-spinning. My grandmother might have been the first female preacher I ever sat under, although she would never say so herself, caught up in an unyielding orthodoxy eager to keep us all in our place. But as I weave my own stories and live into my own titles, I go forth with my grandmother’s words rattling around my head. And that might be the very definition of not getting above your raising, the carrying of word and people and place with you wherever you go.
This story about a house that my grandmother tended as carefully as her beloved garden doesn’t offer closure in the way of final words or testimonies. Instead, it opens the door for stories yet to come. And the house still stands, although not for long. Before too long, the medical center will make its inevitable move across the street, leaving little evidence of what came before. But I will know, as will all those who carry the bones of that house and the blessings of her mistress in the quiet reaches of our hearts. And that might be the very definition of belonging. To find yourself in the warm memory of a grate, a dresser, a table, a bedside. May we rise up and call ourselves blessed.
November 7, 2019