Post #16.6, Thursday, January 14, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

         Add a deluge of rain to our tendril of a creek and now it foams and roars. It is well out of the banks, and surely it is a very deep river even as the storm lets up.  We decide to set our camp on higher ground in case the water rises further; then we can go in search of Augusta’s monk’s robe whenever it happens that the water recedes back into its banks. We make our night fire, even though it is early yet. We have a pot of porridge for our meal. Now that she is known to be a woman, Augusta joins us for this.

         I mention that I have known of women ascetics before, often hiding gender and identity in men’s clothing in order to escape a brutal father or a wrong marriage. I ask Augusta if she is in fear of being hunted by her family. We really need to know if there is danger now that Nic and I know her secret.

         And she says she also knows of some of the desert ammas who dress in men’s clothing to hide their identities in order to start life anew.  She said her own spiritual guide was a woman who wanted to live in the caves of Tours in order to be near the Shrine of the Saint, but her father found her and returned her to her family near Chartres. Eventually she escaped and once again returned to Tours. [Footnote]

         Augusta explains she isn’t one who must run away from her family. It’s more like she is walking toward the life she is called to. And she asks us to call her “August.” So we will. August says he dresses in a man’s robe because that is what he believes is his holy calling. Of course all three of us can easily imagine the inconvenience of visiting Antton’s quarry as a woman who cuts stone. His banter would be relentless. But August wants us to know who he is. And now that we can accept August, with a woman’s voice, our vesper psalms have three parts. Our music certainly pleases heaven this night.

(Continues Tuesday January 19)

[Footnote] The Forgotten Desert Mothers, Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women by Laura Swan, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah. N.J. Copyright © 2001 Saint Placid Priory is a collection of  histories of women from whom this fictional character was drawn.

Post #16.5, Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

         Caught in the current, the little monk, with all his strength is able to stop himself from the pull of raging river by grabbing onto a low tree branch rooted to the opposite bank. The ribbons he was wrapped in flow loose and twist and coil on with the fury. But the pale naked human form is clinging to the tree limb with quivering strength. I leave my cloak and horse and discover the icy water with the relentless power of current. The little monk has courage and fortitude enough to trust me and let go of the limb allowing me to take him with an arm around his neck to keep his head up, and together we float downstream as I can only make slow progress with swimming for the two of us in the raging water to reach the bank. Umber wanders near to where we land with my cloak still lain across his back.

         I wrap the shivering monk in my rain soaked wool but now I have seen the naked breasts that the ribbons were meant to bind. And now, I hear her prayer aloud, thanking God with the clear and strong voice of a woman. “Thank you God, that the ox is in the care of a good man. And now, Dear God, may my rescue back to life be of service to you alone. Amen.”

         August, or I guess I should call her Augusta, still has strength enough to sit astride my horse as I walk them back upstream to Nic and the oxcart. Nic is rinsing thick mud from the knees and belly of the grateful ox. I see our rope of hemp is tied to one horn of the soldier’s saddle on The Rose, and Augusta and I both can see that Nic is indeed a very good man and he does have knowledge of oxen. Nic and The Rose were able to free the ox from the deep mud and offer it the comfort and assurance Augusta entrusted to Nic in her prayer aloud of thanksgiving.

         The little monk pulls the hood of my cloak over her head to hide her face from Nic, but Nic has already had a glimpse.

         Nic greets the shivering wools with his amazement. “So that is why we never see your tonsured head!  You are so young yet and you haven’t even a hair of a beard!  I see now this August, our desert ‘father’ is but a child!”

         I am the one to say it, “Our desert ‘father’ is a desert mother, an amma.”

(Continues tomorrow)

Post #16.4, Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

         For a few days into this journey now, we’ve been following a slender twig of a creek taking us on a flattened plain northward ever inching toward Gaul. The still of winter has a clarity allowed to go unnoticed by those who wish to curl in fleeces and wools and cluster by ember as we do each night on our way. Well, Nic and I stay near the fire at night.  August still chooses to stay in his cart with the watchful mother in stone set onto the oxcart still crated in wood with handles for lifting and moving.

         In the morning, the last coil of smoke of the dying embers wends its way skyward, tickling the fat belly of rolling grey clouds, an impending winter’s rainstorm. Our tarp and fleeces are barely strapped onto the horses when the storm lets loose a deluge. It is the long cleansing and soaking rain Nic mentioned in his hopes for companions with better fragrance.

         But in the torrents we find we are on the wrong side of the creek, and the swift flowing turbulence seems to worsen by the moment.  So we choose to cross over while we can. The horses prance in two giant leaps, getting only our feet into the froth, but the ox and the cart are not so nimble. The ox is nearly mired in mud and the cart and the statue are caught in the turbulence pulling at the ox’s yoke.  Quickly, August releases the yoke pins freeing the ox from the load, and leaving the three of us with all our strength to roll the cart onto the dry bank. Nic, then turns his attention to the panicked and bellowing ox sinking into the mud as August is swept away in this instant into the deepening flow midstream.

         An air pocket has made his huge wool a fast floating bubble, but surely it will soak through and pull the little monk as quickly underwater as he is now floating downstream. I mount Umber and follow the floating father downstream until the heavy wool sinks away.  And now, spinning on the current is a slender pale being apparently wrapped up with ribbons wound around his chest.

(Continues tomorrow)

Post #16.3, Thursday, January 7, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

         We are crossing through the hills beyond the mountains into  Gaul — two men on horseback and a lone monk with an oxcart — moving at the speed of one man walking beside his ox. From time to time Nic and The Rose go ahead of us and scout out the next grassy lee or a quiet creek for a stopping place. The little monk has chosen to take this winter’s walk without shoes. It is a monkish sort of thing to do, I know, and gratefully, the earth is not yet frozen solid. I also notice, whenever we stop for rest he quickly wraps his tiny pale feet up in his wools. We all know frozen toes could cause a long healing.

         We find the foothills of the mountains have many more fine places to pitch our camp than the steeper climbs of the range we’ve already crossed. So this night the tarp is slung and the fire built in a near perfect setting. Tonight for our vesper prayers August has withdrawn to the privacy of his cart for his own prayers. But Nic and I choose to sing a psalm we both know as a call and response.

         I shout the first phrase, “Praise the Lord!”

         Nic sings his answers from Psalm 147, “How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.” …

         “God determines the number of stars…” I shout.

         Answers Nic, “God gives to all of them their names.” …

         Our joyful song of psalm goes on blessing all of Creation, the snow, “like wool” and frost “like ashes” and even the hail reminds the psalmist of manna from heaven.

         It is Nic’s echo, “who can stand against his cold?”

         And I sing “He sends out his word, and melts them”

         Nic’s voice sings the psalmist’s response, “he makes the wind blow, and the waters flow.”

          Maybe we have a secret hope that August will find a blessing in hearing others at worship. I wonder if he may be so concerned maintaining his Christian piety that he hasn’t noticed it is something he shares with us also. And of course, we may be so concerned about showing off Christian piety to him that we ignore his need for solitude. So be it.

         The night is beautiful, but crisp with winter. Thank you, God.

(Continues Tuesday January 12)

Post #16.2, Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

We are on our journey, two horses a good distance behind the ox cart with the pace set by the little desert father and the ox. We are sent on our way most rudely this morning by the seller of Gallo-Roman stone gods and goddesses because we rejected Antton’s invitation to stay for his party. But surely our own dedication to a teacher who celebrates with the poor and outcast would have made us unfit guests for Antton’s festival of the Solar New Year. I do hope he finds some guests. It’s a bleak beginning to a year with having the very dregs of possible guests turn you down.

         Nic mentions, “I hope August didn’t hear that awful language. I mean in some ways the truth of it just made it so much worse. I too notice the stench of that little fellow but that’s not a reason to use such filthy slurs.”

         “As I said Nic, I’ve spent many long and peaceful times in prayer alone in wilderness places, and sometimes I’ve been with others of these ascetics and I know that baths and sweet scented oils are the stuff of personal wealth and vanity. So desert fathers are known to separate themselves from worldly bliss by making a deliberate effort to show devotion in this way.”

         “You mean you are saying August accepts that he stinks?”

         “Yes. In fact he may see it as a sign of his pious commitment to his life of prayer. And, after-all, it is us, asking the favor of him that he give up his cave and solitude and take this journey with us. I mean, alone in a cave with his ox and with God, who probably loves all smells of Creation, he surely doesn’t require the ancient Nicodemus’s hundred pounds of fragrant herbs to enhance a cave. He is who he is.”

         Nic adds a wayward hope. “But if the heavens took pity on these two fellow travelers who are riding with him, perhaps the clouds would let loose a great torrent of cleansing rain and we would all just smell of  clean wet wool together.”

         Today, the sky is gleaming cobalt for a new, unblemished year marked by the sun’s journey.

         Dear God, the beauty of this new morning seems a gift way beyond any intentions of humility.  The paradox of poverty in a beautiful world is the gracious gift of Creation we all share.  Thank you God, Amen.  And may it ever be so.  

(Continues tomorrow)

Post #16.1, Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Historical setting: Pyrenees Mountains, 6th Century C.E.

         The elfin monk wanders pensively among the Roman statues as we had done at first, seemingly lost in a maze of promised pagan fixes. He is gazing into the laughing face of the fertility goddess with her huge bowl of too much grain. Maybe he too is wondering what the prayers to such a goddess would sound like. Or is he simply studying the workmanship of another sculptor’s hand? We know he is wondering what has become of the Christian subject by his own hand.

         Nic offers answer, “We’ve moved the Christian sculpture into a more sacred space. She is in the oxen shed.”

         The hood and robe of August return a nod of gratitude and he follows Nic to the shed. He looks on it as a stranger as though he has never seen his own work before, but isn’t that the experience of every artist – step back for moment — see it with empathy with the eyes of the stranger seeing it for the first time. First there is a moment of surprise, then the search for the flaw. It’s a persistent dialogue of the artist to himself, “how does it look to others?” “If only I had …”

         I interrupt his wonder, “She is beautiful, isn’t she; just like the author of Luke must have seen her in his thoughts, a woman of poverty and simplicity yet she is holding the richest gift ever given to humankind.”

         The shoulders of the wool robe melt in a human moment, then the little monk brushes off my assessment, a compliment, adroitly skipping over any appearance of a prideful sin, bowing silently and prayerfully.

         We lift the statue onto the ox cart and prepare to start the slow walk to Ligugé, when host Antton comes along, not to wish us well on our journey, but to insist we are rude for leaving before his great festival of the New Year. Apparently his Gallo-Roman guest list has failed him.  Nic offers our most well-mannered rejection but rejection is rejection, and Antton handles it with a heap of flaming language following us out his lane and onto the public path. His words surely include the complete thesaurus listing for Hell.  It ends with “… and furthermore the little priest smells like a cur in heat!” Maybe August is already walking the ox far enough ahead of us and didn’t hear it, or maybe he just turned away and let the jeering roll off his back.

(Continues tomorrow)

Post #15.15, Thursday, December 31, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         In these days of waiting for the oxcart and driver, Nic and I decide to take a morning ride to give the horses a stretch and explore the various paths going out from this place possibly to find our direction on toward the north.

         The river we were following cuts deep into a valley with sandstone cliffs which is apparently the quarry being used to source the stone for the carvings.  Now, around a bend we come upon another thing, the monk with the oxcart waiting here these same days that we have been waiting at the thatched houses. Of course! This is the meeting place he knew of when making his transactions with Antton. Surely this would be the meeting place.

         “Good Morning Brother August! We’ve been waiting for you in the wrong place! Come along, follow us to the houses.”

         The messenger was right. He doesn’t speak. He’s a little fellow, in too-large a hooded monk’s robe made of rough wool. The hood is pulled over his head and covers his face completely.  The very long robe is drawn up with a sash at the waist so that his very small and pale bare feet are nearly completely exposed. Since he is a stoneworker it is something of a wonder how such a tiny creature would manage large pieces of stone. But now we see the cart is constructed with winch and ropes along with an extra layer of flooring that can be let down and bolted to the cart as a ramp.

         He easily slips the single yoke over one side of the ox’s head, then the other, then drops the pin in place to hitch the cart. Nic is offering to help, dismounting and leaving me to hold the rein of The Rose. He did tell me once he was more comfortable with oxen than horses.

         Nic offers. August holds the hood of his robe at the chin to get a peak out at Nic, then shakes his head, rejecting the help, gesturing the scar on Nic’s cheek.

         “No, no” Nic answers, “I am really accustomed to oxen. My scar is from a knife fight, not from an ox horn. Really I can be helpful.”

         But he is shooed back to his horse with a kind of grandfatherly back of the hand gesture as one would use to send children off to play.

(Continues Tuesday, January 5, 2021)

Post #15.14, Weds., December 30, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         We are here for a few days at this place where sandstone is sculpted into statuary, awaiting transportation for the sculpture of Mary and her baby. Nic paid a healthy sum to this man, Antton, to take this Christian work as a gift to the monastery near Poitiers where we are going.

         A messenger who was sent to find an oxcart with a driver willing to make a long journey into Gaul has returned alone.  It seems an oxcart makes slow any journey and the driver who is willing to help us seems not to acknowledge timeliness. The messenger on horseback was impatient and rode ahead leaving the cart and driver alone on the slow path into these foothills.

         The messenger warns us we will be completely bored with this fellow August. “He never even speaks and he and the ox drudge onward only slow or slower.”

         Nic assures the messenger we won’t suffer from the silence. “Laz can talk on enough for the three of us.”

         “Thanks Nic. I thought you liked all my stories.”

         But it is true I am never short of story. Now memories of pilgrimages into wildernesses inform my extended chatter.

         “I have to tell you Nic, I’ve followed this lifestyle at times myself. For me, I’ve gone alone into desolate places in order to have uncountable days for healing both physically and spiritually.”

         Nic’s thought, “As for me, I think I would get lonely if it were just God and me forever, but then you probably wouldn’t be one to feel so alone; you would just keep on spinning your stories even if no human brother were listening and you would never notice that empty moment when even God seems far off.”

         I give Nic my most sympathetic moment of silence right here before I answer. I know he is one who thrives in community. It is his gift.

          Nic breaks the silence, “Maybe it has to be a personal thing.”

         “Yes, maybe it is personal and that’s how it is so different from the cults.  I find it is a commitment woven from many individual experiences of awakenings. And I know from talking to some of these desert fathers their reasons differ. Some go into the wilderness looking for penance while others are following the hints and flashes they have already seen of mystical illumination.  I also know of others who become lone pilgrims in order to enter into a lifestyle of God’s loving acceptance when the world around them seems so smudged in fears and hates.”

(Continues tomorrow)

Post #15.13, Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         We’re guests at this place where statuary is carved from the quarried sandstone. Most of these works are icons for pagan ritual. But here amid the cacophony of Roman talisman is also a carving in a Christian theme of a common woman of Galilee with a beloved baby in her arms. Nic made a deal in gold to take this Christian statue to be a gift to the monastery near Poitiers. The arrangement includes the purchase of grain to fill our sacks and a payment to send a messenger into the wilderness to find the sculptor who has an ox cart and may be willing to help in transporting it to the monastery. Antton thinks the artist may have enough of an interest in seeing this work off to a Christian place that he would be willing to take on such a journey. We are told he is what is called a “Desert Father.”

         “Desert Fathers” I explain to Nic, “are ascetics who choose to devote their lives, or at least some years of their lives, to long hours of daily prayer and other spiritual practice.”

         “Spiritual practice?” Nic asks.

          “Some people find spiritual practice in fasting and ritual or maybe in mentoring others. Some are artists, writers and scribes, or keepers of books. Some simply pray for many long hours. One I knew was a carpenter. In these times they might choose a solitary life in a wilderness area like Egypt, hence the term ‘desert.’ Some live in caves or small huts often alone and isolated. Even though we knew Jesus to be a sociable sort, always showing up for the party this solitary practice was actually modeled after Jesus. Jesus often went alone into wilderness places for his own personal fasting and prayer and his most intimate hours with God. I knew that of him and it is written in the gospels as well.”

         Nic asks, “How is this extreme asceticism different from the cults of the heretics the councils of Hispania had opposed?”

         The answers are obvious. “It isn’t a cult. A cult functions with rules set down by the deceit of a charismatic leader making hoax of known truths, and it eventually it leads the followers to their deaths. The desert fathers practice an individual faith journey with promises  between God and that ascetic; it’s not about loyalty to a human leader based on lies and fear. True spiritual practice is often a twisting path but it leads to spiritual renewal and to life. It is not deadly.”

         The messenger returns without the desert father or the oxcart.

(Continues tomorrow)

Post #15.12, Thursday, December 24, 2020

Historical setting: 6th Century C.E. Somewhere in the Pyrenees

         Nic and I carried the statue of the mother and child into the adjacent ox shed and away from the pagan statuary so we could have a better look at the work. My thought, this would make a wonderful gift to bring with us to the monastery of Ligugé where we will be seeking our callings. Nic worries about paying a pagan price for Christian art, and anyway how would we carry it?

         But here we find ourselves in an ox shed on the Eve of the Christ Mass when the whole Christian universe is hearing this same story from Luke 2. The song of Hannah becomes the lyric of Mary to turn the world upside-down, to lift up the poor and send the pompous power mongers meekly groveling in the streets. Will this kind of justice ever be so? Is the Jesus love intended for the whole world, or just for one heart at a time?

         I knew nothing of that birth. I don’t know if Luke was just spinning a story to speak of the simplicity of holy justice. I can’t verify the tangible details of manger and angels. The truth of it, I can verify. Undoubtedly the gospel writer crafted it from tender metaphor of barn animals and wet and messy human birth in order to tell the universal truth of a simple and just God. This God is a mother’s love that cannot be shaken by any acts of her beloved Creation. It would be hard to offer up a story of the Creator of the wholeness that is love, life and spirit, the unspeakable unnamed God, without using the simple metaphor of a mother and a child. And I do know Jesus was born, somewhere, some way and lived as a child who learned a trade in order to create things with his own hands. And in my strange circumstance of life I did also know his mother. She was Jewish. Her riches were her children and her faith.  Well, faith is not a thing one keeps as a treasure. It is said to be more like a song; it lives as it is sung, and when it is not being sung it doesn’t exist. [footnote]  But Mary, his mother was always singing.

         We, Nic, the ox and I, are together here in the silence of our prayers for however long. The ox was at first, standing. When we came into its place the ox stepped back in apprehension of a huge load of stone it would need to drag somewhere. It was accompanied by these two human intruders who are us. Now the ox has folded his knees with us for his own peaceful night’s rest.

         … and to all a good night.

footnote – Pastor, the Reverend Doctor Kelly Brill of Avon Lake U.C.C., spoke this beautiful metaphor for faith like a song in a message on Matthew 14.  She said she is not the first to use that metaphor which makes faith nearly into a verb, and not a thing one can keep and own. Thanks Pastor Kelly.

(Continues Tuesday, December 29)