Thursday, March 3, 2011

Our Lady of the Rock -- Part 2

There was only one road leading off the ferry, and it followed the contour of the island. Although thankful for the lack of traffic, I kept to the side of the shoulderless road, minding the steep woods sloping into the water on my right, the cedar fenced sheep pasture stretching towards the sky on the left. I spied a rustic cedar shelter perched close to the water with the opening facing sea. It was just large enough for a dreamer to sit in solitude meditating the tides while breathing in cedar, seaweed and salt.

A large muddy ford drove up and a grizzled older man in a flannel shirt asked awkwardly, "Can I offer you a ride of some sort?" It sounded well-meant, like something my late father would have said in his shy Idaho farmer way.

"No thanks," I replied. "I'm just lovin' the walk!" He grunted and sped away.

And I was, really, loving the walk. Somehow wildly fueled for this trek, I found myself almost sprinting to Our Lady to meet the Mothers. The road took a sharp turn though, and I came face-to-face with a road sign reading, "DOGS SEEN CHASING OR INJURING LIVESTOCK MAY BE SHOT BY PROPERTY OWNER." Above that in hand-written scrawl were the words, "OFFICIAL SIGN."

'What would be the chances of seeing that in Princeton?' I mused. But I began to wonder how much farther it was to the monastery anyway. "God!" I whispered, "I hope I'm on the right path...I just don't remember any other options!" I continued, although now with the feeling that I was running from something rather than towards Our Lady. My thoughts turned toward my own mother.

"You should be with her now," the words resounded in my head. And it was true. It had been months, and she so wanted me to spend some time with her, "to see her one last time" as she told my husband. I comforted myself with the confidence that she will live to be a hundred. The years since my father's death have been so dark for her though.

Like the nuns who have chosen to withdraw from the world and its comforts, she too lives with curtains closed, oblivious to the magnificence outside her window. And not so different from these sisters who have opted for simplicity, she survives with the austerity of a martyr, refusing to eat much or to turn up the heat in her home. Why is it then, that I think these nuns have so much to tell me, and my own mother so little?

If you had asked me (and precious few ever have) why I chose to seek an understanding of the facets of faith, I would tell you this: faithlessness just doesn't age well.

I think back to the moment that I had decided to seek a spiritual life. I, at barely fifteen, had taken myself on a 30-hour bus ride to Humbolt, California to visit a very religious cousin in college. After a day or two of following after her and those fundamentalist friends of hers, I found myself dying of boredom. I was desperate for a little shake up! The moment itself meant very little to me, a careless ‘what the hell’ kind of instant that gets fifteen-year-old girls in all kinds of trouble. I was in a prayer meeting led by another student in a cramped dorm room. As directed, I repeated the words. You know the ones, asking Jesus to come into your heart? They were powerful words only because by uttering them, I had done the most forbidden thing I could imagine, worse than if I’d gone and had sex. I spoke them. And disappointingly, I felt nothing for it: no rush of energy, or flood of love or anything that felt Jesus-y. Yet, because it was so big, so forbidden and yet so nothing, I simply laughed. And I laughed for days.

How could I have understood what it all meant then, to start on such a path?

Now surveying the island road ahead, I was convinced that I had truly lost my way. I grabbed my cell phone but there was no reception, there were no houses in sight, nowhere I might ask for help. Suddenly, an old station wagon came from nowhere and stopped. Staring at me from the passenger seat, with huge and curious ringlet covered eyes, sat a large black Portuguese water terrier. And poking her head from behind the dog, sitting in the drivers seat, appeared a tiny nun, barely tall enough to see over the dashboard. In a slow, high, voice which was full of a plain sort of kindness--not at all cloying, she asked , “Would you like a ride?”

Oh, yes!” I answered with relief. I opened the back door, threw in my suitcase, and jumped into the back seat. The dog pressed her huge body between the two front seats so that she could get a better look at me. Then the nun asked, “And where might you be going?”

"Oh! I’m the monastery!” I answered, embarrassed because I thought she already knew.

"If you don’t mind, then, we have one milk delivery to make before going back...We are certified raw milk producers for the island,” and she pulled up a gravel road to a large Northwest style house. Stopping the car, she opened the back and removed some milk bottles. I studied her as she bent down, carefully placing each bottle full of milk in a delivery basket and switching out the empty ones. She wore a sturdy linen wimple that had seen some wear. It was held in place by a serviceable black cable knit skullcap, an old magnificently cabled indigo sweater, and a simple faded denim dress showing evidence of the day’s work. (A dear ex-nun friend of mine once explained that the nuns who still wear habits usually have one for work and one for church. Only in the Northwest, however, would one see a habit made of denim.) I wondered how old she was. She had beautiful skin, but her delicate posture and slow, careful movements seemed elderly.

She got back into the car, ignoring the dog, who was inching closer to me and by now had her paws on my shoulders.

"That's Bella," said the nun,  eyes on the road ahead but speaking of the dog behind her, now in my lap. "She runs this place."


No recipe this post, except the explicit instructions to go out and find yourself a glass of true raw milk. You haven't lived until you've tried it. There is a sweetness and complexity that remains unmatched by that pasteurized stuff you find on the shelves these days. It's not always easy to find, however, and is illegal to sell or even to give away in some states. As for me, since it is a banned substance in New Jersey, I take myself into Pennsylvania and bring the contraband home. So go find yourself some. You'll need it for the recipe in my next post!

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