Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Our Lady of the Rock -- Part 3

The car made its way back to the main road following the edge of the island, then turned into Hoffman Cove Road where to the left the sister pointed out a wildlife preserve owned by the University of Washington. On the right was ancient cedar fencing containing some of the oddest looking cows.

"Over there," said the sister in her soft no-nonsense voice, "are the Kerry cattle we keep." She nodded towards some small black cows with glossy coats. "And those," she said pointing to some long-forelocked red ones, all fully horned, "are the Scottish Highland." I had read earlier that they kept these heirloom breeds here as a way of preserving them.

Coming finally to the large iron Maltese cross, we turned into the dirt road of the monastery. The sister pulled up to a tidy but aging two-story gabled house with covered front entry. The car stopped at the back of the house and the sister said, "Your dinner is waiting for you in the refrigerator--and on the door you'll find your room assignment. Sister Barbara will be with you shortly to show you around, and Vespers will be at five, if you care to come."

"Thank you," I said as I stepped out of the car. "By the way, I'm Marcia," I said, wondering what Vespers was.

"I am Mother Therese," she responded, then drove away.

I swung open the screen door and stepped into the mud-room, neatly lined with a variety of work shoes and garden equipment.  I then opened the door into the tidy kitchen of a 1970s house. Beyond the kitchen was the living-room: a plain wooden dining table, a couch and other probably donated chairs and such. The living-room led into a small sun-room filled with various crafts and bottles of mustard for sale. A donation box tucked discretely among the goods reminded all to pay for whatever one wanted, as well as the room. No price was specified, just a note that the monastery was solely supported by donations.

A large picture window next to the kitchen table opened into a corralled area where a Scottish Highland milk-cow stood looking into the window at me. As she turned and walked away I could see her udders were heavy but her upper body seemed to have no muscle at all. The skin on her back stretched over bone so starkly that I wondered if she were starving. Couldn't be, I thought. Not in this place! I gazed beyond the corral to the hills and meadows, sloping to the ocean. Not in this perfect place. I closed my eyes and took in a long and luxurious breath. 
A knock at the door brought me back, and a short woman about 60 with a simple scarf tied at the nape of her neck entered. She smiled and cheerfully said, "Hello, I'm Sister Barbara...Oh!"  She suddenly turned around and removing her shoes left them in the mud-room. I took it as a gentle reminder to do the same. I ran over and kicked them off into the mud room as well.

"I just wanted to cover a few housekeeping details," she said cheerily. "First of all, you have been assigned the single room upstairs, but since you are the only guest, you can have your pick. Secondly, this is an 'enclosed' monastery, which means that the nuns are semi-cloistered. If you see a closed gate please do not enter it unless invited. Please refrain from wearing shorts or bathing suits, and do ask permission before taking pictures of the nuns. Some don't like being photographed. Do you have any questions?"

"What is Vespers?" I asked.
"That is the five pm service. As you see on the refrigerator schedule, there are several throughout the day."

"I'm a Quaker, we just sit with our eyes closed. I don't know when to stand or genuflect or whatever..." I said awkwardly.

"Oh, don't worry about it. If you like, you stand when the nuns enter, stand when they leave, stand when they stand..."

"Whew! Sounds complicated," I said. She smiled and left saying she would see me at Vespers, and that Mother Hildegard would meet me outside afterward. 

I opened the refrigerator to find a bottle of milk (presumably the wonderful raw stuff they produced), a large salad and a casserole enough for feeding three people, which I warmed and ate entirely. Then, like Goldilocks, I wandered upstairs and found just the right room with a dormer window facing the wildlife sanctuary; and in the unbelievable silence of the afternoon, I took a nap.

Awakened by church bells calling me to Vespers, I quickly dressed and left the house. My shoes were now neatly tucked next to the others. I put them on and wandered up the hill, past the herb garden, the dairy, the Cotswold sheep behind stack rail fencing, to the chapel at the top of the hill.

It was still a few minutes before five, so I continued past the chapel to the beginning of a switchback that continued up the mountain. There was a clearing there that allowed a view down into the valley, framed by trees sloping down to the basin itself. Lush, verdant, and peaceful, a smattering of contented llamas grazing, the valley gave way to water, and opened out into the sound. My heart ached with its beauty. Who would ever want to be anywhere else? I wondered.

I returned to the chapel. The L-shaped building was of simple Asian architecture, wrapping around a large moss-covered rock. One flank gated the nuns quarters which was blocked from view, the other was the entrance to the small chapel. I walked through the rock garden and entered the chapel itself. It was almost tent-like with a single beam in the center supporting, it seemed, the whole structure. The architecture was simple and exposed, with smooth natural wood everywhere, warmed by soft lighting. Someone had built this place with so much love, I thought.

There was a slatted wood separation between the nun's area and the public pews. I was the only one in the public section of the chapel and I chose the farthest, darkest corner. My entrance had interrupted a nun in meditation on the other section, and she scurried through a side door. 

But soon, the door re-opened and all the nuns entered their area. I saw among them Sister Barbara and Mother Therese, all now in the more formal black and white full habits. I stood, sat, stood, sat, listened, and felt horribly awkward in my Quaker ignorance. The Sisters took turns singing parts. Mother Therese sounded like a young woman in her high clear gentle voice. Another nun's voice distinguished itself from the others, savoring each articulation; it was her voice that rose a little higher than the others, then lower, and it was her voice which trailed a fraction of a second longer than the others before each pause. One nun stared out the window, as though God was really out there in the valley. And just outside, barking her praises along with the nuns, stood Bella. In time, I just closed my eyes and surrendered, letting their chants wash over me, hoping they'd understand.

Note: sorry I lied about the raw milk recipe. That will be in the next post!


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  2. I think this is a beautiful piece, and loved the nature descriptions and the observations of people and objects.
    David Henry


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