Living at Emery House for a time is something of a rite of passage for every SSJE novice. Here are some reflections on my experience of prayer and life here as this season of my formation draws to a close.
It’s been said that monastic life is simply the ordinary Christian life but lived within a uniquely intentional “frame.” That frame consists of a particular Rule of Life, the vows, the ancient wellspring of monastic tradition, a definite charism, and the collective experience of a particular community. Physical space is another such vocation-shaping frame.
For example, the central location of the cloister garden and fountain in Cistercian monasteries is meant to recall Eden, a Paradise in miniature at the heart of the monastery. While we are not Cistercians, our Cloister Garden and fountain at the Monastery in Cambridge also occupy a prominent place, nestled between our Enclosure and the foot-and-car traffic of Memorial Drive, and spanning the Cloister walk between the Chapel and the Refectory. It’s a lush oasis of green amid a sea of buildings. The sound of the fountain, audible from our cells, refreshes the ear. The colors in blossom beckon the eye outdoors.
At Emery House, this “frame” is reversed, in a manner of speaking. Here, the human-made and human-inhabited structures are surrounded on all sides by a “Paradise” of meadow and forest. In place of a central fountain, the Artichoke and Merrimack bound us on two sides. While we don’t live in a remote wilderness, the wild space asserts its presence and spirit everywhere – and I’d say our domestic space acquiesces happily to that arrangement. The holy water stoop outside the Chapel is little sister to the living river below the bluff; the iris in the vase by the Tabernacle remembers its roots in the flowerbed out front; the white fair linen on the altar echoes the blanket of snow in the meadow. Even the quacks of our domesticated ducks seem to pay homage to their wild brethren beyond the barnyard. We human creatures and our dwellings here are striving to honor the dance between domestic and wild, with the latter partner leading.
Framed spaces seem to transfigure the life of objects: the objects are no different than they were before they were “framed,” but we are given eyes to see them differently, perhaps a bit closer to the way God sees them. I experience this in a poignant, personal way in the simple goodness of our eggs. I am a student iconographer and use egg tempera paint – raw mineral pigments mixed in a solution of egg yolk and white wine. Gathering and using our chicken eggs whilst getting to know our chickens has blessed me with new gratitude for this process. I’m not sure how the chickens feel, but I feel like I’m a humble co-creator in an interspecies collaboration! And this is exactly what an iconographer is meant to feel.
There is a phrase I cherish from a Russian Orthodox litany of thanksgiving: “I have heard the peace-making noise of the forest.” At Emery House, there are layers, almost veils, of such ambient sound produced by living things: the soft drone of insects, the chorus of peepers in early spring, the warble of birdsong, the sigh and whoosh of wind through trees.
I can say I am well-acquainted with silence – it has been a central language of prayer for me for the past ten years. But my prayer in and prayer of silence, my simple “beholding” of God in wordless and imageless Love have been shaped by the “peace-making noise” of Emery House in ways that have been unexpected and healing. The deep embrace of this natural, sonic tapestry seems to do two things. It absorbs the impact of much human-made “outer noise” – after all, we still get our fair share of motorboats and lawn-mowers and planes overhead. As Maggie Ross has noted, nowhere on Earth can pure “outer silence” be found. But the other, more significant thing it does is that it softens and polishes the edges of my own, human-made “inner noise,” however incorrigible or ancient. The combined effect is that it can sometimes, by God’s grace, lead to a threshold where “outer” and “inner” noise no longer bicker or flirt or war with one another, but are reconciled and released. A “broad, open place” emerges where God delights to lead me now and again. A gentle Voice can speak truth to me in that place.
As a child of globalization (born in 1982), I think interdependence – the mutual dependence and reciprocity necessary for humans and most other species to genuinely flourish – is a concept I take very much for granted and value. On the other hand, I see myriad ways in which I have been conditioned to be strongly individualistic, independent, and self-sufficient. At times, this sets up an interior conflict for me, a conflict only framed more clearly by the daily, unavoidable interdependence of monastic life. For instance, I confess that I am not very good at asking others for help! That is a crucial survival skill for an SSJE novice, so I am slowly opening to the fact that I really am dependent upon my Brothers, not to mention our Interns, our staff, our benefactors and consultants, and so many others. All that mutual dependence is good practice for the radical dependence that God desires of me.
At Emery House, interdependence is a given. Our compost fertilizes the gardens, and our table scraps feed the pigs. There are just few enough of us Brothers and Interns that clear communication, strong accountability, and abundantly expressed appreciation are vital for our daily ministry. If I don’t ask for help when I need it, it effects more than just me. This has always been true, of course; but it can take a “village” like Emery House to throw that into visible relief.