The Miracle of Just Be-ing

Once in a while, something sparks your imagination and never lets go. Fifty-some years later, I can still close my eyes and see my feet as they step onto the monastery grounds. Five years ago, as I was writing Minnow Creek, I had the privilege of translating O Llama de Amor Viva!, a poem by St. John of the Cross written in Spanish centuries ago, into the English version you will read in this story from my novel. As you do so, may St. John’s poem fill you with wonder … from the top of your head to the tips of your toes.

***

We have pledged not to break the silence of the monastery, and yet a cry of delight almost escapes me as we step onto the grounds. I clasp a hand over my mouth to still it.

Someone has planted a Japanese garden, perfect to the last detail. I stand awed by the sculpted trees, winding paths and stylized bridges over peaceful waters. Mesmerized by the garden’s beauty, I feel I scarcely can take it in. Unspoken words seem to hover in the blossom-scented air. And I find myself beseeching my heart to hear them.

Carol, who talks with her hands because her brother is deaf, nudges me and signs a word both Mayda and I know. Water!

And soft grass for our feet, I think, as we remove our soiled socks and tennies. We hide them, along with our packs, by the stone border at the garden’s edge. Then we pad over to a circular pond where a weeping cherry tree beckons.

As we sit in its blessed shade, we slide our toes into the water, allowing our feet, ankles, calves and knees to follow. Finally, we ease our backs onto the cool ground and spread our arms to the welcoming earth.

I am unaware of how long we rest there, luxuriating in this unexpected gift. When I turn onto my side to contemplate the garden once more, a tall monk is standing at a short distance.

My hand goes to my mouth, this time to stuff back a cry of surprise. I poke Carol and jump to my feet. Mayda joins me.

Carol stands, too, and cuts the air with our prearranged greeting. “Good afternoon. We have come to visit you from down below.”

The monk’s eyes sparkle as he signs back. I know enough to make out “Welcome!” He follows this with a maneuver about ears.

Carol leans toward us. Her eyes grow wide and her sunny cheeks take on a brighter hue. “He wants to know if all of us are deaf,” she whispers.

“Tell him we aren’t deaf. None of us,” I whisper back. “We just don’t want to break the silence.”

Carol relays the message and the monk bursts into laughter.

“Of course! Bless your hearts,” he says in perfect English. His voice is deep and woodsy. “How thoughtful of you! But let me assure you that the voices of God’s children never would disturb this place. It is for gifts from God like this that we listen when we are silent.”

Glorious talking!

All three of us start jabbering at once. It isn’t until we shut up and take our turns that our story becomes clear. The monk learns why we hiked up his mountain.

He motions for us to sit back down under the cherry tree. Then he sits as well. “My name is Father Fernando,” he says when we are settled. His voice is kindly and he smiles as he speaks.

I feel relieved at the obvious pleasure our intrusion has given him. “Are you the one who designed the garden?” I ask, feeling certain that he is. He radiates the same orderly peace.

He nods and seems pleased that I asked.

We sit quietly for a while, at one with the loveliness that surrounds us. I feel bathed by the eloquence of the silence as if newly born to a sweetness out of time.

When Father Fernando finally speaks again, he asks, “Do you know about St. John of the Cross?”

“We studied him in World Religions class.” Carol answers for us. “Now I wish I had listened better.”

Father Fernando throws his head back, laughing. “And so you shall,” he says. “Studies can be dull when you have no way to experience them for yourself. Now that you have come up here to visit us, however, you will have a measurement against which to compare what you are taught in your class.”

He claps his hands together as if delighted by the logic of his little homily. “And now are you ready for a tour of our humble home?” He points toward the monastery and begins to rise.

There’s something I need to know before I can follow him.

“Father, may I ask one question first?” I ask.

“Of course, child.” He sits back down. “Ask away. Questions are food for the soul.”

“It’s about the silence. We were told this is an order of silent monks. Yet you aren’t silent, and you don’t mind us talking. Are the monks in the monastery really silent? And if they are, why aren’t you angry that we trespassed on your property?”

“Ah, the silence.” He smiles. “Yes, the monks in the monastery are silent. Most of the time.” He leans forward as if to impart a secret. “You see, when you think of silence, you think of not talking. When we think of silence, we think of listening. It takes much practice to learn to listen…”

“But Father,” I interrupt. “If everyone, or almost everyone, is silent, who do you listen to?”

“Why the voice of God, child. We learn about God as we take time to listen to his world. Most of us are too busy talking to realize that God’s world is shouting his love all around us. Here in this monastery, we have dedicated ourselves to learning how to listen to the voice of God built into creation from the beginning of time.

“It is true that we have made our home on this hill far from the noise of the city. Yet we listen to the voice of God in the things he sends us each day. That is why I am so pleased by your visit.”

Father Fernando gestures toward the pile of our badly hidden things. “Today God has chosen to send us his children through the inhospitable grasses of the surrounding countryside.”

He looks over at me and smiles. “Are you ready now?” He motions again toward the monastery.

I nod and stand, wondering at his words. Who would have thought that silence actually could be listening?

The three of us put on our socks and shoes. Then we shoulder our packs to follow him on a tour of the monastery grounds and buildings. Brown-robed monks, of various shapes and sizes, greet us with bows and smiles as we move from place to place.

Something about the monks’ living quarters speaks to me especially. Each one has a small room of his own. Named cells, these rooms are plain and spartan. Yet somehow soothing. Comforting perhaps to know there are so few essentials truly necessary for life. My life feels chopped up and complicated to me. Theirs feels simple and all of one piece.

After Father Fernando has shown us the living quarters, he takes us to the chapel. There he explains that the monks built the monastery themselves. It is meant to be a small community. No more than thirty monks in residence at a time. We listen as he outlines, in broad strokes, the history of his order and the present-day regulations governing their lives.

As he talks, I contemplate the stained glass cross in the window behind the altar. I wonder if God invests himself in city clamor and country quiet with equal enthusiasm. I think of my father busy preaching in downtown Manila and listening to no one. Could his God be the same God for whom Father Fernando, often speaking to no one, listens?

And if so, I ask myself, how does one reconcile the many faces of the Almighty?

When the monk finishes talking, he leads us to the kitchen and puts a finger to his lips. Then he rests a hand on the counter behind the cook and vanishes some rolls up the loose-hanging sleeve of his robe. He scoops a pitcher of water from the well behind the kitchen door and beckons us to follow him up the stone stairs to the bell tower.

Concrete benches are built into the walls. He motions for us to sit. Then he passes around the pitcher and distributes the contraband rolls.

Later, he tells us about St. John of the Cross.

“He was born in 1542. When he grew up he joined the Carmelite order of monks,” he says. “The charism…”

Father Fernando stops and looks directly at me as if he knows I’m about to interrupt him. It sounded like he said care-ism, but I’ve never heard that word before.

“It means spiritual focus,’” he says, answering my unasked question.

“The charism of the Carmelite order is the same as ours. It is contemplation. We are Trappist monks here at this monastery. We dedicate ourselves to contemplation. It is what we do when we listen to the silence.” He smiles broadly. “And to the voices of God’s children when he sends them up the mountain.” His eyes twinkle.

“I have a friend named Father Merton. He is a Trappist monk, too, but from your country. Not from Spain as I am. Father Merton writes about contemplation. He says that it is listening to life itself. In his words, This life is fully awake, fully active, and fully aware that it is alive. Contemplation is a spiritual wonder and spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life. At the miracle of just being.

“The miracle of just be-ing.” Father Fernando lifts his face to the sky and his arms to the sun. “The miracle of just be-ing!” He calls it out and the hills seem to echo it back. Then he looks over at us and says, “Stand. Stand and shout it out with me!” This seems more a command than a request.

We stand in unison.

“The miracle of just be-ing,” he says in a stage whisper as if coaching us before a grand performance. “On the count of three, we will shout it out together. Three times. To the sun and to the sky and to the hills.

“Ready?” He looks over at us critically so we nod vigorously that we are.

“Faces lifted?” We lift our faces.

“Hands raised?” We raise our hands.

“One…two…three, go!”

“The miracle of just be-ing!” We belt it out. “The miracle of just be-ing!” The words are contagious. “The miracle of just be-ing!” The words roll upward and out from the bell tower. I imagine them as beams of light gathered up in the clouds and later sprinkled with the rain on the inhabitants of Manila below.

Then it strikes me as funny that we trudged up the hill to visit a silent order of monks only to find ourselves screaming from their bell tower like crazy people. I begin laughing and this, too, is contagious. Soon the four of us are cackling like demented sailors.

It takes a while to settle down.

Once we are hushed and seated again, Father Fernando tells us more about St. John of the Cross, describing his life in the sixteenth century. For a while, I think this will be a history lesson. But then he says, “St. John was a poet priest. The best way to understand why his poems have been so beloved down through the ages is to experience one of them for yourself.

“Not by reading it with your eyes and trying to understand it with your critical thinking brain, though. Father John’s poems are meant to go deeper than that.”

Father Fernando stops talking, pensive for a moment. Then he smiles as if thrilled with an idea. “Let us do it!” he says, clapping his hands in a one-two motion. “Let us listen with the deeper part of ourselves right now. It is easy! I will show you how.”

He surveys the bell tower benches. Then he says, “Well, just make yourselves as comfortable as possible.”

He waits while we rearrange ourselves, each choosing her own bench. Then he says, “Stretch a bit. And after that, relax your bodies as much as you can.” He waits until we are stretched and quieted.

“Very good, ladies.” He speaks slowly now in a musical, lullaby voice. “Now close your eyes.” We do as he says. “And let your bodies listen to me.”

I rush to do this by instructing my mind not to think, but that just makes me think more. How do I “let my body listen?” Whatever that means.

“Do not try to control your thinking mind,” Father Fernando goes on. “It can wander about thinking whatever it wants. Just don’t be impressed with it. Watch it as you would a car driving slowly down a lazy street. Let everything be as it is. And as you do so, your body itself will begin to listen. You will understand this better as we go along.

“I am going to recite a short poem for you. One I translated from Spanish to English myself. It was written by St. John of the Cross many, many, many years ago. It is called The Living Flame of Love in English. The title is much longer in the original Spanish.

“First, I will recite the words of the poem in Spanish. It matters not at all if you understand my words. What matters is that by my speaking to you in another language, the tone of my voice will help your critical thinking brain feel a bit lazy.

“That way, when I recite the poem for you in English, the words will flow with ease through the ears on your head down into the ears of your heart.

“I will recite the Spanish version twice. But there will be a short silence before I begin. Ready?”

We nod that we are.

In the silence that follows, I can feel a small breeze caress my face. Then a low soft cooing begins, almost a moaning, as if on cue. I count seven of them, each coo a bit louder than the other, rising as if to greet the heavens.

“Ah, the emerald dove!” Father Fernando says when the cooing ends. “I thank you for coming to us unbidden and blessing us with your song this afternoon, dear Emerald Dove.”

Another silence follows.

Then the monk begins reciting St. John’s poem. His voice in Spanish is even deeper and more melodious than in English.

O llama de amor viva
Que tiernamente hieres
De mi alma en el mas profundo centro
Pues ya no eres esquiva
Acaba ya si quieres
Rompe la tela deste dulce encuentro.

For a moment, I strain to decipher the words as my “critical thinking” brain reaches for what I’ve learned of high school Spanish. It soon tires, however, as he said it would.

O cauterio suave,
O regalada llaga,
O mano blando, o toque delicado
Que a vida eternal sabe
Y toda deuda paga,
Matando muerte, en vida la as trocado.

His words feel like music to me now. It’s as if my body has become an instrument built to filter the words straight into my heart. And although my ears do not understand what the poem is saying, my heart seems to know its every meaning.

O lamparas del fuego
En cuyos resplandores
Las profundas cavernas de el sentido
Que estava oscurro, y ciego
Con estraños primores
Calor, y luz dan junto a su querido.
Quan manso, y amoroso
Recuerdas en mi seno
Donde secretamente solo moras
Y en tu aspirar sabroso
De bien y gloria lleno
Quan delicadamente me enamoras.

I relax into the poem even more now. I feel like I’m falling asleep, and yet I remain completely aware throughout both Spanish readings. When the Spanish words end, a long silence follows.

Then Father Fernando recites the poem in English. As he does, his words fill me, informing every cell of my body. From the top of my head to the tips of my toes.

O living flame of love!
How tenderly you wound me
In the love haunted center of my soul.
No longer distant from me,
Finish then what you started;
Tear the veil between us in this sweet encounter.

O fragrant burning!
O tender wounding!
O beloved hand, exquisite touch!
You know of life eternal
And by paying every debt,
You strike down death, exchanging it for Life.

O lanterns ablaze with fire
In all their resplendent glory!
The caverns of deepest feeling,
Once obscured and blind,
With peerless mastery now give
Both warmth and light to your beloved.

How sturdy your loving presence
As it leaps to awaken me!
Revealing its secrets, drawing me where you dwell.
And in your sweet breathing,
You fill me with good and glory
Until finally, I find myself embraced by you and lost in your love.

After the poem ends, we sit in silence for what seems like a very long time. The years I can’t remember, the ones holding all the darkness, seem gentled and soothed for the moment, as if by some holy mother, by some medicine I cannot comprehend. The words of the last verse enter my body and swirl through me like a living thing.

How sturdy your loving presence as it leaps to awaken me, revealing its secrets, drawing me where you dwell. And in your sweet breathing, you fill me with good and glory until finally, I find myself embraced by you and lost in your love.

There is nothing more to say when the monk finally breaks the silence. “Down there?” he asks, standing and pointing to what we know, even from our prone positions, is a clearing in the countryside below.

All three of us open our eyes.

“So that is MacArthur Academy. Named after the general, I suppose,” he says. “And you have been there all this time. Now when I ring the morning bells, I shall ring out a prayer for you in World Religions class.”

He looks up at the sun.

“I regret to say it but if I do not send you on your way, the night may fall on you before you reach your homes. I must let you know, however, that you could have come to us by bus. There is a paved road half a mile behind the monastery. It winds around these hills and ends up close to your school. The bus comes here on the hour, and I believe it will take you within easy walking distance of where you said you left your bicycles.”

We stand and he smiles, surveying the cuts on our legs with compassion. “Do not let this information spoil your sense of adventure,” he adds. “That which is gained through hard work and enterprise is so much more appreciated.”

We leave the bell tower with reluctance, say our good-byes, and make our way down a small dirt road leading away from the monastery. Father Fernando stands at the gate, watching us go and waving farewell.

I want to give him something, but I don’t know what. I want to thank him for welcoming us, for letting us be more important to him than the rules. I want to thank him for telling us about Thomas Merton and St. John of the Cross, for explaining contemplation.

Most especially, I want to thank him for setting loose the living flame of love in my heart.

As we walk away, I finger the mother-of-pearl cross around my neck. I’ve worn it since before I can remember. It is there with me in the scrapbooks. I am told it was a gift from my mother’s mother to me at birth. I am told that I was her first grandchild and that she loved me very much.

I stop for a moment. Then I ask Carol and Mayda to wait. Slipping the silver chain over my head, I turn and run back toward Father Fernando, the cross now clutched tightly in my right hand.

“Thank you again, Father,” I say, looking up only when I reach him. “I will never forget you or this place.”

He waits, as if knowing why I have turned back. Not wanting to linger lest I lose courage, I open my fist and hold out my hand. He nods, then extends his left hand to me, palm open. I press the cross into it. Next he places his right hand on my forehead and holds it there for a moment, moving his thumb to make the sign of the cross. “Benedictus qui venti,” he says. Then he adds, “Go in peace, little one.”

As I turn to leave, I put my hand in my pocket and feel the three stones I gathered earlier. The ones that called to me from the gutter. I remember how they shimmered like gold in the morning sun as I sat so dejectedly on the curb by the telephone post. Then the last verse of the poem swirls through my body as if bypassing my brain.

How sturdy your loving presence as it leaps to awaken me, revealing its secrets, drawing me where you dwell. And in your sweet breathing, you fill me with good and glory until finally, I find myself embraced by you and lost in your love.

Once again, it feels like a living thing.

***

Minnow Creek is available for purchase (e-book and paperback) on Amazon.

I would love to know your thoughts about this post. If you would like to share them, please click the button below and send me a message.