Close encounters of the ultimate kind

After Hal’s passing I made a pact with myself and his soul to visit places and do things we didn’t find time for together in our happy but overpacked artistic and academic lives. Near the top of the list was a visit to Saint John’s University on a lake in the woods about an hour northwest of Minneapolis. The university is operated by Benedictine monks, and their abbey church, designed by Bauhaus alumnus Marcel Breuer and finished in 1961, is one of Hal’s favorite buildings. Also its modern guesthouse was designed by a former colleague of Hal’s. Peaceful and picturesque, Saint John’s makes for a wonderful, contemplative retreat, made all the more welcoming for me by the campus of one of the country’s great small colleges.

The sanctuary at the Abbey Church

Yesterday was the first of three days I plan to spend here (though dire weather ahead may bring me home a day early). The weekend began as beautifully and poignantly as anyone could hope, with a Palm Sunday mass lifted heavenward by Saint John’s amazing boys’ choir. The homily by the monks’ abbot was about how Luke’s account of the Passion is an especially strong call for us to clarify our lives. He used the example of a parishioner who made her life simpler and more service-oriented after the passing of her husband. As you can imagine, I had wet eyes, and so did a woman sitting just down my pew in that spectacular church. At the peace I offered a hand but she was too lost in her thoughts to respond.

I hadn’t checked in at the guesthouse yet so I went for brunch at a diner in nearby St. Joseph, Minnesota. The woman from my pew sat next to me at the counter and struck up a conversation. It turns out she’d lost her own husband, years ago, to the same “widowmaker” heart attack that claimed Hal. She is a physician and advised me not to spend energy wondering if we could’ve prevented it. Symptoms are often nonexistent or mild, which is how the condition gets its grave name. Her husband had a full physical shortly before he died. She provided more good advice, too much to list here, though one piece I’ll share is not to rush through grief. It’s necessary for healing and new growth.

I left the meal feeling like God had plucked me out of Milwaukee with a thumb and forefinger and set me at Saint John’s. Afterward, though, I checked my phone and found that Hal’s and my old friend Peg had surrendered to her cancer. I had seen her, barely responsive, before I left for Minnesota, kissed her on the cheek, and knew she would pass during my retreat.

After I checked in at the guesthouse and the campus fell Sunday-quiet, the solitude began to close in on me. With many gratefully accepted social invitations I’ve not allowed myself much time alone with my grief, especially in the early evenings, which for some reason seem to be hard. The evening prayer service with the monks was not a help. Unlike the mass, the service felt eerie and soulless, with a dry reading from Jeremiah and a sung psalm of the “hooray we killed all our enemies” kind I hate. I’ve always found the promised-land stuff bothersome and cherished its absence in Zen. In coming back to Christianity I’ve meditated it away as a historical lesson about how human faith has grown since.

At dinner in the guesthouse I was welcomed by a monk who’d been tipped off to my reason for coming by a friend of mine who was once a Benedictine. But the guesthouse and dining hall were next to empty, and trying to inject my glumness into the conversation of three monks at a corner table didn’t feel right. I wandered campus afterward seeing next to no one, assuming many students were away for the weekend or in their dining halls for Sunday supper. Back in my room I had a bout of grief almost like a panic attack. I’m not in distress about Hal – I know he’s fine. And I’m not frightened of dying myself. What I’m frightened of is getting through the rest of this life without my buddy and protector.

Too soon for this, I thought, and bailed on the retreat. My phone was sending alerts from the Bucks’ first playoff game. I Googled up the nearest sports bar, eight miles away in a suburb of St. Cloud, sped there in my Ford and ordered a beer. By this time the Bucks were ahead by like a million points. Nothing to watch. No one to talk to. Nowhere to go.

I’d brought my backpack. I pulled out a couple of books I’d taken along for the retreat, setting them on the bar to read.

“In the ultimate I dwell.” The ultimate is the foundation of our being, the ground of being. The ultimate, or God, or the divine, is not separate from us. We are in it all the time. It is not somewhere up there beyond the sky. But we have to live in our true home in order to dwell in the ultimate.

Our foundation is nirvana, the ultimate reality. You can call it God or the kingdom of God. This is the water in which we live. You are a wave, but at the same time, you are also water. You have a historical dimension and you have an ultimate dimension. If we understand that our true nature is of no birth, no death, no coming, no going, then our fear will depart and our pain and suffering will vanish.

“Yeah!” cried out the man next to me, hands in the air like a prophet. The St. Louis Blues had scored. I went back to Thich Nhat Hanh.

We run during the daytime and we run during our sleep. We do not know how to stop. Our practice is first of all to stop, then to relax, to calm down and to concentrate. When we can do this, then we are in the here and now. Then we become solid. And when we are solid, we can look around. We can look deeply into the present moment, we can look deeply into our true nature, and we can discover the ultimate dimension.

I breathed. Hal and Peg were partying in the ultimate dimension. I took a sip of beer and joined them.

Finishing a chapter, I picked up a different book, by the Benedictine sister Joan Chittister, which I’d bought a few weeks ago not knowing I’d be taking it to a Benedictine abbey in sorrow. She talks of how St. Benedict’s God is not a “Doer of Magical Miracles outside the natural order” but the God who is nature.

…this caring God loves us and so refuses to interfere with our judgments or prevent our experiments with life. Instead, this God does us the respect of simply standing by, of being there to hold us up, of confirming our trust by leading us through the dim days and long nights. How else to explain the depth of soul of those who have survived great calamity, endured the brutal death of a child, struggled through crippling debilitation, torturous addictions, and yet come out of all of it praising the God who carried them through? This God trusts humanity to work its own way to the fullness of its soulfulness.

Benedict’s first step of humility – this mandate “to keep the presence, the fear, the reverence, the awe of God always before our eyes…and never forget it” – does not crush us in the dust. Instead it makes us vulnerable to God. We are now accessible to the call of God. We are ready to live in the presence of God. We are open to the will of God for each of us and for the world.

I looked around at the loud, flashing bar and let out a laugh. St. Louis dude laughed too, looking like he wanted to know why we were laughing, but laughing doesn’t need explanation. What was I doing here, instead of next to a lake in the woods? The ultimate dimension was both places, but I knew which I preferred.

I left half the beer and a good tip and drove back to Saint John’s. With dinner finished the campus had come back to life, softly lit in the dusk. I strolled around taking some pictures and soaking in the student camaraderie. The bells of the abbey church exploded to life and I heard the organ of evening mass, a replica of the morning’s, with the stirring opening hymn “All Glory, Laud and Honor.” I peeked into the church but shooed the student who offered to seat me, telling him I was good. The guesthouse parking lot had filled and conversation could be heard in the halls. I breathed in front of the lake, read some more wisdom, and fell asleep in the ultimate with God and Hal and Peg and everyone and everything.

2 thoughts on “Close encounters of the ultimate kind

  1. Dear Bob, One night after getting the shocking news of Hal’s death, I had a dream in which Hal was running into the ocean. This was the Hal as I knew him best, in the 80’s and 90’s when Joyce and I lived up the street from you. Though I viewed him from behind and slightly above, I simultaneously saw him head on smile and wave. Quite a happy and beautiful image.

    There was a time a few years ago when I had retired ( from teaching in Act 10 days etc.). My parents, for whom I was a caregiver had died after a long decade of decline. I found myself treading water in a sea of groundlessness, where my identity was reversely defined by who I was not, or was no longer. In time, I stopped struggling, relaxed and floated, still without mooring. Eventually, I felt myself to be on a raft, and came to know the raft was God, and the groundlessness around me was the sea of potential and possibility.

    Please know that thoughts of loving kindness are being sent to you. Carol


    1. Carol, how beautiful, thanks. I feel like meditation is like a prayer of groundlessness, inviting God in to provide the grounding. We should reconnect! Please stay in touch.


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