Monday, August 8, 2011

Reflections from my time at Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, CA

Monday, October 12, 2009
After a brief tour of my small room, the kitchenette, the bathroom, and a limited viewing of the upstairs including the chapel (which has a breath-taking view of the San Francisco Bay -- I could sit and stare out that window all day.), I asked Father Thomas how to get to the nearest restaurant; I was famished.  He told me to walk three blocks down La Loma, turn right on Cedar and go all the way to Shattuck.  I would find restaurants and grocery stores.  “It is quite a walk, but I do it, and you look like you could do it,” he said.  Oh, Jesus, I thought, but I must eat.  I can do this; other people do it; I saw some teenagers walking down the mountain.  If they can do it; if he can do it, I can do it.  I took off my boots and put on my tennis shoes and headed down the mountainside.  I walked three long blocks straight down hill.  I caught a vision of Cedar Street ahead on my right, imagining that the down-hill climb would end at Cedar Street, but it did not.  I was careful not to ruin my knees as I walked down, down, down hill.  On the way down I decided to call a friend on my cell – I needed to reach out to another reality and take my mind off the task before me.  The ground did not level until I reached Shattuck.  I settled for the first restaurant I came to --  a Thai restaurant at the corner. I told my phone buddy that I was stopping here because I’m hungry and need to reserve my strength to go back up mountain. I was too tired to explore my options.  

The meal was pretty good.  The waitress was friendly.  I asked her how far the graduate theological union was from the restaurant and how to get to the Bart train.  She said I could walk, but the bus would also take me there.  The bus information provided some relief, but there was always that trek up and down the mountain to Shattuck.  I left the restaurant and went across the street to the grocery store to pick up some items and then headed back up to the monastery.  The walk was worse than I had imagined.  Walking up a steep mountain does not compare to 40 minutes on the tread mill in cross country mode; nor does it compare to jogging around my apartment complex.  I called another friend on the way up to talk and take my mind off the climb; didn’t help.  When I got to La Loma, I had to hang up the phone because I realized I needed even the energy it took to hold the phone to my ear to make it back up the mountain without passing out.  When I reached the monastery, my white turtleneck shirt was soaking wet with sweat and my hair had reverted to unruly curls.  I knew this would not become a daily routine; I would be fasting and contemplating more than I had anticipated.

I laid down to rest my feet and body; I set my alarm on my cell phone to rise up at 4:30 pm so that I could attend the 5pm vespers service.  I was looking forward to being in the chapel with the beautiful view of the San Francisco Bay.  As I reached the top of the stairs, Father Thomas was coming out of a room to my right decked in an off white clergy robe.  It’s interesting how a professional robe hides so much more than the human form; but something of the person disappears as well.  I said hello and followed him into the chapel where four women (three young Latinas and one older Caucasian) and a male were already sitting. He had removed his shoes.  The women were sitting in one section and the man in another.  I don’t know why but I took a seat in the same row as the male visitor. Maybe I didn’t want to reinforce the gender divide in the room.  Father Thomas greeted one young lady and gave her instructions as to how the service would proceed.  This, living in/worshipping in a monastery of Camaldolese contemplative male urban monks, was all new to me.  I heard him say we would pray, sing, and meditate for 20 minutes.  Father Thomas then approached the middle-aged white male and told him to do the Gospel reading.  The singing was more like chanting.  We read a litany responsively.  Father Thomas read with the women, and I read with the one male.  When it was time for the meditation, Father Thomas sat Indian-style on the floor, careful to cover himself with his robe.  He placed a bowl and a brass item in front of himself and took a stick in his hand and rang the brass item like a bell—three times.  The tinkling sound of the bell marked the beginning of meditation and it would again be used to mark the end of the meditation.  It was a struggle to keep my mind on “Jesus” and God’s goodness despite the many times I have sung “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus.” [What does it mean anyway, “to keep your mind on stayed on Jesus.” Does it mean no other thought should enter my mind? Don’t think so. The mind sometimes has a mind of its own. Disciplining the mind is the work of a life time.] It is difficult to engage in spiritual contemplation when there is so much to distract us.  I had nothing here to distract me; well unless you count the newness of it all; the otherness of it all --the heightened awareness of my otherness and their otherness.  In the end I was proud of myself.  I believe I mediated on things spiritual more than I wondered about the “cares of the world.”  I’ll get better at this; I once was.  But this was different.

During the litany, I wondered if I was doing it all wrong and imagined Father Thomas gently rebuking me for being out of order.  But when the service ended, there was no rebuke, no greetings, and no conversation. Everyone disappeared – me down the stairs, the young women out the front door; and the older woman, possibly a nun, Father Thomas and the man stayed behind, I think. 


I began reading a little book I purchased while at Harvard in September called The Other by Ryszard Kapuscinski.  And it reminded me of the first time I read Durkheim and other sociologists and anthropologists encountering their use of terms like “primitive” or “the savage” and how it disturbed me.  Nevertheless, Kapuscinski reminds his readers that it was Malinowski who said a good anthropologist must live with the other people she wishes to describe and write about.  And, of course, I thought of me, right now, at Incarnation. I chose to be here because I wanted to experience and learn something new or foreign to me.  Hummm.  I did not plan to write about my journey here, but Kapuscinski nudged me in this direction. 

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