This time last month I set my alarm at 5.45am so I could join the monks for their morning prayers. I was on a 12 step retreat at Douai Abbey, a Benedictine community in Berkshire in the UK, which began four centuries ago in France.
After singing praise to God in the peaceful space of the Abbey, I decided to go on a walk before I went back to my room. It was still early and no-one was about. I walked away from the buildings and chose a path around the edges of a meadow. The thick dew gave the grass a ghostly look, and the edges of the landscape were draped in mist. The water seeped in through my unsuitable shoes, soaking my socks.
I followed the path, skirting the field. The grass had been harvested and folded into great rolls which had been wrapped in black plastic, and which dotted the field. As I walked I sang my own version of praise to God – the nembutsu – chanting Namo Amida Bu over and over. The chant I used is the one we use when doing prostrations in the shrine room. I didn’t make the association at the time but whenever I use this tune the prostrations are with me – my body folding forwards and resting on the ground to show my respect and gratitude to the Buddha.
I noticed how much clearer my mind was after being on retreat for a couple of days. I hadn’t been distracted by emails or the endless list of jobs-to-be-done around the temple. My mind had started to settle, like a cat on a comfy blanket. I stood in the sun and looked out across the open land, hesitating before I entered the dark alley of trees that would take me back to where I began. My cheeks soaked up warmth and my whole body soaked in the beauty of this world. How rarely I stop to fully appreciate it. How rarely my mind stays with me, rather than racing off impatiently into the future.I glanced round at the dark tunnel of trees. Two deer! They were standing in the shadows at the back of the tunnel and watching me very carefully. How long had they been there? They lingered a few more moments before trotting away, deciding to take a different route to wherever they were going.
The deer were a gift of grace – received only as I paused before I returned to my room, to the mundanity of drying socks on a radiator and making my bed. So often I would have rushed through the tunnel to get on with my day. So often I cram ‘doing’ into all the spare moments in my day, like pouring fine sand into a jar of pebbles.
We have to make spaces in our lives if we want grace to find an entrance point. We have to set our alarms early and join the monks, chanting in their pure contralto voices. These spaces don’t have to be a whole weekend of retreat or an hour of reading sutras. They can be three slow, full breaths before you turn back to your work after reading this blog. We are making a choice, every moment.
Photo by Kevin Horstmann via Unsplash with gratitude