Utter Simplicity

Utter Simplicity

19 September 2016

('Utter Simplicity' is a new chapter for the ebook "The Abbot's Shoes
- Seeking a Contemplative Life".  It reiterates the absolutely
foundational place praying the Psalms has always had in living a life
of prayer.)

The weather perfectly reflected returning to Auckland from my first
visit to the monastery.  As the express train from Wellington jolted
its way through the Otahuhu junction at dawn, raindrops trickled
glumly down the windows of my third class carriage.  Yes, I had
discovered my spiritual "Promised Land" but the truth was, would I
ever make it back?  Could I finally break free from my home town's
gravitational pull?

The city's streets sounded and felt maniacal; my apartment was cold
and dark.  I went back to work in the newsroom at full-throttle,
smoking like a train, drinking like a fish, chasing fire engines,
ambulances and police cars.  Well-meaning colleagues placed
interesting women in my path.  And yet?

In the midst of all "that" I found my way across town to a Catholic
bookshop where I bought a silver Crucifix and paperback edition of the
Grail Psalter.(1)  I tacked the icon of Love up on the wall in the
bedroom that never ever saw sunshine and was just a few feet from a
busy, inner city arterial road.  Later in life a friend remembered my
then domestic arrangements as "squalid" or "sordid" ... or perhaps
both?  Nevertheless, this was where (irregularly) I did kneel down and
opened my little book of Psalms.  I tried haltingly and
self-consciously to imitate what I had just witnessed morning, noon
and night for the week I had spent with my Trappist family-to-be,
sequestered many miles south in gently rolling hills.

"Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit," I
tunelessly intoned, scarcely able to hear anything above the roar and
screech of rush-hour traffic a mere arm's length away.

Why mention this at all?  Because somehow or other I had managed in a
few, discombobulated days to pluck out of this completely unfamiliar
world the essence of the contemplative life.  Night-and-day adoration
of the Son of God, couched in unbelievably ancient Songs of Praise.
They were not my own thoughts or words but belonged to Another.  And
yet, once floated out into the air I did "own" them, even more than
the dog-eared notebooks full of my strained and over-heated poetry.

"My days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers; I
forget to eat my food ... I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose
throne is in heaven.  As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their

History is replete with the names of women and men who have just
walked out of their own lives for God's sake.  They've wandered off
into wildernesses devoid of pathways and signposts, been ambushed by
bandits and demons, haunted by phantom voluptuaries.  They "went about
in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated ...
They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the

Some disappeared without trace and their stories will only ever be
heard in Heaven.  But many somehow survived, were joined by others and
became the founders of houses of prayer that have abided and borne
fruit for a thousand years.  How could that be?  In spite of many
dangers and the precariousness of their lives, the routine, relentless
chanting of the Psalms (so pitifully unspectacular and unsubstantial
in worldly eyes) was the unbreakable "golden string" that led them in
"at Heaven's gate".(4)

My time waiting to return was alternately stormy and becalmed.
Sometimes I seemed to be rushing at my desired destination; at others
completely motionless and going absolutely nowhere?  I cannot remember
how diligent I was praying the Hours then.  But I do still feel how
desperate I was to just get back on the overnight train and, via the
Manawatu Gorge, return to the monastery.

How did I ever make it?  Only by God clinging to me, and my clinging
to that "golden string".  Its utter simplicity and complete poverty of
spirit can evoke disbelief and even disdain from spiritual
connoisseurs.  But for all who have ever or will ever dare to "live to
pray", what appears to be inadequate and even disappointing will
always keep us safe and draw us home ... at last.

1)    A 1963 translation of the Psalms made from the Hebrew especially
for daily, sung prayer.
2)    Psalms 102.3-4, 123.1-2
3)    Hebrews 11.37-38
4)    "Jerusalem" William Blake. "The Oxford Book of Mystical Verse"
(Nicholson & Lee, eds, 1917)