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December 2019
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Brother F and The Magic of Grace

Chapel Christ in the Desert Monastery Chama River Valley New Mexico June 08, originally uploaded by wordcat57.
(photo courtesy of wordcat57 under the Creative Commons License. This photo may not be reproduced for commercial purposes.)

On Tuesday I celebrated yet another birthday. My forty-third, to be exact. And now that I’m meandering decidedly toward middle age (some charts would argue that I have already arrived at that dubious destination), the “reality of mortality,” as I’ve recently dubbed it, is starting to come into a rapidly sharper focus. Not in a funereal, depressing kind of way, but rather in a sagely nodding, Rip-Van-Winkle-waking-up-from-a-long-nap sort of way.

My unsentimental ruminations about death and its eventuality were only slightly enhanced recently by a call from one of my closest friends. She had rung with an important and serious favor. If she and her husband were to die today, tomorrow (or at any point in the near to middling future), would my husband and I be willing to raise her two young sons (aged six and two)? I was at least as impressed by the unemotional, straightforward tone of the request as by its magnitude and honor. And because we both consider ourselves to be Buddhists, I didn’t hesitate to delve more deeply into her thoughts on death and its subsequent ramifications on the living.

“I’m not really worried about it in terms of myself. I mean, if I go now, that’s okay,” she told me candidly. “I just want to make sure that the boys will have a good life.”

Her thoughts mirrored my own. In recent months I’ve offered up to thoughts of my own demise the same attachment I might expend on a grocery list scrawled on the back of an old envelope. That is to say: I have very little attachment to the fear of its eventuality. But I would be lying if I denied a modicum of fear attached to the subject of my son in relation to my death. Indeed, his happiness is the only significant thought I have about it. My husband, though sad, would be okay. Adults can persevere. Children need to be succored from the pain of loss, from the horror of untimely death. This is my attached, rational mind in its thinking mode, of course. The reality might be quite different.

Ten years ago I nearly lost my own life at 15,000 feet in the Nepal Himalayas. The actual physical facts of that melodramatic tale, while entertaining in hindsight, are far less instructive to me now than the emotional and spiritual ways in which that singular experience has since profoundly shaped my life. Quite simply, it has eradicated my fear of my own death. As I lay in a portable pressure chamber and felt myself slipping into a delicious and comfortable coma (from which I was quite certain I would never return), a deep and indescribable peace over came me. The old reservoir of grudges and resentments were erased, as if by a large and invisible hand. I forgave every person and bad experience I had ever had. More importantly and significantly, I forgave myself. I understood that wherever I was going, those experiences would no longer accompany me. I no longer sought their empty solace or cold comfort. Although I didn’t understand it then, I was beginning the descent into that miraculous gap between the unmanifest and manifest. My false self was—quite literally—dying. It was the greatest relief I had ever felt. In that moment of giving over, I also experienced the profound gift of non-attachment.

Coming back from the experience of near death these past ten years has actually, in many ways, been more difficult than surrendering would have been. The focus and attention required to disable the cables that connect our egoic minds to our true selves can seem formidable. In truth this perception is in itself false, yet therein lies the dilemma of the sentient being. Focus and attention are the tools entrusted to each spiritual being during the short run of human experience, yet it is up to each of us to use them well.

Still, I remain steadfast in my belief that there is help available to all who wish to hone this ever-dulling skill. Great spirits are available to gently advise and remind us of who we really are. We just have to remain alert for their good counsel.

About a year and a half ago I had the tremendous luxury of spending a week in a remote Benedictine Monastery near Abiquiu, New Mexico. While there I spent my time writing and meditating. I also kept the daily vow of silence required by my kind hosts. We guests were asked not to engage in private conversations with the monks, who we saw only during meals and at Vespers.

One day I made my way to the small kitchen adjoined to the guesthouse for a cup of tea. I had never seen a monk in the guest quarters up until this point. For this reason, the vision of Brother F’s flowing black robes took me aback and I retreated quickly in the direction of my room. To my surprise, however, two women dressed in ordinary street clothes were also in the kitchen, engaged in an animated conversation with the monk. They observed my near retreat and beckoned me into the kitchen. Feeling embarrassed to be interrupting their apparent counsel from the good brother, I reluctantly acquiesced.

The monk, I learned, was Brother F. Their uncle. He had lived until very recently as a hermit in a small adobe casita without running water or electricity. Worried about his advanced years and declining health, these loving nieces had gone to the considerable trouble and expense to outfit the remote hovel with electricity and water.

In the short time they were there, I grew fond of Brother F’s nieces and broke my own vow of silence to converse with them. Their descriptions of Brother F’s life captivated me. One anecdote, in particular, has served ever since as the gentle guiding hand I needed to go about my journey.

The nieces told me that two young men had been brought to the monastery to embark upon a better life. Each had taken a wrong turn into life. Rather than be sent to prison, they had been given the choice of entering the monastery for a period of months. One of the two had been successful, while the other hadn’t. In the process, a filmmaker had arrived in the high desert to interview the monks and learn more about their cloistered lives.

The filmmaker paid a visit to Brother F in his hermit’s refuge. He was asked many questions about his secluded existence. The interviewer saved the most loaded inquiry for last, though.

“What are you most looking forward to in this life, brother?’ he asked.

The niece relating the story suddenly paused, and her hands began to shake. She became visibly agitated and large tears rolled down her face. Although greatly interested in the story’s conclusion, I told her that perhaps the answer to that question was of too private a nature to relay to a stranger. She shook her head vigorously to the contrary.

“No, I want to tell you,” she insisted. “Do you know what he said? He told that man: ‘My own death. The thing in life I’m most looking forward to is my own death.’”

In the mere shadow of Brother F’s great wisdom I felt my false self dissolve and retreat again. This merry, elderly and sage hermit, through the voice of one of the people who loved him most in this life, had handed me one of the greatest gifts I have ever received: a valuable portal into the true nature of grace.