We invited writers, artists, and musicians to share a favorite creative prompt or craft lesson, or to tell us about a book, poem, song, or film that affected them. We asked them to offer opinions and experiences on creativity, artistic processes, and the role of arts in culture. We're offering their responses here as occasional features on creativity that we're calling Still Life.
This edition of Still Life features a meditation from celebrated writer Amy Greene.
Amy Greene is the nationally bestselling author of Bloodroot and Long Man, both published by Knopf. A native of East Tennessee, she has been awarded the Weatherford Award for Fiction and the Willie Morris Award for Southern Literature. She was named the 2010 Tennessee Writer of the Year. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Glamour, and other publications. Her work has been widely acclaimed for its lyricism and attention to the natural world and family dynamics. She is currently at work on her third novel.
“But living away from the earth and the trees we fail them. We are absent from the wedding feast.”
On the hill above the Abbey of Gethsemani, weeds stir before a rainstorm. Timothy grows high on both sides of a path mown up the middle of the slope. A butterfly with orange eyes on its wings lands to feed among the long hummocks. The light in Trappist, Kentucky at almost seven on a summer evening is the palest blue, streaming down through cloud cover. Blankets of field lie in squares below. There’s a tin shed of a barn with rusty corrugated sides, rolls of hay spilling out. There are silos behind hardwood trees a darker green than the grass. It’s my first visit to the Abbey, but I know this place.
I come from a line of preachers and farmers, the rebel offspring of religious dissenters who left the Irish province of Ulster to escape the Church of England and their Penal Laws. The establishment over there wouldn't let us vote, have guns or serve in the military. They wouldn’t marry, baptize or bury us. They charged our ancestors double the rent on their land. We have always been farmers, and we have always been Protestants.
Over the course of his lifetime, my grandfather was the pastor of seven different churches across the Tennessee Valley. He ministered to Holiness, United Methodist and Baptist congregations. My father followed in his footsteps. Some of my first memories are of the church where my grandfather and then my father preached, a cinderblock building tucked in a thicket at the foot of a mountain, listening to their voices ringing in the rafters. I have never attended a Catholic service. I have to ask myself what brings me to this monastery.
On my first morning here I took a path along the stone wall in the shadows under the leaves. There was a tall wooden gate at the end of the path, half open. As I considered a walk in the meadow I had glimpsed through the gate, a hay truck passed out on Monks Road, fluttering straw and trailing scent. I stood still to savor the familiar smell. There was a feeling of homecoming. I thought to myself, I’m supposed to be here.
I have been contemplating this silent retreat at the monastery since last year when, in a time of trouble, I met a man who taught me how to pray. I had forgotten. He told me that praying is paying attention, listening as much as talking to God. He said that our whole lives might become a prayer. He had learned this himself from the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani, in the mountains of Kentucky, so much like the mountains I have known.
The wooded knobs and ridges of this north central region of Kentucky are not much different than the terrain my ancestors settled in the foothills of the Tennessee Smokies. The first of the Trappist monks journeyed here from France in the eighteenth century, descendents of a medieval order. Like my people, they were agrarians. Rural Catholics were scarce among those Scots-Irish farmers who had fled the persecution of the Church. They weren’t welcome in the hill country. The established farmers drove them out. They founded their community in what was then a remote bluegrass wilderness. They made a cloister surrounded by Protestant farms. They learned to work the rocky soil.
Much like them, my relationship to the Holy Spirit has always been bound to the place where I was born, the ridges and rivers and farmland I knew even as I was formed in the womb. I have felt the Spirit while planting cucumbers and tomatoes. I have tasted the Holy in water sipped from a dent in a mossy stone. As a newborn I was brought home to a farm. I still have dreams of playing in the tobacco rows. When a storm moves in, wind folds the floppy leaves of the plants to show their veins. It sweeps the dirt over your feet. Just before the rain pelts down, when the sky is low and the clouds have gathered in pillars around the sun, there’s a sense of God coming. In the dreams I wait for Him.
For most of my life, my fundamentalist upbringing made it hard to reconcile the God I felt with the God I was told about. The God I was taught to fear in Sunday School was small enough to fit between the covers of a book. The God I felt was everywhere and inside of everything. I have traveled here looking for the One I met wading in the creek on the farm of my childhood, before I could read the Bible. I come seeking the One I encountered while pulling tobacco with my mother, while standing alone in a pasture with cattle. I want the One my Scots-Irish ancestors found in the soil they worked.
On my second morning at the Abbey, I discovered a secret garden. I let myself in by reaching through a hole in the boards of the gate and drawing back a bolt. There’s a tree in the garden with roots like gnarled hands reaching into the ground. Underneath, a statue of Mary stands, her neck and arms hung with rosaries. There are pine cones, shells, coins and mirrors heaped at the hem of her robe. I had thought at first the statue was a woman much like myself standing there. When I realized I was wrong, the sense of a presence didn’t go away. Despite the heat, the shade under the tree was like cool water. The peace was tangible. I imagined the many who’d come to this place to make their petitions, leaving behind these tokens like material pieces of their prayers, all those who had touched this icon with need or sorrow or thanksgiving in their hearts. The statue of Mary in the secret garden behind the monastery wall is holy because we have made it so. There is power in our desires, in our love. I left a rock at her feet, rubbed smooth by Creation.
I linger on the hilltop as the sun sets red over the knobs. Behind me, a cross looms on a pedestal hung with vines. Below, the monastery bells call me to prayer. Last night I heeded the call of the bells, but on my third night at the Abbey, I resist. Praying in the churches of my upbringing, I have been met too often with the silence of absence. I have found more comfort at baptisms held on river banks, the congregation praying out loud together under the beeches, their voices mingling into a language unlike English. This evening I choose to pray by paying attention. I listen to the cicadas singing in the fields.
The wind picks up. I’m tempted to wait for the storm, as I do in my tobacco field dreams, but I’m not as brave as my dreaming self. On the way back down the slope to the retreat house my passage scares up flocks of fork-tailed birds, swallows shooting out of the grasses, wheeling into the reddening sky and settling again. There are more butterflies here than I have ever seen in one place, yellow monarchs with delicate wings that seem to respire, taking in slow breaths of pollen. I have learned that breathing is praying, too.
Long ago, I got caught up in the words, as a writer will do, in reading rather than seeing God. I think of the writer Thomas Merton, who was here for thirty years as a monk, whose grave I have visited. He wrote that living away from the earth and the trees we fail them. We miss the wedding feast. All of my days spent searching for something so close to me, all of this time with my gaze turned elsewhere, I have been missing it. The truth is plainer in these fields at the Abbey of Gethsemani, in these mountains so much like the ones I was born knowing in my cells. All I ever had to do was open my eyes.
~Amy Greene, September 2016